“Tocqueville Believed That Democracy Is a Constant Struggle”

The teachings of Alexis de Tocqueville are more relevant than ever. Through his travels across the U.S. and his seminal work Democracy in America, published in 1835-1840, the French thinker warns us about the vulnerability of our democracies, which are essential, fragile, and never truly guaranteed. Exploring these questions, France-Amérique interviewed historian Olivier Zunz, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of a biography of Tocqueville.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: Tocqueville has been quoted constantly up to the modern day, but his relevance varies depending on the circumstances.

Olivier Zunz: Yes, during the Cold War, he garnered attention above all for his prophecy of a future world dominated by two major powers – the United States and Russia. And when an authoritarian regime collapses, for example the fall of the U.S.S.R., many recall what Tocqueville wrote in his book The Old Regime and the Revolution: “The most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.”

Tocqueville’s work is so nuanced that it opens itself up to different interpretations. For example, what exactly does he mean by “democracy”?

For Tocqueville, democracy is not simply an institutional mechanism, but rather the equality of conditions. In his writing, the terms equality and democracy are interchangeable. In this sense, his 1831-1832 trip to America was decisive. Before then, the young man, whose parents were both from noble French families, believed that equality should be avoided as it would lead to social and cultural leveling down. But when he came to the United States, he discovered an entirely different society in which equality was a source of individual freedom enabling everyone to achieve their aspirations. The equality that Tocqueville saw as negative suddenly appeared in a positive light – and he then shared this complete reversal with his compatriots.

Many of those commenting on Tocqueville claim that he only grudgingly supported democracy…

Tocqueville always voiced his doubts; he was not dogmatic. However, his mind was made up: Democracy had become both certain and desirable, while monarchic regimes appeared doomed to failure. In his subsequent political career as a representative of the Manche département and minister of foreign affairs, he was always a republican in keeping with his convictions.

According to Tocqueville, history has meaning. Was he influenced by the leading progressive thinkers of his time, such as Auguste Comte, Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx?

Tocqueville may well have been in tune with his time, but we know little about which of his contemporaries inspired him. He certainly never read Marx. He spent a short time with the Saint-Simonians, a progressive fellowship that believed in changing the world through technology. Much like the Saint-Simonians, Tocqueville preferred hard facts, not theoretical dreams.

Yet he had little interest in the economy…

Precisely. Economics never featured in his thinking. We don’t even know if he read Adam Smith, the most influential economist of the English-speaking world at the time. However, Tocqueville was sensitive to the urban poverty beginning to appear in cities on the fringes of industrialization. He wrote on this subject and associated himself with the social Catholicism of Félicité de Lamennais, whose books about the poor helped inspire the French socialist model. That being said, Tocqueville showed hostility toward socialists for their extremism, as he believed in moderation in all things.

Olivier Zunz. © Dan Addison/University of Virginia

Was he not slightly less moderate when it came to the French conquest of Algeria?

Tocqueville, like all French people of the time, supported the colonization of Africa that began in 1830. He saw Algeria as the equivalent to the American West – a natural land of expansion for French power. He also believed that it was possible to cohabit with the small native Arab populations. However, he was not racist. He did not envisage exterminating the Arabs like the Native Americans had been, nor enslaving them like Black Africans. It must be said that Tocqueville could change his stance when facts contradicted his opinions. When the Indian Rebellion of 1857 broke out against British colonization, followed by violent repression, he admitted that colonial domination was fundamentally undesirable.

As a representative and influential journalist, Tocqueville fought against slavery yet, paradoxically, barely mentioned the realities of Black people in the United States…

Tocqueville certainly didn’t see all of America. He only briefly traveled through the South, and never even visited a plantation. He therefore wrote very little about slavery, but that did not stop him from having the right intuitions. He foresaw a civil war between Whites and Blacks, and even the dissolution of the Union over the question of slavery. By contrast, he was more familiar with Native Americans, whom he met on several occasions. He respected their civilization and was outraged at their expulsion west of the Mississippi. The fact that Tocqueville was not racist was, for the time, quite remarkable. He spoke out against his former secretary Arthur de Gobineau, who promoted a sensationalist racial theory which became a handbook for Nazis and the far-right in the 20th century.

There was something else that Tocqueville failed to see in America: religious revivals orchestrated by dissident churches.

This is surprising, as his trip and itinerary brought him close to the great religious ferment of the time. Perhaps his Catholic faith prevented him from understanding the evangelical movements? Yet religion played a hugely important role in his life. While his personal faith seemed fragile, he campaigned constantly for a reconciliation between the church and democracy. He wanted to see the rise of a real competitiveness between secular education and church-led education.

Tocqueville never returned to the United States after writing Democracy in America, unlike Lafayette. How did this single trip have such a lasting influence on his life?

He never went back, but his discovery of the United States enlightened his life’s work. While writing his second – and unfinished – major book on the French Revolution, he compared France under the Ancien Régime with American democracy. The United States had shown that another society was possible, in which state despotism was controlled by intermediary bodies. In France, these were the nobility, regional parliaments, and local elected officials, which were all attacked and destroyed by the monarchy, the French Revolution, and Napoleon I with alarming continuity. This is how freedoms in France were crushed by an all-powerful central administration. By contrast, American federalism and above all the vigor of secular and religious organizations guaranteed individual liberties. This model inspired Tocqueville when he was a representative. In 1848, he supported a shift from a monarchy to a republic, brandishing the example of the United States to convince the Parliament that a republic was viable. After helping to write the French Republican Constitution of 1848, he was unable to gain enough support for a Senate. However, he championed the principle of single-term presidencies. The Constitution only allowed for one mandate, which led President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to declare himself Emperor Napoleon III to sidestep this condition.

Tocqueville is a symbol of liberalism in France, but what should we take away from his writings?

His was a very French liberalism following in the footsteps of Montesquieu and Condorcet, far different from classic American liberalism, which focuses more on the market economy. Tocqueville never discussed this. His liberalism was political, a constant push for moderation. But the most important thing, when rereading him today, is the extent to which he saw democracy as both an essential and fragile construction. It is never guaranteed. Tocqueville would not have been surprised at the failure of democratic movements in the Arab world and Russia. Nor would he have been surprised by the attacks on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. He believed that democracy is a constant struggle.

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville by Olivier Zunz, Princeton University Press, 2022.

Interview published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.