Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Too Many Tocquevilles: The Fable of Tocqueville's American Reception

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Too Many Tocquevilles: The Fable of Tocqueville's American Reception

Article excerpt

The field of Tocqueville studies has had the good fortune of attracting some of the most distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences of the last seventy years. Book-length studies by such renowned Tocquevilleans as George Wilson Pierson, Françoise Mélonio, André Jardin, James T. Schleifer, Seymour Drescher, and now Hugh Brogan are among the most celebrated works of their respective eras.1 But for Tocqueville scholars perhaps more than for specialists in closely related fields, the Big Books have often had to share pride of place with a small number of extremely influential articles. Of the hundreds of articles on Alexis de Tocqueville's life and influence that appeared in English between 1960 and 1990, a tiny handful attained canonical status. François Furet's "The Intellectual Origins of Tocqueville's Thought" forced scholars to reconsider the birth of Tocqueville's paradigm (as Furet expressed it in the French original) that democracy was the essential feature of modern political formations; Seymour Drescher's "Tocqueville's Two Démocraties" first set out the thesis that the differences between the two volumes of Democracy in America were more salient than their similarities; and Melvin Richter's "Tocqueville on Algeria" exposed the abundance of hypocrisy and contradiction that teemed in Tocqueville's writings on French imperial expansion. In more recent days a few superb studies by younger scholars, such as Aurelian Craiutu and Cheryl Welch, can be placed at or near that canonical rank achieved by their distinguished predecessors.2

These articles were models of deep research and sensitive argument, replete with material from primary sources as well as the pertinent secondary literature, and almost irresistible in the development of their insights. Yet their influence has lagged behind that of an essay that was packed full of major factual errors, circular in its arguments, demonstrably wrong in its conclusions, and completely lacking not just in footnotes but in evidentiary support of any description for all of its major contentions. Despite what would seem to be its ruinous shortcomings, however, Robert Nisbet's highly praised and oft-cited "Many Tocquevilles,"3 which appeared in The American Scholar in the winter of 1976-77, most closely conforms to Frank Kermode's characterization of canonical works as those that "negate the distinction between knowledge and opinion."4 Nisbet's sweeping, completely unsubstantiated, and easily disconfirmed chain of ipse dixits formed the essential core of what "everybody knows" about variations in Tocqueville's influence over time-they attained the status of conventional wisdom. And in doing so they inflicted serious and continuing harm on this area of American intellectual history.

That conventional wisdom holds that Tocqueville was neglected and forgotten from roughly the 1870s until the 1940s, after which time he experienced a stunning revival because of his direct relevance to problems that agitated American society. Renowned historians have restated Nisbet's themes again and again. "Robert Nisbet, in his essay 'Many Tocquevilles,' has shown that every age finds its own Tocqueville," declared Joseph Epstein in a 2006 biography. "After his death, Tocqueville's book seemed . . . to fall gradually into oblivion. . . . But in 1938, a Tocqueville revival began." Attention to Tocqueville "waned quite perceptibly for more than six decades. ... By the early twentieth century, Democracy in America had actually gone out of print," wrote Michael Kammen in an otherwise superb essay. Tocqueville exercised "a negligible influence upon American thinkers in the years between the Civil War and World War II," Wilfred McClay contended in a prize-winning study. The Democracy "had fallen out of print," but "the postwar period saw an extraordinary rebirth of interest in Tocqueville." In a discussion of Nisbet and McClay, James T. Kloppenberg even claimed that Tocqueville suffered a "disappearance that lasted from the outbreak of the Civil War to the outbreak of World War II. …

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