For Americans who care about the past, present, and future of our democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville remains perennially relevant. This latest biography by French historian Olivier Zunz, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton U. Pre., 2022), therefore, seems especially timely at this troubled moment in history.
Some 50 years ago, one of my City College professors impressed upon me how when de Tocqueville writes about America, while he is indeed really writing about America, he is also writing or at least thinking about France for an audience also likely to be thinking about France and about the dilemma of what is politically possible and desirable in the modern world. This may seem even more obviously so in the case of Democracy in America's second volume, composed at a greater distance in time from his 1831-1832 visit to the United States. If Democracy in America offered France a picture of one possible solution to the problematic of modern (i.e., post-aristocratic) politics, his final masterpiece, The Old Regime and the Revolution, revealed the deeper, darker dynamics of France's (and perhaps today America's also) long-term problem. The anxieties de Tocqueville rightly felt for France's future, for which he believed America's democratic experiment might offer hope, those anxieties are now our anxieties, which we rightly fear for America's problematic present and endangered future.
My grad school mentor, Sheldon Wolin, worked intensely on de Tocqueville, culminating in a densely difficult and very long 2002 book, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton U. Pr.), which tackles important dimensions of de Tocqueville's political life and theoretical vision. But a biography it is not - not in the sense that Zunz has now given us. And, as someone committed to an active political career, from which is theorizing was inseparable, de Tocqueville's actual life was central and still speaks to us today no other 19th-century comte does.
De Tocqueville lived the modern reality of the unprecedented break in what Zunz calls "the aristocratic chain connecting all parts of society." Hence his contemporary relevance, his conception of democracy as what Zunz terms "an act of the will on the part of every citizen - a project constantly in need of revitalization and of the strength provided by stable institutions." If, instead, some of us worry we may be increasingly more like what de Tocqueville discovered in his research into the ancien régime, then his story is only that much more relevant right now.
Of course, much of what de Tocqueville admired about America is long gone. If anything, that makes his analysis all the more important, for his was a unique moment in American history, when, as Zinz notes, "the social revolution of Jacksonian democracy was transforming the constitutional principles that the founding generation had established."
Tocquevlle's adventurous political theory (what he called "a new political science" for "a world totally new")) was inseparable from the adventure of his life - an historically rooted aristocrat trapped in a revolutionary, increasingly egalitarian age, a Catholic with a weakened faith who recognized religion's essential role in society. It is this adventure story which Zunz so effectively chronicles, effectively mining multitudes of written sources. So we get to tour America with Tocqueville and Beaumont and report on that experience, then struggle with Tocqueville over whether and how to be politically engaged, eventually giving it all up under Napoleon III, while revealing through Tocqueville's late-life research into the pre-revolutionary regime how and why it all ended the way it did.
American students of de Tocqueville's political theory tend typically to read his three main works - Democracy in America (1835, 1840), The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), and his posthumously published Souvenirs (Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath). Zunz draws upon and calls the reader's attention to Tocqueville's many letters and other incidental writings, as well as the letters and reflections of his contemporaries. A new reader with the merest acquaintance with Tocqueville will learn a lot from this book. Someone already well versed in Tocqueville's political theory will learn more.
Of particular interest to me is the author's account of Tocqueville's assessment of religion in relation to modern democracy, which resonates surprisingly well with the insights of the Paulist Fathers' founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888). De Tocqueville was the 19th century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, including and especially American religion. Like de Tocqueville, the American-born convert to Catholicism, Isaac Hecker, appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedom, and the indispensable role of religion in accomplishing this. De Toqueville and Hecker came from completely different backgrounds, had very different experiences in the Catholic Church, and arrived at their conclusions by very different means, but both famously made the then counter-intuitive case for American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism. In this, both countered classical liberalism's privatization of religion, which as Sheldon Wolin recognized, “discarded a potentially democratic element while deepening the rift between liberalism and democracy, a rift with political consequences” ( Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition, Princeton U. Pr., 2004, p. 542).
Like de Tocqueville, Hecker was well aware that his spiritual insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. However, he never wavered in his conviction that what he had found in Catholicism – and what he had been able to find only in Catholicism – could and would be America’s answer as well, in part because he was convinced that the versions of American Protestantism which he knew best (Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism) ultimately could not do so. And, as with de Tocqueville, Hecker’s faith in the compatibility of Catholicism and American institutions, surprising as it seemed to so many at the time, was paralleled by what must have seemed even more surprising, even more curious conviction (especially in an American context) about the long-term limitations of Protestantism. In part this reflected a partial perception of Protestant reality, rooted in a narrative of American religion which privileged privileged New England Protestantism and its historical variants over other American religious experiences.
Likewise, Zunz's account of de Tocqueville's encounter with American religion highlights his limited appreciation American Protestantism, which in so many ways also anticipated Hecker's comparably limited assessment:
"Tocqueville did not recognize the many signs of evangelical Protestantism in the popular neighborhoods where tract and Bible societies improvised revivals. ... He totally missed that Protestant denominational fragmentation rose out of an urgent desire for more authentic experiences of faith and repentance. ... Although Tocqueville ended up affirming in Democracy in America that the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty strengthened each other in Protestant America in a way that was inconceivable in Catholic France, he developed only a partial understanding of American Protestantism."
That said, Tocqueville provided a powerful path for understanding and celebrating the unique prospects for religion, particularly Catholicism, in democratic theory.
Meanwhile, in the toxic period of political polarization that preceded the U.S. Civil War, not only was French democracy dead, a casualty of Napoleon III's Second Empire, but "in America, torn apart by the slavery question, democracy seemed inadequate to the challenge the country faced." Zunz highlights Tocqueville's insightful challenge to American democracy in "the chapter on the 'three races' in which he unequivocally condemned the forced displacement of American Indians and the harsh realities of life for Blacks - slave or free." The divisive legacy of America's original sins still haunts the American democratic experiment which de Tocqueville understood and interpreted so well.