Alexis de Tocqueville, the melancholy-eyed, floppy haired French noble setting out for the Mississippi, is not who he seems. A false impression reigns in America, where more have heard of him and his work than of almost anyone else writing in French today. And for a Frenchman who hasn’t been in the United States in over 185 years, it is quite something to see him so frequently rolled out as a liberal icon in the pages of America’s premier publications.
Take the New York Times. On January 13, Tocqueville made an appearance in a Ross Douthat column questioning “Is There Life After Liberalism?” Just two weeks later he was back in the opening line of a Bret Stephens column on “The G.O.P.’s Bonfire of the Sanities.” Meanwhile, David Brooks wove the forever-young and venturing Frenchman into not one but two of his columns last year, having, of course, integrated him three times into his column the previous year, too. Over the last year Tocqueville has also featured in Times columns on “How living abroad taught me to love America,” philanthropy, lawyers, Trump’s foreign policy, Charlottesville, and the Supreme Court, and just as frequently in the paper’s books and letters section on topics as diverse as American involvement in Asia and, oddly, Australia.
At first glance, what should be surprising here? Why wouldn’t an erudite figure from the upper reaches of aristocratic France be so often quoted chez les Anglo-Saxons? And why wouldn’t he also be canonized in French intellectual life?
Nothing at all—until you realize that Tocqueville was not only out of print, absent from the curriculum, and more or less unknown in France eighty years ago, whilst his name had not come up much even in America since the Civil War.
How Tocqueville got dusted off is a secret history of how the canon gets made. Elegant, eloquent, an adventurer, Tocqueville is fascinating. But even more intriguing is how exactly this forgotten 19th-century politician was enshrined as a liberal icon, obscuring his role that mattered: as cheerleader and theorist of Algerian slaughter.
Unlike his cousin François-René de Chateaubriand, France forgot almost instantly about Tocqueville, who died in 1859. His French revival did not flow from America, but straight from that systematic, little-examined, mid-20th-century project: the quest for the anti-Marx.
In Anglo-American conservatism, this quest resulted in the elevation of the thin diatribes of Friedrich Hayek, the results of which can still be seen around us, in the stacks of The Road to Serfdom for sale at CPAC every year, and in the tomes that adorn the bookshelves of many a serious Senator. Not defending conservative thought the hard way (as a set of principles: skepticism, tradition, evolution), Anglo-American thinkers built a cult around Hayek’s work to rival that surrounding Das Kapital—valorizing a theory of capitalism, insisting on economic rules for history—with all the brittle dogmatism they scorned on the Left.
The French quest for the anti-Marx, however, has been far more skillfully executed, and was in all senses more profound. Tocqueville became the liberal icon for a Fifth Republic badly shaken by the streets of May 1968—their philosophe.
Behind Tocqueville’s rehabilitation stands the most brilliant intellectual operator of Gaullism, Raymond Aron. Though similarly sleight, Aron was the anti-Jean-Paul Sartre: anti-Soviet and pro-American, anti-Marxist and pro-free markets, a liberal both committed to Anglo-America, and—rarely for a Parisian of his time—frequently visiting Washington.
In fact, Aron’s revival of Tocqueville began in America. In a series of conferences in Berkeley in 1963 (which led to Essais Sur Les Libertés), Aron established him as both a competitor and superior to Marx. The project intensified by 1967, with Aron arguing (in Les Étapes De La Pensée Sociologique) that Tocqueville was nothing less than an equal of Durkheim, Montesquieu and of course, Marx. The first new edition of Democracy in America for the general reader in France followed quickly—in 1968.
As the student uprisings gathered steam, Charles de Gaulle did not fully appreciate what was happening and rushed to Germany to ensure the French military tank division with NATO over the Rhine was loyal. But Aron better understood the stakes. “I played de Tocqueville,” wrote Aron, “just as others played Saint-Just, Robespierre, or Lenin.” He knew instantly that the mass protests, armed with the Marxist ideas, had broken de Gaulle’s charismatic authority and with it, had thrown the entire social order into question. (Once he realized this too, de Gaulle resigned in 1969, choosing fittingly to visit General Franco in Madrid on his first major foreign vacation.)
Aron knew he needed to fight back, and that he needed an anti-Marx whose thinking he could use to dismantle the triptych that was on the students’ lips: liberté, égalité, révolution. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon gospel cult of Hayek, which rather than dismantle simply inverts Marxist historical materialism (“free markets must lead to prosperity”), Aron’s cult of Tocqueville was inspired, the start of a brilliant assault on 1789 by French conservative thinkers focusing on discrediting the revolutionary idea itself, not just Marxist economics.
What delighted Aron was that Democracy in America established a dichotomy between liberty and equality. The more equal men are, Tocqueville argued, the less liberty they can enjoy because of the conformist “tyranny of the majority.” Better still, in The Ancien Regime and The Revolution, Tocqueville argued French revolutions always fell back to the old centralized state of Louis XIV. In other words, revolutions are impossible, because state structures are entrenched beyond uprisings. You can never escape the old order. Together, these formed Aron’s anti-Kapital: not only will the state conquer all French revolutions, but liberté with equal égalité is not desirable. Therefore equality—the socialists’ égalité, the equality of conditions—must never be permitted.
Raymond Aron lost the hearts and minds of ’68, but he won the war. Drawing on careful partnerships with financial and political authorities (perhaps inspired by his frequent visits to the Hudson Institute in DC’s nascent think-tank scene), he succeeded in creating a cult of Tocqueville and inserting it into the French curriculum. His liberal conservatism, fringe amongst Parisian students at the time would be what the next generation found in their Baccalauréat.
There is something charming about the young intellectual setting sail across the Atlantic, to New York, to think democracy. There is nothing charming about the mature politician crossing the Mediterranean, to Algiers, to plan colonialism.
Who was the real Tocqueville? In some senses, because that later man, that incarnation, did not endure, this question hardly matters. But when intellectuals collectively create a national monument out of a body of work, what they choose to ignore shows us what they think is irrelevant, revealing their true values. And the truth is, Tocqueville’s hostility to egalité is hardly accidental in his earlier writing. It goes on to inform all his later work and life.
The Tocqueville who shaped French history is not the famous writer, but a member of parliament from 1839 to 1851, a man who when he was briefly French Foreign Minister in 1849 appointed his friend Arthur de Gobineau (the author of Essay on The Inequality of The Human Races, the source of Aryan race theory) as his Chef de Cabinet. This is the Tocqueville who was the rapporteur on the notorious 1847 Report on Algeria.
“I have often heard men who I respect,” Tocqueville wrote, “but with whom I do not agree, find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children. These, in my view, are unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people who want to wage war on Arabs are obliged to submit.” All this was to Tocqueville, “a necessary barbarism.”
France’s anti-Marxist Nouveaux Philosophes, who followed on from Raymond Aron, have progressively debased the concept of totalitarianism. They, like Hayek, found it everywhere, in the many pushes for more equitable living conditions, in the conceptual framework of social democracy, and now in feminist call-out culture. But like Aron, they ignored Tocqueville’s call in Algeria, “to ravage the country.” Worse than deny it, they shrug off Tocqueville’s championing of colonialism, and with French liberalism’s pact with it, as just a detail of history.
The American cult of Tocqueville had different roots, but also engaged in cherry-picking, albeit of a different sort. Democracy in America was acclaimed almost immediately as it was published in 1835 as a work staggering genius, but interest in it vanished completely after the outbreak of the American Civil War. With faith in democracy shattered, Tocqueville read ridiculously and his books disappeared from print.
He was saved from obscurity in 1938 by the historian George Wilson Pierson. In the throes of the Great Depression, and perhaps not by chance at a moment of crisis in faith in American exceptionalism, Pierson reconstructed Tocqueville’s journey in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, to great acclaim. This placed him on the radar for the greatest moment of American triumphalism of all: the search to make sense of a destiny now manifested in 1945. New editions of Democracy in America appeared in 1945 (Knopf), 1947 (Oxford), 1951 (Henry Regnery), 1954 (Vintage) and 1956 (New American Library). This flurry of editions were quickly placed on the reading lists of the emerging fields of American Studies and Western Civilization, and soon became a cornerstone of U.S. politics in a liberal arts education.
And yet it’s easy to forget that Democracy in America was not written under President Lincoln, but under President Jackson, in the America of the Trail of Tears, and it can only feel strange that a book from this moment in time is the one frequently hailed as capturing some of America’s finest characteristics. True, Tocqueville, an abolitionist, both condemned African-American slavery and Native American dispossession, and did so eloquently. Yet his democracy stops long before them, in his elegiac passages of the happy slaves at work in the fields, or in his conviction that “the Indians will never civilize themselves, or that it will be too late when they may be inclined to make the experiment.” One would happily toil, one would quietly vanish—that was Tocqueville’s shrug.
In Algiers, like on the Mississippi, Tocqueville seems to have found a sense of destiny. Though it might seem jarring to us, his jump from America to Algeria presented no contradictions to him. Tocqueville saw his work as a colonial panorama: from America, the freed colony, to Algeria the future colony. America was his inspiration for Algeria. Algiers, he wrote in 1832—“it is Cincinnati transported to African soil.”
In Algeria, Tocqueville found inferiors again. Writing to Arthur de Gobineau (who was by now well into developing his Aryan race theories), Tocqueville announced that a study of the Koran had convinced him that “there are few religions as deadly to men as Islam.” It was worse than polytheism, “a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself.” Degenerate, vile, amenable only to force—that was his Arab.
This is the real Tocqueville: The politician who saw his vocation as the colonial expert of the Chamber of Deputies in advocating for France to build its own America in North Africa. This is why he wanted both to “ravage the country” but fiercely opposed “the dictatorship” General Bugeaud ran in Algiers. Tocqueville’s indignation here was that Paris was slowing down European colonization. He was only opposed to dictatorship over Europeans in Algeria; as far as Arabs were concerned, he was a firm supporter of military rule. What he wanted was the white settler democracy he so admired in the United States to emerge in North Africa. The Swiss Colonization Society, he lamented, was sending families to the “wildest parts of North America” and not Algeria, because there settlers enjoyed democratic institutions and pacified terrain.
After the conquest, Tocqueville rediscovered his enlightened imperialist, exhorting the French parliament not to repeat the worst excesses of New World genocidal colonization “that has dishonored the human race.” But this was not because he had renounced colonialism, but because he believed he had found a better approach, “the astonishing greatness of the British in India.” So infatuated was he with British India that during the 1857 revolt against the East India Company which neatly shattered the empire of France’s great rival, Tocqueville angsted that a British withdrawal, “would be disastrous for the future of civilization and the future of humanity.” As soon as the so-called “Sepoy Mutiny” was crushed, he rejoiced in “a victory for Christianity and civilization.” A study of Britain in India was to be his great unfinished work: the capstone to his great colonial panorama.
Should Americans still read Tocqueville? Absolutely. But they ought to consider the flattering and glibly quotable extracts so recurrent in columns in the New York Times less as timeless verities pulled from scripture but nuggets from a life dedicated to analyzing and actualizing empire.
To put it bluntly, the Tocqueville America needs to grapple with is the writer who saw his hymn to white-settler society as a roadmap of sorts. Reading this Tocqueville would mean facing the fact that for 19th-century Europeans, the United States was not only, or even first and foremost, an inspiration for democracy, but also one for colonization—that Tocqueville, like Cecil Rhodes, saw in the great white empire stretching over the Mississippi, the sublime.
Democracy in America is a fabulous historical artifact. I am not arguing that it should somehow be forgotten once again. But it cannot be blindly quoted, as a visionary paean to simple virtues. It’s a lot more troublesome than that. And revealing.