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Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to recognize and trumpet the grandness of the American project. His two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835, offered not only a vivid account of the still young nation but famously predicted what the nation would become, and firmly established his place in U.S. history. Yet in his own time, Tocqueville had little evidence for the truth of his ideas. Introspective, sickly, prone to self-doubt, he was a most unlikely visionary. In wry, elegant...
Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to recognize and trumpet the grandness of the American project. His two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835, offered not only a vivid account of the still young nation but famously predicted what the nation would become, and firmly established his place in U.S. history. Yet in his own time, Tocqueville had little evidence for the truth of his ideas. Introspective, sickly, prone to self-doubt, he was a most unlikely visionary. In wry, elegant prose, Joseph Epstein, America's most versatile essayist, offers an engaging and altogether human portrait of the Frenchman who would become an American icon.
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805, but his entering the world at all was a near thing. Not that there were complications at his birth, but twelve years earlier, the Reign of Terror, as the systematically violent aftermath of the French Revolution is known, came perilously close to doing away with his parents.
Hervé de Tocqueville, Alexis's father, had married one of the granddaughters of Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. A lawyer, Malesherbes had unsuccessfully defended King Louis XVI against the charge of treason before the Convention, the tribunal formed by the revolutionary French government for trying enemies of the new state. Before the revolution, he was known primarily as a man of letters who, under the reign of Louis XV, had given official permission for the publication of the great French Encyclopédie. He was also a correspondent and protector of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But during the Terror, Malesherbes was sent to the guillotine as were his sister, his daughter, his son-in-law, and another granddaughter and her husband.
The twenty-one-year-old Hervé de Tocqueville and his wife Louise were rounded up along with other family members on the night of December 17, 1793, at the country estate of Malesherbes, and imprisoned in Paris. Hervé and Louise de Tocqueville watched as uncles, aunts, and cousins went off to "the Barber," as the guillotine was called, and themselves escaped owing to the luck of docket scheduling and the timely (for them) fall from power of Robespierre, who was himselfguillotined on July 28, 1794.
One effect of this frightening episode, as every biographer of Tocqueveille has noted, was to turn Hervé de Tocqueville's hair white in his twenties. After the Terror was ended, he used to nap every day between three and four in the afternoon, thereby blocking out three-thirty P.M., the exact time that aristocrats were called before the revolutionary tribunal to receive their death sentences. His wife's nerves were shattered by her prison experience, and, struggle though she did to recover her health, she never quite succeeded in regaining full emotional equilibrium. As André Jardin, Tocqueville's excellent biographer, writes: "In the various accounts of [Louise de Tocqueville] that we possess, we see her as capricious, impatient, apparently also wasteful, a victim of recurring migraine headaches, and afflicted with a profound, constant melancholy that must have been quite common among the survivors of the Reign of Terror." Yet even in this saddened condition, she attempted to keep up her end of family life and was said to be helpful to the poor. Alexis de Tocqueville inherited his mother's often melancholy spirit, fits of anxiety, and fragile health.
The revolution darkened Alexis's youth and that of his older brothers, Hippolyte and Édouard, and haunted all his mature years. Why the revolution had happened, what it wrought, and which precisely were its continuing effects on French life—these were to be among the main concerns behind all Tocqueville's writing.
The Tocqueville lands and family history were long anchored in Normandy. Like so many aristocrats before the revolution, Hervé de Tocqueville favored strong reform of the laws while retaining a respectful loyalty to the Bourbon monarchy; he was among the party known as Legitimist, and he served the monarchy, at considerable personal expense, during the Bourbon restoration between 1814 and 1830. But in the eye of the furious storm that was the Terror, sympathy with reform was obliterated by the fact of aristocratic birth. When one examines the roll call of those who met their end by the blade, one discovers that the road beneath the tumbril in which aristo-crats were driven to the guillotine was paved with generous liberal sentiments.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his many reflections on the ancien régime (the time before the French Revolution), made special note of the aristocrats who gave up all the once traditional leader-ship responsibilities of their class, keeping and enjoying only the privileges and finally the empty pretensions of aristocratic standing. His own family was not of this kind. His father took a professional interest and an active part in local government. His cousin on his wife's side was the writer and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand, author of Mémoires d'outre-tombe and other works. Chateaubriand preceded Alexis in visiting America; under the Empire he served Napoleon (whom he would later brilliantly and relentlessly attack) as a diplomat representing French interests in Rome; later, he served Louis XVIII and Charles X under the restoration. Chateaubriand claimed that aristocracies went through three phases: that of duty, that of privilege, and that of vanity. Alexis de Tocqueville, like his father, never deserted the phase of duty, in his lifetime serving on government commissions, in the various legislative assemblies, and briefly as foreign minister under Louis-Napoléon.
As a youngest and somewhat sickly son, Alexis grew up in a cocoon of affection. (-People said that, even in later life, there was always something of the spoiled child about him.) He loved his father without complication, even though they often differed in their political views and in their methods of writing history. Hervé de Tocqueville was the author of A Philosophical History of the Reign of Louis XV and of a Survey of the Reign of Louis XV as well as of a volume of memoirs. In the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, there is a painting of the handsome Hervé de Tocqueville, hair brushed forward in the style of the day, wearing the medal of the Legion of Honor, standing before his desk, with his young son Alexis behind him, seated at the desk, presumably taking his father's dictation. Count Hervé de Tocqueville died at eighty-four, preceding his son in death by only three years.
Talk about books and ideas was part of the Tocqueville family atmosphere. Precision in the use of language was also inculcated early, and, in Alexis's case, never abandoned; always a careful critic of language and its uses, he would later be a great scourge of empty phrases and self-servingly deceptive political terms.Alexis de Tocqueville
Posted October 13, 2010
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