cover image The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville

Olivier Zunz. Princeton Univ., $35 (456p) ISBN 978-0-691-17397-9

University of Virginia historian Zunz (Philanthropy in America) delivers a richly detailed intellectual biography of French political philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville. Born into an aristocratic family in 1805, it was democracy—especially following his youthful trip to America—that became the ruling passion of Tocqueville’s life, argues Zunz. He chronicles Tocqueville’s early years, “dull and uninspiring legal training,” and career as a prosecutor before he received a commission to study America’s penal system. Mapping Tocqueville’s American travels from 1831 to 1832, Zunz documents meetings with luminaries including John Quincy Adams and Sam Houston, as well as unnamed prison inmates, Native Americans, African Americans, and an “anticlimactic” visit with President Andrew Jackson. Out of the trip came Tocqueville’s best-known work, Democracy in America, which became influential for explaining America to Americans. Though Tocqueville “expressed doubts about the ability of American democracy to contain economic conflicts between the North and the South,” Zunz writes, his “main message” was that democracy was “resilient.” Zunz also delves into Tocqueville’s subsequent political career and writings on the French Revolution; documents his friendship with abolitionist senator Charles Sumner; and refutes modern historians who have questioned his commitment to democratic ideals. Wide-ranging and meticulously argued, this is a noteworthy contribution to Tocqueville studies. (Apr.)