Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America

From The Wall Street Journal:

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was neither a systematic thinker nor a system builder, neither a philosopher nor a historian. His subject was society—make that societies, their strengths and their weaknesses, which he studied always in search of what gives them their character. Along with Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Max Weber, Ortega y Gasset, Tocqueville was a cosmopolitan intellectual of the kind that appears only at the interval of centuries.

Tocqueville is of course best known for his “Democracy in America,” a work which may be more quoted from than actually read. The first part of it was published in 1835, based on observations made when he visited the U.S. in 1831, at age 26. His powers of observation, and skill at generalization, were evident at the outset. They never slackened over the remainder of his life.

Tocqueville’s skill at formulating observations was unfailingly acute. “In politics, shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships,” he wrote. “History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” At the close of “Democracy in America,” he predicted the coming hegemonies of Russia and the U.S. George Santayana, in a letter to his friend Horace Kallen, wrote: “Intelligence is the power of seeing things in the past, present, and future as they have been, are, and will be.” He might have been describing Alexis de Tocqueville.

The first volume of “Democracy in America” was well received. The second volume, published in 1840—more critical and more dubious of the virtues of democracy—was less so. Yet the work stayed in print for a full century, even though its author’s reputation had long since faded. Then, in 1938, with the publication of Tocqueville’s correspondence and other hitherto uncollected writings, that reputation, more than revived, became set in marble.

Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America” by Jeremy Jennings, a professor of political theory at King’s College London, thus joins a long shelf of books dedicated to the man and his works. Four full biographies of Tocqueville have been published, the last, Hugh Brogan’s “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life,” in 2006. Nearly every aspect of Tocqueville’s work has been treated in essays, articles and book-length studies. I happened to have published a slender volume myself, “Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide” (2006), in which I wrote: “What would have surprised Tocqueville, one suspects, is the persistence with which his writings have remained alive, part of the conversation on the great subject of the importance of politics in life.” It would have surprised him, I believe, because of his innate modesty and his belief that his work was far from finished.

Tocqueville’s trip to America, which would be the making of him, had its origin in his wish to escape the reign of Louis-Philippe, king of France, whose Orléans family had been sympathetic to the French Revolution and were thus viewed askance by the house of Tocqueville. With his friend Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville proposed a visit to America to study penal institutions in the new republic; the two magistrates were granted permission, though they would have to pay their own expenses.

In “Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America,” Mr. Jennings sets out the importance of travel to Alexis de Tocqueville. “In exploring why, where, and how Tocqueville travelled,” he writes, “this volume seeks to show that travel played an integral role in framing and informing his intellectual enquiries.” Throughout his life, we learn, “Tocqueville longed to travel,” and this appetite for travel did not “diminish with either age or illness.” As Tocqueville wrote to his friend Louis de Kergorlay: “I liken man in this world to a traveller who is walking constantly toward an increasingly cold region and who is forced to move more as he advances.”

Mr. Jennings proves a splendid guide to Tocqueville’s travels. These included trips, some lengthier than others, to Italy, Algeria, Germany, Switzerland, England and Ireland. Basing his book on Tocqueville’s rich correspondence and notebooks, Mr. Jennings describes his subject’s preparations, his arrivals, his daily encounters in what for Tocqueville were new lands. Even when he did not publish works about these places, he was recording his thoughts. Above all, the author establishes the unceasing intellectual stimulation that Tocqueville found in travel. The spirit of inquiry was never quiescent in him, and, as Mr. Jennings notes, even on his honeymoon “Tocqueville managed to find time to study the Swiss political system.”

Much of the attraction of “Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America” derives from its chronicle of Tocqueville’s quotidian life and his many interesting opinions of historical and contemporary figures. Tocqueville said that Napoleon was “as great as a man can be without virtue.” His English friend Nassau Senior records Tocqueville saying of Napoleon that his “taste was defective in everything, in small things as well as great ones; in books, art, and in women as well as in ambition and glory; and his idolizers cannot be men of much better taste.”

Tocqueville remarked on the “impatience always aroused in him by the national self-satisfaction of the Germans,” and found Italy “the most unpleasant country I have ever visited on my travels.” As for Switzerland, he noted that “at the bottom of their souls the Swiss show no deep respect for law, no love of legality, no abhorrence of the use of force, without which there cannot be a free country.”

Yet he described America as “the most singular country in the world.” Among other things, during his nine months there, he was taken by its citizens’ enthusiasm for their own system of government. Americans, he found, “believe in the wisdom of the masses, assuming the latter are well informed; and appear to be unclouded by suspicions that the populace may never share in a special kind of knowledge indispensable for governing a state.”

He, Tocqueville, did not share their unabated enthusiasm: “What I see in this country tells me that, even in the most favorable circumstances, and they exist here, the government of the multitude is not a good thing.” Tocqueville was wary of what had been done to the American Indian, and predicted that “within a hundred years there will not remain in North America either a single tribe or even a single man belonging to the most remarkable of Indian races.” His views on slavery in America were even bleaker, harsher. “The Americans are, of all modern peoples, those who have pushed equality and inequality furthest among men,” he wrote. He thought, correctly as we now know, slavery to be “the most formidable of all the evils that threaten the future of the United States.”

Alexis de Tocqueville was a passionate man, and about liberty he was most passionate of all. By liberty he meant the absence of despotism, whether by monarchs or multitudes. “Liberty is the first of my passions,” he wrote, referring to it as “a good so precious and necessary,” adding that “whoever seeks for anything from freedom but itself is made for slavery.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal