A review of Tocqueville Unveiled: The Historian and His Sources for The Old Regime and the Revolution, by Robert T. Gannett, Jr.
Tocqueville "unveiled"? One might think Americans had already been exposed to quite a bit of Tocqueville. For decades, politicians, professors and pundits have regularly invoked his name; and in the last several years, we have seen a spate of new translations and retranslations of his writings and a steady stream of books about his thought. Americans, however, know chiefly his Democracy in America, a work he completed before the age of thirty-five. Few know much about his political career, his place within the tradition of French liberalism, or even his other major writings, the posthumously revealed Souvenirs (about the Revolution of 1848) and the half-finished historical study focused on the Revolution of 1789, The Old Regime and the Revolution.
But then why would Americans need to know about Tocqueville's life and writings beyond Democracy in America? Most care a lot about American democracy and only as little as is necessary about France's history, politics, or intellectual life. In particular, why read about the French Revolution and its origins in the aristocratic monarchy that preceded it? Tocqueville completed only the first volume of his work, his study of the old regime. He died before he could polish and publish what he wrote about the exciting part, the Revolution itself. Anyway, for that we have had Simon Schama's vivid depiction, as well as the excellent scholarly analyses made by the late historian Francois Furet and his colleagues. Moreover, though Tocqueville's first volume was well received in the first years after its publication in 1856, it fell into relative obscurity until the liberal political thinker Raymond Aron and the erstwhile Marxist Furet began to take it seriously again in the middle of the 20th century.
Furet, while reestablishing the reputation of Tocqueville's Old Regime as a book historians must reckon with, ultimately found it wanting. Most importantly, Tocqueville, in demonstrating so effectively that the old regime prepared its own demise and its replacement by a democracy of some sort, made all but inexplicable the profound rupture caused by the Revolution. Other recent critics, looking at Old Regime not as historians but as political theorists, have deemed it more seriously flawed. Tocqueville's book, written in the aftermath of Louis Napoleon's coup d'état, was intended to promote a revival of democratic liberalism in France. In fact, however, contend analysts like Richard Herr and Sheldon Wolin, what the book proves is that this goal is virtually unattainable. So Tocqueville inadvertently undermined his objectives both as a historian and as a spokesman for liberty. Why then bother to consider the work further?
Robert Gannett, in his intelligent and absorbing Tocqueville Unveiled, gives us good reasons to read Tocqueville's "mature masterpiece," not to mention his own. Tocqueville Unveiled is a sympathetic though not uncritical study of the Old Regimeand of the writing of it. As Gannett proceeds, he provides a persuasive analysis of the content of the Old Regime and of its style. He locates and appraises the historical sources Tocqueville relied on in composing it. He employs Tocqueville's extensive reading notes and various earlier drafts of the manuscript to give us a glimpse of the author's mind at work. He draws freely on Tocqueville's voluminous correspondence. Thus it is a rich book, full of interesting detail. It is also studded with insights, not only about the Old Regime, but about Tocqueville and other of his writings. Respectful in tone, it is ambitious in reach and depth, offering plausible solutions to problems that have long perplexed the most distinguished Tocqueville scholars.
Tocqueville and the Old Regime need "unveiling," Gannett contends, especially because Tocqueville deliberately obscured the scholarship that went into the book. In following Gannett's account of how and why this was done, readers are reminded of the qualities of Tocqueville the man and of his politics. Tocqueville approached the study of history as he approached all aspects of his public life: He examined the past with a view to the present and to the possibilities for political liberty in it; and he wrote about this past both to urge that these possibilities be acted on and to quench his own thirst for glory. Even as Tocqueville saw the success of Democracy in America partly as his entrée into politics, so he turned to the writing of the Old Regime after his political career was ended by Louis Napoleon's coup. Both books are essentially political acts, though Tocqueville strives to be faithful to the truth in them. Each was written to instruct the French on how they might and might not advance the cause of liberal democracy. And each was written because Tocqueville felt within himself an "immoderate, immense craving [gout] that leads [my soul] toward grandeur." When, in the later book, Tocqueville obscured the extent and manner in which he relied on his sources (an obfuscation that diminishes his credibility among historians), he intended to make the work more accessible to those who might be stirred upon reading it to act on behalf of liberty. The concealment also allowed Tocqueville to exaggerate the magnitude and novelty of his own research, and thereby to serve as an example to these readers of the great and glorious exertions a man might make in liberty's cause.
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Despite, or more likely because of his aspiration to greatness, Tocqueville was often plagued by self-doubt. So the early drafts of his writings were marked by false starts, impasses, reversals of direction, substantive and stylistic revisions. He could spend years mulling over an idea. He asked questions that could not feasibly be answered; so he had to ask them in another way or settle for partial rather than exhaustive answers to them. On occasion, he stumbled upon sources that were to provide invaluable new information and focus for the book. At other times, he redrafted, as he did in writing anew parts of the Old Regime without the aid of his reading notes, so as to make his style more spontaneous and readable. And at the end he left some analytical impasses unbridged, as he struggled to determine to what extent the eighteenth-century intellectuals and the men of affairs who engaged in "literary politics" reflected public opinion, and to what extent they actually shaped it.
Gannett begins his book by reminding us of Tocqueville's composition of Democracy in America and of a well-known difficulty that emerges from it. Tocqueville scholars have generally agreed that the book is not just two volumes, but in effect, two books; that at some point in writing it, Tocqueville arrived at a more profound understanding of modern democracy and the threats to liberty inherent in it. This much Tocqueville himself acknowledges. But at precisely what point is the break, and why? Scholars disagree. Gannett argues—rather convincingly—that the break occurred in 1838, when Tocqueville, in the midst of writing the third part of the second volume, drafted the fourth part and wholly rewrote the important first two chapters of each of the first and second parts. The reason for this break, contends Gannett, was the decision to make the second volume's theme the threat of "soft despotism," an extreme form of administrative centralization that arises from individualism. Thus the break is one as much of style and emphasis as of substance, for Tocqueville had worried about administrative centralization in the first volume, and even before coming to America, had expressed in his correspondence a concern with the issue. And as Gannett shows throughout his book, this same concern guided his composition of the first volume of the Old Regime and his research for the second. So however much Tocqueville's thinking and writing evolved, his fundamental position on the point remained fixed.
Democracy in America was written when some form of liberal democracy at least seemed within reach in France; the Old Regime, after she had again succumbed to a despot. The latter book addresses two questions: First, what was the character of the revolution that so astonished the world? Second, why did Europe's democratic revolution begin in France? The Revolution was at its core a thorough repudiation of aristocracy and of the old common law on which it rested. In arguing this point in the book's first part, Tocqueville frames his discussion with a surprisingly harsh treatment of Edmund Burke, who was, in many ways, Tocqueville's kindred spirit. But Burke was still an explicit defender of the old aristocratic order, whereas Tocqueville, with the benefit of hindsight, held that traditional aristocracy was doomed and that whatever future advantages were to be had from it would have to be gotten from a simulation of it resting on a wholly democratic foundation.
The long-term cause of the Revolution in France, was administrative centralization. The monarchy was determined to make itself, alone, responsible for virtually all aspects of life under it. The kings were motivated in part by economic necessities, in part by jealousy of other political powers, but also in part, especially in later years, by a sincere desire to improve the lives of their subjects. In Tocqueville's famous description, the monarchy tried to assume the place of Providence. However fantastic may have been the kings' ambition, they could not have satisfied it to the extent that they did had the French aristocracy not willingly relinquished its political power in order to preserve its privileges and the economic perquisites attached to them. In surrendering to this vanity and venality, the aristocracy also abandoned its traditional responsibilities to the peasantry, leaving it seething with rage against it. By the end, the monarchy ruled over a mere aggregate of classes pitted against one another, not a community. When the monarchy fell, the individual classes would prove incapable of uniting for common public purposes.
In the meantime, into the vacuum created by the old regime's absence of political life and liberty stepped "men of letters," whose abstract theories and determination to create a political world devoid of arbitrary inequalities captured the public imagination. These ideas were to pass, in the short term, for an "art of government," which actually requires experience in political liberty. Democratic as the plans seemed, they nonetheless still required some sort of strong centralized government to implement them. Hence the totality both of the old regime's collapse and of the revolutionary enterprise's scope.
Of the spirit of liberty, there seemed to be but little in the old regime, and opportunities for its expression fewer still. Tocqueville highlights this spirit, despite its feebleness. Moreover, he was, at his death, researching and writing the second volume of the Old Regime. In Gannett's account, Tocqueville discovered, especially from his rereading of thecahiers de doleances, the list of grievances drawn up by each of the estates, a "previously unacknowledged revolution," from 1787 through the summer of 1789. This was a truly liberal revolution, characterized by a common demand that local liberties be maintained or restored and a tone of reconciliation among the estates.
Tocqueville's correspondence makes it clear that he did not expect to end his days in a stable French liberal democracy. Yet he never despaired of the possibility that one might exist in the future: to this end, he wrote the Old Regime to tell the French just how and why they had lost their liberty. To the same end, Tocqueville lionized the heroes of the old regime and of 1789—and himself—defenders of liberty and foes of centralization all.