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Assassinating Tocqueville

Reading François Furstenberg’s ill-founded assault on Alexis de Tocqueville on, one is left wondering whether the history-professor-turned-reviewer has ever actually read Democracy in America.

Furstenberg, in reviewing Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch, purports to answer “what Tocqueville and his friend really did on their travels.” Because collecting material for what would become a political-science classic must have been a paltry time commitment, the reviewer suggests that Tocqueville “flirted his way through salons and dinner parties, stumbling along in mediocre English, complaining about the prudishness of American women.”

This review makes several ungrounded criticisms of poor Alexis, who is quite regrettably too long gone to defend himself. But because Democracy in America is such an enduring work, and because some of Tocqueville’s warnings are at their most relevant today, the review deserves to be dismantled piece by piece, pairing Furstenberg’s cheap shots with Tocqueville’s actual words.

(Furstenberg might be thrilled to discover that Democracy in America is not only found in libraries around the country, including at the New York Public Library, to which he has full access through May 2010 as a fellow there — it is also available online in its entirety, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 — searchable, even, for the sake of convenience. Given Furstenberg’s demonstrated interest in the topic, I highly recommend it to him.)

Furstenberg’s criticism centers on class and race, both of which Tocqueville treats at length. He repeatedly takes out of context Tocqueville’s writings on race relations. “[Tocqueville] bumped into Native Americans being expelled from the eastern states on the infamous Trail of Tears. But he didn’t make much of it, failing to connect that experience to his own reflections on the danger of the tyranny of the majority,” writes Furstenberg.

He must have somehow missed Tocqueville’s lengthy analysis of the injustices committed against the Native Americans, to be found in Volume 1, where he describes how, through trickery and coercion, American settlers “obtain, at a very low price, whole provinces, which the richest sovereigns of Europe could not purchase. … These are great evils; and it must be added that they appear to me to be irremediable.” In fact, Tocqueville portrays the Native Americans as the last remnants of the noble warrior-aristocracy, and he bemoans their degradation and the loss of their civilization.

Yet Furstenberg continues with his race-based criticism. He wrongly implies that slavery was not a big issue for Tocqueville:

Clearly Tocqueville, unlike Beaumont, believed that slavery and racism did not touch on “the essential nature of democracy,” as Damrosch puts it. … When he did turn his mind to the subjects [of race and slavery], moreover, Tocqueville was exceedingly gloomy, convinced that a multiracial democracy was impossible. If slaves ever gained their freedom, he predicted a genocidal war: ‘the most horrible of all civil wars, and perhaps the destruction of one of the two races.’ … One of the most striking features of emancipation, as it actually happened a generation later, was the lack of violence foreseen by Tocqueville and many others.

But Democracy in America clearly outlines Tocqueville’s strong concern about slavery and its consequences for the future of American democracy. He describes slavery as a “permanent evil,” a “calamity,” and a “wound thus inflicted on humanity.” The consequences of slavery would be even more far-reaching and disastrous, Tocqueville supposes, because “the abstract and transient fact of slavery is fatally united with the physical and permanent fact of color.” He expects that “the moderns, then, after they have abolished slavery, have three prejudices to contend against, which are less easy to attack, and far less easy to conquer than the mere fact of servitude, — the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of color.”

Furstenberg seems to misunderstand Tocqueville entirely on this point. Far from downplaying the importance of slavery, Tocqueville questions how it can be overcome, and without the violence and devastation of the kind seen in the French Revolution. Furthermore, one might wonder what sort of historical rejiggering has led Furstenberg to think emancipation or civil-rights strides occurred in an atmosphere “lack[ing] of violence.” Democracy in America predicts the ways slavery has promoted racism and acknowledges that the abolition of slavery will not solve America’s racism problem. It is especially baffling that Furstenberg, who has written a book about slavery and U.S. nationalism, missed this.

But the writer is not only wrong about Tocqueville’s ideas about race. He also writes, “Busy chatting in the parlors of wealthy Americans, Tocqueville didn’t seem to notice the artisans slowly being forced into unskilled labor, or immigrant dockworkers, or freed blacks struggling to eke out a living on the margins of American life.” He must have missed entirely the portion of Democracy in America where Tocqueville worries about the intellectual consequences of division of labor:

What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins? And to what can that mighty human intelligence, which has so often stirred the world, be applied to him, except it be to investigate the best method of making pins’ heads? … Thus at the very time at which the science of manufactures lowers the class of workmen, it raises the class of masters.

Tocqueville goes on to acknowledge that the supervisor-worker relationship begins to look like that between the aristocratic master and the “brute” — and “what is this but aristocracy?” he asks. More broadly, Furstenberg overlooks Tocqueville’s plentiful examples of working-class Americans who find both their work and the profit earned from it honorable. A close reading of Democracy in America proves the author both realistic and respectful about the working class.

The bigger point is that, read in context, Tocqueville’s writing often portrays the working class favorably and emphatically condemns slavery and racism. The advocates of Big Government may have good reason to go after Tocqueville, who was one of the first to warn about the dangers of the welfare state in democratic societies. Perhaps their bone with Tocqueville is that he prizes liberty and dares to note the risks of absolute equality, even after fairly observing the conditions of workers and minorities. If this book review is not an academic oversight on Furstenberg’s part, it is certainly character assassination.

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