Democracy's Prophet

Reviewed by Joseph J. Ellis
Sunday, April 1, 2007


A Life

By Hugh Brogan

Yale Univ. 724 pp. $35

Alexis de Tocqueville is a towering figure in 19th-century political thought, on a par with Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill and more prophetic than either of them. It is therefore a bit confounding to realize that, despite all the books and essays about Tocqueville's masterpiece, Democracy in America, there was no full-scale biography in English of the man himself.

Now there is. Hugh Brogan's Alexis de Tocqueville is a magisterial account, 50 years in the making, that follows the precocious French nobleman through the swirling history of post-revolutionary France, the rutted roads of backwoods America, the bewildering comings and goings of different royalist and republican French governments, all the way to Tocqueville's somewhat controversial final hours in 1859, when the question of his religious convictions at the end remains blurry. If this is not the definitive life, it is only because no such thing is possible. It is surely the authoritative life for our time.

Brogan's style is Boswellian, meaning that he places himself alongside Alexis -- as he calls him -- then quotes from Tocqueville's letters and journals as part of an ongoing dialogue designed to reveal how the master's mind worked. This is a somewhat dangerous approach, but Brogan is impeccable in his citation of sources. He argues that the most important event in Tocqueville's life occurred before he was born: the French Revolution, where Tocqueville's grandfather was guillotined along with several relatives. Tocqueville's famous doctrine "the tyranny of the majority," which Brogan finds somewhat overstated in Democracy in America, probably had its origins in those horrific mob scenes during the Terror.

Brogan argues, convincingly, that part of Tocqueville's personality was forever rooted in the old aristocratic world that his mind told him was dying. That internal contradiction proved an invaluable intellectual asset when he visited the United States in 1831-32 and began to draft Democracy in America, for it gave his analysis of the genuinely new political chemistry congealing in America a dramatic edge. What Jefferson had called "self-evident" was for Tocqueville a historically unprecedented development destined to topple all the monarchies of Europe and the kind of aristocratic society that had shaped him. This is a potent theme, one that made me think of the overripe ironies of Henry Adams in his famous The Education of Henry Adams, embracing his irrelevancy in the modern world that was aborning. Tocqueville's temperament was less melodramatic than Adams's, but he did recognize that he was a victim of his greatest prophecy, that the triumph of democracy meant the end of his world.

American readers will find the chapters on Tocqueville's nine-month sojourn in the United States and his subsequent crafting of the two-volume Democracy in America the most important pages. Brogan builds on the pioneering scholarship of George W. Pierson on Tocqueville's American tour and James T. Schleifer's impeccable detective work on the crafting and drafting of Democracy. Brogan is especially good on the influences on Tocqueville's thinking before his exposure to America, chiefly about the burden that feudalism imposed on France and the advantages the United States enjoyed in lacking such a burden. Tocqueville struck gold because he already knew what he was looking for.

Previous European commentators on the American experiment -- chiefly English observers such as Frances Trollope, who described her 1827 visit in Domestic Manners of the Americans-- had emphasized the semi-civilized conditions of the United States, the bad roads and bad food, the tobacco-spitting on the floor, the crass materialism and the conspicuous commercialism of American society. Tocqueville was at pains to acknowledge that all these accusations were true but that something new and exciting was brewing in this provincial outpost of Western civilization -- something rooted in a deep-felt sense of equality that was destined to destroy all the class assumptions of European society. This was Tocqueville's central insight, and although he had others -- the likely war between North and South over slavery, the dominance of corporate power during the Gilded Age, the eventual confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War -- the hegemonic power of the democratic ethos was his most prescient prediction. More than any other man of the century in Europe, he knew where history was headed.

My own attention wavered toward the end as Brogan described the incessant flutterings of French politics in the 1840s and '50s. We lose sight of Tocqueville for pages at a time, though I would concede that Brogan's decision to write biography on this epic scale virtually forces him to provide the political context of Tocqueville's latter years. The pace of the story picks up when Brogan gets to Tocqueville's last work, The Old Regime and the Revolution, another classic that shared two characteristically Tocquevillian assumptions: first, a heartfelt nostalgia for the lost aristocratic world and, second, a sociological way of thinking that rooted all political change in the underlying mores and values of a nation's culture.

Obligatory caveats aside, Brogan's achievement here is monumental. He wears his learning lightly, the analysis conveys a distilled wisdom that is blessedly bereft of academic jargon, the prose is engaging (with a conversational voice that invites the reader into an ongoing dialogue), and the posture toward Tocqueville is appreciative but never mindlessly celebratory. This is a book virtually certain to win some major prizes. ยท

Joseph J. Ellis's books include "American Sphinx," "Founding Brothers" and the forthcoming "American Creation."

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