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Book Review

Book Review: Hugh Brogan: Alexis de Tocqueville

By Denebola
Published: November 2007
By George Abbott White
English Department

Democracy’s in the news. Like Coke and iPods the world
wonders whether the American version will increase its
market share. As far as Americans are concerned, is
there any other version?
Democracy’s always in the news, given the nature of
our world. How it comes into being and how it is
sustained, its possibilities and limitations, are
perhaps the more apparent given the current Bush
administration.
We’re building democracy in Iraq, haven’t you heard?
The Clinton administration never considered democracy
a viable option for “Black Hawk Down” Somalia, the
former Bush administration didn’t push it with former
Yugoslavia; both Clinton and Bush1 went back and forth
on democratic prospects in what’s now Putin’s Russia.
And everyone may have lost their bet on Pakistan. The
wager’s still out with the Palestinians, with numerous
question marks around the world.
So why should America care? We’ve got ours but is
there, deep in the American character, a need, a
mission, as Woodrow Wilson urged, to make the world
safe for democracy?
Read the 19th century Frenchman every American’€and not
a few European’€politicians quote reflexively, Alexis
deTocqueville.
Or read the meditation on what Tocqueville wrote and
who he was as the way to better understand what he
wrote, by another penetrating observer of the American
Experiment, England’s Hugh Brogan.
The 724 pages of Alexis deTocqueville may appear
daunting, yet there’s no better introduction,
commentary, analysis than this long-considered,
carefully researched, supremely well written running
account, cleverly and wittily disguised as a biography
in the old chronological style.
It doesn’t end with what every AP American student
should know, Democracy in American I and II. We get
more’€deTocqueville in politics, the 1848
revolution(s), the continuing French crises of Red and
Black, Left and Right, and deTocqueville’s unique
perspective on the French Revolution and its
consequences.
Moreover, Brogan has done so much work over so many
years; he’s earned the right to lay aside a false
“objectivity,” which any reader will find refreshing.
Although written in closing, here’s the attitude that
infuses Alexis deTocqueville from the beginning,
Seeing me so preoccupied with Tocqueville, some of my
friends took to asking me if I liked him. I found the
question difficult to answer, but my considered reply
must be that Tocqueville is himself one of my oldest
and dearest friends, and although I use a friend’s
privilege to be frank about what I take to be his
weaknesses, no-one else had better do the same in my
presence.
1′€What does it mean to be an American?
One thread that ties many of the remarks in the
Atlantic Monthly’s 150th anniversary issue is the
notion of freedom and equality. And just as often, the
Atlantic’s diverse writers link freedom and equality
to the notion’€and active practice’€of democracy.
If those three concepts matter early in the 21st
century, their association had great moment early in
the 19th. It was no accident, that a young, clever,
ambitious noble Frenchman (most privilege associated
with that nobility having evaporated or gone into
hiding by 1831) looked around after the street
violence of the wholly unnecessary 26 July uprising
and with the political chess game driving him and his
legal colleague and best friend Gustave deBeaumont
into terrifying corners, “disappeared” into the
“wilderness”- New World.
Ostensibly justifying their journey as an
investigation into the “advanced” American prison
system, these twenty-something’s real purpose was
establishing themselves as experts on the future.
American identity was democracy, and democracy wasn’t
merely a political system but a social and cultural
one. For all anyone knew, America could also be the
place to observe democratic art, music or even
literature.
Europeans might not like or might even fear democracy,
this new thing, egalite; Tocqueville (as Brogan refers
to this slight, shy, determined and very brave
adventurer) knew sooner or later Europeans would have
to deal with it.
And Tocqueville would position himself in centralized
and authority-paralyzed France upon his return as the
central authority not only on democracy but on the
place in the world where it was most successfully
practiced, where’€with stunning prescience’€it would
have the greatest influence upon subsequent world
history.
2′€The two arrived in Newport, Rhode Island (wind and
wave blown off from their intended NYC landing), 9 May
1831 and left 20 February 1832.
Their voyage over took 37 days, some miserable; others
simply terrifying. On board “meal times were
enlivened,” Brogan writes, “by plates flying off the
table, bottles and glasses smashing, and the constant
danger of getting gravy poured down your neck.”
Nine short months later they returned. So 271 days of
traveling on boats, steamers, coaches and carts, on
horseback and on foot, through forests where not a
sliver of light penetrated and across waters frozen
and then cracking. Near Wheeling, West Virginia, a
steamboat carrying them nearly broke apart after
jamming into a rock.
America when Tocqueville and Beaumont landed had 24
states and 13 millions living east of the Mississippi.
As young political scientists (who would become
sociologistsl) they visited 17 of them, experiencing
the sauna of an American urban summer, the beauty of a
New England autumn, the marrow-solidifying cold of a
midwestern winter.
They investigated a Quaker prison near Philadelphia,
Cherry Hill, and Sing-Sing up the Hudson, they also
got as far north as Montreal, as far west as Green
Bay, as far south as New Orleans (down the Ohio, later
the Mississippi) and from Mobile, Montgomery and
Augusta, up the East Coast to Washington, Baltimore
and back to NYC.
3′€Despite intellectual brilliance and reflective moral
awareness, they had limitations. As young French men
who were also aristocrats even in post-Revolutionary
France, they arrived with baggage
For all the distance across America Tocqueville and
Beaumont heroically covered, people they spoke with,
institutions they saw’€and attempted to make sense
of’€Brogan underscores, in memorable language, their
French and also elitist bias ‘€and a tendency to jump
to conclusions, assert generalizations without
evidence. (‘The [American] women were amazingly ugly,’
one letter back to France asserts shortly after
arrival.)
From Brogan how social history predisposes or
conditions personal attitudes should come as no
surprise in a work as much about a time’€and its
ideological implications’€as an individual.
Tocqueville’s distinguished Royalist family was
decimated during the French Revolution; his
grandfather defended Louis XVI and was guillotined for
his loyalty, Tocqueville father narrowly escaped a
similar gruesome death which hundreds of other
relatives and friends during The Reign of Terror did
not.
While Tocqueville later came to see “selfishness and
royal incompetence” as the reasons’€and to some extent
even the necessity for the Revolution’€his father and
relatives learned to keep their heads down.
“Napoleonic France was a police state,” Brogan writes.
There was “no political talk” until “the servants left
the room,” and the continuing arrogance’€and
ineffectuality even political stupidity’€of Royalists
who had survived did not favor imagination in their
children.
So Tocqueville was not an American-style ‘democrat’
Gordon Wood has argued, the 25 year old Frenchman was
“caught between two worlds,” in Brogan’s words,
“unable to repose in the one where he was born, unable
to go forward confidently into the one he saw rising
inexorably before him.” The “America” project would
solve this dilemma, though not without struggle.
4-First taken aback and then inflated by enthusiastic
welcomes in Newport and later New York City, notices
in newspapers announcing visiting “French
dignitaries,” they missed a good deal, or,
misunderstood what seemed like reflexive deference.
Suddenly meeting municipal officials, mayors, bankers,
commercial leaders, governors, presidents of
universities and former Presidents (John Quincy Adams)
and even Presidents (Andrew Jackson). American
glad-handing and seeming “access” was less mask or
manipulation than a style; from his old Sorbonne
lecturer Francois Guizot Tocqueville “realized he must
study not events (‘faits’) but their significance.”
So the price of cotton spattering American newspapers
was not about cotton but about important political
issues. Cotton, writes Brogan, “was America’s greatest
export,” it brought capital for industrialization and
because of its connection to slavery, cotton “made a
mockery of the country’s claims to liberty and
democracy.”
English writers, Dickens and Mrs Trollope, generated
stereotypes of American life. Tocqueville had “no
appreciation of common people,” according to Wood,
ordinary and boring as “potatoes.”
But potatoes, as the Irish know well, could determine
a generation’s fate, and the Tocqueville/Beaumont
“team” was “saved from superficiality by their prison
mission,” writes Brogan. Why? “It required them to
make systematic inquiry,” which became excellent
training for their larger inquiry. And it kept them in
regular, direct touch with the “ordinary.”
Tocqueville would confirm this, writing home later,
‘our least conversation is instructive, and we can
affirm that no man, at any level of society, can’t
teach us something.’ At another juncture, they catch a
4th of July parade. Sappy stuff, yet Brogan reports
each being “deeply impressed,” even if “parts seemed
ridiculous.” Quoting Tocqueville directly,
There was nothing brilliant about the occasion; for
splendour it could not have borne the slightest
comparison with the least of our political or
religious solemnities. But there was something great
in its simplicity.
They had caught the democratic bug, asking the
questions that would penetrate and provide a semblance
of balance.
Despite biases, they got good “samples” and didn’t
take them all from fine dinners in New York or
discussions with intellectuals in Boston. (Tocqueville
said if he had to live in American, he would live in
Boston.) They did listen (At one point he interviewed
more than 50 Cherry Hill prisoners.).
On return, during the writing process (by now the
‘democracy’ book would be Tocqueville’s task), he
sought out two American assistants, including a
Bostonian, Sedgewick, and had them search for
additional resources’€books, letters, documents.
5′€Brogan references several highly regarded studies,
including George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville in
America and Andre Jardin’s typical lucid (in the
French way) Tocqueville, A Biography, which examine
just how Democracy in America came into being.
None in this reviewer’s experience gives the “look and
feel” of how the jumble of notes and memories of
conversations, masses of clippings and personal
accounts became one masterwork in 1835 and the second
six years later, as Brogan’s.
Every reader learns the first book is how democracy
works, while the second is effects and their
implications. While the first looks at the
institutions of democracy, the second explores how the
institutions affect citizens and how citizens relate
to those institutions.
Fine,but how did Tocqueville make sense of what on the
surface appeared so random?
‘Everyone shakes hands,’ says one notebook entry,
even DA’s with prisoners! When he tries tipping,
Tocqueville’s told it isn’t done. After serving,
‘waiters sit down with patrons,’ and ‘no great fuss
was made of great men.’ (At a dinner most refer to the
President as ‘Sir,’ a few call him ‘Mr President.’)
President Quincy of Harvard stressed the importance of
local government while Jared Sparks, who would become
president of Harvard and who was editing George
Washington’s papers gave Tocquevile the skinny on
Jackson vs Clay. It was the ‘tyranny of the majority’
in one conversation, ‘self-reliance’ in another.
It became clear that American democracy as he had
observed it contradicted “everything which in Europe
Tocqueville had thought normal and natural, and yet it
worked.”
That, according to Brogan, is the clue: Tocqueville
would “tell Europe how democracy in America worked.”
So Brogan tells us how Tocqueville worked, the old
legal sheet with a line down the center. “Once he had
decided on a list of possible chapters,” writes
Brogan, “his method of composition was to write in a
column down the right-hand side of a page, leaving a
column of equal blank paper or equal size on the
rest.” Text went on one side, sub-text, or “second
thoughts” or additional thoughts, on the other.
Tocqueville “crossed out discarded sentences and
paragraphs in both columns,” and “sometimes inserted
or pasted in bits of paper with yet more versions.”
The editing was a mystery, the handwriting was
“excruciating,” and the “impression is irresistible
that [the work] was poured out rather than coolly
composed.”
6′€Much is made of the “meaning” of Tocqueville’s
account of democracy in light of his supposed
politics. We know that Tocqueville has appealed to
conservatives and liberals.
The former are heartened by concerns about “big
government” and the dangers of “centralization” so
central to the French society in which Tocqueville’s
father worked as a senior administrator; what
Tocqueville heard about individual initiative and town
meetings reinforces their concerns about privacy and
personal rights.
The latter notice passages about building community,
where farmers miles out, when Tocqueville and Beaumont
arrived, picked up the newspaper and wanted to “talk
politics” about what others needed. If Tocqueville
missed the importance of parties, he didn’t miss
elections and the ways in which “civic democracy”
imposed checks upon corruption and connected the
isolated Self with Society.
Yet Brogan pulls no punches with his “friend,” as
being French and aristocrats helped them in some ways,
hurt in others. “One of their problems,” writes
Brogan, was that “America seemed even less like France
than they had expected; another was that the
differences often lay in surprising areas.”
They had no sustained conversations with women. Nor
with blacks, nor’€in more than passing’€with the
laboring classes. “Blinded” they “kept missing” the
role of political parties, and their significance.
They spent too much time with those who wanted to
spend time with them, and too little time with those
who hadn’t the slightest notion of who they were, and
why they came to learn about a democracy.
Tocqueville, according to Brogan, understood the
importance of religion in society but “missed” its
complexity and final significance in American society,
and its relationship to American democracy as a
generalized morality or “civic religion.”
Tocqueville had spent all his life in a Catholic
country and though Tocqueville had lost his faith’€or
defended himself as a Deist’€he did not “realize how
profoundly Catholic he was himself; the shock was
enormous, for until then his knowledge of
Protestantism was almost wholly theoretical.”
7′€Near the end of what many regard as one of the most
well-informed and deeply felt accounts of our
Maileresque adventure, our Iraq nightmare, The
Assassins’ Gate, George Packer, who has been in
regular’€and painful’€contact with a Midwestern father
who has lost a son in Iraq, turns from reporting the
fathers’ questions about the ‘mission’ to his own,
about American democracy. Packer wonders why President
Bush hasn’t asked the nation to sacrifice, why just
soldiers and their families? “Perhaps,” Packer writes,
it was a shrewd political read on Bush’s part’€a
recognition that Americans, for all their passion
after September 11, would inevitably slouch back to
their sofas.
* * *
It seems fair to ask, though, how a body politic as
out of shape as ours was likely to make it over the
long, hard slog of wartime; how convincingly we could
export democratic values when our own version showed
so many signs of atrophy; how much solidarity we could
expect to muster for Afghans and Iraqis when we were
asked to feel so little for one another.
That same concern, is somewhere in Tocqueville, I
know Brogan knows where.

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