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M. DE TOCQUEVILLE
[BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, JANUARY 1836 & May 1847]
M. DE TOCQUEVILLE is one of the greatest of the political philosophers of the present day. Alone of all his contemporaries, his best works will bear a comparison with those of Machiavelli and Bacon. Less caustic and condensed than Tacitus, less imaginative and eloquent than Burke, he possesses the calm judgment, the discriminating eye, and the just reflection, which have immortalised the Florentine statesman and the English philosopher. Born and bred in the midst of the vehement strife of parties in his own country, placed midway, as it were, between the ruins of feudal and the reconstruction of modern society in France, he has surveyed the contest with an impartial gaze. He has brought to the examination of republican institutions, in the United States, the eye of calm reason and the powers of philosophic reflection. The war-cries, the illusions, the associations of neither party have been able to disturb his steady mind. Though descended of an ancient family, he is not bigoted in favour of the old régime; though belonging to a profession where strenuous efforts can alone insure success, he is not blind to the dangers of the new order of things. The feudal ages, with their dignified manners, glorious episodes, and heartstirring recollections, are not lost upon him, but they have not closed his eyes to the numerous evils which they brought in their train. Modern times, with their general activity, vast achievements, and boundless anticipations, have produced their full effect on his thoughtful mind; but they have not rendered him insensible to the perils with which they are fraught. He is a Burke without his imagination—a Machiavelli without his crimes.
M. de Tocqueville, it is well known, is a firm believer in the progress of society to a general system of equality and popular government. He thinks that, for better or for worse, this tendency is inevitable ; that all efforts to resist it are vain, and that true wisdom consists in accommodating ourselves to the new order of things, and making the transition with as little confusion and individual distress as may be. America he considers as the type of what Europe is to become ; though he has grievous misgivings as to the final result of such a prostration of the great interests of society as has there taken place, and is too well-read a scholar not to know that it was in the institutions of the Byzantine empire that a similar levelling resulted in ancient times. But being thus a devout believer, if not in the doctrine of perfectibility, at least in that of ceaseless progress towards democracy, his opinions are of the highest value when he portrays the perils with which the new order of things is attended. Alone of all the moderns, he has fixed the public attention upon the real danger of purely republican institutions; he first has discerned, in their working in America, where it is that the lasting peril is to be apprehended. Passing by the bloodshed, suffering, and confiscations with which the transition from aristocratic ascendency to demo
power is necessarily attended, he has examined with a scrutinising eye the practical working of the latter system in the United States, where it had been long established and was in pacific undisputed sovereignty. He has demonstrated that, in such circumstances, it is not the weakness but the strength of the ruling power in the state which is the great danger ; and that the many-headed despot, acting by means of a subservient press and servile juries, speedily becomes as formidable to real freedom as ever Eastern sultaun with his despotic power and armed guards has proved.
The works of this very eminent writer, however, are by no means of equal merit
. The last two volumes of his Democratie en Amérique are much inferior to the first. the latter, he sketched out with a master hand, when fresh from the object of his study, the practical working of democratic institutions, when entirely free from all the impediments which, it was alleged, concealed or thwarted their operation in the Old World. He delineated the results of
the republican principle in a new state, without a hereditary nobility, established church, or national debt ; unfettered by primogeniture, pauperism, or previous misgovernment ; surrounded by boundless lands of exceeding fertility, with all the powers of European knowledge to bring them into cultivation, and all the energy of the Anglo-Saxon race to carry out the mission of Japhet—to replenish the earth and subdue it. The world had never seen, probably the world will never again see, the democratic principle launched into activity under such favourable circumstances, and when its practical effect, for good or for evil, could with so much accuracy and certainty be discerned. The study and delineation of such an experiment, in such circumstances, and on such a scale, by a competent observer, must have been an object of the highest interest at any time; but what must it be when that observer is a man of the capacity and judgment of M. de Tocqueville ?
The latter volumes of the same work, however, have dipped into more doubtful matters, and have brought forward more questionable opinions. The inquisitive mind, philosophic turn, and deep reflection of the author, indeed, are everywhere conspicuous; but his opinions do not equally, as in the first two volumes, bear the signet-mark of truth stamped upon them. They are more speculative and fanciful; founded rather on contemplation of future, than observation of present effects. When De Tocqueville painted the unrestrained working of democracy on political thought and parties, as he saw it around him in the course of his residence in America, he drew a picture which all, in circumstances at all similar, must at once have recognised as trustworthy, because it was only an extension of what they had witnessed in their own vicinity. But when he extended these effects so far as he has done in his later volumes, to manners, opinions, habits, and the intercourse of the sexes, the attempt seemed overstrained. The theory, beyond all question just to a certain point, was pushed too far. M. de Tocqueville's great reputation, accordingly, has been somewhat impaired by the publication of his last two volumes on democracy in America ; and it is to the first two that the philosophic student most frequently recurs for light on the practical working of the popular system.
Perbaps, too, there is another, and a still more cogent reason, why the reputation of this philosopher has not continued so general as it at first was. This is his impartiality. Both the great parties which divide the world turned to his work on its first appearance with avidity, in the hope of discovering something favourable to their respective views. Neither were disappointed. Both found numerous facts and observations of the very highest importance, and having a material bearing on the points at issue between them. Enchanted with the discovery, each raised an Io Pæan; and, in the midst of a chorus of praise from Liberals and Conservatives, M. de Tocqueville took his place as the first political philosopher of the age. But in process of time, both discovered something in his opinions which they would rather had been omitted. The popular party were displeased at seeing it proved that the great and virtuous middle classes of society could establish a despotism as complete, and more irresistible, than any sultaun of Asia; the aristocratic, at finding the opinion of the author not disguised that the tendency to democracy was irresistible, and that, for good or for evil, it had irrevocably set in upon human affairs. celebrity is seldom a test of future fame ; in matters of thought and reflection, scarcely ever so. What makes a didactic author popular at the moment is the coincidence of his opinions with those of his readers, in the main, and the tracing them out to some consequences as yet new to them. What gives him fame with futurity is, his having boldly resisted general delusions, and violently, and to the great vexation of his contemporaries, first demonstrated the erroneous nature of many of their opinions, which subsequent experience has shown to be false. “ The present and the future."
says Sir Joshua Reynolds, " are rivals ; he who pays court to the one, must lay his account with being discountenanced by the other.” We augur the more favourably for M. de Tocqueville's lasting fame, from his being no longer quoted by party writers on either side of the questions which divide society:
That human affairs are now undergoing a great and durable alteration; that we are in a transition state of society, when new settlements are taking place, and the old levels are heaved up or displaced by expansive force from beneath,
is universally admitted; but the world is as yet in the dark as to the ultimate results, whether for good or evil, of these vast and organic changes. While the popular advocates look upon them as the commencement of a new era in social existence as the opening of a period of knowledge, freedom, and general happiness, in which the human race, freed from the fetters of feudal tyranny, is to arrive at an unprecedented state of social felicity—the Conservative party everywhere regard them as fraught with the worst possible effects to all classes in society, and to none more immediately than to those by whom they are so blindly urged forward, as conducing to the destruction of all the bulwarks both of property and freedom. While these opposite and irreconcilable opinions are honestly and firmly maintained by millions on either side of this great controversy, and victory inclines sometimes to one side and sometimes to another in the course of the contests, civil and military, which it engenders, “ Time rolls on his ceaseless course;" the actors and the spectators in the world's debate are alike hurried to the grave, and new generations succeed, who are borne along by the same mighty stream, and inherit from their parents the passions and prejudices inseparable from a question in which such boundless expectations have been excited on the one side, and such vital interests are at stake on the other.
The symptoms of this transition state distinctly appear, not merely in the increase of political power on the part of the lower classes in almost every state of Western Europe, but in the general formation of warm hopes and anticipations on their parts inconsistent with their present condition, and the universal adaptation of science, literature, arts, and manufactures to their wants. Supposing the most decided reaction to take place in public feeling in the British dominions, and the most Conservative Administration to be placed at the helm, still the state has been essentially revolutionised. The great organic change has been made, and cannot be undone. Government is no longer, and never again will be, as long as a mixed constitution lasts, a free agent. It is impelled by the inclinations of the majority of 900,000 electors, in whom supreme power is substantially vested. At one time it may be too revolutionary, at another too monarchical; but in either it can only be the reflecting mirror of