Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Political Philosophy

"Democracy in America" at 175 (UPDATED)

Can't let January pass without noting that this is the 175th anniversary of the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville's enduring classic, Democracy in America.  It may well be the best book on democracy and the best book on America ever published, as Harvey Mansfield has argued.  (I dispute the second claim.) 

A recent re-reading affirms that Mansfield's edition is by far the best.  So far as I know it is the only one that catches Tocqueville's altering of Madison's words in Federalist 51 from "popular form of government" to "tyranny of the majority" (p. 249).  Other translations simply adopt the text of the Federalist.  The attractive Penguin edition commits politically correct atrocities such as translating "sauvage" as "primitive people"--he means savages!  The readable Lawrence translation just makes passages up.  Now comes James Schleifer's beautiful, four-volume bilingual edition of Democracy, published by Liberty Press--indispensable for the serious Tocqueville student. 

Noteworthy too is Jim Ceaser's essay on Tocqueville on China, part of AEI's Tocqueville on China project.

UPDATE:  I found this CSPAN Tocqueville Tour program, featuring Mansfield, the late Delba Winthrop, our own Peter Lawler, Schleifer, Dan Mahoney, and some other characters, engaging in Tocquevillean meditations with Brian Lamb.   

Discussions - 6 Comments

Mansfield's and Winthrop's remains the best edition for most folks to buy, as it's superior to the old standard (Lawrence) and an absolutely stellar introductory essay.

But the best translation in English is now this four-volume version released by Liberty Fund. It contains all the draft notes complied by Nolla and others--and they are very rich notes indeed. The French is on the opposing page.

The scholastics spoke of Aristotle as The Philosopher. Those who understand that Tocqueville truly deserves in our day to be referred to as The Political Scientist will think nothing of spending the extra money for this new edition. And as you can see, even good Jaffa-ites (I presume) like Ken will plunk for it!

Mansfield and Winthrop do botch a few things--to pick just one example, they translate the French liberte as "freedom," not as the obvious cognate of "liberty," thereby blocking the inevitable associations with the most famous slogan of French republicanism that Tocqueville did mean to cause when using this word.

Carl, I already have the Schleifer edition--gorgeous, just from the illustrations. Please elaborate on other misses on the part of Mansfield. Thanks.

Ken, the best account of the flaws can be found in my friend Paul Seaton's article on Tocqueville translations in Perspectives on Politics, back one of the 2005-2007 editions. Paul was part of Schleifer's team, so obviously he's biased.

But I can assure you he's right. And the Schliefer team benefited from consulting Mansfield and Winthrop.

I sure hope Liberty Fund does the logical thing and eventually issues a low-cost one-volume version of the new translation without the notes.

I'm looking forward to that old Toc Tour you posted, but now I need to shovel some snow.

thanks, I'll look that up. Had dinner with Paul and Diana Schaub back in the fall.

that's Sept. 2001 for Seaton on Mansfield

The LfF/Schliefer edition is the best, I think, although there's no edition yet suitable for classroom use. One reason is that the LF spent big bucks on it. Schliefer did a draft, Paul Seaton reviewed it, and a committee--ME, Pierre Manent, and Catherine Zuckert--did an additional review. And that's not counting the expert work of Christine Henderson on the LF or the gentlemanly contributions of Eduardo Nolla (it's his critical edition that's translated. The errors of the Mansfield are very minor and are usually in the vein of excessive literalness undermining genuine accuracy. The Lawrence sure is poetic and could be defended as a wonderful way of being introduced...

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