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Gloomy diagnosis: Alexis de Tocqueville, 1850, portrait by Theodore Chasseriau  

Recent years have been kind to Alexis de Tocqueville. Long forgotten in his own country, with the decline of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he was rediscovered as a theorist of democratic citizenship. Next he figured as a champion of social capital. Now he looks like one of the possible intellectual forebears of the Big Society.

Tocqueville wrote two great books: Democracy in America, published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840, and The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, published in 1856. While the latter established the thesis that the French Revolution had merely continued the centralising tendencies of the Bourbon monarchy, the former was the result of a voyage he made to America in 1831-32 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. Their official mission was to produce a report on the penitentiary system but, little by little, the idea came to Tocqueville that he might write a book about the "great democratic revolution" he saw unfolding before him. Composed, in Tocqueville's phrase, "under the impression of a sort of religious terror", upon publication it was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece.

The nature of the journey undertaken by Tocqueville and Beaumont is elegantly brought back to life in Leo Damrosch's Tocqueville's Discovery of America. From their first stay in New York City until their final hurried passage by stagecoach through the slave states of the South, their days were ones of constant enquiry, mixing expeditions into the wilderness with dinner parties among the Boston Brahmin, hazardous riverboat trips with visits to Shaker and Quaker meetings. Always alive to the charms of American women, both men were fascinated by American customs and manners. Both concluded that in America the arts of cookery and of music-making were in their infancy. Complete barbarism, Tocqueville commented, was the norm.

Above all, as the delightful selection of letters edited by Frederick Brown reveals, it was the sheer novelty of America that came increasingly to press itself upon Tocqueville's mind. Translated for the first time, these letters not only provide a vivid picture of Tocqueville's daily experiences, but also show how he began to comprehend the singular country he was exploring. A letter to his close friend Ernest de Chabrol, written in June 1831, encapsulates his thought wonderfully. "I am simply dazzled," he announced, "by all I see." And what he saw was a country "lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character". This "happy land", he continued, was marked by a "restlessness of the human spirit". It was also one where people devoted themselves to making money rather than to politics. The only thing binding the diverse elements of American society together, Tocqueville observed, was individual self-interest. 

Two other aspects of American society forcibly attracted Tocqueville's attention. The first was that America was characterised by an equality of social conditions. There were no aristocrats and no masters, only employers and employees. The second was that there was no central government to speak of and that "localities manage their own affairs unfettered". "What strikes the traveller," he told Chabrol later in the year, "is the spectacle of a society that walks on its own, without benefit of a guide or a crutch."

When Tocqueville sailed home to France he was still uncertain about what he would make of his disordered notes and disconnected impressions. "I believe," he wrote modestly, "that if, upon my return I have the leisure, I might write something passable on the United States." How Tocqueville came to write something that was much more than passable is disclosed in the bilingual edition of Democracy in America, prepared by Eduardo Nolla and published by Liberty Fund at a bargain price for two large volumes. This is a major piece of scholarship which, through its meticulous reading of the original manuscript and its variants, fully reveals the complex layering and composition of Tocqueville's text. We can also see how Tocqueville came progressively to refine his argument, in the process discarding discussion of aspects of American society no longer suited to his purpose. 

Of his central themes, the most important was that in the United States it was the people who could be truly said to govern. Not only did they control the executive and legislative powers but, as Tocqueville noted, there existed "no lasting obstacles" to their prejudices, passions and interests. The result of this unlimited power was the tyranny of the majority. The originality of this tyranny lay in the fact that it left the body alone but enslaved the soul. 

There has long been debate about the differences in content and argument to be found in the two volumes of Democracy in America. Certainly the second volume was received with less acclaim and its frame of reference was without doubt more European. In particular Tocqueville identified another form of tyranny that reduced "each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid sheep and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd". Less brutal and milder than the forms of despotism that had come before, it would regulate and hinder, enervate and direct, prevent rather than destroy, provide for all our needs and facilitate all our pleasures. Under its tutelage citizens would lose the capacity to think, feel and act for themselves. The greatest cause of this new development, Tocqueville believed, was the industrialisation of the economy, the State coming to exercise ever more extensive functions and to employ more and more people.

Tocqueville's mood, in short, was one of growing pessimism and doubt and this was only to increase in the years before his death in 1859. In truth there had been aspects of American society that had troubled Tocqueville deeply from the outset. One of these was the fate of Native Americans. A second was the existence of slavery. That this was so is made abundantly clear in the beautifully illustrated volume edited by Olivier Zunz, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America. Here, in addition to translations of letters by Tocqueville and Beaumont from America, are to be found extracts from their report on the penitentiary system, selections from Tocqueville's notebooks, two essays narrating excursions into the wilderness, letters relating to the writing and publication of Democracy in America, as well as other related material. 

When Tocqueville arrived in America he was determined to reach "a place that the torrent of European civilization had not yet reached". This he did by pushing as far westwards as he could. Inspired by the romance of the forest, never was his writing more lyrical. Yet Tocqueville also saw that the American wilderness was retreating rapidly. He saw too that the principal victim was the Indian. If his cousin Chateaubriand had seen the noble savage, Tocqueville saw only a drunken and ugly people, doomed to ruin and extinction as they were dispossessed of their land.

Although Tocqueville accepted that he had at best a sketchy acquaintance and knowledge of the South, he was fully aware of the barbarity inflicted upon the black population, and could see how slavery penetrated into the souls of the masters, forming "a veritable aristocracy" contemptuous of both money and labour. Slavery, he believed, neither could nor should endure. It defied economic reason. It marked a reversal of the order of nature. From a Christian perspective it was unjust and immoral. But, as a deleted passage from the original manuscript reveals, slavery also told us something profound about American society. "Of all the moderns," we read in the Nolla edition, "the Americans are those who have pushed furthest equality and inequality amongst men. They have united universal suffrage with servitude."

America then was a society where one race was born to perish, one to serve, and one to rule. Tocqueville never returned to America but he remained fascinated by the country, on one occasion describing himself as "half Yankee". As the Zunz volume shows, in the heated constitutional debates that wracked the French Second Republic he did not hesitate to praise the American example. Yet Tocqueville came increasingly to believe that America would disappoint its admirers. While in America he had been struck by the constant migration westwards of its population. In the feverish activity he witnessed in such cities as Cincinnati he saw the emergence of "a new society connected to Europe only by language". Everyone had come there only to make money. Now he saw that America was increasingly characterised by an immoderate appetite for wealth. He saw ever more lawlessness and an unruly democracy. Above all, he was horrified by attempts to extend the "horrible plague" of slavery west of the Mississippi, fearing for the future of the Union. America, he wrote to one of his correspondents in 1856, "has given little satisfaction to the friends of liberty for some time".

Tocqueville's diagnosis of our future was then a gloomy one. Two issues in particular came to preoccupy him. The first was our tendency to place the claims of equality before the demands of liberty. From this flowed a preference for uniformity and the growth of the centralised state. The second was individualism. By this he meant the sentiment that disposed "each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him" and thus "to abandon society at large to itself". "I see," Tocqueville wrote at his most prophetic, "an innumerable crowd of like and equal men[...]each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others".

From the perspective of our own atomised and much governed society these concerns seem unnervingly familiar. We might therefore pause to consider the dimensions of American society that Alexis de Tocqueville believed might protect us from this sorry fate. In part the Americans had the good fortune of inhabiting a vast and empty continent that was not surrounded by enemies. They thus were able to dispense with government. But the tyranny of the majority was kept in check by more than just good fortune. Firstly, the American constitution was built upon a deep respect for the rule of law. Next, Tocqueville witnessed the vitality and diversity of religious life in America. What he perceived were the beneficial consequences of religion as a social force, irrespective of its doctrinal elements. Religion acted to elevate the aspirations of the believer. Most importantly, he saw that America combated individualism through the art of association. "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all persuasions," Tocqueville wrote, "constantly unite." Association, he admitted, did not call forth heroic virtues but it did serve to form "a multitude of citizens who are orderly, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves". As a consequence self-interest was enlightened, producing "little sacrifices each day".

Are there lessons for us here? Or has ours become such a profoundly secular society that the spirit of religion no longer has any purchase upon us?  Has the long march to create the welfare state destroyed the customs and practices of associational life in the United Kingdom? If so, is a society characterised by civic engagement and mutual obligation simply beyond recall? The hope of David Cameron, articulated through the idea of the Big Society, is that, if the central state ceases to fulfil a particular function, it will be taken up by local communities, charities and other sections of society. The fear is that this function, however useful it might be, will simply cease to be performed and that the most vulnerable members of our society will suffer as a consequence. This might well prove to be true. To succeed, the Big Society will require a fundamental cultural shift and this will be achieved, if at all, neither easily nor quickly. Tocqueville himself would not have underestimated the difficulties involved but of one thing he was sure: only liberty could bring citizens out of their isolation and only liberty could cure them of their selfish desire for material gain and comfort. "Whoever seeks for anything from liberty but itself," Tocqueville observed, "is made for slavery."

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