Alexis De Tocqueville: Prophet of democracy in the age of revolution, by Hugh Brogan

From the French Revolution to Bush
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The Independent Culture

Everyone seems to adore Alexis de Tocqueville these days. His extraordinary account of the political landscape of the early United States, Democracy in America, is endlessly quoted by pundits and politicians of every stripe. Republicans love his grim warnings about bloated, centralised government and his denunciations of unthinking, liberty-smashing egalitarianism; Democrats cherish his calls for impassioned civic engagement and applaud his disdain for a grasping, materialistic culture. Tocqueville has even acquired the dubious honour of having George W Bush refer to him as his favourite political philosopher - and who amongst us ever imagined that Dubya had such a thing as a favourite political philosopher?

Tocqueville only spent nine months in America: he travelled there in 1831 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont to collect information about the country's penal system. But the impressions he gathered of the new nation's peoples, mores and institutions crystallised into one of the seminal books of political science and one that has cast an unfeasibly long shadow.

Given this prodigious legacy, it is strange that we have learned so little about Tocqueville the man: his private foibles, passions and prejudices. Until now, that is. Hugh Brogan - another of the great foreign observers of the United States - has crafted an elegant, intimate portrait and, at a stroke, established himself as Tocqueville's finest biographer to date. Brogan shares his subject's belief in the potency of an individual's (or, for that matter, a polity's) origins - what Tocqueville called a point de départ. We cannot hope to decipher Tocqueville's ground-breaking theorising, Brogan insists, unless we understand where the man came from.

Born in 1805, he came (as all of us still do) from the French Revolution: that half-glorious, half-grotesque event that most 19th-century Frenchmen felt obliged to interpret and, ultimately, to claim as their own. But he also, and to his boot-straps, came from before the Revolution, from an ancien régime world of privilege and largely unquestioned influence. Tocqueville was a toff and, as Brogan reveals, his contempt for the poor and disenfranchised was sometimes breathtakingly vile: but he also knew that everything had changed in the wake of 1789. Throughout his life, he struggled to strike a balance between nostalgia for the past and faith in the future. Out of this struggle, fuelled by the American journey, came his brilliant prophecy: that democracy would endure. His public life was dedicated to convincing his country to acknowledge the fact. "We are travelling towards unlimited democracy," Tocqueville once wrote to a friend. "I don't say that this is a good thing... but we are driven by an irresistible force."

Democracy, a term that Tocqueville was notoriously bad at defining, was certainly flawed. It carried inherent risks - that much-discussed, usually grossly-exaggerated, notion of a tyranny of the majority, for instance - and it had a habit of casting a spell of political apathy over its acolytes. But what was the alternative? Tocqueville simply had to look around him for an answer. Was it really better to see France stumble from one preposterous regime to another: from the Bourbon restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X between 1815 and 1830 to another, muted revolution and the arrival of Louis-Philippe? That was the whole point of Democracy in America. It was a full-throated call for France to learn from the shimmering example across the Atlantic.

Not that anyone really listened. The publication of the first volume of the book in 1835 (another, decidedly weaker, instalment would follow five years later) made Tocqueville into a star, the darling of the salons, but it did not come close to healing France's wounds. Nor did Tocqueville's own, largely inept, forays into political life achieve much more. The 1840s brought yet more revolution and the birth of the second Republic; the 1850s witnessed a lurch back to empire and the spectacular return of the Bonaparte family to power, a development that made Tocqueville shudder.

Brogan provides a wonderfully nuanced account of Tocqueville's attempts to understand and negotiate these farcical years. We see Tocqueville the fame-hungry author, Tocqueville the self-satisfied intellectual snob, but also Tocqueville the devoted friend and husband, a man riddled by doubt and repeatedly laid low by agonising illnesses. Brogan is admirably even-handed throughout and is not afraid of scolding Tocqueville when he warrants it. The author's sketches of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 are exemplary, and his interpretations of Tocqueville's major works (the Democracy, the Ancien Régime and the Souvenirs) are pristinely scholarly but never, ever stale.

As Brogan concedes, the notion of a definitive biography is always a pipe-dream, but his Tocqueville will undoubtedly be the standard English-language biography for many years to come. This is a splendid book, the fruits of a lifetime's engagement with Tocqueville, but perhaps Brogan's greatest achievement is to make his crotchety, snooty subject seem almost likeable.

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