The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Interview

Following Alexis de Tocqueville: A Conversation with Historian and Biographer Olivier Zunz

Jay Tolson

Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville (detail), 1850, by Théodore Chassériau (1815–56); Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo; title page from the first edition of Democracy in America.

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.

JT: Let me ask you about the title of your new book. In what ways was Tocqueville “the man who understood democracy”?

OZ: Tocqueville was exceptionally prescient early in his adult life. He decided, at age twenty-five, to travel to America, ostensibly to write a report on the American penal system but clearly harboring larger ambitions. Even though an aristocrat, he parted ways with those family members and friends who were seeking restoration of the exiled royal family. He believed democracy was here to stay. So he decided to visit Jacksonian America, where he spent nine and a half months in 1831–32, in large part to find out how, and how well, democracy worked in that young nation. He began his tour with only a rudimentary knowledge of English and no idea of American constitutional principles. He ended it with a book that has helped Americans think of themselves and their society anew.

JT: Can you give some examples of what he found in America that might have altered his ideas about how democracy works, or should work?

OZ: Two brief excerpts from Tocqueville’s travel notes and from Democracy in America are revealing. On arrival in the United States, Tocqueville admired its people’s energy and ceaseless activity, but saw these attributes as mere evidence of their pursuit of financial gain. He quickly changed his mind. He realized he was witnessing a phenomenon heretofore unknown to him, in which individuals served the common good by satisfying their personal ambitions. He labeled the practice “self-interest properly understood.” As he jotted in his notebook, “Ancient republics operated on the principle that the particular interest was to be sacrificed to the general good.… The principle of this republic seems to me to require the particular interest to serve the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent egotism appears to be the axis about which the whole machine revolves.” Tocqueville went on later to argue that turning self-interest into a benefit for all was a positive development for civilization because self-interest was in so much greater supply than virtue. One could not be more tolerant of human weakness.

Tocqueville also discovered that, in democratic America, greater equality was the source of the liberty ordinary citizens needed to achieve their individual potential. By contrast, the push for equality in France merely produced social leveling. Tocqueville began a lifelong reflection on how to balance equality and liberty in society. He saw in democracy a political system capable of ensuring a healthy compromise between the two. He even imagined, as he put it in Democracy, “an extreme point at which liberty and equality touch and become one.” He elaborated: “Suppose that all citizens take part in government and that each has an equal right to do so. Since no man will then be different from his fellow men, no one will be able to exercise a tyrannical power. Men will be perfectly free, because they will all be entirely equal, and they will all be perfectly equal because they will be entirely free. This is the ideal toward which democratic peoples tend.”

JT: You could have written a book-length essay elaborating on these two propositions, but you chose to write a biography. Why?

OZ: Tocqueville was acutely conscious of living in a special moment in history. He told his British friend Henry Reeve, his first translator, that because aristocracy was already dead when his life began and democracy did not yet exist, he was, as he put it, “perfectly balanced between past and future” and not “instinctively drawn toward either.” Tocqueville lived his short life (until age fifty-three) in this moment, between two great national tragedies he did not personally witness—the French Revolution, which decimated his aristocratic family, and the American Civil War, which came close to razing the American republic he had taken as his model for democracy. I was anxious to capture how he lived that moment, and how doing so influenced his thought.

JT: Was he more witness or player during that moment?

OZ: Tocqueville was a significant player in the important transformations of his lifetime. He experienced two bloody revolutions—the one of 1830, which brought a constitutional monarchy, and the one of 1848, which instituted a republic. He was briefly imprisoned during what Karl Marx famously named “the eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” when Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew orchestrated his elevation from president of the Second Republic to emperor of the Second Empire. Tocqueville also ran several electoral campaigns. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, he took on great causes: the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, the rehabilitation of criminals (following his prison investigation in the United States), the defense of church-run schools as an acceptable alternative to state schools, and legal and constitutional reform. Intense work on all these issues naturally influenced his thinking on democracy. He told his brother that holding office gave him, a person otherwise “lost in theory,” a chance to “handle the most precious interests of the population.”

JT: How did Tocqueville balance his political and intellectual commitments?

OZ: He wanted to be a politician. Early on, he told his friend and travel companion Gustave de Beaumont, “It is the politician that we must build up in ourselves.” He confided to his childhood friend and cousin Louis de Kergorlay that he had “no blind enthusiasm for the intellectual life.” He yearned to answer poet and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine’s challenge after the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America: “Now you will act; you have articulated your thought. You must now embody it.”

Tocqueville could perhaps have led separate but parallel lives, one in political analysis and one in politics, but he sought instead to strengthen one with the other. He believed he had it in him to achieve an original synthesis of thought and action and turn his principles into concrete policies. Tocqueville was far more successful, however, as a writer, who produced two masterpieces, than as a representative in the Chamber of the July monarchy [i.e., the reign of Louis-Phillipe, 1830–48] or briefly as foreign minister in the Second Republic.

Partly because he suffered from the depressive effects of a mood disorder, Tocqueville often felt discouraged. After sitting in the Chamber for a while, he told his childhood friend Eugène Stöffels, “Nothing is really generous about it: nothing in it that pumps the lifeblood of the heart. In a word, there is no youth in it, even amongst the young.” The feeling of disaffection was reciprocal. Most Chamber colleagues found Tocqueville aloof and unfriendly, never saw him as a potential leader, and made little effort to introduce themselves to him. Indeed, he knew only a few by name. He appeared frail and mannered in his pince-nez. His unimpressive oratorical skills, compounded by his stage fright, meant that his speeches were better read than listened to.

Tocqueville found, time and again, how difficult it was to effect political change, whether as a representative or a cabinet member. When serving as foreign minister in 1849, he tried hard but failed to convince the pope to implement liberal reforms, even though French troops had helped to restore his temporal powers by ousting the Roman revolutionaries. Tocqueville told his colleagues in the Académie Française that even the great Montesquieu would have made a mediocre minister. His political science toolkit had been useless in the face of unique and unpredictable events. So he seemed to give up on most grand political theorizing, declaring in Recollections, his account of the 1848 revolution, “I hate absolute systems that see all historical events as dependent on grand first causes linked together in ineluctable sequence, thus banishing individual human beings from the history of the human race. I find such theories narrow in their pretensions of grandeur and false beneath their air of mathematical truth.”

Ultimately, however, he regained faith in the promise of a political science that “generates, or at least shapes, those general ideas that make up the intellectual atmosphere of a society.… The minds of both the governors and the governed breathe deeply from this source and draw the principles of their conduct from it, often unwittingly, and sometimes even unwillingly.”

Tocqueville saw himself as providing this sort of guidance in The Old Regime and the Revolution, written after Louis Bonaparte’s coup. We read it today as historical analysis of the collapse of the ancien régime. Contemporaries saw it also as a clear attack on Louis Bonaparte’s police state, just as Tocqueville intended it to be. He drafted the volume in self-imposed political exile, telling his father, “This too is politics, as you can well imagine I will not be dealing with the writings of the Medes or the Assyrians.” Readers yearning for liberty recognized in the book “a sincere horror of tyranny,” which Tocqueville as much as acknowledged when he told liberal Catholic salonnière Sofia Swetchine, “Long practice has taught me that the success of a book is much more due to the ideas the reader already has in mind than to what the author writes.”

JT: Your treatment of Tocqueville is generally positive, but you frequently take note of his failings and shortcomings.

OZ: I certainly do. I tried to highlight his many equivocations, his reluctance to be more radical when necessary. Although I embraced many of Tocqueville’s ideas, I never saw my task as that of an apologist. His greatest blind spot was an excessive nationalism that made him tolerate abuses of power. The great theorist of democracy was also an ardent colonialist, refusing to see the destructive impact of France’s brutal colonization of Algeria. For sure, this was the age of empires. As Tocqueville put it to General Léon Juchault de Lamoricière, “One people conquering another is hardly a new thing in this world.” For a long time, he saw the violence of the conquest as unavoidable, and civilian casualties as unfortunate collateral damage. But he eventually retreated from that position, asking the British cabinet years later to show restraint in its response to the Sepoy rebellion in India.

British political philosopher John Stuart Mill, who proved to be a great friend, chastised Tocqueville for his excessive nationalism, reminding him that “the real importance of a country…does not depend upon the loud and boisterous assertion of importance,” and advising him not to stoop to the bullying rhetoric of “a nation of sulky schoolboys.”

JT: What features of Tocqueville’s character came through to you as you narrated his life?

OZ: Most important, I found, was his gift for sustaining friendships over long periods of time. Here is somebody who was shy and diffident, never at ease with colleagues in the Chamber, and yet he had a gift for forging deep and enduring friendships, often sustained through richly detailed correspondence. That galaxy of correspondents included American informants (abolitionist Charles Sumner, historian Jared Sparks, political philosopher Francis Lieber), British friends (John Stuart Mill, economist Nassau William Senior), and some of the most important men of his time in France. He corresponded not only with intellectual and political figures but also with family members, old friends of his teenage years, and of course constituents. Correspondence was a daily activity. Of the thirty-two volumes of his complete works, a huge and impressive edition (slowly published between 1951 and 2021), nineteen are volumes of correspondence, revealing to the reader his engrossing life in debates with colleagues at the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and the Académie Française. Others relate conversations in the Parisian salons of the July monarchy, proceedings from various committees of the Chamber of Deputies, and details about his electoral campaigns, among many other things. Remarkably, he was able to establish genuine personal connections and maintain real exchanges of ideas with almost all of his correspondents, even some he hardly knew.

As a biographer, reading this immense collection of letters closely, I came to share Tocqueville’s emotions, to worry about his responses to events, and to identify with the issues he faced. It may sound overly involved, but it helped me make a friend out of the character I was studying.

The rich correspondence with Gustave de Beaumont, his travel companion to America, is almost like a diary of Tocqueville’s own life. The two were in perfect harmony, save for one dramatic episode, when Beaumont did not openly protect his friend from the charge of being a monarchist in disguise, a charge made frequently in the press and credulously adopted by some of his biographers. An angry Tocqueville reminded his best friend, “I have but one weak point. My birth and the opinions of my family lead others to believe I am attached to Legitimists and the clergy.” He added snidely, “Unlike you, I did not marry a granddaughter of General Lafayette.” Fortunately, the two friends made up.

In reading his letters to his friend Kergorlay, you can see how some of Tocqueville’s friendships gave ammunition to those keen on proving him to be a crypto-monarchist. But his true commitments come across quite clearly in his epistolary exchanges with John Stuart Mill. You see in them why Tocqueville cultivated a friendship with a small group of English so-called radicals, who had no counterparts in France. Unlike the French radicals, they were not trying to impose utopian systems on an unwilling society. They respected the right to property as the basis for civilized society. They saw the political necessity of religion. They were well educated. Tocqueville felt at ease with them perhaps because, like him, they combined elitist manners with reformist ambitions.

Add to the correspondence the detailed diaries recording so many conversations: in the New World, from those that took place in the elegant homes of Boston Brahmins to those that occurred in the prison cells of inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. In the Old World, the settings range from the great country houses of the English aristocracy to the modest cottages of barely surviving Irish peasants and the workers’ hovels of industrial Manchester. They take us from Madame Recamier’s salon, where Tocqueville launched Democracy in America, to the barricaded streets of Paris in 1830 and again in 1848, from the Chamber of Deputies to the colonial frontier of Algeria.

JT: Could you tell us something about Tocqueville’s method of investigation? How did the great theorist of democracy think?

OZ: First, he always thought comparatively. As he put, “By a singular disability of our minds, we fail to adequately see things as they are, despite seeing them clearly and in broad daylight, without placing other objects beside them.” Yet while he thought comparatively, Tocqueville was rarely explicit in his writings regarding the terms of comparison.

When noting in detail what he saw and heard in the United States, he clearly had France in mind. Writing from New York, he sought information from both his father and his friend Ernest de Chabrol on France’s centralized administrative state. He needed specific comparative points to better understand the differences between the French state and America’s decentralized system of governance. In Philadelphia, he began reading British common law to understand features of American law for which his French legal training had left him unprepared.

After returning to France, he went to England for the first time—hoping to get a sense of the aristocratic origins of American culture. He got there just ahead of major social transformations—“hasten[ing] to England,” as he put it, “as to the last showing of a fine play.” While in England, Tocqueville studied industrial poverty of a kind that did not exist in America. From his close study of the English working class came his famous prediction of the grave danger an emerging industrial aristocracy would pose to American democracy.

JT: Would you comment on the mix of empirical observation and theory in Tocqueville’s work?

OZ: Tocqueville’s voluminous travel notes and diaries are, as I said, extraordinary. Conversation and the recording of observations were his preferred tools of investigation. Most comparisons involved actual travel to other countries. A few were exclusively bookish. In the 1840s, Tocqueville read extensively on India, with the hope of someday visiting the country to collect material to contrast “homo hierarchicus” with “homo democraticus.” He never made the trip, but he left detailed reading notes on caste.

To the surprise and dismay of intellectual historians intent on finding intellectual genealogies, Tocqueville recorded few reading notes, thus leaving interpreters guessing about his sources. French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve sarcastically said of Tocqueville that “he began to think before he knew anything.” Did he ever read Helvetius? How much of Adam Smith? And what about Benjamin Constant? And others? Tocqueville acknowledged stretches of intense reading. After the publication of the first volume of Democracy in the mid-1830s, he delved into Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, and Descartes. He was ashamed to admit he was reading many titles for the very first time. He ruefully compared himself to “Marshal Soult learning geography when minister of foreign affairs.”

One reason Tocqueville read great writers was mostly to perfect his style. His friend Kergorlay advised Tocqueville early on to emulate a trio of great masters: “Read a few sentences of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Pascal; these ought to be your mentors.” Tocqueville took the advice to heart and practiced it daily. Tocqueville meant to express his ideas “in as few words as possible…in the simplest and most intuitive order.” Beaumont testified that “form was his master.” Tocqueville occasionally rewrote the same sentence twenty times, and he read his drafts out loud to family and friends. He once told Beaumont, “I’ll end up asking you to comment on how to sign my name.” One can see in Tocqueville’s manuscripts his many rewrites, his constant striving to achieve perfection of form.

JT: Can you tell us how Tocqueville arrived at some of his more important conclusions?

OZ: The way some of his important ideas emerged can be very surprising. A case in point is Tocqueville’s famous theory of associations. He was one of the first to highlight the power of associations in American life, and to make the case for their importance to the functioning of democracy. Conceptually, it was a significant breakthrough. George Washington and James Madison talked only about factions, feared them, and sought ways of limiting their impact on government. Tocqueville looked to associations and saw in them the means of practicing and sustaining self-government. Tocqueville thought that the success of associations in the United States was “one of the most remarkable things about this country.” He was struck by their use to achieve moral ends. As he jotted in his notebook, “The power of association has developed to the full in America. People associate for commerce as well as for political, literary, and religious interests. No one ever seeks success by recourse to higher authority; people rely instead on individual resources acting in concert.”

But in this famous instance, Tocqueville’s empirical base was amazingly thin. Although he visited Philadelphia, he learned little about Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering work in creating a civil society. While in town, he observed a free-trade convention and found it an important innovation in promoting political views. Although he recognized the temperance movement, he missed the emergence of the huge benevolent empire of the Second Great Awakening unfolding under his eyes during his American travels, and his informants said little about it.

Tocqueville formulated his theory of associations in American life only after he returned to France. He was distraught by a French law limiting the right to free assembly to groups of no more than twenty people, a restriction imposed after a workers’ insurrection in Lyon in April 1834. “What can public opinion accomplish when there are not twenty people united by a common bond?” Tocqueville inserted this question into his manuscript of Democracy in America, making sure the French reader recognized his target. From his reaction to this despotic measure emerged his most enduring and influential statement on American civil society. An attack on liberty in France shed light on a part of America he had not fully grasped. Neither had the Americans. What an incredible coincidence.

JT: You briefly mentioned the Second Great Awakening as something Tocqueville missed in America. But what were his views on religion and democracy more generally, in relation to his own country as well as the United States?

OZ: As he told friends and family on multiple occasions, what Tocqueville most wanted to accomplish in his political life in France was to reconcile the “spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” Tocqueville admired how these “two quite distinct elements, which elsewhere have often been at war, in America have somehow been incorporated into one another and marvelously combined.”

As a representative in the French Chamber and in editorials in the press, Tocqueville pushed, on behalf of Catholic schools, for the liberty to provide a religious education in fair competition with the lay state-run system. Otherwise, he argued, “we force everyone to learn the same things in the same way,” and, he went on, “we confine the human mind to a cramped circle.”

Tocqueville also argued that the universality of the Catholic Church made it best suited for democracy, yet insisted on the American model of the separation of church and state. He realized while in America that it was salutary to draw a line between the kingdom of God and the kingdom on earth, because, as he wrote, “the less religion and its ministers are mixed up with government, the less they are involved in political debate, the more influential religious ideas become.”

But it is curious that many forms of Protestant religious experience in the United States largely escaped his notice. He missed the profound and democratizing influence of evangelical religion on the American people, even though the Second Great Awakening was well underway during his travels in the young republic. Conversely, he mistook the growth of the Unitarian Church for the fate of Protestantism as a whole, thinking that all Protestant churches would become more concerned about morals than dogma. He feared that “the end of the road will be natural religion.” 

JT: Did Tocqueville accomplish what he set out to do?

OZ: On balance, yes, although he died young, tuberculosis ending his life prematurely at fifty-three. He did not get to write the history of the “long” French Revolution in which he intended to expose a revolution “made in the name of liberty but tragically ending in despotism,” characteristic of the cycle of freedom and dependence—a decidedly French malady—he lived through with special intensity in 1830 and 1848.

Tocqueville was quite pessimistic regarding the future of democracy in the last years of his life. With France in the grip of an authoritarian regime, and the American union in deep crisis over slavery, the southern states seeming to be on the verge of secession, Tocqueville was conscious that his lifework might amount to little. He was doubtful about the possibility of ever reconciling democracy and liberty. Yet Tocqueville’s doubts never weakened his resolve. As a writer, he developed his ideas partly for their beauty but mostly as tools of human improvement. As a politician, Tocqueville strove to turn his complex theories into concrete policy. His formulation of a hopeful democracy endured—a vision of responsible citizens practicing self-government through associations and “self-interest properly understood” sustaining the common good.

JT: Would you agree that Tocqueville’s fear of democratic collapse is very much with us today, as well as his more hopeful thoughts about the resilience of democracy?

OZ: The two persist, you might say, in close proximity. During the Cold War, one of Tocqueville’s most frequently cited comparisons, on the difference between Americans and Russians, came from the concluding lines of volume 1 of Democracy in America. It was not really that original, being something of a commonplace in the French press during the 1830s, but Tocqueville gave it almost aphoristic shape: “The Russian in a sense concentrates all the power of society in one man. The American’s principal means of action is liberty; the Russian’s servitude. Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence someday to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

That sentiment fueled American exceptionalism in its heyday in the 1950s and early ’60s, as did Tocqueville’s reflections on the strength of American civil society. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East Europeans not only took down Lenin’s statues but also commissioned translations of Democracy in America, first in fragments and then in full. East European intellectuals, like Americans before them, highlighted Tocqueville’s praise of voluntary associations and his attack on centralization. With Tocqueville, they embraced the idea that liberty, and the responsibilities that go with it, require steady efforts on the part of civil society. “This is a world of energy,” a Romanian historian wrote in the early 1990s, using words he could have borrowed from Tocqueville, “at no point in life can one rest.” But now, tragically, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most dramatic manifestation yet of the return of fascism in our lives, Tocqueville’s great warning at the end of Democracy in America is taking on a new significance.