For those who care about freedom, these are difficult times. Whether it has been the extension of state power courtesy of COVID or the sense that economic liberty is under siege across the globe, those who genuinely care about the growth and maintenance of free societies seem to be a small tribe indeed. These days, collectivists of the left and right abound.
Such circumstances, however, are not new. Those whom the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called true friends of liberty are never numerous. There have always been libertines (those who separate freedom from a concern for moral truth) as well as those anxious to radically curtail freedom in the name of authority or an ever-leveling equality. Few are those who have held fast to Lord Actons dictum: Liberty [is] not ... the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.
Preserving liberty in this sense is difficult at the best of times, but perhaps especially complicated in conditions of modern democracy. That at least is how Tocqueville understood the problem, or so Olivier Zunz, author of a new biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville, argues.
A distinguished Tocqueville scholar, whose work includes editing the Library
of America edition of Democracy in America, Zunz has made his book very much
a work of biography. Some of the most important Tocqueville biographies penned
in more recent decades, such as André Jardins Tocqueville: A Biography (New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 1988), Hugh Brogans Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (New
Haven: Yale University Press 2007), and Jean-Louis Benoîts Tocqueville (Paris:
Tempus Perrin 2013), have made Tocquevilles ideas their centerpiece. With Zunz,
the balance shifts toward Tocqueville as a person.
Ideasespecially ideas about democracywere central to Tocquevilles life.
But although Zunz pays attention to Tocquevilles major works in which this theme
is discussed, he generally explores Tocquevilles reflections on democracy and its
meaning for liberty and liberal politics through the type of lens more typical of
classical biographies: family life, interactions with friends and foes, correspondence,
and so forth. The effect is to bring out the many tensions inside and surrounding
Tocqueville and the ways that he sought, not always successfully, to resolve them in
his life, thought, and writings.
The other axis around which Zunzs account revolves is his conviction that
America remained a central focus for Tocquevilles reflection on modern democracy
long after he penned Democracy in America. This functions as a corrective to those
scholars who have long argued that France and its problems were the priority for
Tocqueville and that his reflections about America should be read through that lens.
By contrast, Zunz maintains that Tocquevilles interest in American democracy never
took second place to his worries about and ambitions for his native land. To an extent
greater than previous biographers, Zunz shows how Tocqueville followed the ups
and downs of American politics far more closely than most scholars hitherto realized.
Another theme stressed by Zunz is Tocquevilles effort to overcome the deep
nineteenth-century chasm between liberalism and religion, specifically Christianity
and even more particularly Roman Catholicism. Tocquevilles attention to this
subject is well-known, not least because of the attention that Democracy in America gave to the role played by religion in moderating and countering the egalitarian currents associated with democracy. Zunz, however, points to significant places that illustrate just how high a priority Tocqueville accorded to such a reconciliation.
What Tocqueville most wanted, Zunz writes, to accomplish in his political life,
he told his friend Corcelle and his brother Edouard on several occasions, was to
reconcile the liberal spirit with that of religion, the new society, and the church
Tocqueville was acutely aware that one of the French Revolutions most lasting
impacts was to create two Frances. The first was associated with the Revolution
itself. A distinct anticlericalism became part of its identity, something reinforced
by the outright persecution of the Church during the Revolutions early years. The
second was Catholic France: one that tended to look back nostalgically to the ancien
régime, associated itself with the cause of Bourbon legitimacy, and was inclined to
regard the Revolution and all its works as the creation of godless philosophes.
In his person, Zunz demonstrates, Tocqueville embodied all the strains associated
with this division. Though he came from an aristocratic Catholic family of
legitimists from whom he drew most of his friends, Tocqueville did not waver in his
embrace of the ideals of the Revolution. And although plagued by religious doubts
that never quite left him, Tocqueville continued to practice his religion. Above
all, Tocquevilles dream was of religion in France assuming the various roles that
he believed it played in mid-nineteenth-century American democracy: underpinning,
for instance, the habit of association that he considered essential for limiting tendencies
to centralization, or encouraging the virtues and moeurs that Tocqueville regarded
as indispensable supports for liberty and democracy.
The gaps were possibly too large among the French, and the memories of
wounds received during the Revolution still too fresh, for Tocquevilles ambitions
to be realized in the area. The reflexive anticlericalism of most of the republican left
and the growing Ultramontanism of many on the Catholic right left Tocqueville in
a party of almost-one, in which his only company were Catholic liberals like Charles
de Montalembert. But the sheer number of problems assailing France in the 1840s
and 1850s, accompanied by ongoing realignments across the political spectrum, was
always going to make realizing such a goal difficult, if not impossible.
In the end, Tocquevilles desire to bolster democracys advance into the future
took him into the past: more specifically, a determination to comprehend the roots
of the French Revolution, which had ushered in a new era of freedom and yet also
gone badly wrong in so many ways. The most immediate fruit of that inquiry was
Tocquevilles The Old Regime and the Revolution. Its central point was that the trend
to centralization of power in France was well underway long before 1789.
Tocqueville, Zunz stresses, read many commentators on the Revolution
before immersing himself in this topic. That included some of the Revolutions
harshest critics like Joseph de Maistre. All that is well-known, but Zunz brings to
light Edmund Burkes influence on Tocquevilles understanding of the Revolution.
As everyone knows, Burkes view of the Revolution was decidedly negative. Zunz
shows, however, that Tocqueville absorbed a number of Burkes specific insights
into some of the Revolutions features that helped explain the trajectory leading up
to and following 1789.
Tocqueville believed that Burke had missed the Revolutions universal implications,
and even thought that Burke remained buried in an ancient world. For
Tocqueville, the Revolutions repression of the remnants of feudalism and the accompanying
uplifting of liberty and formal equality before the law were real achievements.
Nonetheless, Tocqueville thought that Burke was on to something when he
stated that the French were not fit for liberty (meaning that they had been too
accustomed for too long to too strong a hand). He also agreed with Burkes condemnation
of the Revolutions confiscation of church property. That, plus the 1790
Constitution Civile du Clergé that had magnified the states control of the Church,
had turned many Catholics against the Revolution. More generally, Burkes observation
that the prerevolutionary continental philosophes tendency to abstraction and
their detachment from the everyday realties of politics inclined them to top-down
utopian schemes of reconstructing society made a deep impression on Tocqueville.
It resulted, Zunz suggests, in an entire chapter of The Old Regime being focused on
Tocqueville never wrote the projected follow-up volumes to The Old Regime. One was to be devoted to the Revolution itself while the other concerned the rise of Napoleons regime. His death from tuberculosis in 1859 put an end to these
ambitions. This meant that Tocqueville did not see the end of Louis-Napoleons
authoritarian Second Empire in 1870 or, Zunz stresses, the American Civil War that
almost destroyed the America that he saw as a harbinger of a democratic future. In
some respects, Tocquevilles life ended with the consolations of family and religion,
but also profound political disappointments.
For all his many successes, Tocquevilles life, as presented by Zunz, comes across
as one marked by considerable personal discontent and political frustration. The two
were deeply intertwined, and the anxieties and doubts that never left Tocqueville no
doubt made the burden even greater. For Zunz, however, these facets of Tocquevilles
life served a creative purpose insofar as they caused him to inquire ever more deeply
and with persistent rigor into the phenomenon of democracy. As a consequence,
Zunz concludes, Tocqueville understood America so well that his work has helped
Americans make sense of their democratic experiment (p. 350). That perhaps is
what made Tocqueville such a friend of liberty in his time and an indispensable guide
for protecting and promoting freedom in ours.