The Guardian has a glowing review of the recently published biography by Hugh Brogan of Alexis De Tocqueville – author of one of the definitive books on the United States during its formative years, Democracy in America – and there’s a great observation on De Tocqueville’s prejudices, as well as his willingness to follow his intellectual curiosity to the end
“Once more my intellectual world totters and I am again lost and desperate in a powerful tide which shakes or inverts every truth on which I have based my beliefs and conduct.”
Here’s another extract from the review
One of the delights of this remarkable biography is to let its readers see the past as if it were the present, through the eyes of civilised Frenchmen like Tocqueville so that his prejudices – or rather his refusal to give way to them – make his achievement all the more impressive. ‘One thing is incontrovertibly demonstrated by America which I doubted until now: it is that the middle classes can govern a state,’ wrote the aristocrat whose iconoclastic intellect didn’t stop him being, in Brogan’s words, noble to his fingertips. Despite petty passions, incomplete education and vulgarity, ‘they can demonstrably supply practical intelligence, and that is enough’.[added emphasis]
These views were unheard of, if not inconceivable, at the time in France. Tocqueville had crossed the Atlantic confidently expecting to find a primitive backwoods people struggling to operate a crude and essentially unworkable system of government. Unlike his English contemporaries (chief among them Fanny Trollope and Charles Dickens), he found nothing of the sort. His book Democracy in America describes a competent, orderly, stable republic based, in sharp contrast to every other existing state, on liberty and equality. He contemplated calmly the crazy idea that all other nations – including ‘even the great powers of Europe’ – would one day follow the US example.
‘In America a free society has created free political institutions,’ he jotted down in one of the notebooks that formed the basis of his book. ‘In France free political institutions will have to create a free society.’ It would be another hundred years and more, as Brogan points out in one of the mild asides that make this biography such fun to read, before the French finally succumbed (‘after trying almost everything else’) to a Tocquevillean republic in the late 20th century.