Synopses & Reviews
Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the greatest political writers of all time. Born a French aristocrat, he saw the decimation of his family during the Reign of Terror. He spent most of his adult life struggling for liberty under the unsuccessful regimes of nineteenth-century France.
In 1831, Tocqueville made his famous voyage to America, and his two-volume record of his journey, Democracy in America, remains one of the most vital texts in the history of democratic thought. Deeply affected by his own experience of France's disastrous revolutions, Tocqueville grappled incisively with the question of how America's nascent democracy might thrive. His observations on American character and culture remain startlingly fresh nearly two centuries later.
A magisterial book by an eminent scholar of both European and American history, this will stand as the standard biography of Alexis de Tocqueville for years to come.
"This magisterial biography, selected by the Economist on its U.K. publication as one of the best 100 books of 2006, serves up all the interesting personal details (constant health struggles, an unsuitable marriage to a woman of lesser means) in the life of Tocqueville (1805 1859), the man who most influenced America and its self-perception. But the heart of the book is Tocqueville's travels in the United States and the writing of Democracy in America. Tocqueville both appreciated, and was discomfited by, American egalitarianism. Raised in a Catholic environment, the French aristocrat 'could not see the logic' of Protestantism. (His visit to a Shaker settlement was especially unnerving.) British historian Brogan is not uncritical: he notes that Tocqueville never understood that democracy relies 'principally on elections to control majorities,' rather than on a system of legislative and judicial checks and balances. Brogan's greatest contribution may be his reading of the second volume of Democracy in America as autobiography, arguing that Tocqueville wrote it in part to justify his own break with the expectations of his elite family and social circle. All in all, this is an engrossing and erudite account. 16 b&w illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Brogan vividly captures the brilliance and complexity of Alexis de Tocqueville: prophet of modern democracy bound to the old regime by family and feeling; lover of liberty and the rule of law who felt the lure of empire; bold and restless spirit who recoiled from revolution. This is a vibrant and compelling biography." Alan Houston, University of California San Diego
and#8220;This is a magnificent biography. Hugh Broganand#8217;s knowledge of the details of Tocquevilleand#8217;s life is extraordinary, as is his erudite account of his family life and of French politics and society in the first half of the nineteenth century. And how splendidly the book is written! Tocquevilleand#8217;s life was marked by a triumph of character; Hugh Broganand#8217;s biography is a triumph of history and letters.and#8221;and#8212;John Lukacs
"Brogan's book reads like a novel, weaving aspects of Tocqueville's private life into a grand narrative about the ideas and actions of Tocqueville."and#8212;Aurelian Craiutu, American Historical Review
"Brogan's expertise pays constant rewards to the reader, his knowledge of 19th-century French politics is comprehensive and his attention to context punctilious. . . . It is a brisk and admirably accessible account of how Tocqueville gave a name to certain misgivings about democracy that are with us still."and#8212;Christopher Caldwell, New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
"A monumental life-and-times biography, as rich in detail about post-Revolutionary France as it is about Tocqueville himself."and#8212;Jeff Broadwater, Journal of the Early Republic
and#8220;Brogan has written the definitive English language biography of the best known and most perceptive foreign interpreter of the American experience. The work's major achievement, however, is its lucid presentation of Tocqueville in the French contexts of monarchy and revolution that shaped his perceptions of the emerging democracy across the Atlantic.and#8221;and#8212;Dennis Showalter, Colorado College
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.
About 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 irreversibleand#150;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 and#147;the advance of democracy.and#8221; 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: Tocquevilleand#8217;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.