It seems almost inevitable that Olivier Zunz would have come to the subject of his new and widely hailed biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville. A native of France who pursued his higher studies in history at the University of Paris, Zunz began his career as an urban planner and wrote his dissertation on the social transformation of a major American industrial city, work that would provide the basis for his first book, The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880–1920. His broad interests in American social history led to other important books, edited volumes, and articles on topics such as American corporate culture, the idea of the American Century, and the role of philanthropy. Along with those studies—indeed, converging with them—was Zunz’s personal and professional attraction to that other Frenchman drawn to the study of American society and institutions. Having served as president of the Tocqueville Society and on the board of its bilingual journal, The Tocqueville Review, Zunz has written extensively on Tocqueville’s principal works and edited and introduced important translations of several of them.
The following is an edited version of a recent conversation between Professor Zunz and THR editor Jay Tolson.
Jay Tolson: Most Americans know Alexis de Tocqueville as the author of the two-volume classic Democracy in America (1835, 1840), and possibly for his equally invaluable study of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). What other major points of his biography would you mention at the outset?
Olivier Zunz: Apart from being born in 1805 into a prominent Norman aristocratic family and dying in 1859, Tocqueville was very much a political man as well as a brilliant writer and thinker. A staunch classical liberal who took a keen interest in policy matters ranging from education to incarceration to colonization, he also served in the lower house of the French parliament. While he became and remained an ardent defender of democracy, he was nonetheless keenly alert to its weaknesses, including its susceptibility to demagoguery, despotism, and violent revolutionary upheaval, having lost many relatives (his great-grandfather, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and uncle) to the guillotine during the Terror that followed the French Revolution.