November 20, 2022


History Is Never Certain: a review of The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville By Olivier Zunz (Reviewed by Sarah Gustafson, University Bookman)

Moving from Tocqueville's childhood in Normandy, where he was born in 1804 to aristocratic parents personally scarred by the French Revolution, through his boyhood and legal training in Paris, his adventurous voyage to the United States, and his subsequent decades of writing interspersed with political activity, Zunz allows Tocqueville's convictions and their "force" to "drive this biography." Emphasizing Tocqueville's "deepest belief" in democracy as a "powerful, yet demanding, political form," the work meditates both on the substance of his political thought and the context in which he developed and elaborated it. Tocqueville embraced several key principles from which all else flowed: the providential march of democracy, the importance of political liberty, the necessity and good of religion (specifically Christianity), the need to educate the democratic social state, and the open-endedness of human affairs (in contrast to historical determinism). He considered all sides of a question, sometimes hedging his own conclusions to concede adequately the opposite view. The ambiguities of his thought can, Zunz reminds us, make him frustrating to read if we expect a thinker of his stature to have systematically eliminated every tension or doubt. However, Tocqueville's charm lies in the both...and. His is a style that wins readers by wooing and describing, rather than by perfectly articulating its logic and defining terms.  

Tocqueville's contexts sometimes were the contemplative quiet of his libraries and studies in Normandy or Paris, where young Americans assisted his research. At other times, these contexts were political and polemical speeches or epistolary correspondence with formal acquaintances and lifelong friends. Sometimes he wrote from the wilderness of America (he nearly died when a boat sank on the Mississippi!), the Algerian desert, or the poverty of urban Ireland. It is a shame that only recently have these speeches, letters, reports, memoirs, and other documents come to prominence. (Tocqueville comes alive in his letters to his friends, whatever his shy and melancholy reputation). We get much closer to the whole Tocqueville thanks to these non-canonical texts. Zunz makes extensive use of them and thus takes care to highlight the ebb and flow of thought and action in Tocqueville's life. It is worth stressing that his biography is worth telling because it is exciting. It blends the active life with the contemplative. The "new political science" Tocqueville crafted for a "world altogether new," which John Stuart Mill noted was "the first analytical inquiry into the influence of democracy," was the result of a voyage, not arm-chair philosophy. Simultaneously, the ups and downs of his political career demonstrate the gap between philosophy and politics. Making the sausage, as Bismarck put it, is different from theorizing it.  

Zunz also took care to mix the more famous incidents of Tocqueville's life with more mundane and underappreciated--but revelatory--moments. In the last weeks of his life, Tocqueville, sick with tuberculosis, received a copy of Mill's On Liberty. Tocqueville wrote to thank Mill the next day, praising in a conciliatory tone their joint efforts on the "field of liberty," and inquired whether he correctly heard that Harriet Taylor Mill had been doing poorly. "Had Tocqueville the energy to open On Liberty, he would have seen Mill's moving dedication to his deceased wife." Clearly, Tocqueville never read the book. A not insignificant part of Tocqueville's legacy is the articulation of the "tyranny of the majority," which Mill borrowed in On Liberty. Would Tocqueville have approved of Mill's use of the concept? Though friendly in the 1830s and early 1840s, they later had notable disagreements that significantly cooled their relationship. Would they have stayed on the same "field of liberty" had Tocqueville lived? Zunz offers students of history and politics much food for thought in this small, very human detail. 

Posted by at November 20, 2022 5:52 AM