On the Road with Alexis de Tocqueville

  • Themes: France, History, Travel

Without Tocqueville the traveller, Tocqueville the sage of democracy is difficult to conceive of at all.

View of Baltimore from Federal Hill, 1831.
View of Baltimore from Federal Hill, 1831. Credit: Old Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America, Jeremy Jennings. Harvard University Press, 2023.

On 2 April, 1831, two young French magistrates boarded the Harve, a ship bound for America. This was not the first journey that Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, the future author of Democracy in America and the lesser known but equally remarkable The Old Regime and the Revolution, had taken outside their native France. Nor would it be their last.

From the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth, a highlight in the life of many European aristocrats had been the Grand Tour. This meticulously planned, once-in-a-lifetime journey was one in which such young men, usually under the tutelage of a well-educated, linguistically adept tutor, would travel to see the sights of Europe, especially the legacies of the Renaissance and ancient and Catholic Rome. The point of the exercise was not just the pleasure of travel or to complete a rite of passage into full adulthood. It was also to give these individuals insight into the politics, economics, and cultures of states other than their own, thereby preparing them for future positions of leadership in their own country.

Tocqueville’s travels were, however, of a different scale altogether. As the political theorist Jeremy Jennings illustrates in his new book, not only were Tocqueville’s extensive wanderings remarkable for their variety and length. He looked at cities ranging from Manchester to Quebec City and countries as different as Ireland and Switzerland through an uncommon lens.

On one level, Tocqueville’s penchant for venturing outside the hexagon of France was driven by an inner restlessness. Jennings underscores that Tocqueville was perpetually torn between a desire for the peace and calm of home-and- hearth, which conflicted with an unrelenting inner drive to understand what made different nations tick. The latter is what motivated his wanderlust: Tocqueville’s anxiousness to know the world around him, whether its future would be one of liberty or decline into new forms of despotism, and, perhaps above all, to understand the greatest and most shocking event that overshadowed his entire life. To cite Tocqueville himself, ‘whoever has studied and seen only France will never understand anything about the French Revolution‘.

For Tocqueville, it wasn’t enough to read the writings of travellers easily accessible to men of his social class. Tocqueville had to see things for himself. He considered this an essential step for entering – without being preconditioned by others’ observations – into the minds of others. This was crucial, he believed, if you truly wanted to enter into the world of people as varied as relatively passive North African Arabs undergoing a military-led colonisation or, conversely, dynamic English middle-class capitalists busily transforming the globe through industrialisation and commerce and who possessed a deep confidence in the civilising effects of free trade and the Pax Britannica.

Tocqueville’s confidence in the value of these journeys contrasted, Jennings notes, with long-standing scepticism of the intellectual benefits of travel. That may seem strange to us, but moderns such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, as well as ancients like Seneca, did not believe that people learned a great deal from travel. People, they thought, tended to see what they wanted to see rather than what they needed to observe. These commentators and philosophers also regarded travel writings to be so different in their accounts of a city, region, or country that such texts were of little use in increasing our understanding of peoples, let alone history.

Not so Tocqueville. Jennings shows him conversing with individuals from different social backgrounds in settings that he had not hitherto encountered. These conservations involved Tocqueville asking questions of the type akin to the social scientist who seeks to probe beneath appearances to discover what is really going on in the life of a people or even entire nations. Jennings also indicates that Tocqueville’s willingness to venture into areas such as those parts of the American wilderness that were still relatively unknown or the rocky and pitiless landscape of France’s new colony in Algeria owed something to a longing to discover more about the world relatively untouched by European civilisation.

Not all explorers and travelers necessarily comprehend well the peoples and lands that they encounter. ‘Some,’ Jennings notes, ‘fail miserably’. By contrast, he argues, those who succeed are the ones who are able at some level to empathise with what they see and those with whom they converse. By any standard, Tocqueville fell into this category. He may have come from the French aristocracy, but Tocqueville was able to transcend his own social background to grasp why, for instance, the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland was so hated by the poorer Catholic majority, or the manner in which particular moeurs buttressed the spirit of entrepreneurship that marked so much of America outside the slave-owning Southern states.

Naturally, no traveler can see everything. Even someone as anxious as Tocqueville not to be locked into the prevailing wisdom generated by previous observers of foreign lands needs to make choices about who they talk to and what they see.

What’s remarkable about Tocqueville, Jennings shows, is that this limitation didn’t prevent him from managing to absorb an astonishing array of information that we would describe today as having an interdisciplinary character. Through travel, Tocqueville was able to draw connections between the way that, for instance, economic factors shaped the culture of a given region, but also how culture in turn helped to determine the precise economic patterns that dominated that same part of the world.

To be sure, Tocqueville was hardly the first to adopt such a perspective. One of the thinkers most influential his thought, Montesquieu, was especially adept in seeing these types of inferences to explain why he regarded eighteenth-century Britain as politically and economically singular among European nations. But judging from Jennings’s analysis of his journeys, the information gleaned first-hand by Tocqueville provided a more solid empirical footing for many of his conjectures. They also helped establish valid points of comparison by which Tocqueville could make judgments about different people’s propensity for freedom and the likelihood of, say, America being able to sustain liberty over the long-term compared to the German states that Tocqueville visited in the last decade of his life.

This leads us to the question of assessing just how important Tocqueville the traveller seeking understanding was to Tocqueville the political thinker who wanted to reconcile such things as freedom and stability. For underlying Tocqueville’s inquiries was always the pursuit of political ends. This was especially true when it came to his native France where, Tocqueville despaired, order and freedom seemed perpetually at odds with each other. But it also concerned his search for broader and deeper answers about how to ensure that the power of democracy would not become tyrannical, and to find ways, as Jennings describes it, of ‘reconciling the equality that separated and isolated men with liberty’.

Jennings’s answer is that without his penchant for travel, Tocqueville would not have been the figure whose ideas continue to fascinate and stimulate. On one level, this reflects practical realities. Without his willingness to endure often considerable discomfort and to risk his fragile health by going on the road for long stretches of time, it would have been difficult for Tocqueville to satisfy his desire to obtain access to those primary sources that, he believed, helped ensure that he would not be trapped into simply affirming the conclusions drawn by those who had gone before him.

Nonetheless, Jennings notes that Tocqueville also travelled in a different way to other people, something observed at the time by his friend Beaumont. This went beyond Tocqueville’s meticulous advance preparation, or even his undeniable taste for adventure of the intrepid variety.

Whereas most other travelers, Beaumont thought, ‘saw nothing and were looking for nothing’, Tocqueville’s traverses across three continents – Europe, North America, and Africa – were endlessly stimulating his fecund imagination. He may not have seen everything that he should. Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s journeys allowed him to build up a store of knowledge upon which he could draw as he developed his new ‘science of politics’.

Much of Tocqueville’s writings, Jennings points out, ‘are structured around an extensive set of comparisons between the countries he knew and visited and those whose pasts he studied’. In that sense, Tocqueville never ceased to voyage in his mind. And therein lay much of the fuel for the analytical power which underpinned Tocqueville’s capacity to unpack the future and likely challenges for countries and sets of ideas in ways that still amaze us today. Put plainly, minus Tocqueville the traveller, Tocqueville the sage of democracy is difficult to conceive of at all.


Samuel Gregg