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Mahoney on Tocqueville

Some time ago I was fascinated to discover the guy in the pro shop at my local golf course engaged in reading The Claremont Review of Books. When I remarked how fine a publication it is, he said to me: “I usually find that the reviews are better than the books.”

That is probably not true of Daniel J. Mahoney’s “A Friend of America and Liberty” in the Spring 2010 issue; but it’s one of those reviews that makes me sympathetic to pro-shop wit. (It’s not online — unless you subscribe, which you should.) Prof. Mahoney assays a new collection of Tocqueville’s letters called Tocqueville on America after 1840, situating it in the framework of the great Frenchman’s life and work, and judging it magnificent with few shortcomings; but in the course of this, he delivers a first-rate essay on its own merits.

Like many mere dilettantes, I have read Democracy in America but little else from Tocqueville, so Prof. Mahoney’s elegant discussion of his thoughts on America and democracy in the years after the publication of that great work comes to me with the sparkling delight of newer and deeper knowledge.

The editors' 39-page interpretive essay (accompanied by 14 small-print pages of notes) is an invaluable guide to Tocqueville's engagement with America over a 30-year period, from his nine-month trip with Gustave de Beaumont to the United States in 1831-32 until his renewed attentiveness to things American in the final decade of his life.

Prof. Mahoney admits that “The editors accurately convey Tocqueville's disenchantment with the broad direction of American democracy in the 1850s,” but according to him they go too far in suggesting a radical departure from his earlier enthusiasm. The reviewer, in a word, perceives more continuity in the track of Tocqueville’s thought than the editors of this volume of letters do. To Prof. Mahoney, Tocqueville’s profound reservations about democracy in the modern world were always evident.

Not only does Tocqueville on America after 1840 convey in multiple ways his rich and varied reflection on America and democracy, it also allows us to better appreciate the humanity of an authentically great man. Readers clearly hear the voice of a self-described “half Yankee” who valued his American friendships and sustained them over a long period of time. These friendships read like a who’s who of the American political and intellectual scene, and provide a window on a world where heartfelt friendship coexisted with shared moral and intellectual concerns and a certain reserve about the expression of personal feelings. It was a world, now largely lost, where democracy and gentlemanliness coexisted.

But what of Tocqueville’s reservations about democracy? Well, for one thing “Tocqueville's growing pessimism during the 1850s had as much to do with the erosion of liberty in France during Napoleon III's quasi-despotic reign as it did with his renewed attention to America.” By his later years, Tocqueville had “seen four or five revolutions,” each of them appealing to the authority of the cataclysmic original one in France, and each of them giving evidence of the drift toward what revolution would become in the next century; Tocqueville perceived the dark paths modern man might take.

In his Preface to the 12th edition of Democracy in America published in the wake of the 1848 revolution, Tocqueville posed the “terrible question” whether the new French republic would be “a liberal republic or an oppressive republic, a republic that threatens the sacred rights of property and family or a republic that recognizes and consecrates them.”

“Sacred rights of property and family.” Now there is a liberal party I can get behind. But in truth that is the essence of Christian democracy; the more unrestrained modern variety, which would use the brute power of the state to force equalization on these institutions, can be a rapacious thing, and will not hesitate to bring its awful machinery to bear about home and hearth.

Tocqueville observes this in numerous letters to Americans — he worries of the “spirit of conquest, and even plunder, which has manifested itself among you for several years now”; he avers that America “has nothing to fear but from itself, from the excesses of democracy, the spirit of adventure and conquest, the sentiment of and the excessive pride in its strength, and the passions of youth.” Prof. Mahoney summarizes:

He was also profoundly worried about what he perceived as a decline in American mores. He was convinced that the “spirit of adventurism” was dramatically at odds with the sound, sturdy character and respect for law he had heralded in Democracy in America. He lamented, too, the absence of real statesmen on the American scene and wondered if the sober common sense of the American people was enough to avoid impending disaster.

But like any shrewd observer of American after 1840, it was one subject that most pressed upon his mind. All of his other worries, “pale beside his greatest preoccupation during this period: the threat that the expansion of slavery posed to America's moral integrity, self-respect, and international prestige.” Prof. Mahoney is stuck by how closely Tocqueville’s views resembled Lincoln’s, despite that complete lack of evidence suggesting the Frenchman had even heard of the Railsplitter from Illinois, and despite the peculiar fact that Frenchman rarely even mentioned Lincoln’s touchstone, the Declaration of Independence and its pronouncement of the moral equality of all men.

In 1855, at the request of the abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, he composed a short, eloquent, and moving “Testimony Against Slavery” that appeared the following year in the anti-slavery journal The Liberty Bell. As a “persevering enemy of despotism everywhere” and “an old and sincere friend of America,” Tocqueville expressed his chagrin that “the freest people in the world is, at the present time, almost the only one among civilized and Christian nations which yet maintains personal servitude.” He was “uneasy” at “seeing Slavery retard her progress, tarnish her glory, furnish arms to her detractors, compromise the future career of the Union.” He went on to speak about being “moved at the spectacle of man’s degradation by man.” Without explicitly appealing to either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, he expressed his “hope” that he will “see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all the inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth.”

This superlative review is merely one of many distinguished pieces in the Spring issue of CRB. William Voegeli’s excellent appraisal of the Tea Party is another, and it is available to everyone online. The sage economist Robert Samuelson insightfully reviews a handful of the recent surfeit of books on the Great Recession. There are penetrating treatments of Montesquieu, Heidegger, and Plato, and of figures as varied as Sarah Palin, Ayn Rand, George Kennan and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, famed Polish friend of America. There’s something for everyone in here.

Comments (3)

Like many mere dilettantes ...


But thanks for the reminder to read CRB more often. I needed that. It's always refreshing to find a stranger reading something obscure but familiar.

Being mostly ignorant of Toqueville, I had not known of his abolitionism. That's fascinating to know.

Many thanks to Paul Cella for the wonderfully thoughtful commentary on my piece. One small quibble with the comment above. Like Lincoln, Tocqueville was opposed to the abolitionists "as far as that party wanted to bring forth the premature and dangerous abolition of slavery in those districts where this abominable institution has always existed." He was profoundly anti-slavery but faulted the abolitionists for their contempt for moral and political prudence, "the god of this world below," as Burke said in another context.

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