Alexis de Tocqueville, the great commentator on America, was born in Paris on yesterday’s date in 1805. Alexis’s father, Hervé — the Comte de Clérel de Tocqueville — was, early in life, an officer of King Louis XVI’s Constitutional Guard. At 21 years old, he married Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, the granddaughter of Malesherbes — famously one of the King’s defense attorneys before the National Convention. The King’s trial was in December 1792 and a year later Alexis’s parents were thrown into prison to be guillotined. But with the revolt against Robespierre beginning 220 years ago this month, they escaped the fate suffered by so many friends and family. If the Jacobins had been more efficient, this world would not have been given an Alexis de Tocqueville.
Though it is heartwarming to read Tocqueville as a flatterer of America — giving us an Ol’ World pat-on-the-back for our “townships” — the truth is that he challenges us more than he compliments us. We should not read him to tell us why America is great; we should read him to learn about where we have been and where we likely will dare to go.
For example, perhaps to your surprise, Tocqueville detested “individualism.” He believed the atomization natural to democracy — which makes every man “free” but alone — would cause the end of freedom. Consider Tocqueville’s description of life under the “mild despot,” something like socialism:
“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. . . .”
This is not “collectivism” as described by Ayn Rand; it does not resemble our instinctive contempt for Marxism. Instead, Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity, and the pursuit of a collective political greatness — messy, challenging endeavors — with the glamorization of work and petty material comforts. He warns those of us who would make self-interest the only good: individualism is a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled with government.
Today’s conservatives want less “government.” Fine. But if we really want less government bureaucracy and tampering, then healthy political activity is important, communities are important, privatizing everything is dangerous, and denigrating public life is dangerous. In honor of Tocqueville’s vision, we should reflect more on that. And his words:
“One must therefore not reassure oneself by thinking that the barbarians are still far from us; for if there are peoples who allow the light to be torn from their hands, there are others who stifle it themselves under their feet.”