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Alexis de Tocqueville

The memory of Alexis de Tocqueville belongs scarcely less to America than to France. His book on "Democracy in America" was the foundation of his fame. As a successful investigation by a foreigner of the nature and working of institutions dissimilar from those of his own country, and in many essential respects different from any which were elsewhere established, it stands quite alone in political literature. It is still further remarkable as the work of a very young man. Its merits were at once acknowledged; and though twenty-six years have passed since it appeared, it has been superseded by no later work. The book has a double character, which has given to it an equal authority on both sides of the Atlantic. For while it is a profound and sagacious analysis of the spirit and methods of the American social and political system, it is intended at the same time—more, however, by implied than open comparison—to exhibit the relations of the principles established here to the development of modern society and government in France and elsewhere in Europe. It is a manual alike for the political theorist and the practical statesman; and whatever changes our institutions may undergo, its value will remain undiminished.

The volumes of Tocqueville's Inedited Works and Correspondence, with a Memoir by his friend M. Gustave de Beaumont, which have lately appeared in Paris, have, therefore, a special claim to the attention of American readers. Their intrinsic interest is great as illustrating the life and character not only of one of the most original and independent thinkers of this generation, but also of a man not less distinguished by the elevation and integrity of his character than by the power of his intellect. The race of such men has seemed of late years to be dying out in France. In the long list of her public characters during the past thirty years, there are few names which can share the honor with Tocqueville's of being those neither of apostates nor of schemers. Men who hold to their principles in the midst of revolutions, who for the sake of honor resist the temptations of power, who have faith in liberty and in progress even when their hopes are overthrown, are rare at all times and in all lands. "France no longer produces such men," said the Duke de Broglie, when he heard of Tocqueville's death.

No book has been published of more importance than this in its exhibition of the condition of thought and of society in France during recent years. None has given more convincing evidence of the suppression of intellectual liberty under the new Imperial rule. The reserves and the omissions to which M. de Beaumont has been forced in the performance of his work as editor display the oppressive nature of the censorship to which the writings of the most honest and superior men are liable, and the burdensome restraints by which such men are controlled and disheartened. M. de Beaumont's notice of the life of Tocqueville, and Tocqueville's own later correspondence, appear to a thoughtful reader as accusations against Imperial despotism, as protests against the wrongs from which freedom is now suffering in France. There is in them a pervading tone of sadness, and, here and there, an expression of bitterness of feeling, all the more effective for being conveyed in restrained and unimpassioned words. There is no place for such men as these in a system like that by which Louis Napoleon governs France. The men of strong character, of incorruptible integrity, of thoughtful moderation, and of fixed principles are more dangerous to the permanence of despotic rule than the Victor Hugos, the Ledru Rollins, or the Orsinis. It is the men with whom the love of liberty is founded upon intellectual and moral convictions, not those with whom it is a hot and reckless passion, that are the most to be feared by a ruler whose power is based on the ignorance, the fears, the selfish ambitions, and the material interests of the people whom he flatters and corrupts.

Tocqueville was born a thinker. His physical organization was delicate, but he had an energy of spirit which led him often to overtask his bodily forces in long-continued mental exertions. Without brilliancy of imagination and with little liveliness of fancy, he possessed the faculty of acute and discriminating observation, and early acquired the rare power of deep and continuous reflection. His mind was large and calm. The candor of his intellect was never stained by passion. He had not the faculties of an original discoverer in the domain of abstract truth, but, as an investigator of the causes of political and social conditions, of the relation between particular facts and general theories, of the influence of systems and institutions upon the life of communities, he has rarely been surpassed. His book on "Democracy in America," and still more his later work on "The Old Régime and the Revolution," display in a remarkable degree the union of philosophic insight and practical good sense, of clearness of thought and condensation of statement.

But, however great the value of his writings may be, a still greater value attaches to the character of the man himself, as it is displayed in these volumes. M. de Beaumont's brief and affectionate memoir of his friend, and Tocqueville's own letters, are not so much narratives of events as evidences of character. His life was, indeed, not marked with extraordinary incidents. It was the life of a man whose career was limited both by his own temperament and by the public circumstances of his times; of one who set more value upon ideas than upon events; who sought intellectual satisfactions and distinctions rather than personal advancement; who affected his contemporaries by his thought and his integrity of principle more than by power of commanding position or energy of resolute will. Although for many years in public life, he made little mark on public affairs. But his influence, though indirect, was perhaps not the less strong or permanent. The course of political affairs is in the long run greatly modified, if not completely guided, by the thinkers of a nation. Tocqueville's convictions kept him for the most part in opposition to the successive governments of France during the period of his public life. But his reputation and the weight of his authority are continually increasing, and of the Frenchmen of the last generation few have done so much as he to extend by his writings the knowledge, and to strengthen by his example the love of those principles by which liberty is maintained and secured, and upon which the real advancement of society depends. The leading facts of his life may be briefly told.

Born in 1805, at Paris, of an old and honorable family, his early years were passed at home. As a youth, he was for some time at the college of Metz; but his education was irregular, and he was not distinguished for scholarship. In 1826 and 1827 he travelled with one of his brothers in Italy and Sicily, and on his return to France was attached to the Court of Justice at Versailles, where his father, the Count de Tocqueville, was then Prefect, in the quality of Juge-Auditeur, an office to which there is none correspondent in our courts. It was at this time that his friendship with M. Gustave de Beaumont began.

For more than two years he performed the duties of this place with marked fidelity and ability. But at the same time he pursued studies less narrow and technical than the law, investigating with ardor the general questions of politics, and laying the foundation of those principles and opinions which he afterward developed in his writings and his public life. He witnessed the Revolution of 1830 with regret, not because he was personally attached to the elder branch of the Bourbons, but because he dreaded the effect of a sudden and violent change of dynasty upon the stability of those constitutional institutions which were of too recent establishment to be firmly rooted in France, but to which he looked as the safeguard of liberty. He gave his adhesion to the new government without hesitation, but without enthusiasm; and having little hope of advancement in his career as magistrate, he applied to the Ministry of the Interior early in 1831 for an official mission to America to examine the system of our prisons, which at that time was exciting attention in France. But the real motive which led him to desire to visit America was his wish to study the democratic institutions of the United States with reference to their bearing upon the political and social questions which underlay the violent changes and revolutions of government in France, and of which a correct appreciation was of continually increasing importance. It was plain that the dominating principle in the modern development of society was that of democratic equality; and this being the case, the question of prime importance presenting itself for solution was, How is liberty to be reconciled with equality and saved from the inevitable dangers to which it is exposed? or in other words, Can equality, which, by dividing men and reducing the mass to a common level, smooths the way for the establishment of a despotism, either of an individual or of the mob, be made to promote and secure liberty? For the study of this question, and of others naturally connected with it, the United States afforded opportunities nowhere else to be found.

Accompanied by M. de Beaumont, Tocqueville passed a year in this country, and the chief results of his visit appeared in the first two volumes of his "Democracy in America," which were published in January, 1835. The success of the book was instant and extraordinary. His publisher, who had undertaken it with reluctance, had ventured on a first edition of but five hundred copies; and in one of his letters, shortly after its publication, Tocqueville tells pleasantly of the bookseller's ingenuous surprise at the interest which the work had excited. "I went yesterday morning to Gosselin's [the publisher]; he received me with the most beaming face in the world, saying to me, 'Well, now, so it seems you have made a chef-d'oeuvre.' Does not that expression paint the complete man of business? I sat down, and we talked of our second edition."

From this time Tocqueville was famous. In the autumn of the same year, 1835, he married an English lady, Miss Mottley, who had long resided in France, and the happiness of his private life was secured at the very moment when he was entering upon the cares and anxieties of a public career. In 1836 the French Academy decreed for his book an extraordinary prize; in 1838 he was elected a member of the Institute; and in 1841, a year after the publication of the last volumes of his work, he was chosen member of the Academy. From 1839 to 1848, Tocqueville, elected and reëlected from Valognes, sat without interruption in the Chamber of Deputies, where he constantly voted with the constitutional opposition. His nature was too sensitive and his health too delicate to enable him to hold a foremost place as orator in the debates of this period. His habits of mind were, moreover, those of a writer rather than of a public speaker. But the firmness and moderation of his principles and the clearness and justice of his opinions secured for him a general respect, and gave weight and influence to his counsels. "In 1839, having been named reporter on the proposition relative to the abolition of slavery in the colonies, he succeeded," says his biographer, "not only in tracing with an able and sure hand the great principles of justice and of humanity which should lead on the triumph of this holy cause, but also, by words full of respect for existing interests and acquired rights, in preparing the government and the public mind for a concession, and the colonists for a compromise." He was frequently intrusted with the duty of reporting on other projects of the first importance; but special labors of this sort did not prevent him from taking broad and large views of the political and moral tendencies of the time, and of forecasting with clear insight the results of the measures of the government and of the influences at work upon the people. On the 27th of January, 1848, he announced the Revolution, which he saw to be at hand. A passage from his speech on this occasion is given by M. de Beaumont. It is striking, when read by the light of subsequent events, for the truth of its inferences, the force of its statements, and its prophetic warnings. After speaking of the opinions and ideas prevalent among the working classes, he said, "When such opinions take root, when they spread themselves so widely, when they strike down deeply into the masses, they must bring about, sooner or later, I do not know when, I do not know how, but they must bring about, sooner or later, the most formidable revolutions…. I believe that at this moment we are asleep upon a volcano. (Dissent.) I am profoundly convinced of it."

Tocqueville, thus anticipating the Revolution, was more afflicted and disappointed than surprised, when it overthrew the monarchy in February. He had comprehended beforehand that its character was to be rather social than simply political. He had determined to accept it as a necessary evil. He measured from the first the risk to which the principles to the maintenance of which he was devoted were exposed, the peril which, threatened liberty itself. Believing that the Republic now afforded the only and perhaps the last chance of liberty in France, and that its downfall would result in throwing power into the hands of an individual ruler, he determined to give all his support to the new government, and to endeavor to work out the good of his country by means which gave little encouragement or hope of success. He took part in the Constituent Assembly, was one of the committee to form the Constitution, and in the autumn of 1848 represented France as plenipotentiary at the Conference held at Brussels, which had for its object the mediation of France and England between Austria and Sardinia. The next year, having just been elected a member of the Legislative Assembly, he was invited by the President of the Republic to take the portfolio of Foreign Affairs in the ministry of M. Barrot. He did not hold office long. The ministry was too honest and too firm to suit the designs of the President, and on the 31st of October Louis Napoleon announced, in a message which took the Assembly by surprise, that it had been dismissed, and a new set of ministers appointed. The President endeavored to retain Tocqueville, and to win him over to his party; but Tocqueville already presaged the fall of the Republic, and witnessed with anxiety and discouragement the approach of the Empire. He remained a member of the Assembly to the last. He was one of the deputies arrested on the 2d of December, 1851, and was confined for a time at Vincennes. "Here ended his political life. It ended with liberty in France."

The remaining years of Tocqueville's life were spent in a retirement which might have been happy, had he not felt too deeply for happiness the despotism which weighed upon France. He engaged in the studies that resulted in his masterly work on "The Old Régime and the Revolution"; but these studies, instead of diverting him from the contemplation of what France had lost, gave poignancy to the sorrow excited by her present condition. All his hopes for the prevalence of the principles which he had sought during life to confirm and establish, all his personal ambitions as a public man, were completely broken down. But, though thus defeated in hope and in desire, he was not overcome in spirit. And the record of the closing years of his life shows, more than that of any other portion of it, the firmness, the strength, and the sweetness of his character.

His health, which had never been vigorous, became from year to year more and more uncertain, and the labor which he gave to the historical work to which he now devoted himself was frequently followed by exhaustion. He passed some time in England, where be had many warm friends, in examining the collections in the British Museum concerning the French Revolution; and in 1855 he made a visit of considerable length to Germany for the purpose of studying the social institutions of the country, so far as they might illustrate the condition of France under the old regime. At the beginning of 1856 the first part of his great work was published. The impression produced by it was extraordinary. It was, as it were, a key that opened to men the secrets of a history with the events of which they were so familiar that it had seemed to them nothing more was to be learned concerning it. The book is one which, though unfinished, is, so far as it advances, complete. It will retain its place as an historical essay of the highest value; for it is a study of the past, undertaken not merely with the intention of elucidating the facts of a particular period of history, but also with the design of investigating and establishing the general principles in politics and government of which facts and events are but the external indications. Tocqueville was too honest to write according to any predetermined theory; but he also penetrated too deeply into the causes of things not to arrive, at length, at definite conclusions as to the meaning and teachings of history.

Tocqueville had now reached the summit of fame as an author. He enjoyed the harvest of success, and his ambition was urged by it to new exertion. But in the summer of 1858 he had an alarming attack of bleeding at the lungs, accompanied with a general prostration of strength. In the autumn, his physicians ordered him to the South, and early in November he arrived at Cannes, where he was to spend the winter. But neither change of climate nor tender nursing was sufficient to prevent his disease from progressing. He suffered much, but he still hoped. He became worse as the spring came on, and on the 16th of April, 1859, he died. He was fifty-four years old, but he had lived a long life, if life be measured by thought and moral progress.

In his domestic life Tocqueville had been most happy, and it was in his own home that his character appeared in its most delightful aspect. In society he was a converser of extraordinary brilliancy. Few men were his rivals in this art, so well practised in Paris. His flow of ideas was not more remarkable than the choiceness and vigor of his expression. But he was not a tyrant in talk, and he was as ready to listen as to seek for listeners. His social powers were at the service of his friends. He was not of a gay temper, but he had a peculiar thoughtfulness for others which gave a charm to his manners far superior to that of careless vivacity. M. de Beaumont speaks of him in his relations to his friends in words full of feeling:—

"I have said that he had many friends; but he experienced a still greater happiness, that of never losing one of them. He had also another happiness: it was the knowing how to love them all so well, that none ever complained of the share he received, even while seeing that of the others. He was as ingenious as he was sincere in his attachments; and never, perhaps, did example prove better than his how many charms good-wit adds to good-will (combien l'esprit ajoute de charmes à la bonté).

"Good as he was," continues M. de Beaumont, "he aspired without ceasing to become better; and it is certain that each day he drew nearer to that moral perfection which seemed to him the only end worthy of man…. Each day he brought into all his sentiments and all his actions something of deeper piety, and stronger gratitude to God…. He was more patient, more laborious, more watchful to lose nothing of that life which he loved so well, and which he had the right to find beautiful, he who made of it so noble a use! Finally, it may be said to his honor, that at an epoch in which each man tends to concentrate his regard upon himself, he had no other aim than that of seeking for truths useful to his fellows, no other passion than that of increasing their well-being and their dignity."—Vol. I. p. 124.

The correspondence of a man about whom such—words may be said without exaggeration has more than a merely literary interest. This book is one of which the literary critic is not the final judge. Tocqueville's letters, like every genuine series of letters written without thought of publication, have the charm and more than the simplicity of autobiography. Their merit lies not so much in grace of style, picturesqueness of description, or familiar freedom of composition, as in their exhibition of power of thought combined with delicacy and refinement of feeling, and in the frequent expression of ardent patriotism and strong personal sympathies with public or with private interests. They are the letters of a man who took a grave view of life, regarding it "as an affair with which we are charged, which must be carried through and ended with honor to ourselves." They are the letters also of a man of strong and faithful affections; and the long series of them addressed during twenty-five years to the Count Louis de Kergorlay has, in addition to its interest from its variety of topics, a special moral value as the record of a close and confidential friendship maintained in spite of the widest divergence of political opinion during a period of unusual political excitement. Few men have the temper or the sentiment requisite for the support of intimate relations under such conditions. But his friendships occupied a very large place in Tocqueville's life. In them he found happiness and repose. To one of his friends he writes in 1844, "The remembrance of you is the more precious to me because it calms in me all those troubles of the soul that politics engender." And thus in the most trying passages of his life, and especially in the discouragement of his later years, the thought of his friends seems to have been constantly with him, and his correspondence with them became almost a necessity for his spirit. His letters, or rather that portion of them which M. de Beaumont has published, and which must some day be succeeded by a fuller collection, have thus a double character: they contain the judgments of a wide and profound thinker on the subjects which interested him, while they show him in the most amiable and attractive light as a generous and constant friend. They are not to be compared in wit or elaborate finish with the brilliant letters of Courier; they have not the striking originality and terse vigor of those of De Maistre, but they have the grace of simple and pure feeling, and the worth of clear, manly, high-toned thought. No one capable of appreciating them can read them without learning to feel toward their author not merely respect, but also a strong personal regard. The two following extracts have a special appropriateness to the present condition of our own country, while at the same time they display the qualities most characteristic of Tocqueville's intellect. They are both from letters addressed to one of the most distinguished correspondents of his later years, Madame de Swetchine.

"There are, it seems to me, two distinct divisions in morals, one as important as the other in the eyes of God, but in which in our days his ministers instruct us with very unequal ardor. One belongs to private life: it embraces the relative duties of mankind as fathers, as sons, as wives, as husbands. The other regards public life: the duties of every citizen toward his country, and toward that human society of which he forms a special part. Am I deceived in believing that the clergy of our time are very much occupied with the first portion of morals, and very little with the second? This appears to me especially observable in the manner in which women think and feel. I see a great number of them who have a thousand private virtues in which the direct and beneficent action of religion manifests itself,—who, thanks to it, are most faithful wives and excellent mothers, who show themselves just and indulgent toward their domestics, charitable to the poor. But as to that portion of duties which is connected with public life, they do not seem to have even the idea of it. Not only they do not practise them themselves, which is natural enough, but they do not seem even to have the thought of inculcating them on those over whom they have influence. It is a side of education that is, as it were, invisible to them. It was not so under that old regime which, in the midst of many vices, developed proud and manly virtues. I have often heard it told, that my grandmother, who was a very religious (très sainte) woman, after impressing upon her young son the exercise of all the duties of private life, failed not to add,—'And then, my child, never forget that a man owes himself above all to his country; that there is no sacrifice that he ought not to make for her; that he cannot remain indifferent to her fate; that God requires of him that he be always ready to consecrate, if need be, his time, his fortune, even his life, to the service of the State and of the king."—Vol. II. p. 341.

"I do not ask of the priests to require of the men whose education is committed to them, or over whom they exercise influence, I do not ask of them to require of these men, as a duty of conscience, to support the republic or the monarchy; but I avow that I desire that they should oftener tell them, that, as they are Christians, so they belong to one of those great human associations which God has established, without doubt in order to render more visible and more sensible the bonds which ought to unite individuals to each other,—associations which are named the people, and whose territory is called the country. I desire that they should cause the fact to penetrate more deeply into the souls of men, that each man owes himself to this collective existence before belonging to himself; that in regard to this existence no man is allowed to be indifferent, still less to make of indifference a sort of feeble virtue which enervates many of the most noble instincts that have been given to us; that all are responsible for what happens to it, and that all, according to their light, are bound to labor constantly for its prosperity, to take care that it be submitted only to beneficent, respectable, and lawful authorities…. This is what I wish should be inculcated on men, and especially on women. Nothing has more struck me, in an experience now of considerable length in public affairs, than the influence that women always exercise in this matter,—influence so much the greater as it is indirect. I do not doubt that it is they above all who give to every nation a certain moral temperament, which shows itself afterwards in politics."—Vol. II. p. 348. Tocqueville's services to France, to liberty, did not end with his life. The example, no less than the writings of such a man, bears fruit in later times. It belongs to no one land. Wherever men are striving in thought or in action to support the cause of freedom and of law, to strengthen institutions founded on principles of equal justice, to secure established liberties by defending the government in which they are embodied, his teachings will be prized, and his memory be honored.