Liberty Matters

And Yet This Book Is Still Read


Aurelian Craiutu’s thoughts on Alexis de Tocqueville’s new science of politics end with the intriguing thought experiment of how Democracy in America would have been received as a doctoral dissertation in a top research university. How, he invites us to reflect, might a group of today’s distinguished political scientists armed with all manner of quantitative techniques and sophisticated methodologies respond to the work of a young and enthusiastic researcher recently returned from a 10-month research trip who manifestly managed to miss the compulsory course on research methods?
This is no idle question, as anyone who has presented a paper on Tocqueville before an audience of political scientists will be aware. I recently had this experience, although I should add that the very able political scientist who quizzed me was strongly of the view that, with a bit of effort, Tocqueville’s ideas could be operationalized, and with considerable benefit. This, we agreed, was a project for the future.
However, and as Craiutu observes, Tocqueville would undoubtedly have been found wanting on a number of counts, a lack of conceptual clarity and insufficient empirical evidence being just two of them. Nevertheless, we should perhaps not be too hard on Tocqueville’s imaginary examiners if this were the case, as it is well to remember that these very criticisms were made at the time of Democracy in America’s publication.
For example, when Tocqueville’s good friend Jean-Jacques Ampère visited America in the early 1850s, he recorded that Americans were almost universally agreed that, on one thing, Tocqueville had been mistaken: the possibility of a tyranny of the majority was unfounded. The most intriguing of Ampère’s encounters, therefore, was with John C. Spencer, author of a preface to the first American edition of Democracy in America. According to Spencer, the ever-changing nature of majority opinion ensured that no “lasting tyranny” could be established. Spencer himself attributed Tocqueville’s error to the peculiar political circumstances pertaining during his stay: namely, the support of the overwhelming majority for President Andrew Jackson’s populist measures, which might have given the impression that the minority was “crushed” and without the power to protect itself, but it was nevertheless an error.[57]  Another of Tocqueville’s American acquaintances, Jared Sparks, was more damning. In a letter to Professor William Smyth, of Cambridge, England, dated October 14, 1841, Sparks wrote that, on the subject of the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville’s
imagination leads him far astray. In practice we perceive no such consequences as he supposes. If the majority were large and always consisted of the same individuals, such a thing might be possible; but with us, as in all free governments, parties are nearly equal, and the elections are so frequent that a man who is in the majority at one time is likely to find himself in the minority a few months afterwards. What inducement has a majority thus constituted to be oppressive? Moreover, M. de Tocqueville often confounds the majority with public opinion, which has the same tendency, or nearly so, in all civilized countries, whatever may be the form of government…. He is apt to theorize. [58] 
The eminent jurist Joseph Story was even less generous. The “main body of his materials,” he wrote to Francis Lieber, had been taken by Tocqueville from the Federalist and Story’s own Commentaries on the Constitution. You, Story told the German, “know ten times as much as he does of the actual workings of our system and its true theory.”[59] The charge that Tocqueville had been unduly influenced by Federalist opinion in Boston was not one that was to go away.[60]
The fact of the matter, then, is that, both at the time of its publication and since, there has been a steady stream of criticism claiming that central aspects of Tocqueville’s analysis were flawed. The amount of time he spent in America was too brief. He never managed to escape his own aristocratic prejudices. He knew nothing about economics and showed no interest in America’s burgeoning commercial economy. Philosophically he was a complete mess and couldn’t get religion out of his head. He wasn’t really interested in America and only wrote his book because he wanted to make a name for himself.
One wonders how many a doctoral candidate has suffered similar criticism from his or her examiners. How might the young Alexis de Tocqueville have responded?
First of all, he might have replied to his examiners that they had misunderstood what he was trying to achieve. Mine, he would have told them (as he told Gustave de Beaumont), is a “philosophical-political work.”[61] I fully accept that the development of industry and of new modes of transport will transform America but that is not the most important thing that is going on. As my notes show, the most important thing we can learn from America is something about “the gradual development of democracy in the Christian world.”[62] That is why I didn’t visit the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, like every other French political scientist who carries out research in America. Yes, it’s true that I do not know enough about the slave states of the South and that my visit was of too short a duration – a minimum stay of two years would be required to prepare “a complete and accurate picture” of the whole country[63] – but it is not true that I learned nothing while I was there. I admit that I reached certain conclusions quickly – about the impact of inheritance laws in America, for example – and that I was perhaps too ready to accept the views of certain distinguished academics I met. But while there my research associate and I were “the world’s most merciless questioners.”[64] We were constantly “striving for the acquisition of useful knowledge”[65] and turned ourselves into veritable “examining machines.”[66] I believed that, upon my return, “I might write something passable on the United States” and that, knowing more about America than is generally known in France, I might be able to say something of “great interest.”[67] The guiding hypothesis was that, beyond a legitimate curiosity in things American, one could “find lessons there from which we would be able to profit.”[68]
Like Aurelian Craiutu, I have the distinct feeling that the young Tocqueville would not have satisfied his earnest inquisitors, but we, for our part, might be prepared to concede that Tocqueville displayed a level of methodological self-awareness and sophistication that was unusual for the age and certainly unusual for the subject matter. In the printed text of Democracy in America and his notes, Tocqueville acknowledged that both he and his book could be criticized. Anyone, he recognized, determined “to contrast an isolated fact to the whole of the facts I cite, a detached idea to the whole of the ideas” could do this with “ease.” [69] Yet he remained adamant that he had “never yielded, except unknowingly, to the need to adapt facts to ideas, instead of subjecting ideas to facts.”[70] To this disclaimer he added a clear statement of his method. “When a point could be established with the help of written documents,” Tocqueville explained, “I have taken care to turn to original texts and to the most authentic and respected works. I have indicated my sources in notes, and everyone will be able to verify them. When it was a matter of opinions, of political customs, of observations of mores, I sought to consult the most enlightened men. If something happened to be important or doubtful, I was not content with one witness, but decided only on the basis of the body of testimonies.”[71] To an extent, Tocqueville conceded, this had to be taken on trust, as too it needed not to be forgotten that “the author who wants to make himself understood is obliged to push each of his ideas to all of their theoretical consequences, and often to the limits of what is false and impractical.”[72]
Tocqueville therefore, and not without some justification, made a plea for generosity on the part of the reader. “I would like you,” he remarked, “to grant me the favour of reading me with the same spirit that presided over my work, and would like you to judge this book by the general impression that it leaves, as I myself came to a decision, not due to a particular reason but due to a mass of reasons.”[73] In his unpublished notes he added the following remark: “To whoever will do that and then does not agree with me, I am ready to submit. For if I am sure of having sincerely sought the truth, I am far from considering myself as certain to have found it,”[74] Tocqueville’s modesty in this and (as we have seen) with regard to other elements of his inquiry on America seems frequently to have been overlooked by his critics.
So what would follow from Tocqueville’s hypothetical doctoral defence and his examiners’ decision to allow him to revise and resubmit? My guess is that Tocqueville might have concluded that he got his strategy all wrong and that it would have been much wiser to have submitted a dissertation devoted to the American penitentiary system. Here, after all, was a subject that would appeal to policy analysts and possibly even to government (especially as it recommended a policy that might save money), where there was plenty of readily available empirical evidence and plenty of people only too pleased to respond to a well-crafted questionnaire and to be interviewed. All it would require would be a few prison visits in America and France and a few months of serious reading. Nicely edited with plenty of notes and appendices -- and such a thesis might even win a prestigious prize!
This of course is exactly what happened to Tocqueville and Beaumont’s Le Système Pénitentiare aux États-Unis et son application en France.[75] Praised for its impartiality and solid documentation, it duly won the Prix Monthyon awarded by the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques. Yet who now reads it?
In contrast, and despite myths to the contrary, Democracy in America has always been read and continues to be read. This is not to suggest that the principles of Tocqueville’s “new political science” for a “world entirely new” are as clear as they might be, but we read Democracy in America precisely because Tocqueville approached his subject with a broad philosophical and creative sweep and never just as a scientific investigator. And it is for this reason that Democracy in America, unlike the countless other books on America written by foreign observers in the 19th century, is so much more than a book about America.
[57.] J-J Ampère, Promenade en Amérique (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1856), I, pp.337-41.
[58.] Quoted in Herbert B. Adams, Jared Sparks and Alexis de Tocqueville (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1898), p. 606.
[59.] William W. Story (ed), Life and Letters of Joseph Story (Boston: 1851), II, p.330.
[60.] See Garry Wills, “Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?,” New York Review of Books, April 29, 2004, pp.52-6.
[61.] Œuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1967) VIII (1), p.176.
[62.] Democracy in America (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010), I, p.4., n.c.
[63.] Œuvres Complètes (Paris: 1998), XIV, p.165.
[64.] Françoise Mélonio and Laurence Guellec (eds), Tocqueville : Lettres choisies, Souvenirs (Paris : Gallimard, 2003), p.183.
[65.] Œuvres Complètes, XIV, p.92.
[66.] Œuvres Complètes, XIV, p.100.
[67.] Œuvres Complètes, XIV, p.165.
[68.] Democracy in America, pp.27-8.
[69.] Democracy in America, p.31.
[70.] Democracy in America, p,30I.
[71.] Democracy in America, p.30.
[72.] Democracy in America, p.31.
[73.] Democracy in America, p.31
[74.] Democracy in America, p.3, n. a
[75.] See Œuvres Complètes (Paris : 1984), IV.