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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
TO Alexis de Tocqueville belongs the honor of the discovery of political America,—a discovery all the more significant because the logical result of a close observation of national affairs in Europe, and of the main current directing them. Tocqueville was the first European politician of the nineteenth century to comprehend fully that the trend of modern civilization is in the direction of democracy; that democratic ideals, whether acceptable or not, must be taken into account, for a complete understanding of certain phenomena of European history not only in the last century, but in the last eight centuries. He was also the first to appreciate that the forces of democracy should be turned to the best advantage whatever the form of government; and the first to look to America as the one country where democracy, having had a logical and consistent growth, could be studied with the greatest edification.  1
  To understand Tocqueville’s intense interest in democratic institutions, it is necessary to consider his immediate ancestry, and the environment in which he was reared. His father was of the old and honorable family the Clérels, proprietors of Tocqueville on the coast of Normandy,—a family linked more prominently with the magistracy than with the nobility. His mother was the granddaughter of Malesherbes, the learned magistrate who undertook the defense of Louis XVI. before the Convention, and for his loyalty was subsequently put to death, together with many of his family. Madame de Tocqueville and her husband were imprisoned, but escaped the guillotine by the opportune death of Robespierre. On the Restoration in 1815, the elder Tocqueville, father of Alexis, reassumed the title of count. His famous son was born at Verneuil, Department of Seine-et-Oise, July 29th, 1805, and was educated at the College of Metz; passing from there to Paris, where, after a course of legal studies, he was called to the bar in 1825. Louis XVIII. had died in 1824, and the inadequate Charles X. occupied the French throne.  2
  After a tour in Italy and Sicily, where with characteristic interest he observed chiefly the political and social condition of the inhabitants, Tocqueville returned to France, entering upon magisterial duties as juge auditeur at Versailles. His wonderful sensitiveness to the currents of political life made him aware of the revolutionary forces continually at work under the surface of the monarchical government, and drew him to the consideration of the causes of these disturbances. In 1830 the Revolution of July brought Louis Philippe to the throne. From the July government Tocqueville and his colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, accepted a commission to inquire into the working of the penitentiary system in America.  3
  This visit to the United States was to be of momentous importance. To Tocqueville, alive to the full import of the political phenomena of his own generation, and of that preceding, it was nothing less than a pilgrimage to the temple of the strange new god Democracy. The abnormal manifestations of this spirit had spurred him on to a study of its normal development. He returned to publish in 1833 a treatise on the penitentiary system in the United States, and in 1835 his great work, ‘Democracy in America.’ The book is one of the most noteworthy of all books on political subjects, not only because it was the first European consideration and exposition of the principles of the United States government, but because it was the first comprehensive treatment of democracy itself, of the spirit underlying the letter. “Democracy is the picture, America the frame,” Tocqueville wrote of the book. In the Introduction he says:—
          “It is not then merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America: my wish has been to find there instruction by which we may ourselves profit. Whoever should imagine that I have intended to write a panegyric would be strangely mistaken…. Nor has it been my object to advocate any form of government in particular; for I am of opinion that absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any system of laws. I have not even pretended to judge whether the social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous or prejudicial to mankind. I have acknowledged this revolution as a fact already accomplished or on the eve of its accomplishment; and I have selected that nation from amongst those which have undergone it, in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and to find out if possible the means of rendering it profitable to mankind. I confess that in America I saw more than America: I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.”
  4
  It is this detachment from his subject that gives to Tocqueville’s work much of its value. He has the disinterestedness of the ideal statesman, who notes the pulse of the times with extreme care only that he and others may know how to deal wisely with the body politic. Personally, Tocqueville might be an absolute monarchist for aught that the book betrays of his preferences. He merges himself in his curiosity concerning this powerful spirit of the age.  5
  Aside from its value as a dispassionate inquiry into the merits of democracy, ‘Democracy in America’ is remarkable as a sharply drawn picture of political and social institutions in the United States, excluding nothing that could be a source of enlightenment. The first volume is taken up mainly with a consideration of government and organization, of American townships, of the State, of judicial power, of political jurisdiction, of the Federal Constitution, of political parties, of the liberty of the press, and of the government of the democracy; then follow some highly significant chapters on the advantages and disadvantages accruing from democratic government. These show a political subtlety which at times reaches the degree of prophecy. Especially is this true in the discussion of parties in the United States; in the recognition of the tyranny which may lurk in the power of the majority, and from which Tocqueville believes the greatest dangers to the State are to be feared. The second volume is concerned with the influence of democracy upon the intellect of the United States; upon the feelings of the Americans; upon manners; upon political society. Reading the entire work in the light of over fifty years of national development, this generation can realize, as Tocqueville’s contemporaries could not, how deeply he had penetrated to the essence of America’s democracy, how few of his observations concerned what was merely superficial or transitory.  6
  Yet this exhaustive study of democracy in the United States was by no means intended as a preliminary to the advocacy of its institutions for European governments, but to demonstrate that the democratic spirit may be linked with social and religious order. Tocqueville perceived that in France this spirit was well-nigh synonymous with anarchy; finding its home among the illiterate and the disordered, and so inducing in the minds of the conservative and law-abiding the belief that it could be productive of nothing but evil. This belief he wished to dispel. In concluding his great work he writes:—
          “For myself, who now look back from this extreme limit of my task and discover from afar, but at once, the various objects which have attracted my more attentive investigation upon my way, I am full of apprehensions and hopes. I perceive mighty dangers which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firmer hold to the belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, they require but to will it…. The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”
  7
  ‘Democracy in America’ at once achieved a signal success: it was read throughout Europe, being translated into nearly all European languages. In 1836 Tocqueville received the Montyon prize of several thousand francs, which is bestowed each year by the French Institute upon the work of the greatest moral utility produced during the year. In 1837 he was made a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and in 1841 of the French Academy. About this time he visited England, receiving there an enthusiastic reception from the Liberal party. In England he married a Miss Motley. Upon his return to France, he became, by a family arrangement, possessor of the estate of Tocqueville.  8
  In 1837 he was a candidate for the representation of Valoques in the Chamber of Deputies, but was defeated. His political career began in 1839; when, his character and principles being better known and appreciated, he was elected by the same district, with a large majority. As a practical politician, Tocqueville was not entirely successful, although his influence in the legislature was always penetrative and lasting. He was of too exalted a character, of too lofty an idealism, to ride triumphantly upon the surface current of events. He was lacking in diplomacy and in calculation. His opposition to Guizot and to Louis Napoleon was founded strictly upon principle. Predicting the Revolution of 1848, he conformed to the new condition of affairs only so long as Louis Napoleon represented a moderate and reasonable Republicanism. In 1849 he was vice-president of the Assembly, and Minister of Foreign Affairs from June to October of the same year. The Coup d’État of 1851, by which Louis Napoleon became Napoleon III., forced Tocqueville into private life, from which he did not again emerge.  9
  In 1856 he published the first part of ‘L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution,’ a work which he was not destined to complete. His health, which had been impaired since his visit to America, began to fail. In 1858 he was obliged to seek the south of France for the relief of a pulmonary trouble. He died on the 16th of April, 1859. His ‘Memoirs and Correspondence’ were published in the following year. In 1896 appeared an English translation of his ‘Recollections’—of the period between the Revolution of 1848 and the 30th of October, 1849. These ‘Recollections’ have a great personal as well as political interest; throwing light as they do upon a character of unusual charm and beauty, in whom devotion to an ideal was blended with a certain rare acquiescence in the march of events,—a patience only possible to the seer. While the absolute element of unqualified admiration must be present always in estimates of Tocqueville, appreciation of his life and work increases with the increasing years, since that life and work were intimate with the future, rather than with his own time and place.  10
 
 
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