Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: RETURN FROM AMERICA—RETIRES FROM THE MAGISTRACY—DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (FIRST PART)—MARRIAGE—ENTRANCE INTO THE INSTITUTE—THE ACADEMY OF MORAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCE—BECOMES A MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY OF FRANCE—PUBLICATION OF THE SECOND PART OF THE - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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CHAPTER III.: RETURN FROM AMERICA—RETIRES FROM THE MAGISTRACY—DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (FIRST PART)—MARRIAGE—ENTRANCE INTO THE INSTITUTE—THE ACADEMY OF MORAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCE—BECOMES A MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY OF FRANCE—PUBLICATION OF THE SECOND PART OF THE - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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RETURN FROM AMERICA—RETIRES FROM THE MAGISTRACY—DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (FIRST PART)—MARRIAGE—ENTRANCE INTO THE INSTITUTE—THE ACADEMY OF MORAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCE—BECOMES A MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY OF FRANCE—PUBLICATION OF THE SECOND PART OF THE DEMOCRACY—IS ELECTED DEPUTY.
After having passed a year in the United States, Tocqueville returned to France. From that time his object was to write the book for which he had already formed the plan and collected the materials. His attention was diverted for some time by the penitentiary question, of which our two colleagues had to render an account to the government and to the public. They did so in the form of a report addressed to the minister, and in a book which was their first joint composition and publication.*
The resumption of his magisterial duties at Versailles might have proved an obstacle, or at least a rival, to the progress of the work. An accident removed it. His friend, M. de Beaumont, who had returned to his official post, refused to speak on an occasion when the part which the ministère public had to play appeared to him discreditable, and had, for this reason, been dismissed. Tocqueville, considering himself affected by the blow which struck his friend, immediately sent in his resignation in these terms:—
“Toulon, May 21st, 1832.
“Monsieur le Procureur-General,
“Being now at Toulon, engaged in inspecting the Bagnio and other prisons of the town, it was only to-day that I learnt, from the Moniteur of the 16th of May, the severe and, I venture to say, unjust sentence pronounced by M. le Garde des Sceaux on M. G. de Beaumont.
“Long united in intimate friendship with the person who has just been dismissed from his functions, whose opinions I hold, and whose conduct I approve, I think myself bound voluntarily to share his lot, and to abandon with him a career in which neither active service nor upright conduct is a security against unmerited disgrace.
“I have the honour, therefore, to request you, M. le Procureur-Général, to have the goodness to lay before M. le Garde des Sceaux my resignation of the office of juge suppléant at the Tribunal of Versailles.
“I have the honour to be,” &c.
In fact, this proceeding was a greater loss to the magistracy than to Tocqueville. By giving up his office, he became once more absolute master of his time, of which he was about to make such admirable use.
He composed his two first volumes of the Democracy in America from the year 1832 to 1834. These two years were probably the happiest of his life. Not only he devoted himself with ardour to his book, but he was able to do so without a single anxiety.
Free from all professional duties, not yet married, but already attached to her who was to be his wife; his mind at rest, and his heart satisfied; he was in a state so rare and always so short-lived, in which a man, freed from every obligation, every restraint, every care, taking part in the affairs of the world and of his domestic circle only as much as he chooses, free, in short, without being solitary, is in full possession of his intellectual independence.
The life of Tocqueville during these two years, austere yet full of passionate excitement, could not be contemplated without deep interest. He took refuge during the whole day in a lodging, of which the secret was known to few, where he gave himself up to the intense and unmixed satisfaction of intellectual creation. Separated by only a few moments from the torrent of success which was soon to carry him away—to delight and, at the same time, to enslave him; he was at this time rejoicing, without a care, in the seclusion which belongs only to obscurity; as great as he ever became, but unknown to the world and to himself, full of hope, though not without a certain misgiving, on the point of being illustrious, though still unknown. No work of genius has ever been created in the midst of the distractions of the world. Woe to the writer who cannot raise himself above the earth, and create for himself an atmosphere of thought! That pure atmosphere Tocqueville found in his self-made existence, between the labour which elevated his mind, and the tender feeling which impassioned his heart.
The two first volumes of the Democracy in America appeared in the month of January, 1835.
An analysis of this book is not within our limits. It is in the hands of every one, and may be judged by every one.* Here it is enough to record its immense success—a success which, perhaps, cannot be compared with any other in our time. Every one knows the remark of M. Royer-Collard:—“Since Montesquieu there has been nothing like it:” and, “Twenty years later, we repeat the same judgment,” said, on a great occasion, a celebrated historian and distinguished statesman—M. de Barante.† The most remarkable characteristic of this success was its universality. There is, perhaps, no other instance of a book which, addressed to the highest intellects, has made so much progress with the public in general. The first sign of popular success appeared in the office in which the book was printed. The workmen engaged in its production, from the overseer and the correctors of the press down to the simple compositors, bestowed upon their work unusual care, expressed to the author their sympathy, and seemed eager for the success of a book, to which each thought it an honour to have contributed. It was a good omen, and all the more encouraging, as the editor, an intelligent man, who could not, of course, have read his MS., had consented, with extreme reluctance, and on the refusal of another publisher, to bring out the book.
Edition followed edition with incredible rapidity, almost all in the cheap form suitable to an extensive demand; and the book has now reached the fourteenth. The success still continues; and if the expression of a sincere conviction be permitted to the author of these pages, he ventures to say that from year to year its reputation will increase; and that it will find in its duration the consecration which belongs exclusively to works of genius.
No surprise need be excited by the fact that this success made all parties desirous of appropriating the book and its author. Some declared Tocqueville to be a democrat; others said that he was an aristocrat. He was neither. Born in the ranks of the aristocracy, but with a love for liberty, Tocqueville had found modern society in the hands of the democracy; and, considering this to be an established fact, which it was no longer possible to question, he thought that to the absolute equality thus produced it was essential to add liberty; for without liberty equality has no check to its impulses, no counterpoise to its oppressions; and he judged this union so necessary, that he saw no aim in the present time more important to pursue, and to it he therefore devoted his whole life. This is the leading idea of the book; and, we may add, of those which followed it.
All great political writers have written with some such object in view. That of Tocqueville was to unite liberty to the already existing equality; and he not only searched eagerly in a democratic country for the fundamental conditions of liberty, but it may even be said that he discovered and pointed them out. In the lowest order a municipal power firmly rooted, between the commonalty and the ruling order, trial by jury, and a judiciary power strong enough to arbitrate with steady impartiality between the rulers and the people; local privileges placed out of the reach of the perils which always threaten the general political freedom, so that in case of its overthrow these shall not perish with it. He was the first to understand and point out the protection afforded to liberty by judicial institutions, and the peculiar importance of these institutions to a democracy. All this is prominent in every page of his Democracy in America.
The brilliant success of the Democracy was not confined to France; it was equally striking abroad; and the book was immediately translated into every language. But what is above all worthy of remark, is the sensation which it excited in the very country which it described and criticised. The Americans could not understand how a stranger, after a residence among them of only a year, could, with such marvellous sagacity, master their institutions and manners; enter into the spirit of them; and exhibit, in a clear and logical form, what they themselves had, till then, only vaguely apprehended. There is not one eminent man in the United States who does not acknowledge that M. de Tocqueville revealed to him the constitution of his country, and the esprit des lois of America.
And it is no less worthy of remark, that while he produced this impression on the most democratic people in the world, he found equal favour in the most aristocratic, namely, in England. There also his book met, in every rank of society, in periodicals, in drawing-rooms, in the Houses of Parliament even, with universal approbation, of which he received the tokens in person; for, at this time (May 1835), with the companion of his American tour, he visited England. He had done so two years before (in 1833); he had been received with kindness, but with the ordinary kindness due to his name and to his letters of introduction. The comparison between these two receptions measured the revolution in his existence made by a single day, and he delighted in a change for which he had to thank only himself.
Such was the moral weight which the publication of Tocqueville’s book had given to him, that a House of Commons committee on bribery at elections took advantage of his presence in London to obtain the benefit of his information. His evidence on this occasion was quoted, five months afterwards, in the House by Sir R. Peel, in support of his own opinions, and appealed to at the same time by the other side of the House.
One characteristic of Tocqueville’s book, which belongs to all great intellectual works, is, to take a place above the narrow views of party, the accidents of the day, and the passions of the moment. For this reason, it was from the beginning, and will long continue to be, quoted as an authority by the holders of the most opposite opinions; and this explains the success obtained by it in the country where aristocracy has the ascendant, as well as in that where democracy rules.
Tocqueville derived another advantage from his visit to England; it was for him the beginning of personal relations with some of her most distinguished men, with many of whom he formed a friendship that lasted during his whole life.
On his return from this visit, full of lively impressions and flattering recollections, he married, in the month of October, 1835, the young English lady, Miss Mary Mottley, with whom he had long been deeply in love. Thus two great events took place in the same year—the success of his first book, an immense success, which threw him at once into public life; and marriage, which settled the destiny of his private life.
Of a man’s own acts there is not one that exercises a greater influence on all the rest of his life than his marriage; nor is there any which more fully lays open the depth of his real character. Miss Mottley had scarcely any fortune, and the worldly-wise did not spare their objections. These objections acquired new force from the recent success of Tocqueville, which added one more advantage to those of his birth and fortune. But he did not hesitate. Intellectual superiority would, indeed, hardly be worth having, if the moral feelings and character were to remain on the ordinary level. Although Tocqueville’s reason had imbibed democratic notions, he retained aristocratic sentiments; and there is none so aristocratic as a contempt for money. Though sensible of its value as a means of action in this world, Tocqueville considered money as of secondary interest. He did not admit the possibility of risking for it honour and happiness; and differing from the majority, who in marriage seek chiefly to make a good bargain, he wisely and proudly followed the dictates of his mind and heart. He did not act thus from mere impulse; he was deeply convinced of the moral influence exercised over the entire existence of a man by the character of her whom he has chosen for a companion. He knew that in public as well as in private life, the most upright conscience and steadfast independence are liable to totter if they have not at their side an auxiliary force to rest upon; he knew that a fall is certain to the man who allies himself with weakness; in fact, he knew himself, and that he could only find happiness in union with a wife who would merge her existence in his, and who would entirely unite her life to his, to his tastes, pursuits, and convictions, so far removed from the tastes and convictions of the world. He had discovered all these qualities in her whom he loved, and from that moment his determination was irrevocable. How often has he said to the writer of these lines, that his marriage, censured by the prudent, had been the most sensible action of his life. Perhaps the friend to whom he confided his most secret thoughts, best knows all that the tender and faithful companion of his life was to him during a union of twenty-five years; sympathizing intensely with his success, cheering him when he lost heart, soothing and tranquillizing him when he was in sorrow or depression; full of care, devotion, and energy in all his trials.
A year after his marriage, on his return from a tour of some months, which he had been making with his wife in Switzerland, he wrote to the oldest friend he had,* a letter, of which one passage proves, better than anything which could be said here, his opinion of her to whom his fate was united.
“Nacqueville,† October 10th, 1836.
“. . . . I cannot tell you the inexpressible charm which I have found in living so continually with Marie, nor the treasures which I was perpetually discovering in her heart. You know that in travelling, still more than at other times, my temper is uneven, irritable, and impatient. I scolded her frequently, and almost always unjustly; and on each occasion I discovered in her inexhaustible springs of tenderness and indulgence. And then, I cannot describe to you the happiness yielded in the long run by the habitual society of a woman in whose soul all that is good in your own is reflected naturally, and even improved. When I say or do a thing which seems to me to be perfectly right, I read immediately in Marie’s countenance an expression of proud satisfaction, which elevates me still higher; and so, when my conscience reproaches me, her face instantly clouds over. Although I have great power over her mind, I see with pleasure that she awes me; and as long as I love her as I now do, I am sure that I shall never allow myself to be drawn into anything wrong.
“Not a day passes when I do not thank Heaven for having thrown Marie in my way, or without my thinking that if anything can give happiness on earth, it is the possession of such a partner. . . . ”
What he then felt and wrote, he felt and wrote still more strongly twenty-five years later, when, in the midst of many vanished dreams and disappointed expectations, his only complete and lasting satisfaction was that afforded by his marriage.
In the mean time the success of the Democracy, confirmed by the public, soon received a more distinguished sanction. It carried its author to the Institute, which may be said to have opened wide to him her doors. Already in 1836, the Academy of France, that every year crowns the works of the greatest moral utility, had on this account accorded to the Democracy in America, an extraordinary prize raised from 6,000 fr., which in general is the maximum, to 8,000, in order to mark an especial distinction.* In 1838, Tocqueville was elected a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Science, and the circumstances of his election prove the eager desire of the Institute to receive him into their body. The vacancy to be filled was that made by M. de Romiguière, who belonged by his labours to the philosophical section. The vacant seat was therefore in that section, and Tocqueville, whose claims were of another order, did not seem the man to fill it. To prevent objection and disappointment, the Academy removed one of its members, M. Jouffroy, from the moral section, in which he was well placed, to what suited him perhaps still better, the philosophical section. A seat in the moral section was thus rendered vacant, and Alexis de Tocqueville, well fitted for it by his talents and his works, was called upon to fill it. But in 1841, when the death of M. de Cessac left unoccupied a fauteuil in the Academy of France, the member elected was Tocqueville.*
The publication, in 1840, of the last two volumes of the Democracy in America, which complete the work by describing the influence of democracy on manners, now raised still higher Tocqueville’s reputation and claims.
I have abstained from criticising the first two volumes. I shall be equally reserved as to these. It is enough to state, that they cost their author much more time and much more exertion than their predecessors. He felt the obligations imposed by success. He resolved not merely not to sink, but to rise. He used to say that a writer ought to aim, not at making a good book, but an excellent book—a maxim, not of vanity, but of severe self-exaction, which he applied as much to his lightest as to his most important compositions. In preparing these volumes, he gave still deeper meditation to his matter, and still more exquisite polish to his style. He had written admirably before he had reflected deeply on the secrets of the art of writing. Glimpses of them he got while he was working. He was convinced that they must be thoroughly mastered by the writer whose works are to live. He felt that every creation of the mind, great or small, is a work of art, and that the force and the effect of a thought depend on the words in which it is clothed. In the first two volumes, Tocqueville had frequently been a great artist without appearing to be one. In the last two he is always one, but not without a visible effort. If the effort, however, be visible, so is the fruit. The style approaches nearer to perfection. In his earnest ambition to attain that object, he reperused the masters of style, especially the great men of the seventeenth century. He tried to discover the rules by which each of them was guided; but there was no one whom he studied with more perseverance and more interest than Pascal. The two minds were made for one another. The duty of constant thought imposed on his reader by Pascal was a charm to Tocqueville. He perhaps owes to this predilection the only blame to which he has exposed himself, that of giving his reader no rest. In some parts of the last two volumes of La Démocratie, thought is linked to thought without an interval for repose or relaxation. In the first two volumes, Tocqueville was not open to this charge. In his animated description of American institutions, facts are inseparably mixed with speculations. An Englishman, author of an interesting work on the United States, was complimenting him on this part of the work; “What I especially admire,” he said, “is, that while treating so great a subject, you have so thoroughly avoided general ideas.”
There could not be a greater mistake; but Tocqueville was delighted. It showed to him that the abstractions with which his book is filled, had been so skilfully presented in a concrete form, that an acute, though certainly not a profound, reader did not perceive that the particular facts were only illustrations of general principles. No one can rise from the perusal of the second part of the work with such an impression. In describing the intellectual activity, the feelings, and the manners of the Americans, it was no longer possible to conceal the presence of general ideas, and by introducing them in the form of facts to render them more effective though less obvious. The book is full of reflections upon reflections. A reader incapable of rising to their source, and of feeling in himself the subtlety of their truth, must be fatigued by what may have appeared to him a collection of ingenious propositions, capable, perhaps, of proof, but also, perhaps, of refutation. Vigorous intellects, and only those, understand and admire the power which renders clear and precise, subjects which, to most minds, are vague and obscure. To them these volumes, suggested by no model, appear like a masterpiece of skill, and they rank them even above their forerunners.
We have said that Tocqueville, in his anxiety to develop his intellect and improve his art, had studied earnestly the great writers of the seventeenth century. One intellectual labour leads to another; and he was thus led to fill some gaps in his early education. Delighted by the historians, he had, perhaps, neglected the great philosophers and moralists of ancient and modern times. To read them was a useful preparation for a writer who had to estimate the influence of democracy on the feelings, the opinions, and the manners of a people. He may be said to have devoured Plato, Plutarch, Machiavel, Montaigne, Rousseau, and their fellows.
“I feel,” he wrote to a friend, “while reading these works, of which it is shameful to be ignorant, and which but yesterday I was scarcely acquainted with, the pleasure with which Marshal Soult learned geography when he became foreign minister.”
The quantity of books of different kinds which he then read is prodigious. One class only he absolutely avoided; those which, directly or indirectly, bore on his own subject. He feared that if his mind had once begun to tread a path marked out by another, it might not easily return to its own, and might lose the vigour and the originality which he regarded as the principal merit in literary composition. All this shows how it was that the second part of his work cost him five years, the first part having been finished in two.
His progress was retarded by another cause. His personal position was altered. The absolute independence, which is the privilege only of early youth, was gone. Besides the domestic demands of marriage, and the social ones of literary success, two new elements were introduced into his life: the interests of a landed proprietor and of a politician.
Country life, without doubt, is eminently favourable to the soundness and the development of the intellect; that is, if its seclusion be enjoyed, and its business avoided. To enable the mind to create and to produce, the conditions are silence, security, the absence of all disturbance, and the certainty that when the inspiration begins, when the thought is budding, it shall not be blighted, or broken off, or even kept back by some accidental interloper, some private business, or some domestic care. This perfect security, not merely undisturbed, but not even in danger of disturbance, can be found in the country, but only on the supposition that the author be a visitor. Tocqueville lived on his own estate. Though he had two elder brothers, the Vicomte and the Baron de Tocqueville, family arrangements made after the death of his mother, in 1836, and facilitated by the strong mutual attachment of the three brothers, made him the possessor of the old family seat, the chateau of Tocqueville, in the peninsula which ends by Cherbourg.
It was in bad repair; full of associations and of ruins. From the upper window are seen the sea and the magnificent coast of La Manche. The fertility of this country equals its beauty. Nowhere is nature more grand or more rich. But the traditions which make a country interesting, and the natural charms which render it seductive, are as dangerous to the mind as they are enchanting to the heart. Interests are the enemies of ideas; and even when the cares and the associations of property do not enslave the thoughts, its business occupies the time. Tocqueville struggled against these material influences; but perhaps the struggle was weakened by the feeling that the care of his property, though mischievous to his book, promoted another object, which already attracted him—the entrance into public affairs.
It is certain that if he had not sought political life, it would have sought him; for in a free country, anything that raises a man above the crowd draws to him public attention, and Tocqueville was already illustrious. But in fact he desired it. Tocqueville had much ambition; not the vulgar ambition which feeds on money or on place, or is satisfied by empty honours—such ambition he knew only to despise it. The ambition which filled and animated him, was the manly and pure ambition, which in a free country is the first of public virtues; an ambition which is patriotism, which is eagerness for the grandeur of the country which it aspires to govern through the struggles which belong to liberty, by efforts never suspended, and by successes due only to merit and to talent—a great and noble ambition, not to be blamed, but to be honoured, which alone can give brilliancy or dignity to power, and which aggrandizes even those whom it fails to exalt.
Now to dwell in the country, and to take part in its business, is not merely useful, but necessary to political life. Local interest is created and preserved by residence. On local interest depends election; and in a free country, election is political birth.
To establish local interest in Normandy, Tocqueville had to meet not merely the difficulties opposed to a new candidate, but also some special obstacles. In spite of his father’s influence in the province, or rather in consequence of that influence, he found, and it could not be wondered at, a general disposition to attribute to him legitimist opinions. Much time, and much personal intercourse with his countrymen were necessary before this prejudice could be overcome. It was so deeply rooted, that without the assistance of his book, of the acclamation which it obtained in the great world, and which was echoed in every hamlet, it is doubtful whether it would ever have been overcome. The obstacle was strengthened even by his dignity of character. Desirous as he was to enter the elected Chamber, he was resolved that it should be only on the condition of perfect independence. The following anecdote shows the strength of his feelings on this point.
At the election of 1847, Count Molé, the prime minister, knowing that Tocqueville was a candidate in La Manche, without his knowledge officially recommended him as a government candidate. In so doing, M. Molé merely yielded to his feelings of sympathy and affection for a young relation, whose rising reputation delighted him, and whose attachment to himself would be increased by his support. Tocqueville, who had offered himself as an independent candidate, knew only a week or two before the election, that he was recommended by the government. Believing that such a support, while it ensured his success, might injure his character, he immediately addressed to Count Molé a vehement remonstrance. Molé’s answer was equally sharp. The correspondence which followed was honourable to them both: to the candidate, for the frankness and firmness with which he rejected a patronage that would have secured his election; to the minister, for the liberality with which he offered his aid, and for the dignity with which he withdrew it. The result was that Tocqueville failed; but as the cause of his failure was known, it revealed his character. Two years after, at the general election of 1839, he was chosen by a large majority. He was then fully the master of his constituency.
Every one must feel the disturbance that the efforts necessary to open the way to political life must have made in his intellectual existence; how much energy and strength of will were necessary in order to carry on together, in spite of the obstacles of a health which was always fragile, the composition of his book, a work for solitude and retirement, and the care of his political ambition, a work to be carried on only in public, and amidst all the cares and obligations of publicity.
He was elected in March, 1839, and it was not until the beginning of 1840, that the last two volumes of his Democracy in America were published.
Here ends, for the present, his literary life, to be resumed after an interval of 15 years—and his political life begins.
[*]Under the title of The Penitentiary System in the United States, and of its application in France, 1 vol. 8vo.; 2d edition, 2 vols. 8vo.; 3d edition, 1 vol. 8vo. Translated into German by Dr. Julius of Berlin, and into English by Francis Lieber of Boston, the distinguished author of many publications, among others of a book entitled Political Ethics. He is now a member of the Institute.
[*]See the excellent work of M. de Laboulaye on the “Life and Writings of A. de Tocqueville,” and the Criticism on M. de Lacy.—Variétés Littéraires, vol. ii. s. 67.
[†]Historical Society of France. Meeting of the 2nd May, 1859.
[*]Count Louis de Kergorlay.
[†]Nacqueville, near Cherbourg, is the château of Tocqueville’s eldest brother, Count Hippolyto de Tocqueville, with whom he was then staying.
[*]At the sitting of the 11th of August, 1836. The prize was awarded on the report of the Villemain, who thus concluded an analysis of the Democracy. “Such is M. de Tocqueville’s book: talent, good sense, elevation, a simple, unaffected style, and the love of virtue eloquently expressed, are its characteristics; and they give the Academy little hope of crowning a work with similar claims.”
[*]In the Moniteur of the 22nd of April, 1842, may be found the remarkable speech, on his reception, by Alexis de Tocqueville, and the reply of Count Molé.