Essayist Epstein (Friendship, 2006, etc.) presents his take on America’s most quoted, least vexing Frenchman in this latest addition to the Eminent Lives series.
In 1831, 26-year-old Count Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville, aristocratic in blood and mien, sailed to the new United States on a voyage of discovery. In less than a year, Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont traveled from Niagara to Nashville, Boston to Pittsburgh, studying America’s penal system. The visitors met an emergent middle class, venal politicians, doomed Native Americans, the humble and the eminent. They saw a central government and a federation of states joined in a new form of government. What Tocqueville discovered was equality. Back home, not yet 30, he embarked on his masterwork, Democracy in America. The two-volume work, published in 1835 and 1840, was a sociological prototype and a triumph of political thought. Epstein provides samples of its frequently prescient analysis. A democratic people, Tocqueville noted, would always find two things difficult: “to start a war and to finish it.” Were despotism to gain a foothold in democratic nations, he remarked, “it would be more extensive and more mild, and it would degrade men without tormenting them.” Expressed in lucid, remarkably nimble prose, his political philosophy has been accessed by liberals and conservatives, democrats and gentry. As Epstein reminds us, Tocqueville’s causes were always liberty and human dignity. Though he served as a deputy in the government of Louis-Philippe, he witnessed and reported with measured sympathy on the upheavals of 1848. The Old Regime was published in three years before his death in 1859, but he never completed his assessment of the French Revolution or Napoleon.
A cogent and satisfying primer on the mind of the perspicacious Gallic theorist who discerned a new form of government in America.