Historically Thinking

Historically Thinking

Episode 262: The Man Who Understood Democracy (Part One)

May 02, 2022

In 1835 a young French author on the verge of publishing his first book wrote “the best thing that can happen to me is if no one read my book, and I have not yet lost hope that this happiness will be mine.” But Alexis de Tocqueville’s hopes were not fulfilled. Although the first printing was just 500 copies, Tocqueville almost immediately became an intellectual celebrity. When he heard people speaking about his book, said Tocqueville, he wondered “whether they are really talking about me.”

Olivier Zunz argues in his new biography The Man Who Understood Democracy: A Life of Alexis de Tocqueville that Tocqueville was a passionate advocate for democracy, judging it the only system that could provide both liberty and equality. He did this both as a scholar and a politician, dying at a moment when it seemed that in both France and America the experiment to which he had devoted his life was on the point of failure.

In the first of two conversations, Zunz and I discuss Tocqueville's family; his early life and intellectual development; his unhappy attempt at a legal career; and his famous journey to the young United States. We conclude this conversation with the moment described above, when the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America led to Tocqueville's instant intellectual celebrity. In our second conversation, we will discuss his turn to political action, and its outcomes.

Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Philanthropy in America: A History (also published by Princeton University Press ). He has edited the Library of America edition of Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and Their Travels, all in collaboration with the translator Arthur Goldhammer. He has also co-edited The Tocqueville Reader: A Life in Letters and Politics.

For Further Investigation

Exploring American Democracy with Alexis de Tocqueville as Guide: a 2015 seminar led by Olivier Zunz and Arthur Goldhammer at the University of Virginia still has a website, with an unparalleled collection of resources, including bibliographies of magnificent detail.
Arthur Goldhammer describes his collaboration with Olivier Zunz: a "harmonious collaboration" that became an "intellectual friendship"
The benchmark historical-critical edition of Democracy in America by Eduardo Nolla