Front Page Titles (by Subject) Foreword - The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America
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Foreword - James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America 
The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Foreword by George W. Pierson (2nd edition) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Tocqueville? In this second half of the twentieth century—in our age of social anxieties and national self-questioning—thoughtful people have been turning more and more to the complex but extraordinarily illuminating work that the young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, composed about us almost a century and a half ago.
This work was entitled Democracy in America (De la Démocratie en Amérique), and it appeared, as we know, in four volumes. The first two volumes, published in 1835 and translated in England and republished in an American edition in 1838, described and analyzed the American experiment with a clarity, balance, and penetration that were astonishing, and with an overall approval that surprised and delighted American readers. Overnight they became classic and were printed and reprinted, with editions for use in our schools. The second two volumes, only finished and translated in 1840, seemed to focus on equality, or egalitarianism in the modern world, at least as much as on American democratic self-government. Obviously they were philosophic and more remote. Less obviously, we were not culturally ready to assimilate Tocqueville’s pioneering projections into the psychology and sociology of the masses. We regarded ourselves as exceptions, as under a special destiny. So volumes three and four were accepted, but much less read.
Then times changed. After the Civil War, as nationalism replaced federalism, and as industrialism took over and the cities grew, Tocqueville’s institutional descriptions of what had been an agrarian republic (volumes one and two) became more and more out of date, while his anxieties about the democratic masses (volumes three and four) appeared to have been refuted by the dazzling expansion and prosperity of the nation. In 1888 James Bryce published his American Commonwealth. And in short order this new classic replaced the old Democracy in schools or private libraries.
So Tocqueville was almost forgotten—but has now been revived.
A part of the Tocqueville revival (which began about 1938 and which bids fair to continue for many years) was the rediscovery of the Democracy in America, and especially of the second two volumes. What Tocqueville had had to say about American materialism and money-mindedness, about the cultural shallowness of an activist and problem-oriented society, about the instincts and jealous mediocrity of the masses, about the tyranny of the majority and suffocation by sheer numbers, about what wars might do to substitute centralization for freedom, or about the risks of despotism from a democratized bureaucracy, or about the loss of private energy in a welfare state—indeed about an astonishing range of contemporary discomforts and anxieties—rather suddenly and irresistibly, after the Great Depression and World War II and the disillusionments of our worldwide responsibilities, came to seem prophetic, and not only prophetic but challenging and profoundly instructive. So the Démocratie has been partially or wholly retranslated in two important new editions, has reentered the curriculum in our colleges and universities, and is resorted to and quoted by writers of all parties and persuasions (see the able analysis by Robert Nisbet, “Many Tocquevilles,” in American Scholar, winter 1976–77).
A second element contributing to the Tocqueville revival on both sides of the Atlantic has been the recovery, publication, and study of a fascinating variety of Tocqueville and Tocqueville-related manuscripts. This began with the discovery of the existence of the U.S. travel notes and diaries and letters home of Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend and traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont. These were first used in my Tocqueville and Beaumont in America and have now in considerable part been printed in the Oeuvres complètes d’ Alexis de Tocqueville: a still-growing edition which since 1951 has been in the process of republishing all of Tocqueville’s works, together with his published and unpublished papers and conversations and letters. Recently the head of the editorial working committee, André Jardin, and I have also brought out Beaumont’s Lettres d’ Amérique, 1831–1832. And over the years a collection has been forming at Yale which includes not only the many other surviving Beaumont documents but copies of lost Tocqueville materials and the original drafts and the working manuscript of the Democracy itself. So there has come into existence, or been recovered, a wide and informative range of materials on the background, circumstances, composition, and reception of Tocqueville’s masterpiece.
Rediscovery of Tocqueville—recovery of his papers—yet there has been one thing missing. Critics and commentators have reread him. Scholars and students have been focusing on particular aspects of Tocqueville’s life, his experiences in England or the revolution of 1848, his religious beliefs or his social and political thought—almost to the point of generating a small but flourishing Tocqueville industry. Yet up until now no one has had the courage to tackle the great volume (I should say the formidable mass) of Tocqueville’s difficult and sometimes almost indecipherable notes and drafts and essays and working manuscript for his celebrated masterpiece—to find out how and why it was put together. This study of the manufacture, or rather of the creation, of the Democracy is what James T. Schleifer has attempted, and with impressive results.
The first clear gain for students of Tocqueville and of his Démocratie is a many-sided enlargement of our information. Schleifer shows not only when Tocqueville wrote the different parts of his book—and where and under what influences or pressures of circumstance—but what books he read, or used, or rejected—whose conversations and ideas most influenced him—whom he consulted for substance or for style—how his four volumes began and grew and gradually shifted in focus—but also what difficulties the author encountered and what frustrations. With Schleifer’s aid each of us will make his own discoveries, both great and small. I found Tocqueville’s (here documented) use of the Federalist Papers, and his borrowings or rejections of James Madison, particularly illuminating. Schleifer will surprise many by his demonstration that Tocqueville paid considerably more attention to the American economy than I and others have supposed. Schleifer not only confirms Tocqueville’s multiple meanings for his key themes of democracy, individualism, centralization, and despotism, and demonstrates the confusion that sometimes resulted, but points out the benefits that Tocqueville realized from this practice. Finally, we profit from the fact that, in the process of tracing the evolution of particular arguments, Schleifer has uncovered and translated a variety of passages in the notes, the drafts, even the working manuscript, which have never before seen the light—passages often lit as if from above by one or more of Tocqueville’s telling phrases.
A second general order of gain is in our understanding of Tocqueville’s mind: of how he thought and worked. Schleifer’s acute and penetrating analysis brings out unmistakably both Tocqueville’s pluralism (what Nisbet calls the “composite” character of his book) and his instinct for generalization or penchant for ideal types. Schleifer shows Tocqueville often balancing—opposing his themes—juggling painfully with opposites—or almost playing with paradoxes, and returning to play again. We watch Tocqueville fumbling, and sometimes recovering his fumble. We are initiated into Tocqueville’s hesitations and ambiguities and can identify not a few confusions. We encounter some troubling reflections that were later omitted—and some prophetic early convictions or stances which up to now have been identified only in the mature Tocqueville of 1848 or later. So gradually the perceptive reader will come to recognize that many passages in the Democracy carry a greater freight of meaning than has hitherto been supposed. For if Tocqueville finally decided against certain theses in his drafts, or seemingly rejected some alternative interpretations, the fact was that he might be carrying the unresolved paradoxes still in the back of his mind. Sometimes sheer fatigue may have been responsible for an omission, or we can watch (in Schleifer’s nice phrase) “postponement lengthening into a kind of abandonment.”
It should be said that Schleifer has not been able, in so dense and cogent a study, to trace all the themes in Tocqueville’s quasirationalized, quasi-intuitive analysis of democracy-in-America-and-egalitarianism-in-the-modern-world. But he has identified the materials, demonstrated the method, outlined the evolution of a number of key ideas, and illustrated the rewards—in short, he has shown the way, encouraged further work in Tocqueville’s unpublished manuscripts, and brought over the horizon for the first time the possibility of a great annotated edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy: an edition this classic deserves and workers beyond the field of Tocqueville scholarship will be grateful for.
Is not the original Democracy enough, naked and undisguised? It is indeed much, and by itself perhaps more than we deserve, or have the humble patience to digest. It may not be “the greatest work ever written about one country by a citizen of another,” but it is surely one of the master keys to an understanding of modern mass society. So to understand it and Tocqueville better is gain for us all.
I am reminded of the Federalist Papers and the Debates of the Federal Convention. Our Constitution is sufficient by itself? It alone governs? Yes—in the wording and the finality of its pronouncements. Yet only through interpretation. And it may be recalled that after many years of taking the Constitution at face value the Supreme Court was finally able to read the Debates which had taken place in the course of its drafting—and our Justices have not been so innocent, indeed they have been the wiser, since. For the Debates and the Federalist Papers showed what the fathers of the Constitution had been thinking about and so clothed that document with deeper and wider meanings. They gave our Constitution—our ten commandments so to speak—a setting and a depth in history—to the enlightenment and benefit—of the whole nation.
So now we are able to go behind the naked and often cloudy or inconsistent pronouncements of the Democracy and come closer to what Tocqueville perhaps really meant. For we can hear Tocqueville’s debates with his contemporaries and, more importantly, we can watch him debating with himself. To those of us concerned for the human condition, and not obsessed with Freud or infected with the virus of Marxism, this can be a most rewarding exercise. For Tocqueville was a man of honor, with an intuitive intelligence that came close to genius, who cared profoundly for the dignity and freedom of man.
g. w. pierson