Tocqueville, the Chicago Way

Chicago Companion

Title: The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Author: James T. Schleifer
Publish Date: 2012
Publisher / Edition: University of Chicago Press

The title recalls the Chicago schools of political science and of economics. Both critics (and friends) of President Obama make ominous reference to his Chicago style of politics. So what is the Chicago school of Tocqueville interpretation?[i] It turns out that the renowned Tocqueville scholar James T. Schleifer’s useful guide to Democracy in America is a companion to the celebrated Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop edition of that classic, also published by the University of Chicago. Happily, this Chicago endeavor is not some gangster enterprise (though Machiavelli scholar Mansfield is indeed a consigliere of a grand political endeavor)[ii]: By promoting understanding of Democracy in America the Chicago undertaking will benefit the civic character of America and other democratic nations.

While Schleifer succeeds admirably in providing “the classroom-friendly and useful” guide to ­Democracy in America he and the Press editor envisioned, it makes inevitable, to use a pseudo-Tocquevillean phrase, comparisons between the Mansfield edition and Schleifer’s own translation, edited by Eduardo Nolla and published in 2010 in a splendid four-volume bilingual set, by Liberty Fund.[iii] Both are indispensable for scholarship. We need to compare the translations as well as their interpretations, as Mansfield has written not only his own 70-page Introduction (co-authored with the late Delba Winthrop) but as well his insightful Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction, which comments on all his works. In other words, Mansfield seems to have provided his own guides to the book that Schleifer provides a “Companion” for. And Schleifer provides his own fine translation as well! Given that each contribution has merit, what particular virtues does each offer?

Let us first note the scope of Schleifer’s Companion. As might be expected of the author of The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, he begins by describing the genesis of the classic, with sections such as “How Was He Able to Write Such a Brilliant Book?” and “What Were the Sources of Tocqueville’s Book?” After these first 50 pages, the next 100 survey Tocqueville’s  major themes, such as equality, liberty, and various democratic and American issues, including centralization, associations, religion, economics, “intellectual creativity,” race, and American exceptionalism. He concludes with two brief sections: how Americans of divergent political views have read Tocqueville and a glossary and a guide to using the Companion for further study of key parts of the Mansfield-Winthrop edition of Democracy in America.

We all know Tocqueville’s astonishing ability to get Americans to recognize themselves in their love of liberty, their ambition, their laziness, their insistence on equality, their sneering at authority, their fear of offending, their Puritan origins, and their commercial obsession. Oddly, Schleifer initially declares “that there is no single correct way to read or interpret Tocqueville’s master work” (5). But it is not merely that the author may have been inconsistent or simply changed his mind, though Schleifer is careful to distinguish between views presented in 1835 (Volume I) or 1840 (Volume II). He notes that Tocqueville planned to write chapters on “democracy and the moral sciences, on education, on George Washington, on government support for learned academies”—which he dropped (46). No, “Complexity and subtlety are the hallmarks of the message of Democracy in America” (133).

Schleifer also correctly observes that “he consistently assumed at least a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between equality and liberty” and that “perhaps his central concern was how to preserve freedom in the age of equality” (51). Though Tocqueville never precisely defines liberty (or equality), “liberty without liberties was empty of meaning” (66). Schleifer appears to conclude that Tocqueville was like a Socrates: “difficult to capture,” for “the true strength of his book … rests with the questions he raises and the dilemmas he explores with his readers” (170). In this sense Tocqueville is above all “a moralist,” that is, a teacher of how “to nurture the human spirit and enhance human dignity” (172). The open-minded Schleifer lures a modern cynical reader, say an undergraduate, into devotion of “a moralist.” He builds to this conclusion through a model of the meticulous, cautious craft of an intellectual historian.

But whether we are naïve sophomores or doddering seniors in reading Tocqueville, will this approach yield us the depths that Schleifer spies? In their dense and difficult Introduction, Mansfield and Winthrop begin with the bold claim that “Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” A lover of “greatness,” its aristocratic author was both a statesman and a writer, “always unusually detached for a politician, and unusually engaged for a philosopher.” The same “restiveness” Tocqueville saw in democracies, he displayed in his own proud soul. The Mansfield-Winthrop Tocqueville lives with philosophers, first Pascal, then Montesquieu, but above all Rousseau, in skepticism, moderation, and radical will respectively. This is a Tocqueville who takes away the breath from even the most marveling and serious readers, taxing their ability and shaming their intellects. Some “Introduction”!

A prime example of the radicalism of this reading of Tocqueville is the explicit assertion that this foreigner surpassed the founders in understanding America—and implicitly as well Abraham Lincoln and the Lockean social contract of natural rights. The Introduction has much to say about Tocqueville making extreme claims (about the importance of associations to democracy) to counter other exaggerations (about “individualism”) and many other intriguing themes, but let’s stick to this political assertion. The most thoughtful and ardent challenger of Tocqueville, and hence of Mansfield’s praise of him, is Thomas G. West, in an essay “Misunderstanding the American Founding.”[iv] Because Tocqueville never mentions the Declaration of Independence in his entire book, he necessarily distorts American political history and our self-understanding of who we are. This forms the core of several other criticisms of Tocqueville and of Mansfield. West takes on another eminent Tocqueville scholar, Paul Rahe, in a 2009 debate at the Heritage Foundation. West contends that,

It really does not matter whether, as Rahe argues, Tocqueville tacitly agreed with the natural rights teaching but concealed it from his French audience for pedagogical purposes or whether, as I suspect, Tocqueville followed his mentor Rousseau in rejecting the idea of natural law in the sense that Locke and the Founders understood it. Either way, Tocqueville does not tell us what America really was.[v]

For West, despite Tocqueville’s “unquestionably brilliant” book, America at its best and America today require the natural rights-social contract teaching of the founders.

In his Very Short Introduction, Mansfield addresses at various points the issue of Tocqueville’s omission of the Declaration. First, he contends that Tocqueville “deals with [“the old liberalism” of Locke and the Declaration] by ignoring it” (4, cf. 31). This is the strategy of his “new liberalism in which freedom is the friend of religion and infused with pride as well as impelled by self-interest” (4). One might argue to the contrary that the Declaration could also encompass those points of such a “new liberalism,” but Mansfield also goes on to assert that the Declaration made slavery “more difficult to abolish because the whites do not see the blacks to be fully human” (44). But if this were so why would the pro-slavery John C. Calhoun and Alexander Stephens denounce the Declaration for its endorsement of human equality? Consider as well how Roger Taney changed from his days as an attorney defending the Declaration as a pro-universal freedom document in the Gruber trial, to his authorship of the Dred Scott opinion.[vi] West has forced Mansfield into making a shocking claim.

The Companion could have raised some of these issues without compromising its objective. Indeed, its effectiveness might have been enhanced. Consider just this wonderful note from the Nolla-Schleifer edition, concerning Tocqueville’s attempted seduction of Robert Fulton’s daughter. “Now, I happened one day to allow myself to say to her while laughing that she was worthy to be a French woman. Immediately her gaze became severe…. Do not think that what offended her so much was to be flirtatious; … it was to be not completely American” (n., 1086). Might this and other examples of “irritable patriotism” be attributed to the American love of the Declaration of Independence, which he had witnessed at a Fourth of July parade (letter to Chabrol, July 16 1831)? I would also have emphasized even more than Schleifer, Tocqueville’s anticipation of bureaucracy.

Finally, it should be reiterated that Schleifer’s translation of Democracy in America, with its notes and accompanying French text, is a blessing for all readers of Tocqueville.  Among many other virtues, his text’s partisans would hail as a major point his use of “liberty” versus Mansfield’s “freedom.” Here I favor Mansfield, as the reader should be aware that Tocqueville’s Rousseauan “freedom” differs from the understanding of ancient political philosophy as well as the liberty defended in The Federalist. Mansfield’s translation reflects, or perhaps even exaggerates, any ambiguity found in the French. This led at least one frustrated admirer to assign the Mansfield in his graduate courses, and the often creative but readable George Lawrence translation for his undergraduates. One mistranslation I spotted in Mansfield was “hatchet” for hatchette, when “ax” is needed, speaking of a pioneer, who “plunges into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, a hatchet, and newspapers” (290).[vii] One clears forests with an ax, not a hatchet.

One might also profitably compare the translations’ first lines to understand their depth. Mansfield, “Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye [mes regards] more vividly than the equality of conditions;” Schleifer, “… none struck me more vividly than the equality of conditions.” Later, Schleifer translates “When I arrived in the United States, it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eyes [mes regards]” (479). Mansfield, consistent, again has “struck my eye” (282). With Mansfield one can more quickly make the comparison with Tocqueville’s initial presentation of America—is it our equality or our religion that impresses him the most? Finally, another virtue of Mansfield is his correction of Tocqueville’s mistranslation of a passage in Federalist 51. He spots Tocqueville’s substitution of “tyranny of the majority” (la tyrannie des majorites) for “popular form of government” (compare Schleifer, 426, with Mansfield, 249).[viii]

Astonishingly, since 2000 five English translations of Democracy in America have appeared. Of the other three, the Library of America edition, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, is elegant, though it lacks extensive notes or an introduction.  Unfortunately, the edition most likely to be adopted for classrooms, as it is the cheapest, has some serious flaws. Isaac Kramnick’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition makes the erroneous claim that conservative policy institutes, including the Claremont Institute, where I have worked, have been parading Tocqueville about as a “neoconservative superhero.” Given the criticism of Tocqueville by the Institute, following the work of West and Jaffa, this accusation is wildly wrong. More seriously, the translation, by Gerald Bevan, betrays a political correctness that Tocqueville would have scorned, for example, translating “sauvage” as “primitive people”—he means savages! Unfortunately, the fine edition of Stephen Grant and Sanford Kessler is heavily abridged—omitting, for example, the Russia-America comparison at the end of Volume I. So, use either the Mansfield or the Schleifer-Nolla, but study both.


[i] The Press does publish other “Companion” volumes but evidently not as part of a distinct series.

[ii] The New Republic (January 3, 2000) chose “the Straussians” as one of the “top ten gangs of the Millenium,” at number 2, just behind the Crips, but only a couple above the Duke University English Department.

[iii] It is also available in an English-only two-volume edition.

[iv] In Ken Masugi, ed., Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), 155-177, also here. West was at one time too moderate in his criticism of Tocqueville, as he conceded in this 1987 exchange with the late John Adams Wettergreen. For West’s critique of Mansfield see his essay in the most thought-provoking of political science journals, Perspectives on Political Science, edited by Peter A. Lawler

[v] For West’s unorthodox interpretation of Locke, see my review on this website.

[vi] See Harry Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 219-221. West acknowledges Jaffa as the original source for his own, developed criticism of Tocqueville.

[vii] The Nolla-Schleifer edition indicates that Tocqueville’s father urged the substitution of “tea” for the Bible, as “tea gives the idea of civilization” (492). Europeans! We Americans cling to our Bibles and toss tea overboard.

[viii] But Tocqueville seems rather to turn Madison’s “factious majorities” into “la tyrannie des majorités.”  ”Si l’Etat de Rhode-Island était séparé de la Confederation et livré à un governement populaire, exercé souverainement dans d’étroites limites, on ne saurait douter que la tyrannie des majorités n’y rendît l’exercice des droits tellement incertain, qu’on n’en vînt à réclamer un pouvoir entièrement indépendent du peuple. Les factions elle-mêmes, qui l’auraient rendu nécessaire, se hâteraient d’en appeler à lui.” Madison wrote “It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it.” I thank Murray Strauss Bessette for his assistance on this point.