Today is the birthday (1805) of Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian. He is best known for Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) but also noted for The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). Democracy in America was published after his travels in the United States, and is today often used as an early work of sociology and political science. De Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–48) and then during the Second Republic (1849–51) which succeeded the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s 2 December 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution.
Alexis de Tocqueville came from an old Norman aristocratic family with ancestors who participated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His parents, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard of King Louis XVI, and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, barely escaped the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre in 1794. After an exile in England, they returned to France during the reign of Napoleon. Under the Bourbon Restoration, his father became a noble.
De Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830–1848), began his political career in 1839. From 1839 to 1851, he served as deputy of the Manche department (Valognes). In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe’s regime. De Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department’s conseil général between 1849 and 1851. According to one account, Tocqueville’s political position became untenable during this time in the sense that he was mistrusted by both the left and right, and was looking for an excuse to leave France.
In 1831, he obtained from the July Monarchy a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in the United States, and proceeded there with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont. While de Tocqueville did visit some prisons, he also traveled widely in North America and took extensive notes about his observations and reflections. He returned within nine months, and published a report, but the real result of his tour was De la démocratie en Amerique, which appeared in 1835.
You cannot read de Tocqueville without marveling at his insight, but also being impressed with how relevant his observations are down to the present day. De Tocqueville wanted to know if there were any lessons to be learned from the “experiment” in the United States and applied to government in France. At home the old aristocratic order was fading and new democratic ideals were emerging, but the situation was confused and in constant flux. The grand themes of the French Revolution – liberty and equality – were of paramount importance to de Tocqueville, and he sought to understand them better and shed light on them in a deeper way than simply spouting them as slogans. What is liberty? What is equality? Are they always desirable? How can they be balanced? Key questions which he addressed with his probing mind, producing astonishing results.
This blog is not in the business of advancing political causes, although I do make my views clear on occasion. I’m also not in the business of detailed analysis. Instead I’ll do as I often do; give you some salient quotes to ponder – these are all from Democracy in America [with my occasional comments in square brackets].
The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.
I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men . . .
There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.
“The will of the nation” is one of those expressions which have been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age.
Useful undertakings which require sustained attention and vigorous precision in order to succeed often end up by being abandoned, for, in America . . . the people move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts.
In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils it creates
A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.
The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. [Dubious – discuss !!]
It frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. [followers of Donald Trump take note]
I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.
The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.
They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point. [Times change]
I am obliged to confess that I do not regard the abolition of slavery as a means of warding off the struggle of the two races in the Southern states. The Negroes may long remain slaves without complaining; but if they are once raised to the level of freemen, they will soon revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights; and as they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies. [Yes, de Tocqueville was a racist.]
No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims. All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.
The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.
There are at the present time two great nations in the world—I allude to the Russians and the Americans— All other nations seem to have nearly reached their national limits, and have only to maintain their power; these alone are proceeding—along a path to which no limit can be perceived. [Extraordinarily prescient]
In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it and he sells it before the roof is on. He plants a garden and rents it just as the trees are coming into bearing. He brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops. He embraces a profession and gives it up. He settles in a place which he soon afterward leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness.
In a letter from the U.S. de Tocqueville wrote:
At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far, this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride. It seeps through their politeness.
In my experience quantity over quality has long persisted in U.S. cuisine. When I first arrived in the U.S. I was staggered by the sheer size of portions offered at restaurants. In New York I was served a roast beef sandwich for lunch that had more meat in it than would have been eaten by a family of four in England for Sunday dinner, and I could not finish it. Half was more than enough. A great exemplar of U.S. cooking in the 19th century is The Cook’s Own Book: Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia: Comprehending All Valuable Receipts For Cooking Meat, Fish, And Fowl, And Composing Every Kind Of Soup, Gravy, Pastry, Preserves, Essences, &c. That Have Been Published Or Invented During The Last Twenty Years. Particularly The Very Best Of Those In The Cook’s Oracle, Cook’s Dictionary, And Other Systems Of Domestic Economy. With Numerous Original Receipts, And A Complete System of Confectionery by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee from Boston.
Here’s a curious recipe:
Wash very clean two pounds of rice, stew it till perfectly tender with a little water, half a pound of butter, some salt, whole pepper, cloves and mace, and keep the stewpan closely covered; boil two fowls and one pound and half of bacon, put the bacon in the middle, and the fowls on each side, cover them all over with the rice, and garnish with hard-boiled eggs and fried whole onions.
Two pounds of rice, two chickens, and a pound and a half of bacon for how many people I wonder? Four maybe. I’m also interested to note the proportion of rice to meat. Pilau or Pilaf is immensely popular over a wide swathe of cultures from the Balkans and the Middle East to Central and South Asia. But in all these cultures the rice predominates. In this recipe the meat is the star and the rice floats around the edges. The recipe is very much in keeping with de Tocqueville’s general observations. The rice is very rich, with half a pound of butter for 2 pounds of rice, and quite spicy. The meat, on the other hand, is perfectly plain, but there’s plenty of it, no doubt garnished lavishly with the eggs and onions.