The Eighth Sage
By Gabriel Blanchard
The legacy of the American and French Revolutions is a complicated one, and nowhere exhibits its complexity more than in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.
The shrine of the Apollonian oracle at Delphi was adorned with a multitude of proverbs, the two most famous being γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton), “know thyself,” and μηδὲν ἄγαν (mēden agan), “nothing too much,” i.e. moderation in all things. For all its merits, the Enlightenment arguably lost clarity on these ideals, as is suggested by the ambiguities, excesses, and dubious successors of the theoretically enlightened revolutions in Europe and the Americas. In today’s author, we find a man committed to the revival of both ideals, and with a complex legacy of his own.
Following the Revolution of 1789, France experienced a long period of political instability and violence. The republican government seesawed between moderation and democratic liberty on the one hand, and the tyrannical order of the Reign of Terror on the other, until Napoléon Bonaparte (a military leader from the island of Corsica) assumed autocratic power in 1799. A tumultuous series of wars followed: one moment the Pope was being asked to crown the new Emperor of France, the next the Papal States were being annexed to his empire; in 1806 he was abolishing the Holy Roman Empire, in 1812 he was fleeing westward from a failed attempt to conquer Russia. At last, in 1814, the chaos ended, and the House of Bourbon was restored to the throne of France. King Louis XVIII gave his assent to a constitutional monarchy instead of an absolute one, which was a popular move; in fact, the French liked having a king again so much, they had another restoration of Louis XVIII the very next year (after “the Hundred Days,” during which Napoléon again took power as emperor until his defeat at Waterloo and final exile). Fifteen years later, owing to the unpopular absolutist leanings of his successor King Charles X, the monarchy was overthrown for a fifth time in less than fifty years (counting the emperor as a monarch). The July Revolution of 1830 resulted in the much more liberal July Monarchy under the House of Orléans. Nine years later, the scion of an old aristocratic family of Paris, Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Earl of Tocqueville, entered the lower house of the French parliament to serve as a representative for Manche in western Normandy.
Tocqueville is not an easy figure to classify: an aristocrat by birth, a supporter of the French conquest of Algeria, and even a proponent of segregation, he nonetheless sat on the center-left, was a persistent supporter of the abolition of slavery (and to some degree anticipated the fact that the US would not rid itself of chattel slavery without a war), and spoke positively of the beginnings of political liberty for women.
Tocqueville was a voluminous author (despite his rather sudden death of tuberculosis at the age of just 54). Apart from The Old Regime and the Revolution, analyzing the causes and progress of the Revolution of 1789, a large proportion of his writings were concerned with or influenced by his travels in the 1830s and 1840s. These included a visit to the British Isles that produced his Memoir on Pauperism and Journeys to England and Ireland in 1835, and Travels in Algeria, The United Empire Loyalists, written after two trips taken in 1841 and 1846—and in which, to do him justice, he criticized the conduct of the French as colonial masters of that country. But his most celebrated book is his second concerning the United States (following a monograph about the US prison system): the two-volume Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840.
Tocqueville wrote this to investigate a question: why had democracy taken root so comparatively peacefully in America, while seeing such limited success and extreme bloodshed in Europe? He identified this as a function of American culture, based on certain key elements within it: first, that the early British colonies in North America (Massachusetts being the prototype) were founded by Puritans. On arrival, they all had democratic ideals and similar levels of property and education, so that there was practical as well as philosophical equality among them. Tocqueville considered this historical situation the seed from which the rest of American democracy grew. Other key factors included the spirit of active participation and public service shown by Americans, the general lack of a landed gentry (save to an extent in the South) and of laws of primogeniture, the jealousy with which Americans guarded their liberty of religion, the short terms and frequent election of their statesmen, and their tendency to prefer practical to abstract interests and ideas. Among other effects, all these led to and influenced the composition of the US Constitution, which he considered expertly drafted to avoid weaknesses that had plagued France at the close of the eighteenth century. All of these things, in Tocqueville’s view, served to keep democratic equality among the citizens much more actual than it could be in Europe, where the landed classes were orders of magnitude wealthier than townsfolk or peasants could ever hope to be, and where education was primarily the domain of the privileged. Democracy in America has accordingly been regarded as one of the earliest and most important works on American sociology and early history, and has shaped generations’ view of the country—not only abroad, but here at home.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like some of the other entries in our series on the books and writers of our Author Bank, such as Euclid, St. Augustine, Galileo Galilei, Søren Kierkegaard, and Langston Hughes. And don’t miss our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 3rd July, 2023. Page image of La Liberté guidant la peuple (“Liberty Guiding the People”) by Eugène Delacroix, painted in 1830 to commemorate the July Revolution (often mistakenly associated with the earlier Revolution of 1789).