Tocqueville’s Catholic America

Alexis de Tocqueville was born—and died—a Catholic. He lost his faith as an adolescent, but it had already broadened and enlightened him (indeed, his childhood tutor was a beloved priest) and made him the brilliant political observer he would become.
 
Tocqueville was an aristocrat from a family that had stood by the Bourbons and suffered under the Revolution. He remained proud of that heritage, yet thought of himself as a liberal and a republican. The France in which he reached political maturity was divided among the Bourbon legitimists (the tradition from which Tocqueville sprang), the usurping Orléanist liberal monarchists (of which, at times, he was a grudging ally), Napoleonists, and a variety of republicans, among whose number he eventually situated himself. Even in marriage he appeared to turn his back on a family whose name and traditions he venerated. He married a commoner, and moreover, an Englishwoman.

 
Hugh Brogan, Yale University Press, $35, 736 pages
 
Alexis de Tocqueville was born—and died—a Catholic. He lost his faith as an adolescent, but it had already broadened and enlightened him (indeed, his childhood tutor was a beloved priest) and made him the brilliant political observer he would become.
 
Tocqueville was an aristocrat from a family that had stood by the Bourbons and suffered under the Revolution. He remained proud of that heritage, yet thought of himself as a liberal and a republican. The France in which he reached political maturity was divided among the Bourbon legitimists (the tradition from which Tocqueville sprang), the usurping Orléanist liberal monarchists (of which, at times, he was a grudging ally), Napoleonists, and a variety of republicans, among whose number he eventually situated himself. Even in marriage he appeared to turn his back on a family whose name and traditions he venerated. He married a commoner, and moreover, an Englishwoman.
 
But Tocqueville was no rebel. If he was republican, he was a self-confessedly very conservative one. He was a classical liberal who, like the legitimists, hated socialism, centralized state power, and equality (the envy of the masses, he feared, could make democracy an enemy of liberty); he believed in aristocratic rule (his best friends were fellow sons of legitimists); and he loathed the Napoleonists (Napoleon was his bête noir). As for religion, he thought it an essential prop to liberty (which he loved above all else) and was happy to see the Church prosper. Tocqueville’s English wife and mother-in-law converted to the Faith; he was tended by nuns during his long, final illness; and when he died, it was with his sins shriven, in communion with the Church, and at peace.
 
Hugh Brogan’s giant new biography of Alexis de Tocqueville is a wonderfully consuming portrait of Tocqueville and his ideas. Because Brogan has been in conversation with his subject for his entire adult life—he began studying Tocqueville as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and is now a retired professor—he sweeps the reader easily along and can be simultaneously admiring, judicious, and critical of his subject. There are a few authorial slips—chiefly when the author’s prejudices (to the left of Tocqueville’s) are judged to be authoritative, while to some readers it might appear that Tocqueville’s are closer to the mark.
 
Tocqueville, though an astute observer, certainly resonated best with men who thought like himself; and during his famed journey in America, he found many such, traveling, as he did, largely in Federalist circles, among men who shared his aristocratic principles and anti-democratic fears. More than that, he saw America through the eyes of a Catholic. While he applauded America’s robust religious sense, he found Protestantism baffling.
 
"He could not," in Brogan’s words, "see the logic of ordinary Protestantism at all, and felt this so strongly that he committed himself to the view that Protestantism was dying out, and in so doing was preparing the ground for a final collision between unbelief and Catholicism." Tocqueville "was glad to hear, and eager to believe, that Catholicism was rapidly gaining ground in the United States, as indeed it was."
 
Whenever Tocqueville came face-to-face with Catholicism in the English-speaking world, his spirits were lifted. In Canada, he loved les Canadiens, who were much happier and more charming than the Americans (or indeed the French at home). And during his travels in Britain, he found the Irish similarly whimsical, frank, and fun, and reminiscent of the French in a way the English weren’t. At dinner with an Irish bishop, the conversation, Tocqueville wrote, was "enthusiastic, superficial, frivolous, often marked by jokes and witticisms."
 
In North America, the French-Canadian peasants were self-reliant, independent salts of the earth, immune from immorality, sincere in their religion, and guided by priests of the best French sort—"gay, lively, mocking, lovers of glory and fame." "Here," Tocqueville wrote, "the curé is indeed the shepherd of his flock; there is nothing of the industrial religion of most American ministers."
 
His love of Canada and America was abetted too by the fact that every priest he met shared his belief that religion gained immeasurably when priests stayed out of politics. Why, in North America, even the Indians of the interior, 70 years after the fall of New France, still greeted Europeans with a stoic "bonjour." What was not to like?{mospagebreak}
 
Well, slavery for one thing. But Tocqueville did not linger long in the South, and for the most part, he found America an edifying spectacle. In America, he saw settlers carry the germ of civilization, self-government, and liberty with them into the depths of the frontier: "When, by a frightful road across a sort of wilderness, you arrive at a cabin, you are astonished to find a civilization more advanced than in any French village. The attire of the farmer is trim; his cabin is perfectly clean; usually you see at his side his newspaper; and his first wish is to talk politics with you."
 
But this also led to Tocqueville’s greatest and most sobering observation, as a well-wisher of liberty for his own country. He believed, in Brogan’s paraphrase, that the "Christian world is condemned to democracy, it is God’s will; the task must be to secure its benefits rather than succumb to its evils." But if democracy succeeded in America, it was because of the Americans’ point de départ—that is, because of their historical experience. They had been self-governing for generations upon generations and had sprung from that great font of liberty, England.
 
And what made England so great? Tocqueville had no doubt: "aristocratic institutions." In 1857, a quarter-century after his first visit to England, and after a chastening experience as a French parliamentarian, he made a return visit and found that "England is still the only country anywhere which can give the idea of the European ancien régime, reformed and perfected."
 
For Tocqueville, then—and in this, he was indeed his father’s son—the true point de départ of liberty was not the Enlightenment, with all its impetus for centralizing the power of the state, but the feudalism of the old Catholic order that came under pressure in France from the centralizing tendencies of Philip the Fair (Philip IV, Philippe le Bel, 1268–1314), who tried to displace the checks and balances on state power provided by the Church, the aristocrats, and the feudal order.
 
This explains why Tocqueville regarded the French Revolution not as an irreligious explosion but as a sort of high-minded Thatcherite rebellion, breaking up half a millennium’s worth of socialism that had encrusted itself over the skeleton of feudalism from Philip the Fair to Louis XVI. He saw the Revolution as distributing property more widely, and as full of patriotic ideals that should have been captured in a democratic, Christian, free-market society, rather than in a democratic, irreligious, socialist one.
 
The irony was that Protestant England and America, if they lacked the joie de vivre of a Catholic culture, nevertheless had retained the great Catholic, medieval tradition of the liberties of Magna Carta, of independent subsidiary institutions and divided powers that the triumphant centralizing power of the state had wrested from France (and was wresting from much of the rest of Europe).
 
Tocqueville hated socialism and despotism, and fought his entire life to "persuade men that respect for the laws of God and man is the best means of remaining free, and that liberty is the best means of remaining upright and religious . . . ." Critics, he concedes, say this cannot be done, and "I too am tempted to think so. But the thing is true, all the same, and I will say so at all costs."
 
As Tocqueville never lost his faith in liberty, he never lost his faith in God, even during that sudden and frightening (for him) moment in adolescence when he felt he could no longer believe the dogmas of the Church. Yet, on his deathbed, he willingly returned. As Brogan notes, Tocqueville’s "doubt had never been intellectually radical: it was a difficulty for him rather than the foundation of a new outlook; he was no philosopher, and Pascal was his favorite author. The surprise, perhaps, is that he ever left the Church rather than that he returned to it."
 
Indeed. And it would be a further surprise if any reader of Brogan’s magnificent biography of Tocqueville does not return to it with great pleasure and a heightened appreciation for Tocqueville’s life and work.
 

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