A life spent in worship of la liberte

Alexis de Tocqueville
March 2, 2007

Jeremy Jennings lauds the greatest of 19th-century French liberals.

This is the first biography of Alexis de Tocqueville to be written in English. He was arguably the greatest of 19th-century French liberals, the author of two (or possibly three) masterpieces that, in Hugh Brogan's words, enlarge "our sense of human possibility and of the meaning of human lives". That it has taken so long for an authoritative and richly detailed biography to appear is all the more remarkable given that for the past 20 years or more Tocqueville's work has been subject to renewed academic commentary and that, in the wake of the collapse of Marxism, he has attained for many the status of one of our surest guides in a post-communist world. Robert Putnam's recent exposition of the principles and practices of social capital is just one example of the extent of Tocqueville's current influence.

However, when one considers the substantial obstacles that lay before Brogan in the completion of his task, the delay is not difficult to understand. Soon after Tocqueville's death from tuberculosis in 1859 his English wife, Mary Mottley, set about destroying all the letters that they had written to each other. Their long marriage, while deeply affectionate, had always been a difficult business. Important documents known to have existed into the 20th century have gone missing. Then, for many years those archives were closed to all but a small group of scholars privileged enough to be working on the Gallimard edition of Oeuvres complètes . More than 50 years since the appearance of the first volume, it is still incomplete, and only recently have the family papers been made available to a wider audience. As Brogan comments: "Times were hard for a Tocqueville biographer." Last, but not least, Brogan has had to contend with what every Tocqueville scholar knows to be their subject's awful handwriting. It was indeed so bad that the printers rejected the manuscript of Tocqueville's The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution as illegible.

What then is the picture of Tocqueville that emerges from Brogan's meticulous investigations? First, it is a surprisingly critical portrait. Brogan sees Tocqueville as one of his "oldest and dearest friends" and avails himself of the right to be candid about a friend's weaknesses. He does not hesitate to speak of Tocqueville's elitism or of his snobbery. He contends that Tocqueville, in writing his account of America, missed crucial lessons and failed to shed the burden of his own social identity. His "most serious mistake" was to take at face value the claims of those Americans he met that the majority had the power to oppress the minority. Tocqueville's later studies of the ancien régime were vitiated by historical nostalgia, stemming from his membership of a defeated class, the nobility. This, according to Brogan, was a defeat that Tocqueville could neither forgive nor forget.

It is also an intimate biography, and we learn far more about Tocqueville's private life and tribulations than we glean from André Jardin's earlier French account. Brogan sets the scene by recounting Tocqueville's aristocratic background (including his family's horrific experiences during the French Revolution), and this provides the context for an examination of Tocqueville's early academic and sexual education. Instructed by the pious Abbé Le Sueur, in youth he fell prey to a religious doubt that seemingly did not leave him until his deathbed. If Tocqueville's relationship with his brothers was never easy (they could not get on with his Protestant middle-class wife), he remained deeply attached to both his father and his mother (although the latter was a troublesome semi-permanent invalid).

Brogan also pays considerable attention to the friendships that played such an important part in Tocqueville's life. Of these, the most significant was undoubtedly his long relationship with Gustave de Beaumont, his fellow investigator in America and later political collaborator. It was Beaumont Tocqueville called upon when he was fatally ill in Cannes (and whom his wife Mary instructed to take care of her funeral arrangements some few years later).

Reading Brogan's text also reminds us that, even for the well-off and socially privileged, the 19th century was an age of recurrent illness and frequent bereavement. He quotes Tocqueville to the effect that he and his wife had the habit of being ill one after another, and there is certainly plenty of evidence of this. Tocqueville's own experience was one of lifelong ill-health, culminating in his slow and painful decline in the 1850s. Brogan's description of these final years is extremely moving, and he captures well the desperate plight of the Tocqueville couple as well as the powerlessness of devoted friends to help.

Unsurprisingly, Tocqueville's professional and political career does not go unexplored. After some initial hesitation, Tocqueville trained for the law. But in the difficult circumstances of the July monarchy (difficult, that is, for someone from a family with such impeccable legitimist credentials), he opted to study the penitentiary system of the US. His conclusions provided a prelude to his more famous account of the principles of American democracy, which was published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

Yet by the time the second volume appeared, Tocqueville had entered parliament and had begun a political career that was to end only with his temporary imprisonment in the days after Napoleon's III coup d'etat in 1851. In this, it is hard not to see a waste of Tocqueville's considerable talents and abilities. In the 1840s, he struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to define a coherent political stance, rarely impressing due to his poor oratorical skills.

The Revolution of 1848 saw him thrust into the constitutional debates surrounding the birth of the new Second Republic, although he again failed to win the argument. As Brogan makes clear, Tocqueville showed little or no sympathy for the demands of the workers and even less for the principles of socialism. In 1849, he was briefly Minister of Foreign Affairs. Not mentioned by Brogan is that during his brief seven-month stint of office there was a marked deterioration of relations with the US. The irony was not lost on Tocqueville.

Reflecting on the sorry outcome of his political career and the success of the political movement he most despised - Bonapartism - Tocqueville was led to conclude that "my true value lies above all in works of the mind". He was correct in this, and what today secures his reputation are his books. Brogan avows that his personal favourite is Tocqueville's memoir of the 1848 Revolution, a text not published until 1942. But he does not hide his admiration for Tocqueville's two acknowledged masterpieces: Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution .

Tocqueville was only one of many Frenchmen to write about America in the 19th century, but his is by far the best and most famous account. He did not get everything right, and there was much that he simply turned a blind eye to; but he saw, more clearly than anyone else, that "we are travelling towards unlimited democracy" and that America offered the key to that future. Without hesitation, Brogan (an acknowledged expert on US politics) affirms that it "is the greatest book ever written on the US".

Tocqueville's second great text was part historical scholarship and part political pamphleteering. Its primary thesis - that the centralisation that characterised French life was not the product of the French Revolution nor of Napoleon Bonaparte but of the French monarchy - was slow and uncertain in gestation. It has never succeeded in convincing everyone. Nor, some might say, was it as original as Tocqueville himself believed. It did, however, provide an important insight as to why repeated attempts to establish liberty in France had ended in bitter failure and despotism.

It is this that takes us to the heart of the significance of Tocqueville as man and as writer. It is in the nature of a biography that ideas are often treated with the same attention devoted to details of everyday life. From Brogan we learn much about the daily irritations, uncertainties and ambitions that afflicted Tocqueville as much as they do everyone else. Yet through the retelling of fruitless projects and wasted journeys shine the central principles that guided Tocqueville in the course of his entire life. "Liberty," he wrote, "is the first of my passions" and so much so that he was inclined to worship it. More clearly still, he told his readers that "all who seek to gain from liberty something other than itself are born to be slaves". As Brogan comments: "At moments like this Tocqueville speaks to every age."

No biographical study is definitive, but Brogan has succeeded in capturing the essence of Tocqueville's life and in locating that life within the politics and society of 19th-century France. Above all, he discloses to us not just the prophet of democracy but the defender of liberty.

Jeremy Jennings is professor of political theory, Queen Mary, University of London.

Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution

Author - Hugh Brogan
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 724
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 1 86197 509 0

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