Discovering Tocqueville

Tocqueville's Discovery of Americaby Leo Damrosch, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $27.00

When the energetic, young French liberal aristocrats Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 and 1832 ostensibly to study America's prisons, their minds, not surprisingly, often turned to more alluring subjects. "In addition to a very fine library, our host has two charming daughters with whom we get along very well," Tocqueville wrote to his sister-in-law from a well-appointed home in Canandaigua, New York. "Suffice it to say that we gazed at them even more willingly than at their father's books." The visitors found the young women of the New World more boldly coquettish than their French counterparts but also fiercely unwilling (again, unlike the French) to follow through. Compounding the problem, Beaumont and Tocqueville did not stay anywhere for too long, which gave them too little time either to make or to gain a strong impression. "It's exactly the same with all the beauties I meet, and we see a lot of them in society," Beaumont observed. "We get swept away by them three or four days a week, each of us inciting the other, but it's always new faces, and -- God forgive me -- I believe we always tell them the same things, at the risk of complimenting a brunette on her pale complexion and a blonde on her ebony hair." With arch irony, he then dismissed the sexual banter as "a mere bagatelle" of small interest "to two men of politics who are devoted entirely to speculations of the highest order." Several weeks into the trip, Tocqueville -- described by Leo Damrosch as an appetitive ladies man who, in later years, became a serially unfaithful husband -- noted that his and Beaumont's virtue remained intact but had to confess that they were giving women the once-over "with an impudence that's not appropriate for people studying the penitentiary system."

Helping to humanize as well as historicize the young Tocqueville while he was discovering America is the main achievement of Damrosch's concise and absorbing new book. Lacking anything like a sustained formal theoretical explication of early American democracy apart from the Federalist Papers, scholars, journalists, and even public officials have turned to Tocqueville's Democracy in America as the next best thing. The political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin may well have been correct when he claimed, in a major, provocative assessment of Tocqueville published in 2001, that "it is safe to say that today Tocqueville's masterpiece is invoked more often in support of some interpretation of present-day American politics than is the Federalist, even though the latter is commonly represented as the thinking of the Founding Fathers."

Unfortunately, the outsized reverence that has attached itself to Democracy -- further enlarged and compounded by Tocqueville's own penchant for grand Aristotelian generalizations and his talent for crafting limpid, all-embracing epigrams -- has too often turned the man himself into an abstraction. The Tocqueville in "as Tocqueville said" carries a great deal of authority, but who he actually was, and how that may have influenced his judgments, too often remain fuzzy. There have been valuable studies by George Pierson (published in 1938) and, more recently, by James T. Schleifer, about the making of Democracy. André Jardin's thorough if somewhat dry biography has been available in English since 1988. Most happily, Hugh Brogan's monumental life study, published three years ago, makes Democracy into its armature and explores the work's emotional as well as intellectual origins. Damrosch, working on a smaller canvas than Brogan but with a somewhat firmer grasp of recent research in U.S. history, advances the effort to understand Tocqueville's writings in their historical as well as biographical context. His new book ought to make a more nuanced appreciation of both the man and his great work accessible to a wide readership.

Damrosch's recounting of Tocqueville's and Beaumont's journey, told in straightforward chronological order, is often entertaining as well as instructive, quite apart from the depictions of the two travelers leering at their hosts' daughters and the daughters' friends. Coming out of the forest in Michigan Territory, Tocqueville and Beaumont are startled to run across a man who looks like an Indian but speaks French, one of the local métis of mixed French and Indian blood. A strange symbolic scene unfolds, of Tocqueville being paddled down a river in a dugout canoe by the stranger, a bright summer half moon hanging above the wilderness horizon, the canoe coursing slowly through the thickest New World thickets while the métis sings an ancient French song: "Entre Paris et Saint-Denis/Il était une fille ...." Five months later, after zigzagging east and then west again, Tocqueville and Beaumont cross the Tennessee River encrusted in ice -- the winter of 1831?1832 was one of the coldest of the early 19th century -- and reach a town with a name out of Egypt that suggests something grand. "Memphis!!! The size of Beaumont-la-Chartre!" cries Beaumont, referring to his family's ancestral town. "What a letdown! Nothing to see, neither people nor things."

Most British and European observers were apt to take such sights and sounds as confirmation of their preconceived ideas about American life as an admixture of coarseness, grandiosity, and stifling puritanical moralism. But Tocqueville, Damrosch observes, was gripped by a different preoccupation: trying to understand how everything he saw reflected in some way the peculiarities of commercial democracy, so different from his own, predominantly aristocratic France. Readers are left to imagine that Tocqueville could become exasperating looking for deeper social and political meaning in every morsel of American life (although this seems not to have bothered the admiring Beaumont, who described his friend as "a really distinguished man"). But Tocqueville's preoccupations helped him not just to interpret America but to see himself, if at times only dimly, as a young man of the 19th century who stood, as Wolin has described him, "between two worlds." An instinctive aristocrat who realized that democracy was overtaking the privileged world he had known, Tocqueville could fully appreciate the paradoxes of his own times, including odd juxtapositions like being carried downriver by a half-Indian backwoodsman to the strains of an old French love song.

Damrosch, making extensive use of Tocqueville's and Beaumont's as yet untranslated letters to friends and family, identifies the shortcomings as well as the successes in Tocqueville's evaluations. His views on American politics and society -- -disdainful of "vulgar" commercial habits and spirit, contemptuous of American political parties as intellectually vacant vehicles for personal ambition, and particularly contemptuous of the supposedly barbaric president, Andrew Jackson, and his followers -- were those of the New England Brahmins who populated and helped to lead first the Federalist and then the Whig Party. It was not simply, as some writers have assumed, that Tocqueville was misled by the imposing drawing-room solons of Boston; his tastes, values, and prejudices were essentially theirs as well.

From this perch, Tocqueville badly underestimated the social gulf between the top and the bottom in the free states and overestimated the degree to which "rags to riches" social mobility was the norm. (Ironically, he was much more acute about the slave South, where he spent barely more than a month of his 10-month stay.) He had no understanding of how the major American political parties, though less ideologically driven than their Old World counterparts, held fundamentally different views about American social, economic, and cultural development as well as about the proper purview of the federal government. He was completely innocent of how local politics operated, especially in the rapidly growing seaports and the burgeoning towns and cities alongside the newly constructed canals and turnpikes that were vastly accelerating the movement of people as well as goods. Although he and Beaumont visited Jackson in the White House -- the president, preparing for what would prove to be a grueling and eventful re-election year, granted them a perfunctory half-hour interview -- Tocqueville failed utterly to comprehend Jackson's political charisma and recycled standard anti-Jacksonian propaganda as fact. (To his credit, Damrosch, a distinguished literary scholar, offers a more balanced take on Jackson, and hence of where Tocqueville's observations about him were unfair, than many current historians do.)

Damrosch also perceptively notes how Tocqueville's misapprehensions could sometimes yield insight. No idea in Democracy is more influential than that of the potential "tyranny of the majority," by which Tocqueville meant the conformist impulses that quietly pervade American politics and society. Yet Tocqueville picked up the concept in Boston from the literary eminence Jared Sparks, the biographer of George Washington and eventual president of Harvard, who alerted him to the possibility that a majority in a state legislature might abuse its powers and pass laws harmful to the minority. (In fact, the fear was an old one, dating back to the political turmoil of the 1780s that led to the framing of the federal Constitution.) Sparks was infuriated at how Tocqueville appropriated the term and changed its meaning: Any majority that actually passed oppressive laws, Sparks wrote, would "certainly be changed at the next election," whereas by conflating the majority with public opinion, he said, Tocqueville had merely identified a sheepishness common to all political orders.

Only many decades later would the full value of Tocqueville's misunderstanding become clear. It was an early description of the kind of self-censorship that led to what the journalist and sociologist William H. Whyte would call "groupthink," a reluctance to break ranks or court disfavor, even in the absence of formal state censorship. Tocqueville detected that reluctance among his favored Brahmin bien pensants, who were unwilling to say too much too publicly against the growing democratic dogma. In time, the sons and grandsons of the Brahmins would end their silence and loudly, bitterly, and at times effectively rail against what they beheld as the intrinsic corruption and stupidity of mass democracy. But the power of conformism persisted, as ubiquitous in our own time in campaigns and movements of the left as of the right, its message unmistakable if unspoken: Toe the line, say nothing critical of the anointed idea or personality, or risk ostracism and humiliation.

Damrosch is also lucid in describing the most compelling of Tocqueville's formulations and how they arose out of his peculiar situation. Early on, Tocqueville rejected the idea dear to the Constitution's framers and mourned by later patricians that disinterested civic virtue would animate the new republic. In its place, Tocqueville said, the Americans had found a way for individual interest (understood in the French, intérêt, as including everything that matters to an individual) to take the place of virtue, to make, he wrote, "a sort of refined and intelligent egotism" into "the pivot on which the whole machine turns." Interest properly understood required no grand sacrifices of station or treasure, but it did require a fundamental sense that individual well-being actually required foresight, small daily compromises, and acts of cooperation, lest disorder turn into chaos. Interest could provide no spirituality, but it could provide ethics and ethical habits that, even if based in utility, could reinforce morality and enhance political stability.

Damrosch abjures from applying Tocqueville's experiences and ideas to present-day politics, which is just as well. Instead, he concludes by observing that the American myths of self-reliance and godliness that scholars and critics love to explode as obsolete or self-serving are also, as Tocqueville understood, important to Americans' sense of themselves. Damrosch names no culprits, but he is plainly urging today's approved deep thinkers to approach their fellow citizens with the kind of sympathy and imagination that Tocqueville mustered, and not simply with alienation, self-regard, and outrage. Tocqueville emerges, finally, as all the more wondrous, for all of his human foibles and intellectual errors -- not simply as an observer who, at his best, could enter into the spirit and manners of an alien political system but one who could do so at the age of 26, while also thinking about the kinds of things a 26-year-old thought about in the 1830s, and long before, and ever after. The human young Tocqueville is much more impressive than the cold abstraction, and for helping to bring him to life we are in Leo Damrosch's debt.