*The Man who Knew Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville*, Olivier Zunz (entrev.)

Democracy Paradox

Olivier Zunz on Alexis de Tocqueville


democracyparadoxblog, 3-1-23

Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. He is among the foremost scholars of Alexis de Tocqueville and the author of The Man who Knew Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

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Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is only partly a book on America. It's also a book of comparative thinking and it's a book of theoretical invention. So, Democracy in America is a theory of democracy. Part of it is about America and part of it is Tocqueville’s theoretical genius pushing through.

Olivier Zunz

Key Highlights

  • Introduction - 0:44
  • Democracy in America - 2:21
  • Tocqueville as Political Theorist - 15:56
  • Tocqueville the Politician - 22:14
  • Tocqueville's Legacy - 27:17

Podcast Transcript

I recently took the time to read Recollections. It’s an account from Alexis de Tocqueville from his time as a politician during the Revolution of 1848. It’s one of those books many overlook, but once I realized it existed, it was only a matter of time before I’d read it. For anyone interested in learning about democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville has an almost surreal attraction. 

So, when Olivier Zunz wrote a new biography of Tocqueville, it certainly attracted the attention of people like me. For those who have read Tocqueville extensively, you’ve probably come across Olivier’s work without realizing it. He has edited many of Tocqueville’s works.

Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. He has spent his life studying American history, but the study of Tocqueville was always his passion. Our conversation explores Tocqueville’s life and work to consider what he understood about democracy and what he can still teach us today. 

If you like this podcast, please give the show a 5-Star rating and review. You can also send comments and questions to me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Olivier Zunz…


Olivier Zunz, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Olivier Zunz

Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.


So, Olivier, what impresses me so much about this book, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville, is how you weave together the experiences with his thoughts through his writings. But it's not just his ideas. It's like the meanings behind those experiences that lead to those ideas. In the book, you have this fabulous line where you write, “Tocqueville, who had crossed the ocean in part to determine whether he could ever live in a democracy.” I want to think about that line for just a moment. Why did de Tocqueville want to learn whether he could live in a democracy?

Olivier Zunz

Well, there’s a two-step answer to this. So, Tocqueville was born in 1805. During the French Revolution, during the period of the terror in 1793-94, many of his family members were sent to the guillotine. His great-grandfather, his name is not familiar to an American audience, his name was Malesherbes, was director of the book trade for Louis XV and he protected Voltaire, Rousseau, and the philosophes from Censorship. He was a great man himself. He was a botanist, a great writer, and simply a great man. He came out of retirement to be the King's lawyer during Louis XVI’s trial. But his great-grandfather, his grandparents, uncles and aunts all went to the guillotine. His parents were freed from jail the day before they were going to be sent to the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre. So, it was just a matter of a day.

Several years later, or rather almost 10 years later, Tocqueville was born along with two older brothers. His entire the family came from either the highest ranks of the ministry nobility on the father's side, the nobility of the sword as they called it and administrative nobility on the mother's side, the great Malesherbes, the director of the book trade, the nobility of the robe as they called it. So, these people united into a single nobility during the French Revolution. Actually, many of them had gone to exile. For these people equality, Republican Equality, was a bad word. It meant leveling. It meant the end of their privileges. It meant the end of their caste as nobles. It meant the end of them. Tocqueville believed in this, like all of his family members.

But I think what he discovered in this country… I mean, I'm sure what he discovered in this country was a different meaning of equality. Now, of course equality is nothing more than equal according to our definition of equality. So, it takes its certain leap of avoiding, not just anachronism, but realizing that Tocqueville was no fool and he understood there was slavery. He understood that all of these inequalities existed, but still equality existed in this country for the people who benefited from it. That is from a much larger fragment of the population than in France. For the white males of the country, it meant uplifting, not leveling. It gave them the possibility of exercising their freedom, of exercising their liberty, of making the best of what they could do themselves. It freed them from being stuck at birth in a lower status.

So, aristocracy is a chain. Tocqueville describes it as a chain and there are links from one segment of the chain to the other. But you can’t move up or down. You remain where you are for centuries, even in the same place. So, you have aristocratic families where for several generations they have the same families of servants. You are a servant from father to son. You are Duke from father to son. You know what Tom Paine used to say about nobility? He said, ‘With a general or judge, you have some idea of who the person is. But if you talk about a Duke, you can't even say whether he is a man or a baby. So, Tocqueville discovered in this country that equality could have a different meaning. It was not necessarily leveling.

It was actually the opposite. It could be uplifting. It could give people the possibility of fighting for themselves and moving up. So, in a sense, Tocqueville in this book has beautifully said, out of some extreme level of abstraction, equality and liberty are one and the same. Because if you are everybody's equal, you are completely free. And if you're completely free, you are everybody's equal. Now, in real life, that's a different story. Now, this is another thing I have had to explain. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is only partly a book on America. It's also a book of comparative thinking and it's a book of theoretical invention. So, Democracy in America is a theory of democracy and part of it is about America and part of it is Tocqueville’s theoretical genius pushing through.

In America, he saw many things and he missed many things. Amazingly so. Yet his power of intelligence made up for it and often came with the right judgment despite the wrong observation. It's also very interesting. I tried to illustrate that in the book.


One of the remarkable things about Democracy in America is that it was written when Tocqueville was so young. I mean, he was only 25. I think you've already mentioned that. How did his youth influence the impressions that he had from the United States and about the ideas of democracy?

Olivier Zunz

Okay, so here I have to say two things. One is that Tocqueville was 25 when he came here. He turned 26 in the Michigan forest, in the middle of nowhere, a year after the 1830 Revolution in France exactly to the day. He kind of relives this revolutionary moment in the middle of the Michigan forest in the solitude of it, because it was the end of civilization. Then he returned to France. Tocqueville was subject to depression. It took him a solid 18 months before he could put himself together to go through his notes, lock himself up in his parents’ attic, and try writing a book.

He was not at all sure that he would succeed. He was not at all sure of himself. Quite the contrary. Which actually made it nice, I mean, to realize that he too struggled. You know, writing is all about delayed gratification. But then he wrote the book in two volumes. One was published 1835. By then he was 30. The second volume was published in 1840. By then he was 35. The first volume is the closest to the American trip and if you read the travel notes and the letters home, which I've actually edited in a big 700-page volume, you will recognize many sections of his travel notes in his narrative. So, it’s more of a descriptive book in the first one.

The second book is more influenced by two trips to England, especially the discovery of the poverty in Manchester and Birmingham. So, in volume two when Tocqueville makes the great formulation that the next aristocracy to fear is the industrialized aristocracy, it is not at all a prediction of the American Gilded Age. It is a description of Industrial England as he saw it during two trips in 1833 and in 1835. So, this is why I'm saying that much of Democracy in America can be read at many different levels: the level of description; a level of comparative political science; and a level of pure theory.


Democracy in America comes in two volumes. Do you consider those two different books or do you consider those two volumes of the same book?

Olivier Zunz

Well, this is, of course, a question that has occupied Tocqueville scholars. Seymour Drescher years ago, historian in Pittsburgh, a very good historian, published a long essay arguing that it was really two books. So, among Tocqueville scholars you are either in one camp or the other. I personally think that it is one book, but I certainly see the point of people saying it's two. The only reason I think it's one book, it's no big deal, is because when Tocqueville finished volume two, he decided not to write a preface to it. He decided not to write a preface to it, because he had already written a long preface to volume one. So, he thought of these two books as one. So, that’s good enough for me.


So, you mentioned that de Tocqueville turned 26, I think it was in the forests of Michigan, in the wilderness. It reminded me of a passage from your book where you wrote, “Only in the wilderness did he think seriously of Americans in the plural and the resulting encounter of cultures.” It's something that people think a lot of about de Tocqueville today and has a big influence in terms of his thoughts about slavery, Native Americans, and others. How did de Tocqueville reconcile America's commitment to liberty and political equality with its treatment of American Indians and slavery?

Olivier Zunz

I will start with the Native Americans. Tocqueville was not entirely…. Well, Tocqueville was resigned to the fate. Now he had, I would say, four encounters with Native Americans. One before departure where he was reading Rousseau, Chateaubrian, and James Fennimore Cooper and accepted the idea of the noble savage. He and his travel companion, Beaumont, had their first encounter with Native Americans in upstate New York. He was thoroughly distressed because they were beggars and drunkards asking for alms and looking terrible. It was nothing like the noble savage that he had imagined he would find in the American wilderness, even though he was in upstate New York. He expresses dismay. He says, “What happened to these people?” Even though he had some idea. So, the first encounter was a book encounter. The second encounter was this big disappointment.

The third one was in the Great Lakes and in the Michigan Forest. There he saw Native Americans in their habitat and in their territory, even though it was shrinking. He liked it. He had Indian guides for the forest to go to Saginaw and from there to the frontier. So, he had a sense of what tribal life was. He witnessed also efforts by ministers, both Catholics and Protestants, to convert them and so on and so forth. The last encounter was very distressful, because he witnessed the Trail of Tears as he saw the trek that was crossing the Mississippi. So, he saw the implementations of Jackson's policies.

But then he met Sam Houston on the steam boat on the Mississippi and he had long conversations with him on Indian life which was really interesting. He couldn't have found anybody better than Sam Houston. But by and large, he felt that Indian reluctance going to agriculture, sedentary life and so on and so forth was their doom. Now, I know Native American historians have tried to reverse that picture of them that Tocqueville was buying, but he condemned Americans for this kind of violence and the practice of making treaties and not respecting them. This kind of legal holocaust so to speak. He said this in no uncertain terms in chapter 10. But he was somehow resigned to it.

With African Americans, that's a different story. He felt that African Americans would rebel. Indians were doomed, but African Americans were not. So, he predicted in the last chapter, a form of civil war. He saw a race war in the South. Not a war between the states, but nonetheless, he predicted this. In his correspondence, near the end of his life with Jared Sparks, the Unitarian minister who would become Harvard President, and Charles Sumner, who actually visited Tocqueville in France after the caning, he was very worried about the coming Civil War. He was asking his informants, ‘How is that going? Is that going to happen?’ So, he was afraid about the future of the union.

I don't know the extent to which he answers your question, but he didn't want his democracy to go belly up. That was his fear. So, I think we can very much relate to him. Can't we?


Definitely, I think so. I thought it was interesting how you brought up the assumptions that de Tocqueville had about the noble savage, if you will, before he came to America. Because it's something that I think of as very tied to Rousseau, who's another one of the great political thinkers of our time, or of history’s time, I guess I should say.

But de Tocqueville was not extraordinarily well read when he came to America. To be honest I was incredibly astonished that you said that de Tocqueville had to go back and actually read for the first time many of what were considered to be the classics throughout his life. How would he have approached democracy in America differently? How would he have approached even just his journey to the United States if he'd had a broader education or had read more about political theory before he had had his experience in the United States?

Olivier Zunz

You know, perhaps what matters most is the outcome. Now, I think Tocqueville did read Rousseau, because you see influences of Rousseau in Democracy in America. He never mentioned Rousseau by name because Rousseau was anathema to Tocqueville’s readers. Because many of the aristocrats who read Tocqueville to understand America blamed Rousseau for the revolution. You know, this is Voltaire’s fault. This is Rousseau’s fault. This is the popular saying actually. The fault of Voltaire. The fault of Rousseau.

Now it's a little bit of a mystery… I mentioned that earlier in the interview about my mentor, François Furet. I remember Furet in the sixties and seventies going through Tocqueville’s archives trying to find Tocqueville’s reading notes and feeling very frustrated by instead finding catalogues of landscape with so many fences and how many fences and how many acres of cultivated land. How does a guy figure out a political theory from the number of fences? But there is something for us to learn. So, he read for entertainment. He loved to read lighter literature, magazines and whatnot. He read for style. He was obsessed with improving his style. So, he read the great orators, the Great Catholic Preachers.

He compared himself at some point to a politician, marshal Soult, who was at some point Minister of Foreign Affairs. And he said, ‘I'm like him learning geography as Minister of Foreign Affairs.” So, the point of it is that in some ways you wonder whether Tocqueville would have been different or better had he read more ahead of time. He said several times to friends in his correspondence that when he was working on some topic, he couldn't possibly read anything that was written on it or he would lose all perspective.

So, basically the way his mind worked he had to reinvent the wheel. Well, that's it. So, you know, when I directed dissertations, which I have done all my life, I tell bright students don't reinvent the wheel. But sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel. I feel the same way myself. Sometimes I have to reinvent the wheel and figure out what I want to say and then check whether somebody else has said it too or differently afterwards. So, that's the way Tocqueville worked. Obviously, nobody was smarter than Tocqueville. He was super smart. He always caught up with whatever he needed to read just in time. But yes, he was not an erudite and you think maybe he wanted it that way so he could feel clearly.


One of the things that your book does really well is it actually walks through some of his other works and I don't think that I'm alone when I admit that the only works that I've read from Tocqueville are Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. Those are the only two that I've really read from de Tocqueville before reading your book.

But your book explores some of his other works, particularly The Prison Report that they actually wrote when they came back from the United States. You have a quote where you write, “The report highlighted that all criminals in the American penitentiary were treated equally regardless of what the rank had been in free society. In prison, they were all reduced to the lowest common denominator. The American penitentiary then was the creation of an inverted America.” I was astonished the way that you used the prison report to help explain Tocqueville’s views on equality. Can you help explain a little bit about what those views were?

Olivier Zunz

Well, of course, The Prison Report didn't talk at all about the privilege of bail. In some ways, wealthy people could escape prison. Nonetheless, the idea that regardless of your rank, it was really equal once in jail, was right. That really surprised Tocqueville, because in France it was exactly the opposite. You kept the rank you were born with no matter where you were. On the other hand, when Tocqueville wrote the prison report…. Actually, it's mostly Beaumont who wrote it, because Tocqueville was a bit depressed when he came back from America. But Tocqueville had a hand in it.

You could think of it, you know, like I said earlier, equality is a springboard for liberty. Because I don't care whether your Dad has money and I don't have any. I can still do what I want with my life and I'm going to beat you in that game. That's equality for you. Because my status is not going to stop me from doing this because I was born in poverty. But in prison, no, that's not possible. Equality will not give you freedom because you're stuck right there.

So, there's a group of scholars, some of them have published their work in the Journal of Democracyarguing a similar point. So, I'm certainly not the first one who made this point, but they were right in arguing a similar point that you can see The Prison Report as an anti-democracy. I kind of built on their work a little bit. So, it's an interesting springboard in the various drafts that will lead to Democracy in America.


Why does he enter politics? I mean, he's such an amazing scholar. Why does he feel the need to do more than write about democracy and actually participate in it?

Olivier Zunz

Well, in some ways I don't know. But the thing is he did. He went to his old friend, Kergorlay, and said, ‘Don't imagine that I have a passion for the intellectual life. I want to be a matter of action.’ He sent a copy of Democracy in America to one of his cousins who was Vice President of the French Chamber and said, ‘Please be indulgent, because I have no political experience. This is only the work of a theorist. I have no practical experience, so maybe I'm not saying the right thing.’ But then by the time he got into politics, he was really disappointed low quality of political discourse in the chamber. Nonetheless, he kept pushing and pushing.

He was not a good orator. So, as opposed to us today where we have speakers and amplifiers and so on and so forth, when you were in the champion in 1835 you had better shout, because otherwise nobody could hear you. He was not successful at it, yet he was respected for his deep intelligence. So, people kept returning to him and asking him for his advice or at least some did. He wanted to make a difference. He didn't want to be an arm chair theorist.

He fought in electoral politics and for a long time during his political career, it was July Monarchy politics, so there was a high bar for the franchise. So, there were only a few hundred voters in his department, in his region. But then he fought in the first white male universal suffrage campaign in 1848 and he won. He rose to the occasion. He actually made some very good public speeches. He was a wonderful speaker one on one or in the salons as a conversationalist. But he was not a good public speaker, but he rose to the occasion in 1848.


Still, he eventually becomes disillusioned with politics. You write in the book, “He ended his life with the realization that political science and the art of governing were two very different things after all.” I mean, it makes me wonder whether Tocqueville’s time in politics was really just a waste.

Olivier Zunz

Well, I don't think it was a waste at all actually, because of two things. First of all, yes, he was disillusioned, but then he recovered from it and told his colleagues in the French Academy that even the great Montesquieu would've been a bad minister. But the point is that his practical experience helped him greatly with writing. The Souvenirs of the 1848 Revolution to be sure. That's not a manuscript they wanted to publish. Still, it also helped him write the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. He had a much better sense of what was going on in the French Constituent Assembly during the revolution. He had a much better sense of the coming of the revolution and then the work of the politicians from that experience than he would've had otherwise.

The tragedy here is that we couldn't see it, because he died of tuberculosis when he was just 53. He really wanted to somehow understand and explain the French tragic cycle of fighting for a revolution in the name of equality and ending up in returning to despotism and dictatorship. The French Revolution turning into the Napoleonic Empire. That is the great Despotic Revolution. The restoration of monarchy beginning as a constitutional monarchy and ending up as an autocratic monarchy which led to yet another revolution. Then a repeat of that at the end of the July Monarchy with the 1848 revolution.

Tocqueville wrote its constitution, but then the 1848 Revolution ended up with Napoleon the Third, Napoleon’s nephew, and a coup in 1851 and the restoration of an autocratic, despotic regime with the Second Empire and the resignation of Tocqueville from all political life. So, Tocqueville really wanted to figure out this cycle of democratization and collapse of democracy which was a French malady. It couldn't be understood as one episode, like the revolution going to the Napoleonic empire because it happened again and again throughout his life. So, the book the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution was only to be the introduction to this longer volume explaining this cycle and Tocqueville only left reading notes for it. He could never write it. But I think if he had been able to write it, his experience as a politician would've been immensely valuable.


Still, I mean, the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution is one of the great classics of political thought.

Olivier Zunz



Yeah, even to this day. How do people in France think about the Tocqueville and is it different from how Americans think about him?

Olivier Zunz

Well, it's very different because for whatever reason which I've lived with all my life since I'm a French immigrant and I've spent my life teaching American history, writing about American history until I wrote this book on French-American history. But the French may have a fascination with the United States, they talk about it all the time. They don't know it very well. They read Tocqueville mostly as a French person who wrote about the Ancien Régime. But one of the interesting things, the first two chapters of my book are travels throughout America. Not only what he saw but what he missed and he missed a lot. He didn't understand evangelical religion. I mean, I go on, on and and on with all that he missed. To the French it’s a real surprise. They thought he had America.

Conversely, Americans have no idea about the French Tocqueville, very few. Some of the scholars among Americans have read The Ancien Régime, but very few people know that he had a political career, that was into reforming France, trying to restore the church influence, and independence of teaching. He is working on all of that including colonization and the abolition of slavery. They kind of go against one another. Tocqueville was both a colonizer and an abolitionist. Go figure. That Tocqueville is unknown in this country. But I was writing a biography. I was not writing books just on Democracy in America and I think the two Tocquevilles are really the same.


What amazes me about de Tocqueville is how perceptive he really was about both democracy and the United States not just for his time, but in a way that kind of transcended time. I mean, it took years, decades, maybe even a century, before we really came to any writers after Tocqueville that wrote anything that compared to Democracy in America for what it was trying to achieve, just to explain the way that democracy worked in the United States. James Bryce, for instance, wrote the two volume set The American Commonwealth and it lives in the shadow of Democracy in Americaeven though it was written about 60 years afterwards. But at the same time, a lot's changed. I mean, we're starting to approach almost 200 years since the publication of Democracy in America. Are the writings of Tocqueville still relevant for the study of politics in the 21st century?

Olivier Zunz

Yes, very much so. They are very much important for us, not so much because of the description of America that exists in the book. James Bryce’s book is of description not of analysis. But because of the theoretical construction. This deep connection between equality and liberty, the framing of modern history as a conflict between the two. The sense that democracy is fragile and rests on the habit of liberty rather than the wish of it. That one must know how to limit liberty in order to keep it, because if you exceed it, it takes over and you don't respect differences. All of this deep thought animates today, just like they animated us earlier.

So, if you ask me whether Aristotle is relevant or you ask me whether Augustine is relevant, whether Rousseau is relevant, yes, of course they are. So is Tocqueville. But it’s Tocqueville, because this is much more of a book of theory than it is a book of description.


Well, thank you so much, Olivier, for joining me today. I want to plug your book one last time, The Man Who Understood Democracy: the Life of Alexis de Tocqueville. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Olivier Zunz

Thank you so much for having me.

Key Links

The Man who Knew Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville by Olivier Zunz

"Cancel Tocqueville?" by Tarek Masoud in the Journal of Democracy

Learn more about Olivier Zunz

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