From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Books attain classic status by illuminating the universal in the particular, and by remaining perennially relevant. Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a classic in just this way. Tocqueville himself naturally hoped his book would be such a thing, but did not fully expect it; he was surprised by how quickly and widely successful it became. His aim had been to learn constitutional lessons from the American example, and to apply them to France and the rest of the Old World where, with equivocal feelings, he saw the spread of democracy as inevitable. When the book was published he found that he had done far more: he had added to the central literature of political science.
The book was the offspring of a fruitful marriage of differences, between -- on the one hand -- the perceptive and prescient mind of an aristocratic young European, le Comte Alexis-Charles-Henri Clerel de Tocqueville, and on the other hand the bustling, vigorous, expanding energies of Jacksonian America.
Tocqueville traveled in America for a surprisingly short time, just nine months, but in that interval he covered a lot of miles, and an even larger territory of American mind and life. Apart from the brilliance of his intellectual and observational powers he had the great advantage of an intelligent friend at his side, Gustave de Beaumont, with whom he shared every step of the journey. Between them they took copious notes and wrote dozens of perspicacious letters home. Their journey is the subject of Leo Damrosch's Tocqueville's Discovery of America.
It is seventy years since anyone has written at length about Tocqueville's journey. Biographies naturally have to proportion the space they give those nine months in the fifty-four years of Tocqueville's life, and in any case their interest tends to focus on the period, several years later, encompassing the publication of Tocqueville's book and its reception. Damrosch has a different target. Making use of much material not available in English, which he presents here for the first time in his own translation, he is able to retrace Tocqueville's geographical and intellectual footsteps in detail, and by so doing casts much fresh light on the formation of Tocqueville's ideas.
And it is not only Tocqueville's ideas that come illuminatingly into view, but the young and uncertain United States of 1831 itself, for Damrosch takes us with Tocqueville and Beaumont to New York, the great lakes, the frontier woods and newly-cleared farms, Boston, Philadelphia, the steamboats of the Mississippi, New Orleans, and Washington, and on the way we meet every kind of American from the Bostonian Brahmin to the backwoodsman, the ambitious merchant, the welcoming log-cabin hermit, the cheerful steamboat captain, the slave, the leisured slave-owner, the dispossessed native American, and even President Jackson himself -- in a White House that stood with a few other grand buildings dotted about in the otherwise scarcely-tenanted wilderness of Washington as it then was.
It is essential to recognise that both Tocqueville and the democracy he was inspecting were young: he was 26 years of age when he explored America, and the democracy itself was not twice that. He was still young when his account of it was written and published. He had an old head, but as the rest of him caught up during the remaining half of his life, he was to become still less sure about democracy (he was half-unsure about it to begin with) and less convinced that liberty was its inevitable concomitant. To read of Tocqueville the elected representative, constitutionalist and government minister in his later years, or indeed to read other works he penned after visiting England, Ireland and Algeria, is to encounter a somewhat different person. But that does not diminish Democracy in America, as one sees all the more clearly because of Damrosch's account of the generous, open-minded but judicious and sometimes sceptical reactions of Tocqueville while he was actually on American soil.
The genius of Tocqueville is manifest in the way he unconsciously reprises Aristotle and anticipates both Marx and Mill in different ways. There could be no better description of Aristotle's "megalopsychos" (the man of practical wisdom, following the middle path through situations of moral dilemma) than Tocqueville's picture of a certain American type: "His features, which are lined by the cares of life, display practical intelligence and cold, persevering energy that is immediately striking. His gait is slow and formal, his words measured, and his appearance austere." He anticipates Marx in writing of factory labourers under the Adam Smith pin-production principle, "Nothing tends so much to materialize man and to eliminate every trace of soul from his work than the great division of labour. " Mill in On Liberty seems almost to paraphrase Tocqueville's observation that one of the principles underlying American democracy is that "Each individual person…is the sole lawful judge of [his] own interest, and so long as it doesn't harm the interest of others, no one has the right to interfere."
One could cull others of Tocqueville's many astute insights to illustrate the power of his mind, but the point of doing so would only be to reinforce the originality of his task: to explore -- as he puts it -- "The future of democracy: the sole poetic idea of our time. An immense, indefinite idea. An era of renewal, of change in the social system of humanity." That is what America represented to Tocqueville, and he was determined to examine its nature and implications. As Damrosch shows, Tocqueville had traveled thousands of miles across the rapidly-expanding United States to feel the actuality, the lived reality of its people under their democracy, and by doing so he came to recognise its virtues and its dangers with special clarity.
Once home again in France, as he contemplated the wealth of material he had gathered, he had an epiphany: he saw that equality and despotism were not opposites, that there can arise a kind of "soft despotism" accepted by the people who, welcoming its benevolent rule, still describe themselves as free.
This was one of the deepest of the insights he brought home from the journey Damrosch describes. "Above them," Tocqueville writes of the citizens of a democracy which has mutated into a soft despotism, "rises an immense tutelary power that alone takes charge of ensuring their pleasures and watching over their fate…it is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if its object was to prepare men for adult life, but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in permanent childhood. It likes citizens to enjoy themselves, so long as all they think about is enjoyment. It labors willingly for their happiness, but it wants to be the sole agent of their happiness…. The sovereign power doesn't break their wills, but it softens, bends, and directs them. It rarely compels action, but it constantly opposes action…."
This is pure genius. It describes quite a few contemporary Western liberal democracies, and the constitutional struggles of the Jacksonian populists over the Senate resonate with analogous constitutional tensions in a number of contemporary democracies. Today's United States is the achievement of a post- Civil War settlement and a continuing constitutional evolution that has addressed some of the doubts Tocqueville felt about democracy as always implying the risk of majoritarian tyranny; but the point is that Tocqueville saw those possibilities with clarity, and it is implausible not to think that his insight sometimes helped America take a more suitable path.
As the foregoing shows, although Damrosch's aim is to describe Tocqueville's and Beaumont's journey, inevitably that means describing the ideas they garnered as they went. This is lucidly and succinctly done. Damrosch does not sentimentalize Tocqueville's views of America and Americans, which were sometimes uncomplimentary to a degree, nor does he over-emphasise the many positives that Tocqueville found. But in general the portrait he gives of Tocqueville is an affectionate one, consistent with the satisfaction America has always taken in Tocqueville's account of it.
Damrosch's closing pages give only the briefest outline of the post-journey life of Tocqueville and his book, and do not reveal how different a man Tocqueville became from the one who saw America and the implications of its constitutional arrangements so clearly. But the interested reader should look to the biographies for that. Here Damrosch's central task -- to give a kind of Tocquevillian "Anabasis," and with it an account of the America he saw -- is well and instructively done, and a highly useful addition to the Tocqueville literature.
H. W. Brands
…the appeal of Democracy in America is that of any good coming-of-age story: We see the possibilities of youth struggling against the realities of adulthood, and even as we slide toward old age, we reimagine all that we might have been. Leo Damrosch, in the best book on this subject in 70 years, deftly depicts the fateful encounter between the young Tocqueville and adolescent America.
The Washington Post
David S. Reynolds
In Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Leo Damrosch…reveals the man behind the sage.
The New York Times
Drawing on archives not previously translated into English, Damrosch (Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Harvard Univ.; Jean-Jacques Rousseau) presents an insightful update to Alexis de Tocqueville's 1831 tour of young America, known through his subsequent book, Democracy in America. Tocqueville and companion Gustave de Beaumont used a tour of the new country's reformist prisons as an excuse to escape revolutionary France. They did visit prisons, but Tocqueville mostly studied American democracy, deciding that America's religious mores were an essential underpinning for democracy's survival. The Frenchmen saw a nation without royalty ginning up a middle class, noted the collapsing Indian tribes, got lost in wild Wisconsin, and were appalled by the country's Fifth Estate. America's egalitarianism, Tocqueville warned, was in dynamic tension with its materialistic tendencies. Damrosch notes that the young men flirted avidly in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia but were reduced to chastity. VERDICT This book, insightful and sometimes witty, is a useful companion for all who are reading Tocqueville or want to learn more about him.—Robert Moore, Lantheus Medical Imaging, North Billerica, MA
The journey and insights of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) in America. In 1831, Tocqueville and his fellow French aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont traversed a burgeoning, teeming America in the grip of territorial expansion and commercial explosion. They were amazed by the young country's industrious, plainspoken, egalitarian and largely middle-class ways. Tocqueville was privileged to witness, as Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, 2005, etc.) notes of their visit to the fledging city of Cincinnati, "impressive young professionals who were energetically building a civilization." The author traces this journey, familiar to readers of Tocqueville but always wonderfully entertaining, while lending his own astute observations. Tocqueville and Beaumont set out on official government business to examine the prison reforms being instigated in America and bring back new ideas to France. Tocqueville admitted later the penitentiary system was a good "pretext" for examining the whole American experiment, from marriage to government to slavery. He and Beaumont kept copious notes, from which Damrosch translates for the first time here. Curiously, the men barely spoke English but gradually learned to appreciate the idiomatic simplicity of American speech. For example, Tocqueville was eager to see forests and Indians, as the Frenchmen were steeped in romantic notions of Chateaubriand's America, and marveled that there was no word for wilderness in French. They visited 17 of the 24 states and the Western territories, of which Ohio was the frontier. They finally found in Boston a polite society much like they had known in Europe, though they made themselves athome everywhere among shopkeepers, farmers or prison guards. Politics in Washington, D.C., disappointed them. On this vicarious trip, Damrosch effectively demonstrates why Tocqueville proved "a superb interpreter of American culture."
From the Publisher
“Tocqueville's Discovery of America is lively, always interesting, and oftne touching. It also fills a gap in the literature that was deliberately created by Tocqueville himself.” Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books
“[A] scintillating new book . . . Remarkably, given the excitements and reach of Tocqueville's nine-month American trip, it is seventy years since the last full account of the itinerary. Leo Damrosch is well qualified to do the renovation. A distinguished specialist of eighteenth-century literature at Harvard . . . he is deeply familiar with Tocqueville's literary and intellectual contexts . . . Damrosch contagiously enjoys himself, and happily enters into the enthusiasms of the two young Frenchmen, as they let the strange, loud, free, placeless society disturb and excite them.” James Wood, The New Yorker
“Leo Damrosch has provided a perfect accompaniment to [Democracy in America] . . . This lovely book ought to delight those who already love Tocqueville's great work, for showing how it came to be. But it can also serve as a fine introduction for those just coming to Democracy in America.” Keith Monroe, The Virginian-Pilot
“Damrosch is an acute observer of Tocqueville.” David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review
“In Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Leo Damrosch, who teaches literature at Harvard, has seized an opportune moment to scratch the polished surface and explore what lay behind the oracular pronouncements. At a time when generalizations about the American soul seem risky at best, it is somehow reassuring to learn that even the great Tocqueville was often winging it . . . Rather than rely on the book published years after his return to France, as most scholars do, Damrosch draws on the letters Tocqueville wrote home to friends and family, as well as various unpublished notes he took during his trip. The material gives a life and freshness often absent from drier academic tomes.” François Furstenberg, Slate
“Leo Damrosch narrates [Tocqueville and Beaumont's] journey through salons and saloons, the beautiful Hudson River Valley and the trackless Wisconsin forest, clouds of merciless mosquitoes and flocks of gorgeous parrots . . . The result is neither another biography of Tocqueville . . . nor another study of ‘Democracy in America,' but rather a genial and colorful portrait, on a modest scale, of an astonishing young country and the likeable young man who first interpreted it to Europe.” George Scialabba, The Boston Globe
“In 1831, Tocqueville and his fellow French aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont traversed a burgeoning, teeming America in the grip of territorial expansion and commercial explosion . . . The author traces this journey, familiar to readers of Tocqueville but always wonderfully entertaining, while lending his own astute observations . . . Damrosch effectively demonstrates why Tocqueville proved ‘a superb interpreter of American culture.' ” Kirkus Reviews
“[Damrosch] presents an insightful update to Alexis de Tocqueville's 1831 tour of young America . . . Insightful and sometimes witty, [Tocqueville's Discovery of America] is a useful companion for all who are reading Tocqueville or want to learn more about him.” Robert Moore, Library Journal
“[Damrosch] constructs a lively narrative of [Tocqueville and Beaumont's] eye-opening journey. Their arduous travel; their reactions to Americans' informality; their foiled flirtations with young women--de Tocqueville and de Beaumont entertained their folks in France with these experiences, which Damrosch weaves into a flowing account.” Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“This entirely fresh book, about one of the most fateful, significant and profound journeys ever taken in modern times, is lavishly readable and compelling and illuminating.” Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News
“Helping to humanize as well as historicize the young Tocqueville while he was discovering America is the main achievement of Damrosch's concise and absorbing new book . . . [It] ought to make a more nuanced appreciation of both the man and his great work accessible to a wide readership . . . The human young Tocqueville is much more impressive than the cold abstraction, and for helping to bring him to life we are in Leo Damrosch's debt.” Sean Wilentz, The American Prospect
“Leo Damrosch applies the perspective and strengths of an outstanding literary scholar to narrating Alexis de Tocqueville's famous visit to the United States--its motives and outcome along with its daily course. Damrosch places Tocqueville's famous book about America securely in its French context and enriches our understanding with fascinating personal insights. The reader's pleasure is enhanced by the many charming illustrations.” Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
“In this deft and original book, Leo Damrosch helps us rediscover Tocqueville and the nation the Frenchman chronicled so brilliantly and enduringly. What Tocqueville found in Jacksonian America resonates anew in our own time, and Damrosch's engaging account of a world at once remote and familiar is invaluable--and entertaining.” Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion
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WHERE TOCQUEVILLE WAS COMING FROM
Alexis de Tocqueville came from an aristocratic family whose two branches represented both kinds of nobility in prerevolutionary France, the chivalric and the bureaucratic. The Tocquevilles inherited a title gained long ago by military prowess; an ancestor had taken part in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. On the maternal side were judges and civil servants, ennobled more recently for professional service to the Crown. Alexis’s mother Louise’s grandfather was the truly distinguished Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, who as official censor in the mid-eighteenth century had worked to protect great writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, and who said he spent his whole life “in what would be called in other countries the opposition party.” Malesherbes died at the guillotine, punished for loyally serving as defense counsel when his king was on trial for his life. Alexis honored his memory and thought of him as an inspiring role model, not least in resisting the seductions of power.
Malesherbes was not the only relative who was executed, and Alexis, who was born in 1805, grew up hearing frightening stories of how the revolutionary idealism of 1789 degenerated four years later into the cruel Reign of Terror, when Robespierre’s dreaded Committee of Public Safety ordered the execution of thousands of “counterrevolutionaries” (historians believe the total may have been as high as forty thousand). Many members of Tocqueville’s mother’s family were beheaded, and she and his father, Hervé, survived only because three days before they were scheduled to die, the implacable Robespierre and his allies were overthrown by a coup. When Hervé, who was twenty at the time, emerged from prison, his hair had gone completely white, and Louise was afflicted with mental illness for the rest of her life. From her Alexis inherited fluctuations of mood and emotional sensitivity—he has been called a repressed romantic—and from Hervé he got an energetic and impulsive temperament. As he once told his brother Édouard, “It’s that restlessness of mind, that consuming impatience, that need for repeated lively sensations that our father has, sometimes to a rather childish degree. This disposition gives great élan at certain times, but most of the time it torments without cause, agitates fruitlessly, and makes those who possess it very unhappy.”
Alexis was far more promising than his two older brothers, with whom he always maintained affectionate relations. Hippolyte, the eldest, had a not very successful military career and then an unremarkable one in the civil service; the middle brother, Édouard, left the army to marry an heiress and devoted himself thereafter to running his estate. Young Alexis, meanwhile, was educated at home by a kindly but not very demanding old priest named the abbé Christian Lesueur, who had been his father’s tutor before him. By the time Alexis was ten years old, he had been exposed to a good deal of history at first hand. His father took him to Paris to witness the celebration after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and he wrote to his tutor, “Why didn’t you come with us? How you would have shouted ‘Vive le roi!’ ” Soon afterward they were granted a formal audience with the newly restored monarch, Louis XVIII.
Under that king and his successor, the inept Charles X, Hervé de Tocqueville held a series of positions in which he served as an active and imaginative administrator, developing modernizing programs in agriculture, transportation, and education. But he was very much an aristocrat of the old school, sympathetic to extreme royalists who wanted the ancien régime restored to its old privileges. His two eldest sons shared his convictions; Alexis did not.
Alexis spent his childhood in Normandy, where his family had its roots, and in Paris, until 1817, when he was twelve years old and his way of life changed dramatically. His father was appointed prefect, or governor, of the Moselle region in eastern France, with headquarters at Metz. He sent for Alexis and placed him in the first school he had ever attended, where he immediately excelled. Most important, liberated from the tutelage of the lovable but deeply conservative Lesueur, Alexis learned to think for himself. He began devouring books by eighteenth-century skeptics in his father’s library, and at sixteen he experienced a shattering loss of religious faith that still haunted him when he described it to a confidante thirty-five years later: “Then doubt entered my soul, or rather it rushed in with incredible violence, not just doubt about this or that, but universal doubt. Suddenly I experienced the sensation that people who have been through an earthquake describe, the ground shaking beneath their feet, the walls around them, the ceiling above them, the furniture they’re touching, the whole of nature before their eyes. I was seized by the blackest melancholy, and by extreme disgust for life without even knowing life yet, and I was overwhelmed with distress and terror at the sight of the road that lay ahead of me in the world.”
What rescued him were his earliest sexual adventures. “Violent passions pulled me out of this state of despair, and turned my gaze away from these mental ruins and toward sensory objects.” (After his death his widow considered this confession so shocking that she got Beaumont, who had been collecting his friend’s correspondence, to return it to her, and she destroyed it. It survives only because Beaumont’s wife was so struck by it that she surreptitiously made a copy.) Tocqueville was handsome, charming, and appealing to women, but virtually nothing is known about his early relationships. One of his biographers, however, discovered the birth certificate of a child born of a transient union with a servant, and at about the same time Tocqueville had a passionate affair with a middle-class girl whom his patrician family would never have accepted for his spouse. A remarkable letter survives from his cousin and lifelong friend Louis de Kergorlay, written in 1823, when Alexis was seventeen, which contrasts their erotic temperaments. “I see that you catch fire suddenly, like gunpowder,” Kergorlay said, “and that the important thing is not to put a match to you. With me it’s completely different. It’s a subdued, confused, and habitual feeling that never leaves me, and tickles me quite apart from any objects that arouse it, which is to say, this or that woman. I feel less unbridled lust than you do, and more love . . . But since, unlike yours, my soul has more to do with this than my body does, I’m far more demanding. I’m waiting for the woman who will be right for me, the way the Jews await the Messiah.” What prompted Kergorlay’s rather preachy letter (he was only eighteen himself) was not just a high-minded resolve to remain pure until marriage, but a hint Alexis had dropped that he was planning to fight a duel over an affair of honor. It is not known whether the duel ever took place, but if it did, perhaps his father, the prefect, hushed it up.
As for the religious doubts, they troubled Tocqueville for the rest of his life. In a rather abstract way he continued to be, or wanted to be, a believer, but more accurately he was an agnostic lamenting the loss of the faith of his earliest years. One of his favorite authors was Pascal, whose Pensées spoke eloquently to his dread of emptiness and to his compulsion to be always active. “Nothing is so intolerable to man,” Pascal wrote, “as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without work. He then feels his nothingness, his desertion, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. Immediately from the depth of his heart will emerge ennui, gloom, sadness, distress, vexation, despair.” For someone with Tocqueville’s volatile temperament, intellectual labor would become a lifelong escape from anxiety and doubt; as Beaumont said, “Mental activity was like a sanctum for him, in which he took refuge to escape the unrest and sorrows of the soul.” A few years after Tocqueville’s death the American Charles Eliot Norton wrote that he “was born a thinker . . . his mind was large and calm.” The wisdom and calm were hard-won.
When his school studies were finished, Tocqueville moved in with his mother in Paris—she had refused to go to Metz—and began to study law. He found the subject arid and tedious, but he stuck with it for two years and got his degree. For relief he made a two-week tour of Sicily with his brother Édouard, and on the trip he kept a huge notebook (now mostly lost) that would turn out to be a trial run for his note taking in America five years later.
Hervé de Tocqueville was transferred twice after his stint in Metz, the second time to Versailles, and in 1827 he got his twenty-two-year-old son appointed as an unsalaried juge-auditeur, or apprentice magistrate, there. Alexis found the work unexpectedly stimulating, though he was rather startled by his own competitiveness, and frustrated by his awkwardness as a speaker. He wrote to his cousin Kergorlay, who was an army officer by then, “I recognize daily that I have a need to come out on top that is going to torment me cruelly all my life. And I have another defect at present: I’m having a hard time getting used to speaking in public. I grope for words and cut my ideas short. I see people all around me who reason badly and speak well, and that puts me in a continual rage.”
It might seem that Alexis had chosen the wrong profession altogether, since he told Kergorlay that he had no intention of becoming “a legal machine” like his pedantic colleagues. But he had discovered that immersion in complex details could be intellectually absorbing. “I’m no longer bored; you can’t imagine what it’s like to turn your attention seriously on a single point. Inevitably, you end up getting interested in the work. Thus the law, which disgusted me in theory, doesn’t affect me that way in practice. All my faculties unite to find a solution or a means to it, I feel my mind active and expanding, and the result is the same bien-être I’ve experienced in my heart when I was in love and it made me feel alive.” Gaining close familiarity with different legal codes turned out to be invaluable training for Tocqueville’s inquiries in America.
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE
In this portrait, made when Tocqueville was in his thirties, the artist has caught his characteristic expression of reserve, bordering almost on diffidence.
It was at Versailles that Tocqueville met Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow magistrate three years older than himself, and formed a lifelong friendship. Beaumont came from the Loire Valley west of Paris, and just as the Tocqueville family had a château at Tocqueville, the Beaumonts had one at Beaumont-la-Chartre (known today as Beaumont-sur-Dême). He, too, was the youngest of three brothers, and the others had become army officers just as Tocqueville’s had. Right from the start there was an exceptionally close bond, as Tocqueville confirmed a year later, “a friendship between us that, I don’t know how, was born already long-standing.” He was well aware that Beaumont’s gregarious good cheer was an invaluable stimulant. A wit said years afterward that the two complemented each other “like the decanter of vinegar and the decanter of oil.”
Early in their friendship Tocqueville wrote, “You’ve taught me, my dear Beaumont, to bend my stiff back, and I hope that with time you’ll make it even more supple. If firmness is a good thing, stiffness never is, and I believe I have both the good quality and the defect. I’ll turn myself over to you on this point—prune and trim as you see fit.” A few months later he added, “You have more chance of being recognized and valued than I, with my externally cold and not very sociable character . . . Whatever may happen to us, the thing is done, we’reunited, and it very much seems that it’s for life.” Nevertheless, they always addressed each other—and their parents—with the formal vous, reserving tu for relatives in their own generation and for a few childhood friends.
The two young men pursued flirtations at Versailles, which had to be conducted with extreme discretion with the sternly chaperoned French girls. Tocqueville told Beaumont that whenever he called at the house of a girl he was interested in, he was told that no one was at home. But eventually he managed to intercept her with her mother at a fair. “Fortunately, the mother never passed a bookstall without pausing. When she was inspecting a book and I could see she wasn’t looking, I went and stood by the daughter and picked up a book myself; as soon as the mother was reading hers, I shot the girl un regard assassin, a killing look. When the mother took off her lorgnette, I quickly resumed reading, with that saintly expression you’re familiar with. This was repeated five or six times.” Eventually, the mother noticed him, chatted cheerfully, and issued an invitation to visit; but sure enough, when he showed up, he was informed that she and her daughter had unfortunately gone out.
GUSTAVE DE BEAUMONT Beaumont evidently seeks an authoritative pose, with no hint of his usual gaiety.
Two years before that episode, in 1828, he met the woman who would much later become his wife. Her name was Mary Mottley; she was an Englishwoman six (or possibly nine) years older than himself, living in France with her mother. Mary, or Marie, as he always called her, was highly intelligent and spoke excellent French, and the attraction was soon so intense that Tocqueville resolved on marriage, but he knew that her foreignness and lack of social standing would provoke vehement resistance from his aristocratic parents. For the time being, therefore, he kept the relationship totally secret from everyone but his closest friends.
In 1830 came a dramatic event that proved to be a turning point in the careers of both Tocquevilles, father and son. Reacting against an unexpected electoral victory by the liberal opposition, Charles X issued a series of decrees that dissolved the legislature, tightened voting qualifications to ensure conservative majorities, and abolished freedom of the press. The streets of Paris immediately filled with barricades—the insurrection is celebrated in Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People—and Charles withdrew his decrees, but it was too late. The Duke of Orléans, who had liberal sympathies in spite of his aristocratic lineage, was acclaimed king as Louis-Philippe I. Nearly all members of the Tocqueville and Beaumont families believed that this new king was completely illegitimate, and Hervé immediately resigned his post, ending his career in government.
Much to the outrage of their families, however, the young Tocqueville and Beaumont did not resign. With painfully divided feelings, but determined not to throw away the chance of public service, they took an oath of loyalty to Louis-Philippe. Tocqueville wrote to Marie, whom he would not feel free to marry for another five years, “My conscience doesn’t reproach me at all, but all the same I’m deeply wounded, and I’ll number this day among the unhappiest of my life . . . I’m at war with myself. It’s a new state, horrible for me . . . How my voice altered when I pronounced those words! I felt my heart beating as if my chest would burst.”
Looking back after Tocqueville’s death, Beaumont commented that his friend might have had a very conventional career but for the shock of 1830. “His name, his family, his social position, and his career marked out for him the path to follow . . . Young, agreeable, connected with all the great families, with looks that would allow him to aspire to the finest matches, which were already being proposed to him, he would have married some rich heiress. His life would have flowed easily and decently in the regular performance of his duties within a circle circumscribed in advance, with the well-being that a great fortune provides, in the midst of the serious concerns of the law and the peaceful satisfactions of private life.” But Tocqueville was temperamentally restless and aspiring. He wanted to accomplish something great, and now history was offering him an opportunity, if only he could decide how to use it. As he had told Beaumont even before the 1830 crisis, “The passions of politics agitate my feelings so much that I feel I’m literally another man when I experience them.” Beaumont recalled nostalgically a quarter of a century later, “Those who never saw that period, and who know only the indolence and indifference of today, will find it hard to comprehend the ardors of that time.”
Loyalty oath or not, the new government was suspicious of aristocratic employees who might be covertly disaffected, and Tocqueville and Beaumont were well aware that their position was precarious. More largely, there was widespread anxiety in the face of an unpredictable future, the notorious mal du siècle, or “sickness of the age.” As the poet and playwright Alfred de Musset later recalled in memorably purple prose, “Behind them was a past forever destroyed, still quivering on its ruins with all the fossils of the centuries of absolutism; before them the dawn of a vast horizon, the first glimmerings of the future; and between these two worlds, like the ocean that separates the Old World from young America, something vague and floating, a stormy sea full of wreckage, traversed from time to time by some far-off white sail or some ship puffing heavy smoke—in short, the present century.”
Before long Tocqueville and Beaumont thought of a shrewd solution. In order to keep clear of political booby traps, it would be a good idea for them to get out of France, and if they could travel on official government business, their loyalty might seem less in doubt. Prison reform was then being widely debated throughout Europe, where jails were still simply holding tanks in which prisoners of both sexes mixed freely, educated each other in criminal skills, and bribed the jailers to bring them luxuries. Still worse, the crime rate had been rising steadily for years, and reformers were therefore urging that imprisonment be made an unpalatable deterrent and that inmates be reeducated for useful lives when they returned to society.
The new regime was uneasy about most of the ideas for reform that were in the air, and it seized on prisons as a safely noncontroversial issue. As Michel Foucault says in his great book Discipline and Punish, “The prison has always formed part of an active field in which projects, improvements, experiments, theoretical statements, personal evidence and investigations have proliferated.” In America a brand-new system was being established in which huge penitentiaries—the name implied encouragement to repent—isolated inmates from each other and gave them useful work to do. So Tocqueville and Beaumont proposed to their superiors that they be dispatched to America to study the penitentiaries, pointing out that “books of theory abound, but practical works are nowhere.” As Tocqueville told a friend at the time, it was a subject “which has nothing political about it, and which relates only to the good of society in general.” Still better, “We’ll be journeying all over the Union in the name of France, and that will give us an indisputable advantage over all other travelers.” The government accordingly commissioned them to undertake an eighteen-month expedition (it was later cut short to nine months) on condition that the young investigators travel on their own money.
Excerpted from Tocqueville’S Discovery Of America by .
Copyright © 2010 by Leo Damrosch.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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