Many American readers like to regard Alexis de Tocqueville as an honorary American and democrat--as the young French aristocrat who came to early America and, enthralled by what he saw, proceeded to write an American book explaining democratic America to itself. Yet, as Lucien Jaume argues in this acclaimed intellectual biography, Democracy in America is best understood as a French book, written primarily for the French, and overwhelmingly concerned with France. "America," Jaume says, "was merely a pretext for studying modern society and the woes of France." For Tocqueville, in short, America was a mirror for France, a way for Tocqueville to write indirectly about his own society, to engage French thinkers and debates, and to come to terms with France's aristocratic legacy.
By taking seriously the idea that Tocqueville's French context is essential for understanding Democracy in America, Jaume provides a powerful and surprising new interpretation of Tocqueville's book as well as a fresh intellectual and psychological portrait of the author. Situating Tocqueville in the context of the crisis of authority in postrevolutionary France, Jaume shows that Tocqueville was an ambivalent promoter of democracy, a man who tried to reconcile himself to the coming wave, but who was also nostalgic for the aristocratic world in which he was rooted--and who believed that it would be necessary to preserve aristocratic values in order to protect liberty under democracy. Indeed, Jaume argues that one of Tocqueville's most important and original ideas was to recognize that democracy posed the threat of a new and hidden form of despotism.
"[E]xhilarating. . . . Jaume, who probably knows Tocqueville's intellectual world better than anyone else alive, has reconstructed his reading in intricate detail, and brilliantly demonstrates the way particular themes and passages in Democracy in America relate to it."--David A. Bell, London Review of Books
"This astute study of Alexis de Tocqueville and his landmark political study, Democracy in America (published in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840, respectively), offers insights into the Frenchman's life and times and how they shaped his perspective on the newborn American republic. . . . Jaume does a fine job of interpreting Tocqueville's concept of the authority exercised by the public at large in a democratic America as (in Tocqueville's words) 'a sort of religion, with the majority as its prophet.' His volume provides a thorough understanding of Tocqueville's timeless work as a product of its time."--Publishers Weekly
"[E]xcellent. . . . Tocqueville knew well his own class's reservations about democracy, and Jaume shows how, like Shakespeare playing with Plutarch's plotting, Tocqueville deftly repurposed conservative French ideas for his American drama. . . . [Jaume] sees in Tocqueville a political scientist, sociologist, moralist and writer, and discusses in detail his labors in each guise, the wonderful effect of which is to reveal how unified the man was--like the country he visited, vast and containing multitudes, as if Tocqueville saw himself in his portrait of America."--Elias Altman, The Nation
"[P]rofound, elegantly written and translated."--Choice
"This is one of the finest studies of Tocqueville in years. It will prove invaluable to scholars."--Library Journal
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