The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville's Democracy in America

Overview

One of the greatest books ever to be written on the United States, Democracy in America continues to find new readers who marvel at the lasting insights Alexis de Tocqueville had into our nation and its political culture. The work is, however, as challenging as it is important; its arguments can be complex and subtle, and its sheer length can make it difficult for any reader, especially one coming to it for the first time, to grasp Tocqueville’s meaning. The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville’s “Democracy in ...

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The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville's Democracy in America

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Overview

One of the greatest books ever to be written on the United States, Democracy in America continues to find new readers who marvel at the lasting insights Alexis de Tocqueville had into our nation and its political culture. The work is, however, as challenging as it is important; its arguments can be complex and subtle, and its sheer length can make it difficult for any reader, especially one coming to it for the first time, to grasp Tocqueville’s meaning. The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” is the first book written expressly to help general readers and students alike get the most out of this seminal work.

Now James T. Schleifer, an expert on Tocqueville, has provided the background and information readers need in order to understand Tocqueville’s masterwork. In clear and engaging prose, Schleifer explains why Democracy in America is so important, how it came to be written, and how different generations of Americans have interpreted it since its publication. He also presents indispensable insight on who Tocqueville was, his trip to America, and what he meant by equality, democracy, and liberty.

Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of Tocqueville’s papers and manuscripts, Schleifer reveals how Tocqueville’s ideas took shape and changed even in the course of writing the book. At the same time, Schleifer provides a detailed glossary of key terms and key passages, all accompanied by generous citations to the relevant pages in the University of Chicago Press Mansfield/Winthrop translation. The Chicago Companion will serve generations of readers as an essential guide to both the man and his work.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Kammen
“Schleifer includes so many excellent quotations to illustrate his points that it’s conceivable that this book might be read tout seul, as a substitute for the real thing! I hope not. But virtually everything one needs to know about Democracy, including a taste for Tocqueville’s prose, is included in this fine companion.”
Seymour Drescher
“An important and innovative aid. The Chicago Companion is a truly Tocquevillian venture, opening up a host of questions about one of the most provocative meditations ever written on the human condition.”
Olivier Zunz
“James Schleifer is widely regarded as one of the best interpreters of Alexis de Tocqueville’s thought. In this appropriately named ‘companion’ to Democracy in America, he provides not only a scintillating reflection on this classic book but also a unique and sure guide to the intricacies of the text itself.”
Choice

 "This book will be of great value to readers who seek a compressed orientation to things Tocquevillean all in one place. . . Highly recommended." 
Choice
 "This book will be of great value to readers who seek a compressed orientation to things Tocquevillean all in one place. . . Highly recommended." 
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226737034
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/4/2012
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

James T. Schleifer is emeritus dean of the library and professor of history at the College of New Rochelle and has been a visiting lecturer at Yale University and the University of Paris. He is the author of the award-winning book The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”;coeditor of De la Démocratie en Amérique, a critical edition in the Pléiade series; and translator of the four-volume historical-critical edition of De la Démocratie en Amérique edited by Eduardo Nolla. 

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Read an Excerpt

Democracy in America

The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville's
By James T. Schleifer

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73704-1


Chapter One

Who Was Tocqueville?

WHAT ARE SOME ESSENTIALS OF HIS LIFE AND BACKGROUND?

Tocqueville's biography is already well known and eloquently recounted. Three full studies, as well as several short biographical sketches, exist. Our purpose here is not to cover familiar ground about Tocqueville's life. Later, when we retrace, in summary, the American journey, briefly tell the story of how his Democracy in America took shape, and examine the unfolding development of the major themes of the book, we will inevitably be drawn into descriptions of Tocqueville's background, his private and public activities, and his personal beliefs, values, and attitudes. For now, however, we can lay out some essentials.

Born in 1805 into a family of the old nobility, Tocqueville grew up in a highly privileged and well-connected setting. In the mid-1780s, just before the French Revolution, Chr?ien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Tocqueville's maternal great-grandfather and the most illustrious of his predecessors, had held high office under the old regime and had championed reform. But once the Revolution took place and Louis XVI was put on trial, Malesherbes stepped forward to defend his king, an effort predetermined to fail. This magnificent gesture made Malesherbes himself a marked man. He was guillotined in 1794, a year after the monarch. Many other members of the family were also arrested and imprisoned, and several were executed.

Among the jailed were Tocqueville's own father and mother, who barely escaped the guillotine. The emotional impact of this story on Tocqueville and his family is hard to exaggerate. The suffering endured during the Revolution was periodically recalled at family gatherings. Tocqueville's mother never fully recovered emotionally and psychologically from the ordeal of imprisonment, near execution, and loss of so many close family members. And Tocqueville himself inherited not only the model of his great-grandfather, but also a profound aversion to what he later called the revolutionary spirit: the recourse to violent means in order to achieve extreme political ends and the use of unchecked power, wielded unjustly by a few, in the name of the many.

The faith and attitudes of his tutor, the Abbé Lesueur, reinforced the influence on the young Tocqueville of a family circle profoundly conservative in politics and orthodox in Catholic faith. But if the old priest, B?? as he was affectionately called, had encouraged orthodoxy in his young charge, he had also quickly recognized Tocqueville's remarkable intellectual gifts and pushed him away from a traditional military vocation and toward a career in law.

Given such a background, how did Tocqueville, as a very young man in the 1820s, begin to move away from predictable family attitudes and opinions? Three possible explanations can be offered. During the Restoration (1814–1830), his father, Hervé de Tocqueville, served the reestablished Bourbon monarchy as a prefect in several successive localities, including the city of Metz, where Alexis, in order to attend school, joined him in 1820. There, the son, sixteen years old, discovered in his father's library the works of the Enlightenment philosophers, notably Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. The adolescent Tocqueville suddenly found his religious beliefs shattered and his social assumptions upended. An intellectual and moral crisis shook him out of inherited social, political, and religious positions.

Decades later, Tocqueville described himself at that moment as surrounded by "intellectual ruins," all truths overturned or shaken. Until he discovered these authors, he wrote, his mind was filled with "all kinds of notions and ideas which usually belong to another age. My life up to then had flowed in an interior full of faith which had not even allowed doubt to penetrate my soul. Then doubt entered, or rather rushed in with unheard-of violence, not merely the doubt of this or that, but universal doubt." A revolution in beliefs, ideas, and attitudes had taken place in Tocqueville's mind.

Also at work in the 1820s was a second intellectual dynamic. The decade witnessed an especially vigorous social and political debate among conservatives, ultraconservatives, traditional liberals, radicals, and a new group of reformers called the doctrinaires. This creative group of intellectuals, most notably Pierre Paul Royer-Collard, François Guizot, and Charles de Rémusat, developed an original body of political and social thought and historical analysis that appealed in broad outline to Tocqueville and, as we will observe, left an imprint on his thinking and writing.

Finally, a third reason for Tocqueville's more independent course is possible. From 1823 to 1826, he studied law and, in 1827, began his legal career as a newly appointed juge auditeur. According to André Jardin, the author of the first full biography of Tocqueville, the French law schools had become liberal by the 1820s. Perhaps this political tendency also helped to push Tocqueville's thinking in new directions.

Whatever the political impact of pursuing a career in the law at that time may have been, the personal results for Tocqueville were significant. As a young lawyer he met and quickly formed a close and crucial friendship with one of his colleagues, Gustave de Beaumont. Less positively, he also found work in law dull, uninspiring, and not suited to his interests or talents. It was too restricted and detailed as a field, and it did not appeal to Tocqueville's imagination or to the expansiveness of his mind. Tocqueville irrevocably abandoned his legal career in 1832, not long after his return from the New World.

HOW WAS HE ABLE TO WRITE SUCH A BRILLIANT BOOK?

When considering Tocqueville's life, yet another question almost invariably arises. How did he see so well, especially someone as young as Tocqueville, who was only twenty-six years old during his voyage to America and only thirty when he published the first portion of his Democracy? How to explain his astonishing insights about the American republic, in particular, and about modern democratic society, in general? Of course, there is no definitive response to this query. Clearly, Alexis de Tocqueville possessed highly unusual gifts and a brilliant mind. Was he simply a genius? Is that the best solution to the puzzle?

Tocqueville himself offered another answer. He believed that he straddled two worlds, one aristocratic, the other democratic, and existed within a nation undergoing a painful transition.

People attribute either democratic or aristocratic prejudices to me. I might have had either had I been born in another century and another country. But the accident of my birth made it quite easy for me to avoid both. I came into the world at the end of a long Revolution, which, after destroying the old state, created nothing durable in its place. Aristocracy was already dead when my life began, and democracy did not yet exist. Instinct could not therefore impel me blindly toward one or the other. I lived in a country that for forty years had tried a bit of everything without settling definitively on anything, hence I did not easily succumb to political illusions. . . . In short, I was so perfectly balanced between past and future that I did not feel naturally and instinctively drawn toward either, and it took no effort for me to contemplate both in tranquility.

With a foot in both camps, so to speak, and with exposure to all that France had attempted and endured for nearly half a century, Tocqueville felt himself uniquely positioned to observe dispassionately, to reason calmly, and to judge fairly. He may have overestimated his balanced interest and neutrality, but his own explanation of his ability to write such a book at least deserves our consideration.

WHAT KIND OF MAN WAS TOCQUEVILLE?

Without doing an exhaustive portrait, we can perhaps note a few essential characteristics. In a letter to his friend, Charles Stoffels, Tocqueville confessed to his own sometimes "melancholic disposition," a recurring "painful state of the soul" marked by sadness and dejection. To move beyond those feelings, Tocqueville recommended avoiding both deep disgust and excessive enthusiasm with life. "Life," he wrote, "is neither a pleasure nor a sorrow; it is a serious affair with which we are charged, and toward which our duty is to acquit ourselves as well as possible. I assure you, my dear friend, that whenever I have managed to view it in this way, I have drawn great internal strength from this thought.... I have felt that I was less apt to be discouraged and that, not expecting too much, I was much more satisfied with reality."

In the same epistle, he added a telling admission about another of his beliefs.

When I first began to reflect, I believed that the world was full of demonstrated truths; that it was only a matter of looking carefully in order to see them. But when I sought to apply myself to considering the objects, I perceived nothing but inextricable doubts. I cannot express to you, my dear Charles, the horrible state into which this discovery threw me.... I ultimately convinced myself that the search for absolute, demonstrable truth, like the quest for perfect happiness, was an effort directed toward the impossible. It is not that there are not some truths that merit man's complete conviction, but be sure that they are very few in number. Concerning the immense majority of points that it is important for us to know, we have only probabilities, almosts.... Thus, one must resign oneself to arriving only very rarely at demonstrated truth.

Such a near-total rejection of absolute truths would not only remain one of Tocqueville's defining principles, but also mark the message of his Democracy.

Almost twenty-five years later, in two letters to Sophie Swetchine, he revealed still other personal characteristics. In one, he described a "vague restlessness and an incoherent agitation of desires [that] have always been a chronic malady with me." (Note that in the second part of the 1840 Democracy, Tocqueville would describe these same feelings as essentially democratic.)? And in the other, he disclosed his sense of a "sort of solitude among men." "You could not imagine, Madame, the pain and often the cruelty I experience in living in this moral isolation, to feel myself outside the intellectual community of my time and my country." Maybe his stance was not so much a suspension between two worlds as the position of someone who felt chronically outside the currents that embroiled his contemporaries. If so, his place as a double outsider-to his own world and to America—possibly helps as well to explain his exceptional abilities as an observer.

So Tocqueville sometimes experienced deep melancholy, what he had once called a "sort of sickly sadness." Despite several lifelong friendships, he had a deep sense of loneliness, of standing apart from his own time and generation. This did not bode well for the political career he hoped to undertake. And he was persuaded that claims to absolute truth were exaggerated and probably false. Except in rare cases, only probabilities existed for him. He lived in a world of "almosts," of approximations. As we will see, such traits in belief and personality would color his Democracy in America in a variety of important ways.

Chapter Two

How Was Democracy in America Written?

TOCQUEVILLE'S JOURNEY TO AMERICA

Why Did Tocqueville Visit the United States in 1831? And What Did He Do There?

Revolution broke out once again in France in July 1830. Tocqueville took a required oath of allegiance to the new constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe. But to free himself from a professional and political position that remained uncomfortable and ambiguous, Tocqueville proposed, with his new friend and fellow lawyer, Beaumont, to undertake for the French government an official mission to the United States to study the American penitentiary system. France badly needed prison reform, and the United States was then at the forefront of improvements. Their proposal was accepted, and the two young men completed the project in good faith. The mission truly served, however, first, as an excuse to escape, and second, as a pretext for an enterprise of a different sort. Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived in the New World with two projects to pursue: a governmental report on the penitentiary system and a self-assigned broader study of the American republic.

Tocqueville and Beaumont left France with the intention of traveling for about one year in North America. By November 1831, however, the government shortened their leave and insisted that they return in February 1832. So, in the end, the companions traveled for nine and a half months in North America, including two weeks in Canada. They left France on April 2, 1831, arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, on May 9. And on February 20, 1832, they departed from New York bound for Europe. There is no need here to retrace Tocqueville and Beaumont's travels in detail. We can, however, summarize their itinerary and describe their journey to America in broad strokes, noting especially a few unexpected developments and some basic features of their visit.

Tocqueville and Beaumont spent about half their time in a few of the large cities of America: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. They also stayed for several days in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. (A projected visit to Charleston, South Carolina, never took place.) Part of their travel was dictated by the need to visit important American penitentiaries and correctional institutions, most notably Sing Sing, on the Hudson; the Auburn prison, in upstate New York; and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

So their journey was largely urban and northern, but with significant excursions across New York state and the Great Lakes to the Michigan frontier; up the Saint Lawrence to Montreal and Quebec City; down the Champlain valley and across Massachusetts to Boston; from Boston to Philadelphia, via Connecticut and New York; across Pennsylvania to the Ohio valley; down the Mississippi to New Orleans; a hurried return overland, across the South, to Washington, DC; and finally back to New York for their departure.

Their intended trajectory was deflected in several important ways. First, as we have already noted, the planned voyage was shortened at the demand of the French government. Second, last-minute decisions, made on impulse in July and August 1831, to go to the frontier (in Michigan) and then to visit the upper Great Lakes considerably changed their itinerary. And finally, several unforeseen circumstances influenced the course of their journey, including a steamboat accident and an extremely harsh winter in 1831–1832; the Ohio and parts of the upper Mississippi River froze, temporarily halting all steamboat traffic and trapping the two friends in dangerous cold in Kentucky and Tennessee. On the one hand, Tocqueville and Beaumont's firsthand introduction to the American frontier, including the character of the pioneer and the relentless nature of the westward movement, deeply enriched their experience. On the other hand, the unexpected events that plagued the two travelers cut short their time in the South, creating a serious and unfortunate imbalance in their exposure to America.

As we will see, to sense the full flavor of Tocqueville and Beaumont's journey, readers should consult Tocqueville's travel diaries, as well as the letters written by the two companions to friends and family at home. Their experience in the New World cannot be adequately reconstructed or fairly judged simply by looking at Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

How Did Tocqueville and Beaumont Work?

Tocqueville described the two companions as the "most implacable investigators." Thanks to their official status, they found all doors open to them. "Perhaps no one," he wrote to his brother, Edouard, "has ever been better situated than we are to study a people.... We have regular contact with all classes of society. We are supplied with all the documents anyone could wish for. Finally, our purpose in coming here was purely serious. Our mind has been focused steadily on the acquisition of useful knowledge. The labor is immense but not arduous, because in a way we are soaking up ideas through every pore, and we learn as much in a drawing room or on a walk as we do when closeted in our studies."

This very early letter to Edouard captures much of Tocqueville and Beaumont's characteristic methods of research. In addition to hinting at their work routine and daily visits and activities as travelers and investigators, Tocqueville touches on perhaps the most essential feature of their journey: contact with Americans. He recorded conversations with over two hundred individuals, some named, some anonymous, some famous, some obscure. And, by and large, the conversations were well planned and deliberate, more interviews or managed dialogues than casual exchanges. Together Tocqueville and Beaumont framed initial questions to raise with their hosts. As they traveled and learned more, they developed new topics to explore, but returned methodically as well to familiar queries. Their conversations became a process of discovery, a way for them to follow up on earlier remarks, ideas, and information and a means to test their own developing opinions and insights.

Their joint impulse toward planned questions even led to a pioneering research effort, undertaken as part of their official mission. In October 1831, in Philadelphia, they conducted interviews with numerous prisoners at the Eastern State Penitentiary, also known as the Cherry Hill prison. The manuscripts of those interviews still exist and show a detailed exploration by Tocqueville and Beaumont not only of the strengths and weaknesses of the system at Cherry Hill, but also of the causes of crime.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Democracy in America by James T. Schleifer Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
     Why Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America?
     What Are the Purposes and Uses of the Companion?

Part I
What Are the Contexts of Tocqueville’s Democracy?
1    Who Was Tocqueville?
      What Are Some Essentials of His Life and Background?
      How Was He Able to Write Such a Brilliant Book?
      What Kind of Man Was Tocqueville?
2    How Was Democracy in America Written?
      Tocqueville’s Journey to America
          Why Did Tocqueville Visit the United States in 1831? And What Did He Do There?
          How Did Tocqueville and Beaumont Work?
          What Is the Importance of Tocqueville’s Travel Diaries and Letters Home?
          What Were the Weaknesses of Tocqueville’s Journey?
          Tocqueville’s Intellectual Encounter with America
     Tocqueville’s Second Voyage to America
          How Did Democracy in America Take Shape?
          Tocqueville’s Working Papers
          Help from Others
          What Were the Sources of Tocqueville’s Book?
     The Style and Structure of Tocqueville’s Democracy
          Tocqueville’s Ways of Writing: How Does He Address His Readers?
          How Is Democracy in America Organized?
          The Shape of the 1835 Democracy
          The Shape of the 1840 Democracy

Part II
What Are Some of the Major Themes of Tocqueville’s Democracy?
3    What Are Some of Tocqueville’s Basic Convictions?
4    What Does Tocqueville Mean by Equality, Democracy, and Liberty?
     Equality
     Democracy
     Liberty
     How Are Equality, Democracy and Liberty Related?
5    How Does Democracy Threaten Liberty?
     Democratic Materialism
     Democratic Individualism
     Centralization
     Where Would Power Accumulate?
6    How to Preserve Liberty?
     Decentralization
     Associations
     Self-Interest Well Understood
     Religion
     What Is Tocqueville’s Essential Message?
7    What Are Some of Tocqueville’s Other Major Themes?
     Economics and the Role of Government
     A Partisan of Democracy?
          Democracy and Religion
          Democracy and Intellectual Creativity
          Democracy and Morality
          Democracy and Revolution
     Democracy and War
     The Democratic Character
     Tocqueville’s Major Themes Reconsidered
8    What Else Does Tocqueville Have to Say about America?
     What Is Specific to America?
     The American Setting
     The Federal Constitution
     The Future of the Three Races
     American Exceptionalism
     Other Functions of America
     Tocqueville and the American Example

Part III
American Readings of Tocqueville’s Democracy
9    How Has Tocqueville’s Democracy Been Read in America?
     Conservative Readings
     Liberal Readings
     Libertarian Readings
     Communitarian Readings
Concluding Reflections

Part IV
Tools for Use
Glossary: What Are Some of the Key Terms in Tocqueville’s Democracy?
Guide to Key Chapters and Passages: Which Parts of Tocqueville’s Democracy Are the Most Famous and Essential?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Notes
Index

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