New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

A Masterpiece of Political Imagination: What Tocqueville Saw–and Didn’t See–in the United States

Editors’ Note: The following is an adaptation of a lecture delivered in May 2022 by Olivier Zunz at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture on his book, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton University Press, 2022).

When Alexis de Tocqueville, only 25 years-old in 1831, left France to visit America, he knew next to nothing about the country he was going to see and barely spoke English. Neither he nor his travel companion Gustave de Beaumont could tell what the outcome of the trip (officially to investigate penitentiary reform) might be. French literary critic Sainte Beuve acutely remarked that Tocqueville had “begun to think before he knew anything.” This was meant as criticism and received as such, but there was truth in it. Tocqueville, however, knew that he needed to leave France for a while. As a scion of the highest ranks of the old, but now defunct, nobility, and apprentice prosecutor at the Versailles courthouse, he had no future with the newly established constitutional monarchy. He intuited that exploring American democracy might someday open doors for him, in some future society.

Tocqueville spent only nine-and-a-half months touring the United States in 1831-32. He saw much, he missed much, but he emerged from the trip with a powerful new understanding of modern history as a vital struggle between liberty and equality. As examined more fully in my new biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton, 2022), he produced a body of work that has since helped Americans and others around the world think of themselves and their society anew.

The French revolution of 1830, which returned constitutional monarchy to France in lieu of the previously restored absolute monarchy, was a key turning point in Tocqueville’s consciousness of the changing world. François Guizot, historian and statesman, Tocqueville’s mentor, and actor in the 1830 revolution, took England as his model. For Guizot, 1830 was a French 1688—a modern Glorious Revolution—and that was good enough for him. But England as a touchstone was not good enough for his student. To imagine France’s future and his own place in it, Tocqueville bypassed the country altogether. He went instead to the U.S. to see not a constitutional monarchy but a republic and figure out whether he, the young aristocrat, could ever live in a democracy.

Before the American trip, Tocqueville, like all family members, and most friends and wider connections, had a negative view of equality, a word they used interchangeably with democracy. Equality meant levelling, the end of privileges for their caste of nobles, and in the same movement the end of aristocratic liberty.

What Tocqueville found in America, to his surprise, was a society where equality of status at birth (for the white population—Tocqueville, who fought for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, was always conscious of that)—could generate liberty: the liberty for a greater number of citizens to realize their potential. The liberty Tocqueville promoted was neither the aristocratic liberty of privilege nor the negative liberty of rights but a demanding personal exertion to achieve what you can do best—the positive liberty of effort from which everything else flows. Liberty so conceived, Tocqueville believed, was a “sacred thing” because it was “the free choice of what is good.”

Tocqueville explained in carefully reasoned terms that equality and liberty were in the end the same thing: “One can imagine an extreme point at which liberty and equality touch and become one (“touchent et se confondent”). Suppose that all citizens take part in government and that each has an equal right to do so. Since no man will then be different from his fellow men, no one will be able to exercise a tyrannical power. Men will be perfectly free, because they will all be entirely equal, and they will all be perfectly equal because they will be entirely free. This is the ideal toward which democratic peoples tend.”

But in the real world, Tocqueville insisted, people desired equality so much that they were willing to sacrifice their political liberty for it. To combat this degrading form of submissiveness to despotic government, one had to work constantly at keeping political liberty alive. Tocqueville expressed his sense that liberty was fragile, and too easily sacrificed to the drive for equality. This was the axiom on which he built his new “political science.” Only by acquiring the habit of liberty—which requires work and vigilance—could a democratic society make creative use of equality. To Tocqueville, the mutual reinforcement of equality and liberty, their combination at some extreme point, was the precondition for the dogma of popular sovereignty to “emerge from the towns,” “take possession of the government,” and become “the law of laws.”

This was the one great lesson of the American trip. We can argue, as we do endlessly, over the extent to which this merging of equality and liberty ever took place on American soil, and point to the all-too-real forms of discrimination based on race, gender, and class that have flourished here. But Tocqueville did not write a sociological treatise (even though social analysis is at the core of his work): he sought to define the principle of democracy.

Tocqueville was especially impressed by some features of American life conducive to this new force in society. Tocqueville developed a new understanding of interest. At first in his travels around the country, he saw only self-interest as the secret of American energy, and he was critical of it. Tocqueville wrote from New York to his courthouse friend Ernest de Chabrol that Americans had raised an impulse he could not define—but which he called “interest”—to the level of a “social theory.” But as he kept observing the country, he developed a positive vision of interest. He jotted in a notebook in New York state: “Ancient republics operated on the principle that the particular interest was to be sacrificed to the general good, and in this sense one can say that these republics were virtuous. The principle of this republic seems to me to be to require the particular interest to serve the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent egotism appears to be the axis about which the whole machine revolves. These people do not trouble to find out whether the public virtue is good, but they claim to prove that it is useful. If the latter is true, as I believe to some degree it is, this society can pass for enlightened but not virtuous.”

Another feature that Tocqueville famously described was the forming of associations.  Tocqueville’s concept of associations as the foundation of civil society is his best known and most lasting contribution to democratic theory and a significant addition to American political science. In the Federalist, Madison and Hamilton had recognized not associations but factions as a reality of American politics, and they feared them as “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The only way Madison saw to counter factions’ negative effects was to multiply them so that they would cancel each other out. In his farewell address (1796), Washington blamed factions for obstructing the work of government. John Quincy Adams still echoed that feeling in his conversations with Tocqueville in 1831.

Tocqueville changed the subject. He conceived of associations in a new and positive light. In praising a nation of joiners, Tocqueville became, unexpectedly, wildly influential. With a series of brief chapters on political parties, the press, and political associations, Tocqueville made a large and original contribution to American political theory. Regarding associations, Tocqueville taught Americans how to understand themselves anew, quite a daring thing to do for a young man who had not even spent a full year in the country.

But this was the strangest of theoretical constructions, and it says much about how Tocqueville reasoned. Tocqueville explained that Americans knew how to employ voluntary associations to initiate change. He described the process so concretely that one would believe he had observed it in detail in the United States, though of course he had not. “Suppose a person conceives of an idea for a project that has a direct bearing on the welfare of society. It would never occur to him to call upon the authorities for assistance. Instead, he will publicize his plan, offer to carry it out, enlist other individuals to pool their forces with his own, and struggle with all his might to overcome every obstacle. No doubt his efforts will often prove less successful than if the state had acted in his stead. Overall, however, the result of all these individual enterprises will far outstrip anything the government could do.”

Do not believe for a moment that Tocqueville derived this description from direct observation. His experience of American associational life was limited. Tocqueville attended an anti-tariff convention in Philadelphia to promote free trade. A free-trade convention is not an association, but Tocqueville could reflect on how like-minded people communicated, met, and bonded to achieve a common goal, and this was a revelation to him. He also took notes on the temperance movement, also while in Philadelphia. This is the extent of his notes on associations—not much compared to what he missed! Tocqueville traveled along the Mohawk valley in upstate New York, along the Erie Canal, in 1831, and amazingly never heard of the Second Great Awakening and its emerging benevolent empire of Bible, tract, and missionary societies, Sunday schools, educational associations, and local charities. He left no record of discussing them with any of his informants.

Despite this huge gap in his documentation, Tocqueville imagined the associative impulse in his own mind and rendered it with amazing clarity. Remarkably, it was in reacting to the French political situation that Tocqueville developed a theory of association that turned out to be so significant in American political theory. The idea came to Tocqueville as he was fighting political repression at home, where all associations were experiencing a renewed level of political scrutiny from a repressive government. The problem was old, and Tocqueville had been aware of it since childhood. Much of his father’s job as a royal prefect during the Restoration had been to keep politically dangerous associations under control. As Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America, the July Monarchy limited the right to associate after a workers’ insurrection in Lyon in April 1834. All associations of more than twenty members had to be granted prior authorization (the previous threshold had been thirty). “What can public opinion accomplish when there are not twenty people united by a common bond?” Tocqueville inserted in the text of Democracy in America to be sure the French reader recognized his target.

To give just one more example of judgment by implicit comparison, Tocqueville praised the ways in which Americans could combine the spirit of liberty with the spirit of religion—the model he believed France should follow. Tocqueville missed the institutions of the Second Great Awakening. He never realized that Protestant sectarianism fueled the forming of associations. Religious disestablishment encouraged the creation of new churches. It was proceeding under his eyes, and Jared Sparks, Unitarian minister in Boston and Harvard history professor, a key informant, alerted him that old churches had fractured, and new ones were emerging, in search of purity. But Tocqueville did not hear him and missed the voluntaristic sources of sectarianism as well as the democratizing influence of evangelical religion. The many forms of Protestant religious experience in the United States escaped him as he mistook the growth of the Unitarian Church for the fate of Protestantism as a whole—that is, more concerned about morals than dogma—and he feared that “the end of the road will be natural religion.” He wrote to Chabrol, “Protestantism has always seemed to me to stand in the same relation to Christianity as constitutional monarchy to politics.…I have always believed that constitutional monarchies would end up as republics, and I am similarly convinced that Protestantism will soon end up in natural religion.”             

When in America, Tocqueville interviewed a few prison chaplains fulfilling his mission to investigate penitentiaries but otherwise he talked most often to Catholic priests. The young man was anxious to connect with local priests to report his conversation with them to his anxious mother and reassure her he was attending mass. Catholic priests managed to convince Tocqueville that only Catholics (not even 2% of the population) experienced faith in America. Protestant churches were only about morals, not dogma.    

Yet despite the huge blind spot, Tocqueville again came down with the correct judgment. He rightly insisted in Democracy in America that American churches were a pillar of liberty from the state and therefore the model for France to follow, in contrast to a French state church that had for centuries sided with monarchs. The United States somehow convinced Tocqueville that religion and democracy could indeed coexist—provided they remained separate. He declared the American example of religious independence of government as “showing the way to enlightenment.”  

If Tocqueville missed such important things as real associations and real churches, how did he manage to say so many things right? As it is clear from the examples above in which France was always on his mind, Tocqueville relied heavily on comparisons between distinct cultures and countries. Human intelligence needs juxtaposition and comparison for sound judgment, Tocqueville reflected. He put it very well. “By a singular disability of our minds, we fail to adequately see things as they are, despite seeing them clearly and in broad daylight, without placing other objects beside them.”

In the end, Tocqueville’s democracy was as much theoretical speculation as observation.  The wonder is that many of Tocqueville’s speculations ended up resembling reality more than his observations. A few contemporary readers recognized Tocqueville’s original creation. In France, Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, the older political leader of the Chamber of the Restoration, whom Tocqueville considered a mentor, thus hailed his protégé for creating a new topic of reflection and study. Royer-Collard praised Tocqueville for imposing on himself “the task of invention” and fulfilling it by fitting all of democracy’s components into a coherent whole. Although “invention,” Royer-Collard noted critically, is “within certain limits, arbitrary,” Tocqueville had credibly envisioned a democratic society in a masterpiece of political imagination.

-Olivier Zunz

Olivier Zunz is James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia and the author of several books, among them, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton University Press, 2022), Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Why the American Century? (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

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