More than three-quarters of a century after it was first commissioned, the project to publish Alexis de Tocqueville’s Oeuvres complètes remains, ironically, incomplete. He only lived to be fifty-three. He composed almost everything he wrote over little more than twenty-five years. It is difficult to be sure who is to blame most for this lamentably sluggish progress. There are so many deserving candidates for opprobrium. Countless editors at the Commission Nationale; generations of directors at Gallimard; time-serving bureaucrats and flunkies at the Centre National des Lettre, and perhaps especially the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique: all have a lot to answer for. Such otherwise inexcusable professional procrastination cannot be wholly blamed on that tendency to state-sponsored inertia for which the French are famous. Even academic infighting—scarcely unknown in this case—explains only so much. In fairness, it is not as if nothing has been done. Since 1951, eighteen so-called Tomes have been wholly or partially finished. More than thirty separate volumes within these Tomes have appeared. Moreover, tardiness of production has often proved the result as much of unanticipated riches as of unfinished tasks. The original “plan” for the Oeuvres complètes envisaged seven tomes and fourteen volumes. That probably could have been finished, perhaps a generation ago.
Put another way, delay in matters of scholarship may have its merits. That has certainly proved true in this instance. Tocqueville’s principal publications—Democracy in America, Souvenirs, and The Ancien Régime and the Revolution were issued—indeed, have all since been reissued—in critical editions, long ago. Numerous translations of each have followed, often adding important scholarly commentaries of their own. What this great “patriotic project” has inadvertently revealed is the sheer quantity and quality of Tocqueville’s unpublished writings, above all, his personal correspondence. Annotated editions of his letters to family, friends, and associates now make up the bulk of the still unfinished enterprise. This bias is only likely to grow as the final, revised “plan”—perhaps one should just call it the published “outcome”—draws to a close.
Of the intellectual significance of Tocqueville’s correspondence there can be no doubt.
It is reasonable but unremarkable to observe that the private writings of any public thinker ordinarily command our attention. There must be exceptions even to that unexceptionable rule. Gladstone’s Diaries spring to mind. But of the intellectual significance of Tocqueville’s correspondence there can be no doubt. In some cases, this was obvious from the start. The historical importance of Tocqueville’s intimate communications with his lifelong companion, Gustave de Beaumont, and long-standing intellectual and political allies, such as Louis de Kergorlay or Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, was and is self-evident. In other instances, remarkable things emerged from largely unplanned academic legwork. For instance, Tome Nine of the Oeuvres complètes is devoted entirely to Tocqueville’s Correspondance with Count Arthur de Gobineau. That so close a connection existed between these two men was once relatively little known. It remains intriguing. Of course, Gobineau wrote about many subjects. He was as well traveled in the East as Tocqueville in the West. His exquisite appreciation of all things Asiatic is, however, now largely forgotten. Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Races, first published in 1853, instantly and irrevocably secured for him the dubious distinction as a pioneer of pseudo-scientific racism. Tocqueville was not a racist. He attributed little or no intellectual or moral significance to ethnicity qua ethnicity. This is made clear in all his relevant work on the subject. But that he was aboriginally and unrelentingly opposed to so-called “racial science” from its very beginnings is made manifest only in these previously unpublished writings on the topic. That the two men nonetheless maintained a perfectly civil exchange of views, over so many years, about a matter that so deeply divided them, also says something about nineteenth-century social science that its successors might wish to ponder upon.
More generally, Tocqueville’s correspondence completes our understanding of his work to a degree greater than does the personal writings of almost any other comparably significant nineteenth-century intellectual. This was not least because Tocqueville did not think of himself primarily as an intellectual: certainly not according to the post-Dreyfusard definition of that term. Though a member of innumerable learned societies, he was never an academic, unlike Guizot. He seldom wished to be conceived as a philosophe, in contrast to Constant. He planned no general oeuvre, wrote no self-consciously abstract treatise—whether on politics or society—and made absolutely no attempt to assault the psychological possibilities of the modern novel. Tocqueville was a serious thinker. But he always insisted upon a close relationship between thoughts and deeds. And, for the greater part of his adulthood, Tocqueville strove to be a man of action.
All of this seems paradoxical only in retrospect. For Tocqueville first came to prominence as a writer. Democracy in America was composed with many ends in mind. It certainly was conceived in the hope of furnishing mankind with “a new political science,” better to understand “a world altogether new.” That said, Tocqueville’s most immediate purpose in writing that book was to secure a sufficient a public reputation to enter political life—put bluntly, French politics after the Bourbons—on his own terms. In this, he succeeded, at least down to 1852. He never completed and published another major literary project during his lifetime. In truth, he did not particularly wish to do so. His greatest ambition after 1840 was to become France’s James Madison—statesman and thinker, father of the Second Republic, author of its enduring constitution. That he failed in this goal was the profoundest disappointment of his later years. It was also one of the reasons that Souvenirs, Tocqueville’s classic account of the events of 1848–1851 in France, remained unpublished long after his death. He was reconciled merely to influencing public opinion only at the end of his life. Even so, The Ancien Régime was, as Furet and Melonio rightly remark, an essay in historiography undertaken as an exercise in politics by other means. The past, studied for its own sake, little interested him.
From which follows something important: Tocqueville’s political philosophy is inadequately delineated if deduced solely from his major published works. This was especially true of his thoughts about America. Tocqueville visited the United States just once, for nine months from the spring of 1831. Despite repeated invitations from many friends, he never returned. Nor did he publish much about America after 1840. This has led some scholars to conclude that he largely forgot about his western sojourn after that date. That is not true. Others have even suggested that he lost faith in democracy’s most characteristic creation. Again, nothing could be further from the case. To the contrary, he thought a very great deal about that “beacon of liberty” (his words) right up until his death. He also wrote a lot about it. But he did so almost entirely in the form of letters to American friends, above all Edward Vernon Childe and Edward Lee Childe, and also Francis Lieber, Jared Sparks, and Charles Sumner. Initially published in Tome Seven, Correspondance Etrangère, these letters have since been supplemented and translated by Professor Jeremy Jennings and Aurelian Craiutu in Tocqueville on America after 1840. Those writings considerably enhance our understanding of what we can only now (Tocqueville on America was published in 2009) properly call Tocqueville’s lifelong obsession with America, no less of his unvanquished belief—despite all the tribulations of the 1850s—of its continuing significance in mankind’s prospects for liberty.
These observations suggest a second point. Tocqueville wrote very carefully for public consumption. Certainly, his books were constructed with considerable art. Their profoundest teachings were rarely communicated through simple propositions, still less by way of unambiguous expression. Throughout Democracy in America especially, Tocqueville deployed most if not all of the traditional methods of “esoteric philosophy”—whether by means of complex structure, purposive self-contradiction, or even significant silence. He even added a few new techniques of his own, notably in his use of ostensibly inconclusive comparisons between “aristocratic” and “democratic” regimes. In private, he was happy to admit as much. Indeed, he was content to accept the advice of his brother, Edouard, that “the author should remain behind the curtain and content himself with producing conviction without commanding or stating it.”
That circumspection was, in part, the product of a pedagogical conviction. Montesquieu had taught him that “great” writing, thus conceived and so composed, was capable of revealing society to itself, by enabling people to see clearly what they had previously thought obscurely. In this way of thinking, “the success of a book depends more on thoughts that were already in the reader’s head than on those that the writer expresses.” That, in turn, suggested the possibilities of tactical maneuver in the construction of political treatises. Thus Tocqueville often disguised his opinions and preferences—sometimes by the simple device of putting them in the mouths of others—in order to achieve the effect of opaque generality, which, he hoped, might enable him to escape the pitfalls both of partisan conflict and historical context. That is what he meant by “see[ing] not differently but farther than [the] parties,” and similarly in being “concerned [less] with the next day [than with] the future.”
Tocqueville wrote very carefully for public consumption.
Tocqueville’s letters, by contrast, reveal a freedom of expression that their greater degree of privacy permitted him. This enabled him to set out his thoughts not only more fully, if for no other reason than because more frequently, but also on occasion with greater candor. In this way, he was also able to express subtle developments, even discontinuities, in his thought that he believed were best kept obscure in his published writings. There is no need to exaggerate this point in order to appreciate it. Tocqueville’s books were not elaborately constructed deceptions. Still less were his letters ingenuous confessions. But the unbending continuity, not merely of concern but also of prognostication, that he insisted on claiming publicly for himself—see, for instance, the famous “Avant-Propos” to The Ancien Régime—was something he was willing to relax in the company of those he truly trusted. In perhaps none of his unpublished writings are those otherwise-veiled dimensions to his life and labors made more manifest than in his English Correspondence, first begun in 1833 and running right down to his death in 1859.
Tome Six of the Oeuvres complètes is dedicated to Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise. It fills three substantial volumes. A fourth was apparently planned. This now seems unlikely to appear. Volume One, first published more than sixty years ago, reproduces Tocqueville’s long correspondence with Henry Reeve (his first English translator) and John Stuart Mill (by his own verdict, his principal English interpreter). That between Tocqueville and Reeve—totalling more than 160 letters—was conducted almost entirely in French, on both sides. Tocqueville always wrote in his native language to Mill. Mill replied alternately in English and French: “because it takes me so much more time to write in French.” Perhaps for that reason, there are also fewer letters, just thirty-six, between the two men.
Volume Two, which appeared nearly forty years later, furnishes a definitive edition of his correspondence and conversations with the English economist Nassau William Senior. More than 120 letters between the two men are reproduced in this book: Tocqueville always in French, Senior always in English. So too are nearly 300 pages of conversations recorded by Senior of his friend, drawn from the decade after 1848. The latter are not to be lightly dismissed. Beaumont thought Tocqueville at his most charming in speech. He could certainly be amusing. Noting once just how much money he had made out of Democracy in America, how indeed he had managed to save the family house on the basis of the proceeds, he went on to observe: “c’est la première fois que la démocratie a servi à bâtir des châteaux.”
Volume Three collects upwards of 150 letters, to and from an astonishing variety of English friends. More than forty correspondents are listed in the index. It would perhaps be an exaggeration to claim that these were intimates drawn from all walks of life. Indeed, very nearly half of them were titled. Still, they represented a wide range of the professions, including politicians and bankers as well as littérateurs and scholars. Not the least remarkable dimension of this final collection is the number of women recorded among Tocqueville’s regular correspondents. After Richard Monckton Milnes, the second most frequent amongst this group of intimates was Harriet Grote. It is also worth noting that those women whom Tocqueville recognized as his intellectual equals—notably Harriet Grote, but also Sarah Austin, even Rosalind Margaret Phillimore—he treated as his intellectual equals. The content and tone of his letters to them paralleled that of his correspondence with that of their (possibly) more famous husbands. Perhaps his salutary American training wrought lasting lessons, after all. As he said, he was often
surprised and almost frightened on seeing the singular dexterity and happy audacity with which . . . America[n] girls . . . knew how to conduct their thoughts and words . . . travel[ing] without accident [or] trouble [down] the narrow path [on which] a philosopher would have stumbled a hundred times.
Tocqueville’s English correspondence was voluminous, various, and serious. At one level, this might surprise us. Not that he was ignorant of England or indifferent to its affairs. He was, after all, married to an Englishwoman. Nor was he above doing his duty of writing to important people in order to secure for her otherwise impecunious relatives decent state sinecures. He traveled to England quite frequently, and also received English guests at the family seat in Normandy. He authored a famous Memoir on Pauperism prior to the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, of which—like virtually all progressively minded persons of the day—he heartily approved. He also kept thorough diaries of his extensive journeys through the industrial north and rural Ireland. But he wrote no major book about the United Kingdom. He was interested in all things English, and, above all, about the fate of its indigenous aristocracy. He often expressed affection for both. But England’s past did not preoccupy him like that of his native land, nor did its future captivate him, after the fashion of America. Guizot wanted the French to learn from the English example. Tocqueville insisted that the true lessons of modern politics were to be found by looking elsewhere. His Correspondance Anglaise actually contains very little consideration of English things.
Tocqueville remained all his life not merely a French patriot but a French intellectual patriot, too.
In another way, the extent and profundity of these writings should not surprise us at all. Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise includes at least three references to England as his “second intellectual home.” This was how he described it to Nassau Senior as early as 1835 and again in 1851: “un pays que je regarde comme ma seconde patrie intellectuelle.” He repeated the sentiment—indeed in the same words—to Sarah Austin, as late as 1856. No doubt this observation was meant to please his English interlocutors. It was not intended to deceive them, however. It was a view to which he came early in life and to which he stuck, right to the end of his days. It requires some intellectual unpacking.
But it does not demand any trite psychological explanation. Tocqueville never doubted where his roots, intellectual as well as biological, lay. Cosmopolitan thinker that he was, Tocqueville remained all his life not merely a French patriot but a French intellectual patriot, too. Put another way, he was never a classicist. He was, of course, well read in the classics but he was never much attracted to the “ancients.” His real education, beyond that of the conventional schooling for his class, was in the modern French “greats.” That meant Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. His alternative source of cerebral succor was not America. He admired America and he made many American friends. He wrote with extraordinary perspicacity about America. This was, perhaps, just as well. He invested a strikingly large proportion of his personal fortune in America. But he seldom felt at home in America.
To understand why this was so we should consider another personal observation. Talking to Nassau Senior and other friends in 1849, he noted that
when I talk to a gentleman, even if we do not have two ideas in common, even if his opinions, feelings and thoughts are dramatically opposed to mine, I immediately feel as if we are of the same family, that we speak the same language, that we understand each other. It is often the case that I actually prefer [talking to] a bourgeois, but he is still a stranger to me.
Translated: Tocqueville was an aristocrat. He was also a French aristocrat: that is, self-consciously of noble lineage, an old family, and no future. Not for nothing did he openly exalt in the titanic achievements of the Anglo-Americans while secretly sympathizing with the pitiful fate of its native Indians. But if the personal bonds of inherited experience rendered him psychologically complicit with his class, historical ratiocination instructed him to reject their reactionary politics. Thus, in Tocqueville’s understanding of things, the French aristocracy was not merely doomed. It was, for the most part, also stupid and ignorant. In that context, political prospects counted for more than emotional ties. Indeed, Tocqueville’s English friends often noted how he “refused to take a title” in France, insisting if asked that “it had become an absurdity” there.
This was not so of France’s English counterparts. The English aristocracy thrived in the early nineteenth century. No less to the point, early-nineteenth-century English aristocrats invariably professed liberal politics. Tocqueville’s English correspondents included Lords Normanby and Radnor, as well as Henry Thomas Petty, the Third Marquis Lansdowne: “one of the most enlightened, most sensible and most amiable individuals one could ever hope to meet, at any time and in any country” (also, incidentally, Macaulay’s first political patron). With men like these, he felt both instinctively at home and usually in agreement.
This discloses something, about both the nature and also the significance, of Tocqueville’s English correspondence. Its social range was certainly limited. But it was never an exercise in exclusivity, still less an excuse for snobbery; Tocqueville wrote to whoever he felt was both intelligent and influential in England, regardless of their stations. Nor was it solely concerned with the affairs of the day, though Tocqueville seldom failed to discuss relevant news, particularly if it related to Anglo–French cooperation and its continuance. It was, instead, a genuinely open-ended and open-minded correspondence. It discussed pretty well everything, great issues as much as ephemeral events, whenever either seized Tocqueville’s imagination and engaged the thoughts of his interlocutors. To be sure, he talked politics more often to Lord Brougham than to Mrs. Twisleton. But he waxed philosophical with both.
Read rightly, what emerges from Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise was the fundamental consistency and continuity of his political thought. This was grounded in his commitment to the preservation of liberty in democracy. That may sound unremarkable. Superficially judged, it does little more than corroborate that very similar consistency and continuity that can now be traced through his parallel, American correspondence. This is by no means uninteresting. But it is scarcely earth-shattering. What makes the English version of that commitment so significant is its very peculiar context. That determined a very pronounced discontinuity in expression; perhaps, too, of implication. Tocqueville was committed all of his adult life to the view that democracy, that is, equality of conditions, was the inevitable and universal outcome of the development of modern civilization. This was what Guizot had taught him in his great History of Civilization in Europe. It was also a teaching implicit in his own reading of the great texts of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is magisterially outlined in the introduction to Democracy in America. But Tocqueville was equally, and equally famously, of the opinion that only liberty, openly espoused and commonly practiced, could sustain that kind of “human dignity”—sometimes he called it “human greatness”—that could prevent democracy, so conceived, from descending into despotism, from the tyranny of the majority in government, opinion, and soul, everywhere.
In private, at least, he was willing to concede where the balance of his own preferences lay. He was especially candid about these matters in his English correspondence. Writing to John Stuart Mill in June 1835, Tocqueville acknowledged modern man’s march to democracy “without hesitation [but also] without enthusiasm.” He also observed that he was an egalitarian because his “reason” (by which he meant his capacity to comprehend the claims of justice) told him to be so. All the same, he insisted that he “loved . . . liberty” by dint of his prior “taste.” This made him a “friend of democracy,” not a democrat. It also permitted—indeed, it compelled—him to “champion liberty” and to promote its “sacred cause.” That was to “save mankind” from “barbarism and slavery.” Democracy in America, Part IV, Chapter 6, “What type of Despotism Democracies have to fear,” was specifically conceived in order to demonstrate just how benevolent these could appear under their modern guise. We should be far from confident that we have avoided those subtle snares since.
That self-imposed imperative explains not merely the sheer extent but the ever increasingly urgent tone of Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise. Precisely on account of their fortunate inheritance, Tocqueville regarded England and the English as his natural allies in this great task. It was not that the English were immune to the “great democratic revolution.” Nobody was. Unlike the French, however, they had not recently endured a destructive, democratic convulsion. Their aristocratic institutions remained intact. So too did their liberal instincts. Indeed, Tocqueville described mid-nineteenth-century English public opinion as the “grand jury of humanity” in the “matter of liberty”: this in his longest letter to Harriet Grote, reproduced in The Times of December 8, 1851. In that way, Tocqueville meant to convey something more than just flattery. In fact, there was a distinct limit to his indulgence in this respect. Thus he praised England and the English in the very act of upbraiding them. By this, he intended to encourage. He also intended to warn. Why?
Most Englishmen had first read Democracy in America as a critique.
Tocqueville was dismayed by the degree to which English liberal journalists—think, most notoriously, of Walter Bagehot—were willing to acquiesce in Louis Napoleon’s coup of December 1851. That letter to The Times actually began with the words:
The opinion expressed by certain organs of the English press on the events which have just taken place in France has proved a most unpleasant surprise to men such as me who hold dear to the principles and respect for the law. We are bound to state that these observations, made by part of the English press, have been exploited by the new government, and that certain English have even seen fit to applaud what all honorable Frenchmen condemn.
In repeated, and sometimes acrimonious, exchanges with old friends, Tocqueville took this analysis further. Louis Napoléon’s new regime, he insisted, was “une monarchie despotique.” It was, however, no “despotisme ordinaire.” It was something much worse: “une parodie d’un gouvernment libre.” As such, it was something strikingly new. But there was no justification for the belief that it might prove to be a passing phase. Moreover, there was no reason to presume that it might turn out to be a purely French phenomenon. Tocqueville rejected all notions, by no means unknown either in England or America, that the French were somehow unfit for representative government. And he continually reminded his English friends of their peculiar obligation—peculiar in the sense of their being then placed in an especially fortunate position—to sustain that form of rule, and its attendant freedoms, even more urgently during those days when they were endangered on the Continent than when their “sacred cause” had been sustained by its “fair-weather friends.”
Tocqueville famously wrote L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution to explain Louis Napoléon to the French. But his Correspondance Anglaise makes very clear that he also wrote this history as a way of explaining exactly the same phenomenon to the English—who, if anything, understood it even less. Moreover, he did so not merely or even primarily as a way of interpreting the French to the English, but, at least in part, as a way of explaining the English to themselves. The Ancien Régime was about France but pointed to an English possibility too. For what Tocqueville always called the “world . . . revolution,” first made manifest in France, was, he insisted, weaving its democratic way through English institutions as well. Victorian England, however slowly and imperceptibly, was also in the process of becoming a democracy. Whether it would eventually turn out to be a liberal democracy, he was less sure. The liberalism that it had inherited would be no guarantee for that future state. This was why he not only continued to look to the beacon of America himself, but he now also invited his English correspondents to do the same.
It is impossible to read Tocqueville’s English Correspondence during the last five years of his life without being struck by this profound discontinuity—not in his thought, as such—but rather in the means by which he chose to communicate it and the audience to whom it was principally directed. In this respect, it is important to remember that most Englishmen—Tories especially, but not only Tories—had first read Democracy in America as a critique. Few initially interpreted it as an invitation. Indeed, so common was that negative view that Tocqueville even suggested to Reeve, prior to the appearance of Volume Two, that:
It seems to me that in the translation of the last volume, albeit without wishing to impose your own views on the text, you placed great emphasis on those passages that seemed contrary to democracy, and made little of those which pointed to the injustices of aristocracy.
We tend to forget that it took Mill’s famous review to reverse that trend even partially.
There was something else. Tocqueville’s optimism about America never failed him. Indeed, had he lived, it might—at least temporarily—have come to embarrass him. As late as 1857, he judged the possibility of a Confederate breakaway remote. He continued to think of America because of its administrative decentralization, because of its popular legalism, and because of its enlightened religion: in short, because of its “self-interest, well-understood” as the beacon of liberty for the world. But his English Correspondence also suggests that the grounds of such optimism shifted towards the end of his life. Democracy in America was rooted in a sympathetic understanding of New England. By the mid-1850s, Tocqueville had come to see the merits not just of America’s midwest, but also its far west. Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise reveals, perhaps more still than his American letters, how he already considered California to have become “an exceptional society”: not merely “energetic” but also “assimilative.”
This was important. In earlier work, he had made particular reference to how homogeneous ethnicity, language, and religion had contributed so much to the stability of the early American republic. That had been America’s fortunate inheritance. Now he increasingly acknowledged America’s astonishing capacity for “absorbing other races,” whether Irish, French, or even German, a capacity made peculiarly manifest in the West, and pointing to another, quite different, dimension of America’s creative potential. This, for Tocqueville, was less a given good than what he now called a regenerative energy. America was not simply the world’s most advanced democracy. It was mankind’s most adaptive regime too. That quality, when allied to political liberty, would, he believed, make it capable of eventually “conquer[ing] the world.”
America was not simply the world’s most advanced democracy. It was mankind’s most adaptive regime too.
In fairness, it should perhaps be noted that these last observations appear in Volume Three of Tocqueville’s Correspondance Anglaise only by fortunate accident. They do not form part of any letter, written to anyone. Rather, they represented remarks, made during the course of a private lunch party, to Henry Stanley, later fifteenth Earl of Derby, and Thomas Babington Macaulay, the famous historian, in July 1857. The response of their Lordships is not recorded.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 15
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