The Magazine

Tocqueville's Democracy

Mansfield and Winthrop produce the best edition of the best book on America

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By DANIEL J. MAHONEY
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As Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop suggest in the remarkable introduction to their new translation of Democracy in America, almost everyone claims Alexis de Tocqueville for their side these days.

For the Left, Tocqueville is primarily a philosopher of community and civic engagement, a critic of bourgeois materialism, and an advocate of democratic citizenship. For the Right, he is a prophet who foresaw the dangers of the nanny state and the egalitarian excesses of democratic societies.

Part of the difficulty in reaching a clear understanding of Tocqueville's Democracy in America is that there exists a fair share of truth -- and a fair share of falsity -- in both these renderings. The partisan distortions of the Left are more fundamental: ignoring Tocqueville's real, if qualified, admiration for aristocracy, his profound respect for religion, and his criticism of the "passion for equality." But, for its part, the Right too often confuses Tocqueville's criticism of big government with an attack on government itself, and tends to ignore his eloquent arguments in defense of political liberty and even national greatness.

The partisan appropriators of Tocqueville have this in common: They have transformed Tocqueville into a partisan in American political battles. They forget that, with Democracy in America, Tocqueville conceived himself to have written a book principally about democracy, rather than just America. This aristocratic liberal came to North America in 1831 to discern the democratic future that awaited Europe and -- eventually, he believed -- the whole world. He was the first political philosopher to make democracy his central and abiding concern.

In the young American republic, democracy, understood as equality of conditions, seemed to have reached its extreme limits. For Tocqueville, the decency of American laws and mores showed that there was no need to despair of democracy, even as he saw the unique threats to human freedom and dignity posed by democracy's seemingly unstoppable march. Tocqueville approached his subject matter, "the democratic revolution," with what he called "salutary fear." His "holy enterprise" was nothing less than the preservation of liberty and human excellence in an egalitarian age. In contrast to both the uncritical admirers of democracy and its reactionary critics, he refused to be either a flatterer or a disparager of the new democracy.

The result, Mansfield and Winthrop argue, is that Democracy in America stands as the "best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." In a way no one else has, Tocqueville demonstrated the superiority of American practice to modern democratic theory.

What we need, here at the beginning of the century, is a fresh examination -- one that begins from Tocqueville's own concerns and not from our desire to use him for our political battles. Mansfield and Winthrop (the translators are a married couple as well as distinguished political theorists and Tocqueville scholars) have contributed immeasurably to that task by providing hundreds of notes identifying events, allusions, and names that are no longer familiar, and by providing an accurate and readable translation of Democracy in America, one far superior to the old editions.

Henry Reeve's early translation of Democracy in America was marred by his British preference for aristocracy, which colored his translation throughout and brought forth a re-proach from Tocqueville himself. George Lawrence's translation from the 1960s is fluid and eloquent but strewn with errors and inconsistencies. Tocqueville often wrote in short, almost aphoristic paragraphs, somehow managing to combine sparkling elegance with intellectual depth. The Mansfields' faithful rendering of his style allows English readers to appreciate for the first time Tocqueville's approach.

Mansfield and Winthrop provide as well a comprehensive, eighty-six page introduction. The equivalent of a small, dense, and rewarding book, it is the best introduction to Tocqueville's life and thought available -- particularly helpful in clarifying Tocqueville's relation to Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Pascal, the three great thinkers with whose books he said he spent some time every day.