- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007


By Hugh Brogan

Yale University Press, $35, 715 pages


Talk about being prescient and having a keen ability to observe details. Alexis de Tocqueville’s look at American politics and society — written in the 19th century — is still considered a classic book of its genre. The French aristocrat and lawyer’s “Democracy in America” seemed to capture the United States better than many American writers did.

To understand why his works are important, it helps to have a handle on Tocqueville himself. That’s where British historian Hugh Brogan comes to the rescue with “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life.”

Mr. Brogan’s comprehensive, if at times overly detailed, biography discusses his subject’s personal and intellectual lives so one sees how Tocqueville’s worldview came into being.

Tocqueville, who traveled to the United States to study the prison system, co-authored an important book about that subject before tackling the broader topic of American society. Though very much the aristocrat — Mr. Brogan describes how Tocqueville wrote home for luxury goods such as silk stockings that he could not find in America — he had great respect for the democratic values and practices in America, and for its citizens’ love of individualism and liberty.

He was pleasantly surprised by the down-to-Earth demeanor of President Jackson (who poured drinks for Tocqueville during his visit to the White House) and the idea that servants in America felt comfortable having conversations with their bosses. The latter was apparently a contrast to the aristocratic milieu whence Tocqueville came.

Tocqueville’s appreciation of American ideals is not surprising for someone who considered his intellectual mentors classical liberals (now considered conservatives) such as Edmund Burke and Charles Montesquieu.

An exceptionally well read man who thrived as both scholar and statesman, Tocqueville was more interested in the battle of ideas than in literary craftsmanship.

“He became one of the most distinguished French authors of his day, but his output is strikingly uniform. Even in his letters and reported conversation the utterance is predominantly that of a publicist concerned with history, and society; in his writing for publication the preoccupation is total,” Mr. Brogan writes.

Mr. Brogan, a retired history professor at the University of Essex who has also worked as a correspondent for The Economist, is himself an engaging writer, though his desire to be complete sometimes results in the literary equivalent of a data dump. The book is the culmination of Mr. Brogan’s lifelong study of both American history and Tocqueville. His previous books include a shorter biography of Tocqueville, a biography of President Kennedy and a history of the families of American presidents.

The author sees “Democracy in America,” based on a trip Tocqueville took in 1831 and 1832 and published in 1835, as being balanced and nuanced, but not blindly admiring of all things American.

“His overall picture of American democracy is warmly enthusiastic as well as penetratingly intelligent; in view of what he says about the American jury, American religion, American lawyers, American education, American local government and political parties, among other things, it is impossible … to fancy that he really thought such a mature free people, with centuries of experience behind it (as he loved to emphasize) was in danger of tyranny of any kind,” Mr. Brogan writes.

He adds that Tocqueville does not hesitate to use the word “tyranny” to describe how Americans treated Indians and slaves.

While Tocqueville’s was one of the first books of modern-day sociology, he was far more than a dispassionate and impartial observer of society. An active participant in French public life, he would go on to serve in his country’s Constituent Assembly and as foreign minister. Part of what he hoped to do with the book was to convince fellow Frenchmen to make their country more democratic.

“He wanted to persuade his countrymen that democracy, as America showed it might be, was worth a try, and that all the alternatives were worse,” Brogan notes. The author adds, correctly, that the fact it took France more than 100 years after Tocqueville’s book was published to become substantially more democratic, proved that Tocqueville was in many ways going against the prevailing political mindset of his native country.

That kind of historical context, coupled with a trenchant analysis of Tocqueville’s life and work, makes “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life” worth reading.

Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the forthcoming book “The Sixth Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.

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