Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction
Harvey C. Mansfield
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No one has ever described American democracy with more accurate insight or more profoundly than Alexis de Tocqueville. After meeting with Americans on extensive travels in the United States, and intense study of documents and authorities, he authored the landmark Democracy in America, publishing its two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Ever since, this book has been the best source for every serious attempt to understand America and democracy itself. Yet Tocqueville himself remains a mystery behind the elegance of his style.
Now one of our leading authorities on Tocqueville explains him in this splendid new entry in Oxford's acclaimed Very Short Introduction series. Harvey Mansfield addresses his subject as a thinker, clearly and incisively exploring Tocqueville's writings--not only his masterpiece, but also his secret Recollections, intended for posterity alone, and his unfinished work on his native France, The Old Regime and the Revolution. Tocqueville was a liberal, Mansfield writes, but not of the usual sort. The many elements of his life found expression in his thought: his aristocratic ancestry, his ventures in politics, his voyages abroad, his hopes and fears for America, and his disappointment with France. All his writings show a passion for political liberty and insistence on human greatness. Perhaps most important, he saw liberty not in theories, but in the practice of self-government in America. Ever an opponent of abstraction, he offered an analysis that forces us to consider what we actually do in our politics--suggesting that theory itself may be an enemy of freedom. And that, Mansfield writes, makes him a vitally important thinker for today.
Translator of an authoritative edition of Democracy in America, Harvey Mansfield here offers the fruit of decades of research and reflection in a clear, insightful, and marvelously compact introduction.
It should not have been a surprise. In his book he shows the actions that produced it, but whose overall meaning escaped the notice of all as they were made. After 1789 the meaning 88 8. Edmund Burke, British statesman and philosopher. In The Old Regime, Tocqueville contrasts Burke’s analysis of the French Revolution with his own. Tocqueville was covered over by the boasting of the revolutionaries and the denunciations of their enemies. Those observers of the Revolution who were able to recover from their surprise most often thought that it was meant to destroy religion and to bring on anarchy or at least weaken political power.
The people schools itself, Tocqueville says, ﬁrst in regard to the township and the jury, then speaking of associations generally: they are to be considered “great schools, free of charge, where all citizens come to learn the general theory of associations. ” Now what is that general theory? Tocqueville does not deﬁne it, but he does refer to both an art and a science of association, somehow combining human action and human understanding in such manner that the theory arises from the actual practice of association.
The monarchy was overthrown by a violent invasion of the constitutional assembly (the Chamber of Deputies) by an armed mob on February 24, 1848. This event legitimated the right of a mob in Paris to act in the name of the French people and to use revolutionary violence against the constitution, and in reaction, it later drove the middle class and peasants into supporting Louis Napoleon to protect their property against that threat. 10. A mob storms a barricade during the 1848 Revolution in France. Tocqueville both foretold and opposed the Revolution but did not succeed in preventing it.
The trouble is that the material goods one acquires increase the thirst for more, bringing discontent rather than satisfaction. In a democracy one is free to change one’s place, one’s job, one’s home, and since Americans set their hearts on the good things of this world, and always more of them, they must always be on the move and in a hurry. No law or custom keeps them where they are. So Americans are grave and sad; they cannot have what they want; life is too short, there are too many choices. Americans, it is true, unite their taste for material well-being with love of liberty and concern for public affairs, but there is no necessary connection between them.
Does that law come from the social state or determine it? Tocqueville equivocates, for he says that the social state is both a product of fact or law and a ﬁrst cause of most social behavior. The importance of political liberty appears to be at stake: What good is political liberty if politics is the consequence of a certain social state and cannot decide important questions? So, despite saying that the social state may be considered the ﬁrst cause of its way of life, he proceeds to speak of the sovereignty of the people—implying the importance of who rules but leaving the impression that democracy is ruled by its social state as much as it rules itself.