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The observer

Unraveling the complexities, paradoxes of Tocqueville -- a man admired by liberals and conservatives alike

In Hugh Brogan's hands, Alexis de Tocqueville comes across as a conservative romantic. In Hugh Brogan's hands, Alexis de Tocqueville comes across as a conservative romantic. (BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY)

Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life
By Hugh Brogan
Yale University Press
, 724 pp., $35

" Democracy in America " has long been regarded as the most astute analysis of American society and political culture ever penned by a foreign visitor. Some critics even laud the two-volume work, first published in 1835 and 1840, as the most brilliant commentary about the United States ever written. For the past half-century, college students in diverse disciplines have been regularly exposed to selected chapters or segments of this 800-page masterpiece, thereby introducing them to such familiar concepts as tyranny of the majority, democratic despotism, self-interest well understood, and the critical role of civic (voluntary) associations in America. Media pundits love to quote from Alexis de Tocqueville's epigrammatic observations. Liberals admired him as an antisocialist antidote to Karl Marx during the early decades of the Cold War, and since the Reagan years he has become a special darling of conservatives, among other reasons, because of his emphasis upon religion as the necessary glue for social stability in a democratic society.

Three new translations of " Democracy in America " have appeared since 2000. Understandably, then, we need to know who the man was, why he came to visit the United States in 1831-32 at the age of 26, how he composed his classic work, and then what happened during the remainder of his checkered career . Hugh Brogan is a British scholar richly specialized in French as well as American history (and the author of a biography of John F. Kennedy) . No one is better qualified to write this first exhaustive biography in English, and Brogan does not disappoint.

Although Brogan greatly admires Tocqueville's astute skills as a political theorist, social analyst, and historian, he is quite willing to criticize the writer on many accounts: for example, his simplistic definition of democracy as social equality, and his aristocratic elitism that led him to be overly influenced by the views of conservative ex-Federalists.

Born in Paris in 1805 as the third and youngest son of a royalist administrator , Tocqueville was educated at home . At the age of 16, he joined his father at Metz , where the teenager began to read extensively the writings of Enlightenment philosophe r s such as Rousseau and Voltaire. As a result of that immersion he suffered from a life long crisis of faith that left him a theist but with little patience for the orthodoxies of French Catholicism. Religious doubt plagued him until he made peace with the church as he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1859.

Having studied law, Tocqueville became a junior (unpaid) magistrate at the courts in Versailles in 1828. When the July Revolution of 1830 toppled the last Bourbon king and gave way to the bourgeois-supported monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the politically ambitious Tocqueville found himself in an awkward situation. He had no choice but to swear an oath of allegiance to the new ruler, along with his fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont .

French prisons were a mess at the time and the United States had just instituted prison reforms at Sing Sing and Auburn, N.Y. , and at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Silence, hard work, and isolation were intended to reduce the likelihood of recidivism, in contrast to the French pattern of incarceration under degrading conditions with no concern about preparing inmates for release . So Tocqueville and Beaumont applied for a leave of absence to examine the American prison innovations and prepare recommendations for reform in France, which they did with a prize-winning publication "On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France" in 1833.

While in America, however, they conceived a far more sweeping project -- an analysis of politics and society in the young republic, with particular attention to the nature of a democratic culture that had been achieved without a social revolution . Both men were appalled by the existence of slavery in the nation , and Beaumont decided to devote himself to writing an anti slavery novel. That left Tocqueville to be the sole author of his exploration of democracy in America, built upon the reality that he found most striking and consequential, "equality of condition." Because he would always prize liberty as the highest possible goal, it bothered him that Americans seemed to value equality even more than liberty; but as Brogan points out in his astute analysis of Tocqueville's other great work, " The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution " (1856), in 1789 the French wanted both liberty and equality "but under the pressure of events had had to choose between them, and chose equality ." Illuminating parallels and comparisons abound throughout Brogan's book.

Tocqueville regarded democracy as the "irresistible" tendency of the modern world. Therefore, his second volume says much less about America than the first and, instead, speculates in more theoretical terms about the positive and negative implications of democracy for his own country.

Although Tocqueville's chef d'oeuvre was very warmly received in the United States , the author's primary audience consisted of his countrymen, and his analysis never lost sight of what might and might not work in France.

Ultimately, Tocqueville comes across in these pages as, increasingly, a conservative romantic who could only write when his feelings and views about a subject were deeply engaged. His lack of success as an active participant in French politics seems deeply ironic because what he admired most about public life in the United States was its decentralization and , hence , the necessity and viability of citizen participation in public affairs. I think that Tocqueville would be startled and somewhat disappointed if he could visit this country today.

Michael Kammen's most recent book is " Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in the United States. " He is editing an abridged edition of " Democracy in America " for college use.