This blog has tackled the subject of Alexis de Tocqueville extensively. I mention him because a handful of American scholars have finally decided to tackle what our American Founders and Framers instinctively understood: the American Revolution would succeed and be ratified, whereas France would succumb to what every other violent Revolution never overcame, namely the radicalization of the population and the criminalization of political differences, perpetuating sectarian violence.
How else to say it: the Enlightenment was either French or British. No one other than Gertrud Himmelfarb, mother to William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and husband to the late great Irving Kristol covered this brutally difficult topic. Himmelfarb wrote “The Road To Modernity”, a very clear piece of writing that examines the differing philosophical antecedents that informed what became of the French & British Enlightenment(s).
But it was Alexis de Tocqueville, that brilliant theoretical Catholic with failed political designs reminiscent of the achievements that became of Dante and Machiavelli.
How does one measure Tocqueville?
What neither Dante or Machiavelli achieved Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed, examined and wrote extensively about, namely the formation of an enduring Republic committed to both liberty and equality.
Tocqueville was mad to discover the political, social and theological reasons why the American experiment succeeded. He was mad to find out why we were ‘exceptional.’ What was the matrix that made America a cultural singularity?
The two volumes of ‘Democracy In America’ are the result of his travel diaries throughout America from France that began around 1830 in Ossining, New York. Why Ossining? He was interested in examining prison reform, so he arrived to look into Sing Sing prison.
Harvey Mansfield who teaches at both Harvard University and the Hoover Institution at Stanford has written a very engaging small book for beginners of Tocqueville titled: “Tocquevill: A Very Short Introduction” 2010. That’s a good place to start given the legion of written material published every year. For those who are a bit more formidable in their advances of Tocqueville, try “Alexis de Tocqueville: Letter from America” by Fredrick Brown. Perhaps the best biography is Hugh Brogan, just recently published. Finally the correspondence between two great friends, Gustave de Beaumont and his friend Tocqueville are exposed in “Alexis de Tocqueville & Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship & Their Travels” edited by Olivier Zunz and translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
I mention these last two latest prints only because Tocqueville died without having finished ‘Democracy In America’. It was his friend who took up the challenge of finishing Alexis life work and greatest passion. Since both men travelled together about America they were familiar with one another’s political, social and intellectual sentiments.
So yes, Dante, even a Machiavelli and Hobbes had no more formidable synoptic challenge than Tocqueville. And what makes Alexis a more engaging topic? He succeeded where other less passionate, less theoretically informed persons floundered.