“The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis De Tocqueville” by Olivier Zunz; Princeton University Press (456 pages, $35)
Commissioned by the French government to study prisons in the United States, Alexis De Tocqueville, a young aristocrat, allied neither to the monarchists nor to the radicals, returned home in 1832 determined to advance an idea “which obsesses me: the march irresistible of democracy”.
A “totally new world requires a new political science,” he said. He provided it in “Democracy in America”.
In “The Man Who Understood Democracy”, Olivier Zunz, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia and editor, among other books, of “The Tocqueville Reader”, provides an informative biography of De Tocqueville, whose understanding of the Liberty and Equality remained immensely influential for nearly 200 years.
Zunz explains what Tocqueville learned – and what he didn’t notice – during his travels across the United States. In America, Tocqueville noted, wealth was distributed much more equitably; respect for the law was omnipresent. A Philadelphia free trade agreement gave him the idea for his theory of voluntary associations. With so many citizens able to buy land, Tocqueville wrote, “how can one even imagine a revolution“.
That said, during a visit to a border town populated by French Canadians and Indians, he became aware of the ethnic and racial divides in American society.
Tocqueville did not know that the Erie Canal was funded by the government; he ignored industrialization and the cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. He seemed unaware of the revival of evangelical Protestantism (which he condemned as a distorted form of faith) during the Second Great Awakening. He failed to grasp the significance of forming a two-party system.
Zunz’s analysis of “democracy in America” is closely tied to conventional wisdom. Tocqueville’s positions, he notes, were often incompatible with his embrace of democracy: opposition to universal suffrage; concerns about the “tyranny of the majority” and individualists who ignore the needs of others while expressing empathy for humanity; encouragement of entrepreneurship and skepticism of materialism.
But, writes Zunz, he came to appreciate the power of Tocqueville’s conclusions about freedom, equality, and democracy, “because he persists in confronting them with apprehensions.”
Zunz also delivers a magnificent account of Tocqueville’s career as a practical politician in France, during which he “sought to be simultaneously a patriot, a colonialist and a democrat, even if these identities were not not consistent”.
A fierce critic of the monarchy, Tocqueville was reluctant to support its demise after the 1848 Revolution. as much freedom as possible.”
Bitterly disappointed with Louis Napoleon’s return to power, Tocqueville “reconciled himself with the idea that his true vocation was that of a thinker”. He lived long enough to write “The Old Regime and the French Revolution”.
Tocqueville died in 1859, at the age of 53, before he had finished the second volume, but, Zunz concludes, having “channeled his anxiety into a creative force and translated his passion for freedom into a deep and exacting appreciation of democracy”.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.