Re-Reading Tocqueville, America’s Prophet

Alexis de Tocqueville. Painting by Théodore Chassériau.

When he was 25 years old, a Frenchman called Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America with the intention of studying the American penal system. Upon arriving on the shores of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1831, Tocqueville observed a nation that he deemed wholly imperfect and contradictory, but equally audacious and liberty loving. He remained (cautiously) optimistic about democracy with its attendant promise of equality, and he identified the democratic inclination toward freedom as a corrective to the inequities inherent within European aristocracy. Tocqueville saw the future of Europe in America, even if he was less than dewy-eyed about its messy ways and means. America, in the age of Andrew Jackson, enshrined slavery as a national institution and murdered Native Americans in order to facilitate westward expansion. Tocqueville, although moralistic in his outrage, undoubtedly recognized the incongruity at hand. In the New World, a tension existed between freedom and despotism, and this paradoxical pas de deux was central to the American narrative. Democracy was far preferable to the monarchies of the Old World, but it was also fragile and tenuous. Freedom, in and of itself, was not for the faint of heart. Tocqueville’s ruminations came to form what is arguably the most trenchant analysis of the United States and all of its mores and precepts, Democracy in America.

The book, which contained two parts, debuted in 1835, with the second volume appearing in 1840. Through the prism of a young America, Tocqueville foresaw an expiration date for the old aristocratic order. At the time of his travels (for which he was joined by his companion, Gustave de Beaumont), America was comprised of 24 states and the Civil War was still 30 years away from cleaving national unity. The United States of America was sui generis among nations, and Tocqueville both celebrated and scrutinized its uniqueness. He noted, among other things, America’s robust individualism, its deep-seated Christianity, its localized power via townships, its numerous committees and churches, and its emphasis on local communities. Voluntary networks and associations were profuse (and worthy of high praise), and this sense of democratic participation both animated and undergirded the decentralized structure of American localities and the egalitarian tenor of the nation’s politics. Tocqueville was also particularly struck by the primacy of local governance, a distinct delineation from the highly centralized hierarchies of Europe.

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Yet while he remained sanguine and open-minded about the young and intensely patriotic nation, Tocqueville was unsparing in pointing out America’s darker recesses. Already contemptuous of chattel slavery and Indian genocide, he correctly presaged an ongoing tension between liberty and equality, and that America would oscillate between honoring and betraying its own national promise. In observing a “free” nation, Tocqueville prophesied the end of slavery, and the residual effects of institutional racism. He asserts:

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If I were called upon to predict the future, I should say that the abolition of slavery in the South will in the common course of things, increase the repugnance of the white population for the blacks. I base this opinion upon the analogous observation I have already made in the North. I have remarked that the white inhabitants of the North avoid the Negroes with increasing care in proportion as the legal barriers of separation are removed by the legislature; and why should not the same result take place in the South? In the North the whites are deterred from intermingling with the blacks by an imaginary danger; in the South, where the danger would be real, I cannot believe that the fear would be less.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville waxed apprehensive about tyranny of the majority and what he labeled soft despotism. He astutely identified that an emphasis on equality, though noble, could ironically become both an ally and an enemy of freedom. Most perversely, state-sanctioned slavery guaranteed equality to slaveholders while simultaneously depriving liberty to the slaves themselves.

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To be sure, some of Tocqueville’s thinking was informed by his own formative years as the son of aristocracy. His father was a Count of Normandy, and several of his maternal relatives were sent to the guillotine. His parents, who remained ardent defenders of the Bourbons, were imprisoned by Robespierre and nearly executed. Still, Tocqueville was as religious as he was aristocratic, and he envisioned America, replete with its democratic tenets, as the surest safeguard for freedom, despite his own misgivings about the French Revolution and the effects of equality in general.

But Tocqueville was nevertheless prescient, especially in book 2, in identifying tropes within our own collective norms that bedevil our republic 180 years on. Americans have forever debated the proper role of government, but contemporary anti-government rhetoric has been a pronounced staple our political dialectic since the Reagan years. Tocqueville established that Americans possessed an endemic fear of government, and he, too, argued that an unrestrained government posed a potent threat to liberty. But he also saw the perils of public opinion which along with government, was its own governing power. Although his skepticism about unchecked equality smacks of an authoritative elitism, his deeper argument was about democracy’s penchant for sameness, and in turn, the stamping out of individuality, if not originality. Individualism exists separately from individuality, particularly in America, where our national pride is endowed to us at birth and virtually programmed into our civic DNA. Original thought was (and still is) hardly synonymous with being an American. On its own, public opinion could exert an authority as powerful as the state. As Tocqueville observes:

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In the United States, the majority takes it upon itself to provide individuals with a range of ready-made opinions and thus relieves them of the obligation to form their own.

A devout Christian, Tocqueville viewed democracy as providential, and the rise of a democratic polity like the U.S. evidenced that divine intercession would make a free society inevitable. (Liberty and Christianity were siblings in his view.) While a commitment to equality would doubtless provide a firewall against the societal disparities of the Old World, equality of conditions could also have the unintended effect of unleashing a rampant materialism, which threatened the notion of a collective society. Tocqueville concluded that an American obsession with the dollar could turn a morally sound nation into a materialistic monster. As he remarked:

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I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.

A lithograph of Tocqueville by Honoré Daumier
A lithograph of Tocqueville
by Honoré Daumier

In other words, a society that made property available to all was a society that would inevitably make materialism essential to all. Such a social mechanism has also been characterized as “The Tocqueville Effect,” and amounts to a paradox: as social conditions improve, so too does economic anxiety.  As Tocqueville is read and claimed by both the left and the right, you can find the anti-government rage he predicted in both the fervid populism of Bernie Sanders and the reactionary libertarianism of The Tea Party.

Current questions of ambition, wealth, status and the seeming futility of the American Dream perpetually haunt our “liberal” democracy, and the country was readily grappling with its identity in the age of Jackson. Tocqueville’s 19th-century reflections remain resonant as America’s shallow pursuit of wealth and its neurotic anxiety over status continues unabated. He never adhered to socialism and likened it to slavery and a threat to liberty itself. Yet, Tocqueville had his qualms about America’s credo of individualism where material selfishness threatened to ravage the communities and associations he held in esteem and that exemplified America’s propensity for what he termed a “taste for free institutions.” In contrast to the entrenched class systems of Europe, Americans enjoyed an upward mobility with few, if any, restrictions. That said, the attainment of wealth didn’t preclude a preoccupation with one’s own influence.

The First thing that strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the midst of the universally ambitious stir of society. No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims. All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation. (Emphasis added.)

While a re-reading of Tocqueville is likely to be catnip for politicos across the political spectrum, his theorizing eludes categorization. His sentiments are are as incisive as they are ambivalent. For conservatives, Tocqueville’s anxiety about an unfettered central government makes him appear to be a fellow traveler. Liberals point to his advocacy of an active democratic citizenry and his revulsion at slavery as proof of his progressivism. Tocqueville’s enduring genius is that he traversed various contours of the ideological continuum with a curious mix of confidence and uncertainty that is sorely lacking in our current discourse of rancorous, binary political thought. Despite his scruples about the American experiment with democracy, Tocqueville assayed that there were few undertakings as worthy and as formidable as understanding what it meant to be free. As he rightly intuited, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

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