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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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