Everyone seems to adore Alexis de Tocqueville these days. His extraordinary account of the political landscape of the early United States, Democracy in America, is endlessly quoted by pundits and politicians of every stripe. Republicans love his grim warnings about bloated, centralised government and his denunciations of unthinking, liberty-smashing egalitarianism; Democrats cherish his calls for impassioned civic engagement and applaud his disdain for a grasping, materialistic culture. Tocqueville has even acquired the dubious honour of having George W Bush refer to him as his favourite political philosopher - and who amongst us ever imagined that Dubya had such a thing as a favourite political philosopher?
Tocqueville only spent nine months in America: he travelled there in 1831 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont to collect information about the country's penal system. But the impressions he gathered of the new nation's peoples, mores and institutions crystallised into one of the seminal books of political science and one that has cast an unfeasibly long shadow.
Given this prodigious legacy, it is strange that we have learned so little about Tocqueville the man: his private foibles, passions and prejudices. Until now, that is. Hugh Brogan - another of the great foreign observers of the United States - has crafted an elegant, intimate portrait and, at a stroke, established himself as Tocqueville's finest biographer to date. Brogan shares his subject's belief in the potency of an individual's (or, for that matter, a polity's) origins - what Tocqueville called a point de depart. We cannot hope to decipher Tocqueville's ground-breaking theorising, Brogan insists, unless we understand where the man came from.
Born in 1805, he came (as all of us still do) from the French Revolution: that half-glorious, half-grotesque event that most 19th- century Frenchmen felt obliged to interpret and, ultimately, to claim as their own. But he also, and to his boot-straps, came from before the Revolution, from an ancien regime world of privilege and largely unquestioned influence. Tocqueville was a toff and, as Brogan reveals, his contempt for the poor and disenfranchised was sometimes breathtakingly vile: but he also knew that everything had changed in the wake of 1789. Throughout his life, he struggled to strike a balance between nostalgia for the past and faith in the future. Out of this struggle, fuelled by the American journey, came his brilliant prophecy: that democracy would endure. His public life was dedicated to convincing his country to …