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Alexis de Tocqueville is, of course, the most perceptive observer of American democracy ever to grace our shores, his Democracy in America one of the most important books ever written about democracy in general and the American Republic in specific.  Here, in a less read work, he takes on the origins of the French Revolution and the peculiar French form of democracy it brought and proves an equally keen observer of his own country and countrymen.

De Tocqueville makes several vital points about the French Revolution: first, that it built gradually and, given circumstances in France, was inevitable; second, where the American Revolution had as its lodestar the ideal of freedom, the French Revolution was motivated by a passionate hatred of  inequality; third, the demise of all insitutions other than the monarchy in France made it certain that when Revolution came, it would be violent and unchecked; finally, this combination of factors lead to the bizarre nature of the French Revolution, with no developed institutions to turn to once the King was gone and with no great emphasis placed on freedom, the French people were willing to tolerate the nihilism of the Terror and the authoritarianism of the governments that replaced the monarchy.  He does not make the case, but it lies before us, that the American Revolution was fundamentally a positive action, a demand for greater freedom, but the French Revolution was a negative action, a demand that the few not own more than the many.

This book was to be followed by a second volume dealing with the the Revolution itself, but he died before he could continue the work. That is a shame; it would have been interesting to have some more insight from him into the French, it seems unlikely that anyone has ever rendered a better description of his people than the one he offers in his Conclusion:

    When I observe France from this angle [their temperament] I find the nation itself far more
    remarkable than any of the events in its long history. It hardly seems possible that there can ever
    have existed any other people so full of contrasts and so extreme in all their doings, so much guided
    by their emotions and so little by fixed principles, always behaving better, or worse, than one
    expected of them....Undisciplined by temperament, the Frenchman is always readier to put up with
    arbitrary rule, however harsh, of an autocrat than with a free, well-ordered government by his
    fellow citizens, however worthy of respect they be.  At one moment he is up in arms against
    authority and the next we find him serving the powers that be with a zeal such as the most servile
    races never display.

In the context of this paragraph, we can begin to understand Vichy France and the bureaucratic tyranny of the modern French nation.  I say "begin"…


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Alexis De Tocqueville (2 books reviewed)
Alexis De Tocqueville Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Alexis de Tocqueville
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE: DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (Paul Joseph Krause, Minerva Wisdom)
    -ESSAY: Our Man in Paris (Paul Krause, 7/04/24, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: Tocqueville, Washington, and the Moderation of the American Revolution (William Reddinger, June 15, 2023, Online Library of Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Greatness Without Cruelty: Young Nietzscheans should look to Tocqueville as a more politically responsible source for a new politics. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 11/30/23, American Mind)
    -ESSAY: Why Are We Lonely?: Ironically, isolation is something many Americans have in common. Why do we feel so alone? Tocqueville has answers. (Joey Hiles, SEPTEMBER 22, 2023, Plough)
    -ESSAY: On the Road with Alexis de Tocqueville: Without Tocqueville the traveller, Tocqueville the sage of democracy is difficult to conceive of at all. (Samuel Gregg, 4/13/23, Englesberg Ideas)
    -ESSAY: Frustrating life of a man of ideas: We remain interested in Tocqueville because of the power of his thought, not his life story (Paul Sagar, July 2022, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Binding order and liberty: Tocqueville the politician: Tocqueville may not have been an effective foreign minister but his commitment to order and liberty is uncontested. (Samuel Gregg, 7/27/22, Englesberg Ideas)
    -ESSAY: Tocqueville's Puritans: Christianity and the American Founding (Sanford Kessler, August 1992, The Journal of Politics)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE HABIT OF DEMOCRACY: Alexis de Tocqueville and the pleasures of citizenship. (ADAM GOPNIK, 2001-10-15, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Tocqueville and the cultural basis of American democracy (Daniel J. Elazar, June 1999, PS: Political Science & Politics)
    -ESSAY: The Tragedy of Democracy: 'Rights', Tolerance and Moral 'Neutrality': It took a 19th century aristocrat to realise that democracy?s greatest virtue-the elevation of individual autonomy over hereditary influence-could also be its greatest vice. (Samuel Gregg, Policy)
-INTERVIEW: Olivier Zunz on Alexis de Tocqueville, “The Man Who Understood Democracy” (Library of America, July 14, 2022)
    -REVIEW: of Memoirs on Pauperism and Other Writings, translated by Christine Dunn Henderson (Daniel J. Mahoney, Law & Liberty)
-REVIEW: of The Man Who Understood Democracy by Olivier Zunz (THeodore Dalrymple, Law & Liberty)
-REVIEW: of Man Who Understood Democracy (Jedediah Britton-Purdy, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Tocqueville: A Biography (Samuel Gregg, Policy)
-REVIEW: Of The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty by Peter Augustine Lawler (Bruce Frohnen, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of The Man who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville By Olivier Zunz (Alan Ryan, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Man Who Understood America (Gustav Jönsson, American Purpose)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville By Olivier Zunz (Sarah Gustafson, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: of Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours by Ewa Atanassow (Sarah Gustafson, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Travels with Tocqueville by Jeremy Jennings (Sarah Gustafson, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: Tocqueville's Lament  (P.N. FURBANK, NY Review of Books)
    -The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour Exploring Democracy in America (CSPAN)
    -French Resources: History
    -France During the French Revolution and Under Napoleon Bonaparte: An Annotated Chronology of Civil and Military Events
    -REVIEW: The Family Romance of the French Revolution By Lynn Hunt A Freudian Theory On France's Revolution (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -etext of Democracy in America
    -Tocqueville's America
    -A Biography of Alexis de Tocqueville by Mike Noble
    -ESSAY Tocqueville Today (Roger Kimball, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America translated by Harvey C. Mansfield  and Delba Winthrop : Not for sissies :  A leading conservative scholar's hardball new translation of Tocqueville's classic "Democracy in  America" is a daunting example  of tough love. (John W. Dean, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Robert O. Paxton: The Divided Liberal, NY Review of Books
            Tocqueville: A Biography by André Jardin
             Tocqueville and the Two Democracies by Jean-Claude Lamberti

    -REVIEW : of  French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn (Paul Gray, TIME)