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.