Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59)


Life
De Tocqueville, of aristocratic descent, visited USA during nine months from May 1831 to report officially on the prison system while still an apprentice magistrate [aetat. 25], accompanied by Gustave de Beaumont (q.v.); he visited 17 out of the 14 then-existing states; met with John Quincy Adams and Sam Houston, et al.; visited prisons in Auburn, NY, and Philadelphia and reported on harsh regimes incl. the general use of solitary confinement in the latter which he called ‘at once the mildest and the most terrible ever invented’;
 
issued La Démocratie en Amérique [Democracy in America], 2 vols. (1835, 1840), containing remarks on ‘all the workings of that vast American society that everyone talks about and no one knows’ - incl. government, commerce, law, literature, religion, newspapers, customs; remarked that Americans ‡value everything on earth in response to this sole question: How much money will it bring in?’, and predicted the America would ‘someday become one of the richest and most powerful countries on earth’, but also foretold the ‘the most horrible of all civil wars’ would arise from Southern slavery; regarded Cincinnati (pop. 25,000) as a place of ‘absolute social equality’;
 
visited Ireland, a trip undertaken in part with de Beaumont , 1835, and issued his Journey in Ireland (1837); elected to Chamber of Deputies, 1839-48; served on Constituent and Legislative Assemblies of the Second Republic; appt. member of Conseil Général of the Departement de La Manche, 1842; otherwise served on the French judiciary and acted as a politician up 1851; he also wrote an unfinished masterpiece, L’Ancien Régime (1856), treating that era as source of principals that grew to overthrow it, and characterising the French Revolution as the greatest property transaction in history; corresponded with John Stuart Mill. OCEL OCAL


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Works
Correspondance et Écrits locaux
, ed., Lise Queffelec Tome 10 of Oeuvres Complètes [18 vols.] (Paris: Gallimard [q.d.]); Emmet Larkin, trans. and intro., Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey in Ireland, July-August 1835 (Washington: CUA Press 1990), xvi, 157pp.

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Criticism
André Jardin, Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859 (Paris 1984); G. W. Pierosn, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938); Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville (Oxford: OUP 1994), 153pp.; Leo Damrosch, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010), 277pp.

See also David S. Reynolds, review of Damrosch, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, in The New York Times (16 April 2010) [online; accessed 11.09.2010.]

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Commentary
James Kelly, review of Emmet Larkin, trans. & ed., Journey in Ireland, July-August 1835, with Gustave de Beaumont, L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse, in Linen Hall Review (Sept. 1991), notes that the kingdom’s economic problems and a deepening rift between Catholics and Protestants aroused enormous interest abroad; further, ‘the emergence in the 1820s of the Catholic Association - that remarkable pressure group which pioneered new methods of effecting revolutionary change by peaceful means - fascinated European Catholics and drew numbers of the most eminent to the country [of whom the] the best known [was] Alexis de Tocqueville, the perspicacious French author of the magisterial multi-volume Democracy in America, who visited Ireland in 1835 with his friend and collaborator Gustave de Beaumont.’ [Cont.]

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James Kelly (review of Emmet Larkin, ed., Journey in Ireland, in Linen Hall Review, Sept. 1991) - cont.: Further notes that de Tocqueville’s purpose was to gather material for a book while de Beaumont became so fascinated with the country that he took over when the other abandoned his scheme; de Beaumont was taken aback by levels of poverty; reports conversation with John Patrick Prendergast in Kilkenny who tells him that Protestants and Catholics meet only ‘by accident’, treating each other with intense suspicion; Catholicism was therefore ‘not merely a matter of faith but of patriotism’; in sharp contrast to France, the Irish Catholic clergy filled the leadership gap; Catholics regarded Protestants has heretics to be extirpated while Protestants thought repression the only way to secure their interests; de Tocqueville and Beaumont approached Ireland as social scientists rather than economists; both particularly interested in a legal system that provided low levels of impartiality; De Tocqueville offers few solutions; de Beaumont more prescriptive. Kelly comments in conclusion, ‘the images they present are not always easily reconciled with the econometric approach of Cormac Ó Gráda and Joel Mokyr, but they provide a wonderful, if unsettling perspective into [sic] pre-Famine Irish society.’ (LHR, p.22.)

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Emmet Larkin, trans. and ed., Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey in Ireland, July-August, 1835 (Wolfhound, 1990), ‘[De Tocqueville] reflects frequently on the merits and demerits of aristocratic government ... his conclusions on the landlords of the day are predictably withering ... a sober non-partisan view of Ireland in the 1830s.’ [Books Ireland, Summer 1991] For further extracts, see Frank O’Connor, Book of Ireland.

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Hugh Brogan, review of Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May [q.d.]), enquires why his politics are so deeply unfashionable, ‘dismissed long ago as a bourgeois liberal [by the left]; detested socialism, dreaded and hated the revolutionary mob, and fought against it in 1848, did little more than wring his hands perfunctorily over the problem of poverty; his conviction that, to succeed, democracy needs to be grounded on Christian morality, if not Christian faith, has not helped ... would have despised and detested current Toryism ... It was his belief that only democratic institutions firmly grounded on the beliefs and customs (les moeurs) of a free society, could enable men to achieve their full stature by enabling them to be citizens; and citizenship was defined by full and frequent participation in public affairs ... he remains the keeper of the democratic conscience.

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Quotations
Clerical diners: A thumbnail sketch of a dinner with Catholic clergy [clerical dinner] in 1835: ‘Distrust and hatred of the great landlords; love of the people and confidence in them. Bitter memories of past oppression... A profound hatred of the Protestants ... Little impartiality present. Clearly as much the leaders of a Party as representatives of the Church.’ (Quoted in Oliver MacDonagh, States of Mind, London: Allen & Unwin 1983, p.91; cited in James Fairhall, James Joyce and the Question of History, Cambridge UP 1993, p.131).

Theory-threat: ‘I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.’ ([Democracy in America]; quoted in Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin Press 2010; extract in New York Times, 17 March 2010- online; accessed 11.09.2010.

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