Alexis de Tocqueville

Arthur Balfour, the British prime minister at the beginning of the twentieth century, is said to have remarked that biographies are best written by an acute enemy. If this were so, Hugh Brogan’s new book, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, would be an excellent biography because, if not an enemy to Tocqueville, Brogan certainly comes across as at least an extremely critical friend.

Brogan’s negative attitude to his subject does not emerge immediately, for the opening pages of the biography deal more with Tocqueville’s ancestors than with Tocqueville himself. Even when Brogan begins discussing Tocqueville, he seems at least neutral in his description of Tocqueville’s early days. Also, Brogan has an easy, perhaps too easy, prose style, veering into the colloquial at times and even sounding somewhat patronizing. Nevertheless, it is mostly a clear style, and Brogan brings forth a mountain of information, including some interesting anecdotes about Tocqueville’s youth. For instance, there is his tutor, the Abbé Louis Le Sueur, predicting that Tocqueville will become “an enlightened judge or a distinguished orator or a celebrated diplomat” and becoming very upset when Tocqueville, under the influence of his cousin Louis de Kergorlay, talks of pursuing a military career: “What a shame it would be,” said the abbé, “to snuff out such a talent under a helmet.”

Tocqueville did not go into the army, but he did become an orator of sorts, even a diplomat, and a lawyer if not a judge. He is best known for his writings, above all for his De la démocratie en Amérique (1835, 1840; Democracy in America), in which he explored the notion of democratic government as practiced in the United States to see if it might be applicable to old, aristocratic societies like his own in France.

As he leads the reader up to Tocqueville’s creation of Democracy in America, Brogan, in this first full-length biography of Tocqueville written originally in English, is able to create a fairly appealing impression of the famous French political writer. The young Tocqueville is shy and a bit anxious but clearly very bright and talented. He pursues a law degree and a career in the courts but is not really satisfied by it. When his career advancement seems blocked, he jumps at the chance for an adventure: a trip to America with his friend and fellow lawyer Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly to investigate the prison system there but really to get to understand the whole country, the new republic on the other side of the world.

The year was 1831, and Tocqueville, who came from an aristocratic family that had suffered imprisonment and worse during the French Revolution of the previous century, had already moved away from the traditional conservative attitudes of his family and his class. First, his Catholic faith had been shaken by exposure to some of the books in his father’s library, and then the historical lectures of François Guizot made him question whether aristocratic rule had been as beneficial as his family had brought him up to believe.

In short, the nobly born Tocqueville had become a liberal, dedicated to liberty and very much interested in the democratic experiment in America. For nine months, from May, 1831, through February, 1832, he and Beaumont explored America, from the salons of New York and Boston to the wilderness of Michigan, with a brief excursion into the South to visit Baltimore, and then an audience with President Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., during which Tocqueville was amazed that Jackson spoke to them on equal terms and let them call him “sir” rather than “your majesty.”

Tocqueville was struck in general by the lack of deference in American society, the easy equality, and the high level of popular education. At the same time, he saw an excess of commercialism and a lack of culture, except perhaps in Boston. Most of all, though, he was impressed by the fact that a society governed by the middle class, without an aristocracy, actually worked and that it worked in a quite decentralized way from the town up, with a minimal amount of government.

Returning to France, Tocqueville set about writing up his discoveries and found that he had produced a best-selling masterpiece. It is at this stage, or just slightly before, that Brogan’s negativity gets the better of him. He concedes that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is dazzling on first reading but argues that subsequent readings reveal it to be a “ragbag” without proper organization. He has other criticisms as well: Tocqueville did not understand political parties or the power of the presidency. He says...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)