Sara Wheeler

A new world in the making

Alexis de Tocqueville is a prophet for all seasons, continually reinterpreted as the zeitgeist shifts.

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Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon

Arthur Kaledin

Yale, pp. 440, £

Alexis de Tocqueville is a prophet for all seasons, continually reinterpreted as the zeitgeist shifts. He sailed to Jacksonian America to compile a report on the prison system, and ended up writing a meditation on the nature of democracy that remains in print after 160 years. In this latest addition to the fertile field of Tocquevillian studies, Arthur Kaledin analyses the Frenchman’s character and thought before, during and after his nine-month tour around the still partially formed USA.

De Tocqueville set off in 1831 in the company of his friend Gustave de Beaumont. Both were 25, and they had a high old time, travelling as widely as they could: the frontier hovered around Ohio then, but they took a steamboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans, calling the latter ‘le Midi’.

De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America appeared in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. It is the work of a moralist in the classic French tradition. Besides considering  matters of religion, class, politics and money — the Yankee obsession with wealth takes a beating — de Tocqueville wrote at length on the emerging American identity. His only peer on the topic was Fanny Trollope, Anthony’s mother, whose ship crossed de Tocqueville’s as he sailed out and she fled. Her Domestic Manner of the Americans has never been out of print either, and she too had never intended to write a book.

The complexity of his analysis, as Kaledin observes, ‘has made it possible for ideologues of every persuasion to shanghai Tocqueville in support of arguments he would have rejected as simplistic.’ That, of course, is the trouble. Tockers is a mass of contradictions, like most of us, and just when you think you’ve got him, he slithers under a stone. Kaledin, emeritus professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is so exhaustive, and such a thoroughgoing academic, that by shining a torch onto every shift and inconsistency he magnifies them threefold. Few will wish this book longer. Kaledin’s analysis is Tocquevillian in its rigour.

As is made clear, many times, ‘Democracy in America is crucially informed by Tocqueville’s struggle to make sense of, and to reintegrate, the shattered world into which he was born.’ His people were noble ultra-royalists shacked up in a château on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy, and during the revolution many knelt before the guillotine. De Tocqueville wept when he watched the last Bourbon king fleeing Versailles in a coach with the bossed royal emblem shrouded. What, he wondered, would replace the old forms of the social contract? Like many in Europe, he saw America as a testing ground. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill, with whom de Tocqueville corresponded at length, recognised that they were living through a transition between the known old order and its bewildering replacement.

 

Over the years, de Tocqueville’s once guarded hope for the possibilities of democracy curdled, and Kaledin seeks to uncover why. He largely succeeds, demonstrating the way in which a combination of events and analysis convinced de Tocqueville that democracy in practice (rather than theory) was bound to fail. The Frenchman warned that the vaunted new system was likely to produce fresh forms of tyranny, because too much equality could lead to excessive materialism and selfish individualism. His ideal was a kind of feudal Big Society, which is what makes him modern all over again.

Kaledin brilliantly traces his subject’s inner trajectory in the years after America, when he pursued a judicial and political career, married an Englishwoman, and finally retreated into disappointed internal exile after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup (he died in 1859). The ‘darker horizon’ of this book’s subtitle refers to de Tocqueville’s eventual conviction that a broad-based system stifled difference and dissent and would inevitably result in cultural collapse.  

All 35 chapters in Tocqueville and His America are essays that could stand alone. Kaledin quotes widely and judiciously from the primary material, including de Tocqueville’s voluminous and often delightful correspondence, and he follows the evolution of his thought from the immediacy of the notebooks to the mature sobriety of the published work. Scholars and committed amateurs will benefit from Kaledin’s sustained immersion in his subject. But in these pages de Tocqueville never descends from the Olympian peak: the reader does not learn, for example, that he went to so many balls in America that he wrote home for two dozen pairs of yellow kid gloves.

Kaledin shares his man’s dismay at ‘the gradual softening of the general intellectual culture’ but does not pay adequate tribute to the distance we have come since de Tocqueville mooned around Harvard Square in kid gloves. There are no longer slaves in the cane fields, for example (Democracy in America doesn’t go on about them, but they were there). The USA has surely not done as poorly as de Tocqueville feared. But one can guess what he would have made of the ‘European project’.