Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life

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9780300108033: Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life

Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the greatest political thinkers of all time. Born a French aristocrat, he lost nearly his entire family in the Reign of Terror, and he spent most of his adult life struggling for liberty under the unsuccessful regimes of nineteenth-century France. 

At age twenty-five he travelled to America and encountered democracy for the first time. This firsthand experience contributed to his incisive writing on liberty and democracy. The ancien régime launched the scholarly study of the French Revolution, and Democracy in America remains the best book ever written by a European about the United States. This is a brilliant account of his life.

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From the Author:

A Conversation with Hugh Brogan

Q: Tocqueville spent less than a year in America, and yet he is perhaps the most widely quoted observer of American culture and politics. How do you account for this?

A: Tocqueville did not waste his ten months in the U.S.: he observed, questioned, and reflected ceaselessly. When he returned to France, he continued to study America, through books, documents, and discussion, for nearly eight years. But the most important answer--though it may injure American pride--is that his subject was not America but democracy. His book is informed by lengthy study and reflection on France and Britain as well as the U.S. This gives his conclusions enormous weight.

Q: In what ways did his personal experience shape his political outlook?

A: Tocqueville knew himself to be a member of a defeated caste--he was born into the high nobility of France. He accepted that the changes wrought by the French Revolution were irreversible and as a matter of justice he welcomed an increased social and political power of the middle class. His thought was dominated by what he called the advance of democracy.” But increasingly he realized that pressing behind the middle class was the working class, infected with ideas about equality of opportunity and equality between men and women. He was extremely reluctant to acquiesce in this further revolution.

Q: Tocqueville’s family was deeply scarred by the Reign of Terror; how did Tocqueville believe such atrocities could be prevented?

A: Tocqueville believed that political atrocities of all kinds were the result of the folly and impatience of human beings. He hoped that through persuasive demonstration they might be convinced to know better and behave better. He believed that a democratic system such as he had observed in America was the best way of educating the people and the best protector of their real interests. A true liberal, he did not believe that revolution, aggressive war, dictatorship, or demagogic humbug could ever be justified as instruments of human progress. Two hundred years after his birth, we can see that he was right: his conceptions of democratic justice are those to which most of the world nowadays pays lip service, even if at times they still seem unattainable.

About the Author:

Hugh Brogan held the R. A. Butler Chair in History at the University of Essex and since retiring has had a research professorship there. His books include The Penguin History of the United States and biographies of John F. Kennedy and Arthur Ransome.

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