Tocqueville aux États-Unis : la continuité de la pensée des Lumières ? Présentation de Françoise Mélonio - Paris IV



This paper is an attempt to explore once again the significance of the American experience for Tocqueville’s thinking and writing, in general, and for his Democracy in America, in particular. For this essay I am not returning in any special way to the journey itself ; I am trying neither to retrace George Pierson’s classic work nor to repeat my own earlier effort to recreate Tocqueville’s “second journey” to America, the actual making of the Democracy. (1)
Instead, I am relying almost entirely on what we might learn from the text and the broad selection of pertinent drafts and other working materials that are presented in the critical edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, edited by Eduardo Nolla. (2) As the translator of the forthcoming full English version of that work, I have been led inescapably to a close rereading and reconsideration of Tocqueville’s great book. (3) All of the materials presented below are from the soon-to-be-published English edition of the Nolla volumes, and all of the translations are my own.
As I reread the Democracy with a translator’s eye, I took special note of where Tocqueville indicates moments of discovery or surprise during the American journey. In various places he notes something that “struck him most” or “struck him first” or that would most strike or surprise a European visitor. In other places he calls the reader’s attention to something that is new or original about America. I have assumed, perhaps at my peril, that such language is not simply empty rhetoric on Tocqueville’s part, a kind of literary convention necessary when writing a book that is, in part, a traveler’s account of a voyage to a distant but intriguing land. I take Tocqueville at his word.
My working premise is that, of course, Tocqueville arrived in the New World with certain ideas and concerns already in mind. He reached the shores of America carrying much of the historical and intellectual baggage of early 19th century France. He came with a variety of preconceptions about the fundamental nature and the direction of modern society. He was already thinking about revolution, centralization, the march of democracy, rising equality, republicanism, the issue of sovereignty, the possible abuses of unchecked power, and the future of liberty. But Tocqueville’s own language indicates that America provided him with unexpected lessons that deflected his thinking in significant ways.
This exploration of how the American experience modified his ideas also results from my inclination and past efforts, as an American historian and as a member of what has been called the “Yale school” of Tocqueville specialists, to reaffirm the centrality of Tocqueville’s American journey. About fifteen years ago, sharing a podium with François Furet, I responded briefly to his famous argument that Tocqueville’s essential concepts were largely formed in response to the French intellectual context of the 1820s and that he arrived in America with most of his ideas already in place. I remarked that Furet was offering us the remarkable image of a thinker who had the essence of his book in mind long before setting pen to page. (4)
This essay is a more considered and more extended reply to Furet who, in addition to being one of the greatest historians of the French Revolution, was one of the most important Tocqueville scholars of the late 20th century. It is my effort to draw attention once again to what Tocqueville learned in America. What, after all, was the importance of the nine month voyage to the New World ? How did his journey to America make a difference ? How did the American experience shape (or reshape) his thinking ? I am arguing that on some topics the journey pushed his thinking in new directions; that on some matters America modified Tocqueville’s pattern of thought and provided him with significant new insights and ideas.

The Surprises and Discoveries

Let us begin at the beginning. Tocqueville opened his book by testifying to what struck him most in America. “Among the new objects that attracted my attention during
my stay in the United States, none struck me more vividly than the equality of conditions.” (5) In the original working manuscript, which differs here from the published text, Tocqueville was more specific; he began the task of naming the many kinds of equality that existed in the United States. “There is a fact that more than all the rest attracts the attention of the European upon his arrival on the shores of the New World. A surprising equality reigns there among fortunes; at first glance minds themselves seem equal. I was struck, like others, at the sight of this extreme equality of conditions … .” (6)
In the brilliant third chapter of the 1835 Democracy, entitled “Social State of the Anglo-Americans,” he developed an extensive catalogue of the varieties of equality that characterized America. (7) In only a few remarkable pages he presented the following list :
- material equality or equality of fortunes, meaning a rough equality of property and wealth and widespread land ownership,
- intellectual equality or equality of minds, meaning a widely shared basic education and a nearly universal middling level of knowledge,
- political equality, meaning equal political and civil rights and sovereignty of the people,
- social equality, meaning the disappearance (or at least the fading) of hereditary privilege, rank and distinction, and the almost complete rejection of deference to great names or great wealth. Tocqueville was particularly impressed by the American assumption that everyone had to work and by the American habit of the handshake and the impromptu conversation in the street between businessman and worker, as between equals,
- equality as mobility, or the constant circulation of wealth and property, and the unceasing rise and fall of individuals and families,
- equality understood in terms of mores, that is, fundamentally egalitarian attitudes and beliefs, including the deep love of equality and what Tocqueville described as democratic ideas, habits and passions, including democratic religious convictions and forms.
Elsewhere in the Democracy, he would continue to explore the many meanings of this remarkable equality of conditions that had struck him in America. He would, for example, marvel at the extreme equality that existed among Americans settling the frontier. And he would note that the feeling or sentiment of equality, the working assumption of essential equality between individuals, shaped the relationship between master and servant, as well as between family members.
When Tocqueville arrived in the New World, the idea of increasing equality was not new to him, but the scope and thoroughness of the equality that he witnessed in the United States was astonishing. The thorough and extreme equality he saw in America made the New World republic into the symbol of where contemporary democratic societies were headed ; such constantly expanding equality would serve as the “generating fact” that influenced all other aspects not only of the United States, but also of the entire modern world.
The journey to America also taught Tocqueville important lessons about a second fundamental characteristic of democratic societies. He was amazed by the pace of change and by the activity in the American republic. “What strikes you most on your arrival in the United States,” he declared, “is the type of tumultuous movement in which political society is immersed.” (8) But this turmoil was not just political.
“Scarcely have you landed on American soil than you find yourself in the middle of a sort of tumult; a confused clamor arises on all sides; a thousand voices reach your ear at the same time; each one expresses various social needs. Around you, everything stirs… .” (9)
This continual motion, constant agitation, social and economic mobility that Tocqueville observed in the American republic also became an essential part of his definition of democracy. “A democratic people, society, time,” he wrote in a draft, “does not mean a people, society, time in which all men are equal, but a people, society, time in which there are no more castes, fixed classes, privileges, particular and exclusive rights, permanent riches, properties fixed in the hands of families, in which all men can constantly rise or descend and mingle together in all ways.
“When I mean it in the political sense, I say democracy.
“When I want to speak about the effects of equality, I say equality.” (10)
If the American journey broadened Tocqueville’s understanding of such fundamental democratic characteristics as equality and mobility, his travels also provided instruction on possible safeguards against democratic excesses. Perhaps the most important lessons in the New World republic involved Tocqueville’s discovery of some of the key mechanisms for moderating democracy. Some were institutional safeguards (what Tocqueville broadly called laws); others concerned certain American beliefs, attitudes or habits (what he called mores).
Among the constitutional mechanisms that Tocqueville encountered in America, he recognized several as new and original; most of these institutional principles and arrangements, first developed in the United States, became essential parts of Tocqueville’s own political program of remedies for democratic dangers. (11) Two of the most perceptive discussions in the 1835 Democracy reflect these discoveries. In his analysis of the Federal Constitution, he called American federalism “an entirely new theory that must stand out as a great discovery in the political science of today.” (12) And in his treatment of the American judiciary, he pointed out the originality of the right of American courts to declare laws unconstitutional and noted the way in which difficult political issues in America ended up before the courts as matters for judges to settle. (13)
The independence and the activist role of the American judiciary served to check the potential dangers of both legislative despotism and tyranny of the majority; such independence was also essential to the balance of powers, as written into the Federal Constitution. Tocqueville found the American system not foolproof, but nonetheless remarkable. In his drafts he wrote: “Judicial power. The most original and most difficult part to understand of all the American Constitution. Elsewhere there have been confederations, a representative system, a democracy; but nowhere a judicial power organized as that of the Union.”(14) And in another draft he declared: “In my eyes, the constitution of the judicial power forms the newest and most original portion of the entire political system of the Americans.” (15)
Perhaps the single most surprising institutional arrangement that Tocqueville noticed was the extreme administrative decentralization in America or, conversely, the vigor and responsibility of the American towns and other localities. “What most strikes the European who travels across the United States,” he wrote in the 1835 Democracy, “is the absence of what among us we call government or administration. In America, you see written laws; you see their daily execution; everything is in motion around you, and the motor is nowhere to be seen. The hand that runs the social machine escapes at every moment.” (16)
Again, Tocqueville was already wrestling with the issue of centralization before he arrived in the New World. What astonished him in the United States was the extreme case of administrative decentralization that existed, a decentralization so complete that no government in the European sense seemed to exist. Yet the nation functioned and thrived. And as Tocqueville pointed out in the Democracy, it was the general social and political effects of decentralization that were most advantageous. So the American journey provided him with first-hand evidence to argue that decentralization need not be so feared in France. In the on-going debate at home, he became an eyewitness to what was possible.
Shifting from American institutional features to characteristic beliefs and behaviors that served as remedies for excessive democracy, perhaps none fascinated Tocqueville more than the American habit of association. Tocqueville began his discussion by defining associations broadly to include the local liberties that were centered in legally constituted social groups such as town, cities and counties. Especially when seen in this way, associations were perhaps the major cause of the constant turmoil that he observed in the United States. “Of all the countries in the world,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “America has taken greatest advantage of association and has applied this powerful means of action to the greatest variety of objectives.” (17)
In the 1840 Democracy he remarked : “The political associations that exist in the United States form only a detail in the midst of the immense tableau that associations as a whole present there. Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds : religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones… .” (18)
Out of this tumultuous scene came a full-blown theory of association. Associations, especially when broadly understood to include local liberties, constituted intermediate social bodies that, in democratic times, could effectively take the place of aristocratic classes and families. As artificial aristocratic bodies, associations were key safeguards against not only the tyranny of the majority and the despotism of the state, but also against excessive individualism. Associations became a kind of necessary counteragent to some of the worst democratic dangers. “I believe firmly,” Tocqueville declared in 1840, “that you cannot establish an aristocracy again in the world ; but I think that simple citizens by associating together can constitute very wealthy, very influential, very strong beings, in a word aristocratic persons. [Thus, in whatever direction I look, I discover association as the most powerful remedy for the evils with which equality threatens us.] In this manner several of the greatest political advantages of aristocracy would be obtained, without its injustices or its dangers. A political, industrial, commercial, or even scientific and literary association is an enlightened and powerful citizen who cannot be bent at will or oppressed in the shadow, and who, by defending its particular rights against the demands of power, saves common liberties.” (19)
The theme of the science or art of association is one of the most constant of Tocqueville’s ideas. His treatment of associations, his explanation of why they are so important in democratic societies is essentially unchanging. (20) Once again we need to recognize that much of the inspiration and the evidence for this theory of association is, once again, what he had seen in America.
In the United States Tocqueville discovered two other unexpected features of American mores : the doctrine of interest well understood and the role of religion as a companion to liberty. In contrast to his theory of association, Tocqueville’s concept of interest well understood developed gradually over a period of years, from 1831, when he was in America, to the late 1830s, when he was completing the 1840 Democracy. (21) But the idea clearly emerged from what he had learned as he traveled in the United States.
Very quickly Tocqueville discovered what he would call the bedrock principle of American society, “… the maxim that the individual is the best as well as the only judge of his private interest… .” (22) Even more surprising was the way that Americans managed to blend this private interest with public interest. As early as May 1831, Tocqueville realized that what he was seeing in the New World challenged some of the traditional categories familiar to him.
In his travel notebooks he wrote : “The principle of the ancient republics was the sacrifice of particular interest to the general good. In this sense, you can say that they were virtuous. The principle of this one appears to me to be to make particular interest part of the general interest. A kind of refined and intelligent egoism seems the pivot on which the whole machine turns. These people do not trouble themselves to find out if public virtue is good, but they claim to prove that it is useful. If this last point is true, as I think it is in part, this society can pass for enlightened, but not virtuous. But to what degree can the two principles of individual good and general good in fact be merged ? … That is what the future alone will show us.” (23)
And by the time he was drafting the 1835 Democracy, he realized that the American example required a revision or recasting of Montesquieu: “Of virtue in republics—The Americans are not a virtuous people and yet they are free. This does not absolutely prove that virtue, as Montesquieu thought, is not essential to the existence of republics. The idea of Montesquieu must not be taken in a narrow sense. What this great man meant is that republics could subsist only by the action of society over itself. What he means by virtue is the moral power that each individual exercises over himself and that prevents him from violating the rights of others.
“When this triumph of man over temptation is the result of the weakness of the temptation or of a calculation of personal interest, it does not constitute virtue in the eyes of the moralist ; but it is included in the idea of Montesquieu who spoke of the effect much more than of the cause. In America it is not virtue that is great, it is temptation that is small, which comes to the same thing. It is not disinterestedness that is great, it is interest that is well understood, which again comes back to almost the same thing.” (24)

Note that in this (and other) drafts for the 1835 volumes, Tocqueville was already using the term interest well understood; it was an idea that had emerged long before he began to write the 1840 Democracy. But in the 1840 text this refined and intelligent egoism, this new kind of virtue would be explicitly labeled the doctrine of interest well understood and would be presented as a major remedy for democratic individualism as Tocqueville understood it. (25)
“… [The] Americans,” he remarked in his text, “have so to speak reduced egoism to a social and political theory… .” (26) What is important for us to recognize here are the American roots of this doctrine of interest well understood, one of the most famous and original elements of Tocqueville’s thinking and writing.
One of the other key discoveries for Tocqueville in the New World was first introduced to his readers in another of the brilliant opening chapters of the 1835 Democracy, “Of the Point of Departure and Its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans.” When Tocqueville compared Europe and America as they existed in 1650, he was filled by “a profound astonishment.” “I have already said enough,” he summarized, “to reveal Anglo-American civilization in its true light. It is the product (and this point of departure must always be kept in mind) of two perfectly distinct elements that have been successfully blended, in a way, and marvelously combined. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” (27) Here again was something new and completely unanticipated, especially for a French visitor coming from a nation where these same two elements were at war. Tocqueville was also amazed at the outward power of religion in such a thoroughly democratic society. Sunday observance, for example, closed down the cities of America. (28)
“The philosophers of the 18th century,” he observed with sarcasm, “explained the gradual weakening of beliefs in a very simple way. Religious zeal, they said, must fade as liberty and enlightenment increase. It is unfortunate that facts do not agree with this theory. … When I arrived in the United States, it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eyes.” (29)
In the drafts of the Democracy, he wrote even more emphatically : “I have heard it said in Europe that it was very unfortunate that these poor Americans had religion. When you have been in the United States, conviction that religion is more useful in republics that in monarchies, and in democratic republics more than anywhere else. Disastrous misunderstanding in France.” (30)
The unique way that religion and liberty were bound together in America became a bedrock principle for Tocqueville who insisted that democratic societies needed to be grounded in religious faith if liberty was to survive. “When democracy comes with mores and beliefs, it leads to liberty. When it comes with moral and religious anarchy, it leads to despotism.” (31) This principle, witnessed in United States, later became one of the building blocks of the new political grouping that Tocqueville the French politician worked (unsuccessfully) to establish in France.
But how to keep religion strong in democratic times ? Tocqueville was also struck by a profound paradox. One of the primary causes of the enormous influence that religion continued to have in America was the careful separation of church and state in the United States. (32) Even the devoutly faithful Catholic priests that Tocqueville met in America were not only convinced political democrats, but also firm believers in the American principle of separation of church and state. Here again, the New World republic provided an unexpected lesson and a powerful example.
The main cause for the weakness of Christianity in Europe, Tocqueville would write, was “the intimate union of politics and religion. … In Europe Christianity allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth. Today these powers are falling and Christianity is as though buried beneath their debris. It is a living thing that someone wanted to bind to the dead ; cut the ties that hold it and it will rise again.” (33) Tocqueville’s certainty about both of these essential points—the need for religion and the best way to strengthen it—had been, if not forged, at least significantly strengthened in America.
In the New World Tocqueville had discovered a democracy of a different sort. The American republic, he realized, was marked by a pervasive equality far beyond anything that yet existed in the Old World, and it exhibited an almost incredible level of activity and change. At the same time, America presented a surprising array of institutional mechanisms and cultural beliefs that served to regulate such an extreme and tumultuous democracy. Despite persistent flaws and weaknesses that Tocqueville was careful to point out to his readers, the United States became for Tocqueville a model of a well-regulated democratic republic.
“What is understood by republic in the United States,” he declared, “is the slow and tranquil action of society on itself. It is an ordered state actually based on the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliatory government, where resolutions mature over a long time, are debated slowly and are executed with maturity.
“Republicans in the United States value mores, respect beliefs, recognize rights. They profess this opinion, that a people must be moral, religious and moderate, in proportion as it is free. What is called a republic in the United States is the tranquil rule of the majority. The majority, after it has had the time to recognize itself and to take note of its existence, is the common source of powers. But the majority itself is not omnipotent. Above it in the moral world are found humanity, justice and reason ; in the political world, vested rights. The majority recognizes these two barriers, and if it happens to cross them, it is because the majority has passions, like every man ; and like him, it can do evil while perceiving good.” (34)
For Tocqueville this image of the American republic became the symbol of what a well-ordered democracy might be. Throughout the Democracy, whenever he sought to portray a healthy democracy, he ended up by describing what he had witnessed in the New World. In his Introduction, for example, he presented portraits of three societies : a traditional aristocratic society (no longer possible in today’s world) ; a disturbed and unstable democratic society ; and a tranquil, well-ordered democracy. (35) This triptych consists respectively of an idealized aristocratic France ; the post-Revolutionary France of the early 19th century (a society seriously out-of-joint and even at war with itself) ; and the democratic nation that might emerge if internal harmony were restored. The third portrait, the one he provided of his hopes, nearly duplicates the description of the American republic we have just examined and other images of the United States that he would continue to develop in his book.
Tocqueville was not, of course, assuming that all was right with the New World republic, nor was he arguing for any close imitation of American laws and mores. In the 1835 text he wrote: “The mores and laws of the Americans are not the only ones that can be suitable for democratic peoples; but the Americans have shown that we must not despair of regulating democracy with the help of laws and mores. … The organization and the establishment of democracy among Christians is the great political problem of our time. The Americans undoubtedly do not solve this problem, but they provide useful lessons to those who want to solve it.” (36) And in a discarded variant, he was even more direct : “[The] Americans, whatever their errors and their faults, deserve to be praised. They have well earned humanity’s gratitude. They have shown that the democratic social state and democratic laws did not have as a necessary result the degeneration of the human race.” (37)
There is more hidden here than simply America’s role for Tocqueville as the image of a tranquil and harmonious democracy. Clearly, the New World republic also served as a source of hope for Tocqueville. The American example, at its best, demonstrated to him that democracy could indeed be regulated or balanced so that democratic societies could be healthy, prosperous and free ; and he, in turn, tried to use America to persuade his readers that such a desirable outcome was possible for democratic nations.
Arguably, the political program presented by Tocqueville in both the 1835 and 1840 parts of his book was inspired largely by what he had seen in the New World. In America he witnessed, not the detailed structure, but the broad outlines of the sort of democracy that he desired : a society marked by enlightened citizens, by free institutions and by morality and religious faith. To a large degree, these most important elements were precisely the things that surprised him during his journey. We could even argue that in the 1840 Democracy as America faded from Tocqueville’s mind, so did his confidence for the future ; as the New World republic receded, his fears, doubts and pessimism grew. Perhaps most fundamentally, America was for Tocqueville a kind of talisman of hope.

Two Other Perspectives

Still another way to demonstrate what Tocqueville learned in America is to notice when he corrected or revised earlier commentators. We have already seen two important examples. More that once in the Democracy, Tocqueville noted with sarcasm that the definitive assertions of certain European thinkers only showed that they had not visited America. The most important occasion came when Tocqueville was discussing the role of religion and belief in modern enlightened, democratic societies. (38) And the text and working papers of the Democracy contain a kind of on-going dialogue between Tocqueville and Montesquieu, in which Tocqueville sometimes disagreed with or amended his predecessor. As we noted, one of the key topics on which Tocqueville gently revised Montesquieu is the matter of virtue in republics. Tocqueville pointed out that, in order to account for the American concept of enlightened self-interest, republican virtue could not be understood too narrowly. When redefined more broadly by Tocqueville, Montesquieu’s theory of republican virtue continued to stand. (39) Finally, although Tocqueville himself sometimes cited the example of the ancient republics, he repeatedly criticized other European theorists for continuing to compare modern democratic societies with examples drawn from the ancient world or Renaissance Italy. (40) He insisted that in many crucial ways the old points of comparison, so favored by many, were no longer relevant. The modern world is too fundamentally changed.
Notably, what brought Tocqueville to certain new insights or new positions and led to many of these occasions of disagreement or revision was once again the American journey. Unlike Tocqueville, most European thinkers, especially those of the 18th century, had not witnessed a society that was both highly enlightened and deeply religious. Nor had Montesquieu imagined a particularly sophisticated understanding of self-interest that, by blending private and public interest, could take the place of the traditional republican virtue of self-sacrifice for the greater good. And modern democracies, like the United States, with profoundly different social conditions and newly invented constitutional mechanisms, could no longer be usefully compared with the democracies of antiquity. Because Tocqueville had traveled to the New World and witnessed a different kind of society, he often found himself in another intellectual space. The American experience had transformed at least a few of his preconceptions.
There remains the matter of Tocqueville’s famous letter to his friend, Charles Stoffels, written in April 1830, two years before the American journey ; the letter is included as an appendix in the Nolla edition. (41) If America taught Tocqueville so many significant new lessons and reshaped his ideas in important ways, how can we explain this remarkable letter that seems to summarize Tocqueville’s fundamental concepts about the direction of modern society, about the likely benefits and dangers of that path, and about the recommended political program to be pursued in response by governments and honorable men ? The letter especially prefigures both Tocqueville’s eloquent Introduction to the 1835 Democracy and the concluding sections of his 1840 work.
If you read the letter carefully, however, you find laments about the loss of faith, but no reflection of the singular blend of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion, no sense of the role of faith in sustaining democracy, that Tocqueville would find in America. You discover no doctrine of interest well understood, of enlightened self-interest, the new social and political principle that Americans had developed to replace classical republican virtue. And you see no image of modern democratic society as dynamic and vital, yet orderly and well-regulated. The portraits of modern society that Tocqueville painted in his letter are either a flat society, enervated and asleep, or a society torn apart and out of joint. But the additional, more hopeful picture of a democratic society that was both orderly and full of energy, both well-regulated and alive with movement and activity is notably absent. As we have seen, this third image of a healthy and stable democratic society was drawn largely from his American experience. Read in this way, the letter to Stoffels becomes a kind of negative imprint ; by what is missing it reveals what Tocqueville would learn in America.


What can we conclude from this study ? First, we need always to remember that Tocqueville’s American journey left a mental stamp. His experience in the New World helped in fundamental ways to reshape his definition of democracy and of democratic societies. The United States also presented institutions and doctrines that were new and that became for Tocqueville important safeguards against some of the dangers of democracy. And the New World republic provided important evidence—both direct and reverse proofs—to counter many of the points made by those in Europe who resisted democracy. Democratic society will be turbulent, but not necessarily anarchic; it can be orderly and law-abiding (witness the American republic). Democratic society is not by nature at war with religion ; it can be profoundly moral and religious (again witness the American republic). For Tocqueville, his journey provided significant reasons for hope. (42)
This reexamination of certain themes from the Democracy also tells us once again about Tocqueville’s ways of thinking. We are reminded, first of all, of how tightly interrelated Tocqueville’s major ideas are. If you trace the path of one basic concept, you soon find that it connects with another. The fabric of his thinking is so intricately patterned that it is nearly impossible to take hold of a single thread without disturbing the entire cloth. Or to use another metaphor, the elegant mobile of Tocqueville’s thought is so finely balanced that touching one part sets the whole mechanism into motion. (43)
Our review also serves as a powerful demonstration of Tocqueville’s self-awareness as a thinker and writer. The running record of the impact of America on his ideas that he faithfully kept in the working papers of the Democracy illustrates the acute self-consciousness and on-going self-examination that are hallmarks of his intellectual methodology.
This essay is also in part a response to those like Garry Wills who are ready to discard Tocqueville because, they charge, he did not “get” America. (44) They accuse Tocqueville of misreading the United States and of presenting an inaccurate portrait of America. I am arguing, on the contrary, that throughout Tocqueville’s book there is an inescapable and vivid presence of America. I believe that Tocqueville grasped America in an almost visceral way and that it is largely because of this nearly tangible presence of America in his pages that Tocqueville was able to portray the social, political, cultural and economic dimensions of the United States so perceptively and so persuasively. (45)
This paper is also a reaffirmation of the importance of context for understanding Tocqueville’s ideas and writings. Here I am focusing on the American context, the New World experience. But I am not denying the importance of the French, English or other European settings. Obviously Furet and others are right to insist on what Tocqueville had learned from the French historical and intellectual context of the early 19th century (and the 1820s in particular), or from the long succession of great French and other political thinkers, or what he would learn from his journeys to England and from his personal experience as a political figure. Despite a different emphasis, what we share is an insistence on putting Tocqueville and his books in context, on reading them against a specific background of biographical and historical experience.
In this essay, I have only cited and briefly developed each of what I have described as discoveries in the New World that challenged Tocqueville’s preconceptions and turned his thinking in new directions. A thorough elaboration would require a lengthy return to the daily lessons of his journey and to the step-by-step making of his text. So what I have done here is incomplete and perhaps unsatisfying. (46) But I hope that this paper has encouraged us to reconsider the impact of America on Tocqueville’s thinking and writing. Nine months in the New World did make a difference.

1. Pierson, George Wilson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1938). And James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” (Chapel Hill : The University of North Carolina Press, 1980) ; a second, revised edition has appeared : (Indianapolis, The Liberty Fund, 2000) ; hereafter cited as Making.
2. De la Démocratie en Amérique, Première édition historico-critique, edited by Eduardo Nolla, 2 vols., (Paris, J. Vrin, 1990) ; hereafter cited as DA (Nolla). A complete English translation will be published next year, edited by Eduardo Nolla, translated by James T. Schleifer, (Indianapolis, The Liberty Fund, 2007).
3. See The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, edited by Cheryl B. Welch, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006) ; hereafter cited as Cambridge Companion. For that volume, I contributed an essay, “Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Reconsidered,” about some of the ways in which my work as translator led me to new insights, understandings, and ways of reading Tocqueville’s masterpiece.
4. Consult Schleifer,James T., “How Many Democracies ?”, published in Liberty, Equality and Democracy, edited by Eduardo Nolla, (New York, New York University Press, 1992), pp. 193-205. And see François Furet, “Naissance d’un paradigme : Tocqueville et le voyage en Amérique (1825-1831),” Annales 39:2 (March-April 1984), pp. 225-239; and Furet, “The Intellectual Origins of Tocqueville’s Thought,” The Tocqueville Review 7 (1985/1986), pp. 117-129.
5. DA (Nolla), I, p. 3.
6. DA (Nolla), I, p. 3, note “d”.
7. DA (Nolla), I, pp. 37-44.
8. DA (Nolla), I, p. 303.
9. DA (Nolla), I, p. 190.
10. DA (Nolla), II, p. 14, note “g”.
11. Tocqueville also noted the American experience with the principle and practice of bicameralism ; see DA (Nolla), I, pp. 66-67.
12. See DA (Nolla), I, pp. 119-121; also, p. 48. It is important to remember that although Tocqueville found the American theory of federalism fascinating and innovative, he did not believe that it was applicable to France.
13. DA (Nolla), I, p. 211.
14. DA (Nolla), I, p. 81, note “b”.
15. DA (Nolla), I, p. 81, note “c”.
16. DA (Nolla), I, p. 56.
17. DA (Nolla), I, p. 146.
18. DA (Nolla), II, p. 103.
19. DA (Nolla), II, pp. 273-274 ; and see p. 273, note “o”. Also consult DA (Nolla), I, p. 148, note “h”.
20. DA (Nolla), II, pp. 112-113.
21. For a full discussion, see Making, chs. 17 and 18.
22. DA (Nolla), I, p. 53 ; and see pp. 286-287 and p. 287, note “b”.
23. DA (Nolla), I, p. 243, first part of note “a”.
24. DA (Nolla), I, p. 243, second part of note “a”.
25. See DA (Nolla), II, part 2, chs. VIII and IX.
26. DA (Nolla), II, p. 148.
27. DA (Nolla), I, p. 34.
28. DA (Nolla), I, p. 318, Note (E); and see II, pp. 128-129.
29. DA (Nolla), I, p. 229.
30. DA (Nolla), I, p. 229, note “q”.
31. DA (Nolla), I, p. 57, note “d”.
32. DA (Nolla), I, part 2, ch. IX, pp. 222-234; also see II, part 1, pp. 16-17.
33. DA (Nolla), I, p. 233 ; and see II, p. 132, and p. 132, note “m”.
34. DA (Nolla), I, pp. 301 and 302.
35. See DA (Nolla), I, pp. 10-12 ; for the third portrait, see p. 11.
36. DA (Nolla), I, p. 241 ; also consult the entire sub-section, pp. 236-241.
37. DA (Nolla), II, p. 248, note “k”.
38. DA (Nolla), I, p. 229 ; already quoted above.
39. An example of Tocqueville disagreeing with Montesquieu is his insistence that religion, not fear is what supports despotism.
40. DA (Nolla), II, p. 56, note “k” ; and p. 215, notes “n” and “p”; already quoted above.
41. DA (Nolla), II, pp. 322-324, Appendix V.
42. Consult my essay in Cambridge Companion; and see DA (Nolla), II, p. 8, notes “f” and “g”; already quoted above.
43. The mobile metaphor is the conception of Roger Boesche.
44. Garry Wills, “Did Tocqueville Get America ?”, The New York Review of Books, 51:7 (April 29, 2004), 52-56.
45. For more on the presence of America in the Democracy, see my essay in Cambridge Companion ; two examples of Tocqueville’s vivid sense of the American scene can be found in DA (Nolla), I, p. 219, and II, p. 316, Appendix II ; both of these citations relate to the frontier and the westward movement. Many other examples relate to the American psychology or American behavior ; see three instances : DA (Nolla), I, pp. 306-307 ; and II, pp. 75 and 123-124.
46. There are other important matters that seemed striking or new to Tocqueville during his journey. The limited scope of this paper does not allow me to develop them here; instead I will deal with them in forthcoming essays. But a full discussion would include, for example : the American frontier (who settled it and what it revealed about the stages of civilization) ; the American “mixed system” which combined private and public funding for great economic enterprises, including transportation projects ; the education and role of American women and the American family in general ; and the American character. (In the Democracy, Tocqueville presented a perceptive and nuanced psychological portrait of the American, and significantly many features became elements in his broader portrayal of democratic man ; again America served as the model.)



20 mars