In celebration of Alexis de Tocqueville's 205th birthday, today, July 29. Standing against the French Revolution, the author of Democracy in America wrote what is likely the best book on modern democracy, the character it gives rise to, both virtues and vices. Whether it is the greatest book on America is problematic. Does not Tocqueville fail to appreciate the profundity of the American Founding, the danger of hard (as opposed to soft) despotism, and the significance of the Civil War and hence a common citizenship in combating the racial divide? Does he misleadingly conceive of equality as primarily a historical force and not a description of man's in-between status, his suspension between beastiality and divinity? Yet his appreciation of the strengths of civil society--in particular religion, associations, and the family--stands out among students of America.
My reservations concerning Tocqueville notwithstanding, Harvey Mansfield's brief book provides profound guidance about the primary source.
Ken, thanks for the birthday reminder (I hadn't marked it on my calendar). As for your criticisms, you might want to take a look at Dan Mahoney's review of Tocqueville's writings and thoughts on America in the most recent CRB, as well as look out for a reply to Ken Masugi's similar critique in the next issue.
This could be quite an exchange!
How exactly could AT have appreciated the Civil War?
He predicted a civil war between races, not the Civil War that took place between whites, which was a war of principle over slavery. Could Tocqueville have understood such a war occurring in America? It's too bad he lived such a brief life (dying in 1859), not least because he would have had to understand the Civil War that came to be in light of his study of America.