Who is Alexis de Tocqueville? In an essay recently published in this magazine, my Hudson Institute colleague Ben Judah claimed that the oft-quoted French aristocrat is “not what he seems.” Ben’s broadside is an exciting tale of violence, intrigue, and conspiracy. He exposes Tocqueville the handsome adventurer, who visited the new world in 1831 to revel in its youthful democracy, as the aging French politician who supported the violent subjugation of the Algerian people. He reveals the renaissance of Tocqueville’s work in American liberal thought to be a product of the machinations of Raymond Aron and other opponents of Marxism. But we have a simpler, if less scintillating, way to understand Tocqueville and his place in the liberal tradition: We can read his books.
In Ben’s words, Tocqueville appealed to the opponents of Marxism because “Democracy in America established a dichotomy between liberty and equality.” This oversimplifies Tocqueville’s arguments: Democracy in America does not reject equality. Nor does it assert that equality is incompatible with liberty. It does, however, condemn that idea that we must achieve equality at any cost; as Tocqueville writes, “I know only two manners of making equality reign in the political word: Rights must be given to each citizen or to no one.” Despotism provides a certain type of equality—one born of subjugation. Democracy promises another kind: an equality under law that promotes liberty and self-government. The love of equality can even lead ordinary people to aspire to greatness: “There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed.” While >Tocqueville believes that equality under law is natural to democracy, liberty must be nurtured, for democrats too easily sacrifice liberty for equality: “[W]hat they love with an eternal love is equality; they dash toward freedom with a rapid impulse and sudden efforts, and if they miss the goal they resign themselves; but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would sooner consent to perish than to lose it.”
Tocqueville’s other great work, The Ancien Régime and The Revolution, further reveals his concern that not all kinds of equality lead to liberty. Far from asserting, as Ben declares, that one “can never escape the old order,” Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution explains that revolutionaries can shake off old orders—even destroy them so completely that they become distant memories. However, revolutions do not simply create conditions of liberty: The nature of the revolution matters, as does its motivation and goals. “Radical as it was,” Tocqueville writes, “the Revolution introduced fewer innovations than has been generally supposed.…What it really achieved was the destruction—total, or partial, for the work is still in progress—of everything which proceeded from the old aristocratical and feudal institutions…”
Tocqueville’s description of France before the Revolution reveals a country where liberty had been lost and administrative centralization had, literally, become king. Beginning with Louis XI, French kings stripped the aristocracy of much of their local power, isolating them from other classes of Frenchman and consolidating the king’s control of the French military, legal order, and economy. The Revolution killed the king but did not decentralize his power. Administrative centralization survived because it was in no way a product of the old aristocratic order, but anathema to it, and because centralization benefited the new tyrant as it had the old, allowing the citizens of France—now in charge—to destroy tradition and compel equality by means of terror.
Tocqueville traveled to America to investigate the American prison system. But Democracy in America became a commentary on the conditions of freedom in the new world, cataloguing the possibilities of the new regime, the threats to its continued existence, and the freedom of its people. Having seen administrative centralization destroy liberty in one democracy, he warned of its dangers to America. Having witnessed the French Revolution, Tocqueville analyzed America’s own, which freed a country from tyranny without destroying the traditions of its people. And having witnessed the desire for equality extinguish the hope for freedom, he cautioned Americans against the embrace of all varieties of equality. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville reveals his urge to understand how France might become simultaneously democratic and free, like the United States, though he is not so naive as to believe that one country can adopt the mores, principles, or institutions of another.
At the time of Democracy in America’s publication, Tocqueville’s description of America’s virtues and vices fascinated intellectual heavyweights from Chateaubriand to J. S. Mill to Sainte-Beuve. Harvey Mansfield notes that Tocqueville even wrote Mill personally, saying, “Mill was the only one to have understood him.” But after Tocqueville’s death his countrymen largely forgot him. His political life was far from successful, and France was far too consumed with establishing its own identity as a burgeoning democracy to attend to a commentary on the American Republic. Raymond Aron indeed deserves credit for reintroducing Tocqueville to his home country, but he hardly reintroduced Tocqueville to America. America never forgot its French visitor.
Contemporary American scholars have disproved the popular myth that Aron resurrected Tocqueville, among them Scott Sandage and Matthew Mancini. Carefully examining the publications, comments of public intellectuals and politicians, and the popular book lists of the time, Mancini has made the fallacy clear in a number of essays. As the American Civil War raged, Henry Adams wrote to his brother that Democracy in America was “the Gospel of my private religion.” In 1899, a new edition of the book appeared in Appleton’s World’s Great Books series, “a publication whose editors included Edward Everett Hale, Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago.” One year later, Colonial Press republished Democracy in America as one of its World’s Great Classics.
Aron himself commented that Tocqueville was already popular in the United States. Describing Tocqueville in Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Aron writes, “I feel it is worthwhile to set forth briefly the leading ideas of a man who in Anglo-Saxon countries is regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century…and yet who, in France, has always been neglected by sociologists.” Aron may well have used Tocqueville to fight Marx, but in doing so he did nothing intellectually dishonest: He used one great political theorist to counter another.
Why does any of this matter? If the real Tocqueville, as Ben implies, is a racist and a colonist, then is he not a man whom true liberals should never read, teach, or quote? Should we not understand Democracy in America to be simply “a fabulous historical artifact,” as Ben puts it? A book we may keep on our shelves, but only if filed next to the works of Alexander Stephens and Roger Taney?
I do not dispute that Tocqueville is guilty of a multitude of sins. While Tocqueville’s Algerian letters display a greater initial hope that the French and Algerian people might live together in harmony and happiness than Ben gives him credit for, I agree that Tocqueville’s final position on the subject was cruel and contemptible. Disappointed with the success of French intervention in Algeria, Tocqueville began to advocate for control of a vicious nature. In our more enlightened age, we can look back with disdain on his actions in Algeria, and we ought to. But this does not obligate us to view Tocqueville simply as a racist. Ben neglects to mention that Tocqueville was also an abolitionist who argued for the emancipation of all slaves in French colonies—going as far as to suggest laws that would promote assimilation and provide for the education of former slaves. Most importantly, Ben’s comments presume that Tocqueville’s position on French Algeria should color our reading of all his work. We should not deceive ourselves: Democracy in America is not a fabulous, historical artifact, but a serious work of political philosophy.
American liberals read and quote Alexis de Tocqueville for one simple reason: He wrote brilliantly about democracy, liberty, and equality in the United States—the very same issues with which liberals continue to concern themselves. We should not forget Tocqueville’s less democratic positions, just as we should not, and do not, forgive Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves. However, as liberal thinkers we must have confidence in our ability to distinguish the Algerian letters from Democracy in America. We should continue to read, teach, and quote Democracy in America, just as we continue to study and celebrate the Declaration of Independence—not least because we have yet to attain a truly enlightened age. If we treat these books as merely historical, we may forget that we have achieved only partial equality and partial liberty. We may forget that we too are on a quest to understand how we can be free.