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‘A Great Democratic Revolution’

Alexis de Tocqueville left France to study the American prison system and returned with the material that would become “Democracy in America.”

Alexis de Tocqueville was a study in contradictions: a French aristocrat of proud heritage who trumpeted the inevitable, salutary rise of democracy, using the United States as his exemplar; a cosmopolitan with an English wife and many friends in the Anglo-American world who brandished a fervent French nationalism; an antislavery advocate who felt no discomfort in supporting the French colonization of Algeria and hired as his main assistant Arthur de Gobineau, who later published one of the founding texts of white supremacy; and finally a man of delicate constitution who undertook an arduous trip on horseback into the wilderness of northern Michigan in order to see Native Americans and new settler communities for himself. Such inconsistencies make for a fascinating story, and in The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz, a French-educated historian who has taught US history for decades at the University of Virginia, shows that he is ideally suited to tell it.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, became an instant classic and has remained one to this day. On its hundredth anniversary in 1935, the French government presented a bust of the author to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article at the time referred to the book as “perhaps the greatest, most lucid, and most impartial commentary that free institutions in general, and American self-government in particular, had ever received.” Democracy in America served as a kind of textbook for US students for many generations, but it is now more often cited than read. That dutiful disregard may be the fate of all such masterworks, especially one that runs about eight hundred pages, but Zunz has succeeded in restoring its appeal, first by vividly retracing its origins and then by skillfully evoking the enduring excitement and relevance of its analysis.

Tocqueville did not sail to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1831—a thirty-five-day trip—in order to write a book about American democracy. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, both low-level magistrates, got unpaid leave from their positions to study the American prison system. The moment was right: Tocqueville saw no future for himself in the judiciary, especially with the recent change in regime. After three days of insurrection in 1830, King Charles X had been forced to abdicate, and though Tocqueville’s family had long supported the Bourbon monarchy, he kept his options open by swearing loyalty to the new constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe d’Orléans. He was nonetheless caught between two stools, so with money from their families and nearly seventy letters of introduction to prominent American officials and legal experts, the two young men set off on their journey.