Liberty Matters

An Excellent Work


I would like to thank the other participants in this forum for their thoughtful and generous responses to my initial essay, which ended with a thought experiment about Tocqueville’s presumptive dissertation. I was delighted to see that others found it of interest and shared my fears and doubts. Daniel Mahoney concludes his essay by acknowledging that if Tocqueville could not be awarded a Ph.D. for Democracy in America today because of his methodological vagueness and ambiguity, something would be deeply wrong with a profession that in its dominant parts has succumbed to scientism and behaviorism and has forgotten wisdom. I can hardly agree with him more. A fuller discussion on this issue would be in order, and this thought experiment could (and should) be explored in further detail in a special issue of a prominent academic journal (Perspectives on Politics, for example).
What the conversation has revealed thus far is that we all share a genuine appreciation for the originality and depth of Tocqueville’s multifaceted and comparative analysis of democracy, and his passion for liberty and politics. Filippo Sabetti  provides a detailed and useful outline of the main components of Tocqueville’s framework of analysis that includes various foci and levels, small and large processes, and fundamental pairs (democracy-aristocracy, freedom-equality, New World-Old World, England-France). We also agree that the renewed interest in Tocqueville has a lot to do with democracy’s present triumph across the globe. The democratic revolution about which Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago has spread far beyond the United States and Europe to every corner of the globe. As Sabetti reminds us, Tocqueville wanted to promote a new civic spirit and sought to participate in his countrymen’s education  in liberty. It would be hard to find two more urgent priorities for many parts of the world today, starting with Russia and Eastern Europe and ending with the Middle East and China.
We also agree that, appearances notwithstanding, it is not easy to read  Democracy in America correctly. Tocqueville asks us to judge the book by the “general impression” that it leaves rather than by its explicit arguments, and we must constantly keep in mind the secret chain that links all his reflections. (In this regard, I note an interesting affinity with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.) In a letter to Louis de Kergorlay on December 26, 1836, Tocqueville wrote: “To point out if possible to men what to do to escape tyranny and debasement while becoming democratic. Such is, I think, the general idea by which my book can be summarized and which will appear on every page.”[80] He deliberately avoided including many figures and statistics in his book because such things change quite rapidly and become obsolete. We are also warned 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.”[81]This is likely to surprise many readers and make the reading of the book at times an arduous enterprise.
Arguably the greatest ambiguity concerns the concept of democracy, which is at the heart of Tocqueville’s work. He saw many things in Jacksonian America; some of them he liked, some he disliked or failed to understand properly. He decided, however, to call all of them “democracy” in spite of the diversity of the country and the strong differences about the practical application of the principles of democracy in America (starting with the vexing issue of slavery). To his credit, Tocqueville himself was not unaware of these problems, as the drafts and notes in the Nolla-Schleifer critical edition clearly demonstrate.  As he was finalizing volume one of Democracy in America, he pointed out the great difficulty in untangling what is democratic from what is commercial, English, and Puritan in America. [82]
For all of his star status, Tocqueville was not and should not be treated as a guru or infallible prophet. Moreover, we need to pay heed to his plea for generosity on the part of his readers. As Jeremy Jennings reminds us, several important objections were raised immediately after the publication of Tocqueville’s book. Even a close friend and correspondent such as Edward Everett did not shy away from claiming: “There are several mistakes, as to matters of fact, some of considerable importance; there is occasionally a disposition shown, almost universal among intelligent original thinkers, to construct a theory, and then find the facts to support it.” Nonetheless, Everett added, these were only “slight defects in an excellent work.”[83]One can hardly agree more with his conclusion.
[80.]Democracy in America, I, 32, note x. All references are to the Liberty Fund critical edition of the book (2010).
[81.] Ibid., 31.
[82.] See Jean-Claude Lamberti, Tocqueville et les deux démocraties (Paris: PUF, 1983), 26.
[83.] Edward Everett, review of Tocqueville’s Democracy of America, volume one in The North American Review, XLIII: 92 (July 1836), 179.