chapter
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Alexis de Tocqueville

WithJoyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham, Allison Sneider

Tocqueville (1805-1859), a man of noble birth destined for a career in law and politics, was one of the greatest nineteenth-century analysts of the French Revolution and the role of democracy in Europe and the United States. The revolution was a living memory in Tocqueville’s day as it was not for later historians. It was impossible to live in Tocqueville’s period and not be conscious of being related to the great events of the last decades of the preceding century. In the years after 1789, the French had busied themselves with coming to know the newly constituted French “nation” by surveying its lands, peoples, and resources in order to better administer and control them. This enterprise was closely linked with the legalistic culture emerging from the Revolution, in which the primacy of constitutional law entailed historical investigation of the forms such laws had taken in the past. It is clear that Tocqueville bore this legalistic spirit in both his interpretations of political life in the United States and in his reconstruction of the slow evolution of conflict between moral and political institutions in pre-Revolutionary France. Like the law, the structures Tocqueville saw running through society were based on more-or-less conscious, formal relations between groups of people and the rights and obligations they had towards one another. On top of this legal framework rose a more abstract notion of a certain vital “spirit” that belonged to each group as long as that group fulfilled its appropriate function. Many of the issues Tocqueville raised sound quite contemporary: discussion of the growth of centralized power and the threats this posed to individual liberties; the breakdown of the age-old traditions that resulted in the moral dissolution of collective bonds; and an uncanny consciousness of historical distance and change. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Tocqueville more than once stressed the historical distance between his time and that of his grandfathers; the twilight of the monarchy and bustling decades of economic expansion in mid-century Europe were worlds apart, even though, as Tocqueville tells us, individuals who had lived through the Revolutionary period still walked the streets of Paris. For modern man, such as Tocqueville, the past was nearly irretrievably alien, and retrieving it required the faculty of Verstehen, as the German historians put it, or the means by which a past no longer embodied in living values or traditions is reconstructed. For an aristocrat eager to revisit his ancestors, method must invent tradition.