A review of Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville; edited, translated, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
A new political science is needed for a world altogether new,” Alexis de Tocqueville famously proclaimed. With this splendid new translation of Democracy in America, Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop have opened up a new world of scholars and students of Tocqueville’s classic, many of whom have known it only through the distorting lens of George Lawrence’s translation. The blurb on the cover of the often colloquial Lawrence version reflects its limitations: “Tocqueville is now accessible to readers who don’t mind brilliance as long as it is readable.”
“We would rather attract readers to Tocqueville than bring him to them, and make him too cheaply available for our purposes today,” explains Mansfield and Winthrop, who distinguish their handiwork both from Lawrence’s easygoing, democratic edition and Henry Reeve’s rather gentlemanly one. Tocqueville was grateful to Reeve, his first translator, but complained privately that Reeve had “quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.” In this egalitarian age, Mansfield and Winthrop want to convey the book’s salutary teachings for democracy but also to keep Tocqueville safe for an aristocracy of readers and thus do their part in fostering an aristocratic world within democracy.
Mansfield has written enticing studies of major figures and movements of political philosophy, and translated Machiavelli’s Prince and co-translated (with Nathan Tarcov) Machiavelli’s Discourses. As the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, he as exasperated his colleagues with elegant criticisms of lowered standards, racial and gender favoritism, and multiculturalism—the whole zoo of academic buffoonery. Delba Winthrop, his Harvard colleague and wife, has authored intricate essays on Tocqueville, Aristotle, and other political philosophers.
Like the works of their teacher Leo Strauss, the 80-page Mansfield-Winthrop introduction to Democracy in America is Socratic political philosophy in the guise of an introduction to someone else’s book. They boldly begin by contending that “Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” The sublime essay argues this thesis in 13 subsections of unequal length—”Who was Tocqueville?”; “Tocqueville’s Context”; “Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau”; “The Writing of Democracy in America”; “Tocqueville’s Political Science”; “The Democratic Revolution”; “Tyranny of the Majority”; “Pride and Race in America”; “From the Proud Majority to a Herd”; “Self-Interest Well Understood”; “Remedies for Majority Tyranny and Mild Despotism”; “The Virtue of Women”; and “The Superiority of Practice.” Little by little, the “controversial and unsettling character of the work” emerges.
Mansfield and Winthrop treat Tocqueville as a man of virtue, between political philosopher and statesman. Their Tocqueville has “a certain unphilosophical pride in himself” and is “uncertain about God.” “[U]nusually detached for a politician, and unusually engaged for a philosopher,” he displays a “love of greatness” that explains his restless soul. “In thought as in life Tocqueville always held to freedom and to nobility, and his question, his concern was how to keep them together.” He comprehends both Aristotle and Rousseau, not to speak of Montesquieu. He spans the divide between ancient and modern, reason and revelation. In Mansfield and Winthrop’s words:
Accordingly, “Democracy in America does not appear to be a book of political philosophy. As we have seen, it is not about the best regime in the manner of Plato and Aristotle, nor does it describe the sole legitimate regime like Rousseau’s Social Contract. It asserts there is no choice of regime now; the regime of the present and future is democracy. The only choice now is how to control democracy. And yet Tocqueville is always reasoning his way through his book, not merely describing and predicting but also examining the virtues and defects of democracy. In his recounting, democracy’s constant shadow companion is the aristocracy we have left behind.
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But Tocqueville’s work is more than just theoretical musing. It deals with a specific country—our own. And on this point, Mansfield and Winthrop raise profound questions about Tocqueville’s understanding of America.
[T]here is no founding in the classical sense in Tocqueville, a planned beginning that gives a certain form and principle of rule to society. Tocqueville speaks of the American Revolution and Constitution, but not as that sort of formative event. The American Founding is part of the democratic revolution, the development of a social state.
More significantly, apparently, than the founding was the point of departure of the American people a century and a half earlier when the Puritans arrived. That seed—not the latter, more deliberate founding—is the key, Tocqueville says, to almost the whole of his work.
Of course, if political foundings in the classical sense are not possible, it is not only the significance of the American Founding that is called into question but the significance of human action itself.
To what extent do Mansfield and Winthrop agree with Tocqueville’s denigration of founding, and hence of the attempt to understand America in terms of its greatest men—its founders and those who sought to perpetuate the founding? Although they make few references to The Federalist, they do not bring Tocqueville and the American Founders into a dialogue with one another. Moreover, departing from the Declaration of Independence, Mansfield and Winthrop do not regard equality as a principle but seem to accept Tocqueville’s historicizing of equality as a force. This all goes back to “the beginning and the guiding thought of Democracy in America,” they write, of Tocqueville’s argument that “a great democratic revolution is taking place among us.”
But are the best Americans so lacking in self-knowledge that they cannot know their own country better than a visitor who generalized so much about America that his second volume is largely aphorisms, with few proper nouns? Could Tocqueville, who was so dedicated to greatness, imagine the possibility of a Lincoln, the man who (more than any other) made possible belief in equality and excellence at the same time? Even granting that Democracy in America is the “best book ever written in America,” it could stand improvement. The improvement would show, in good Aristotelian fashion, the superiority of American practice to the Frenchman’s theory.