Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Olivier Zunz)

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from his home in France to America to observe how our democracy operated. From that voyage on, Tocqueville became a public servant and writer who was dedicated to reforming French politics and encouraging the development of a democratic style of government. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a classic 19th Century political book that is often studied to this day, written to educate the French about America’s model of government. The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville is Olivier Zunz’s account of a philosophical thinker who advocated for better government and governance for his countrymen.

Zunz tracks Tocqueville’s early years as part of French aristocratic wealth, his travels to England and eventually to North America, as well as his evolution into a passionate student and supporter of democratic institutions. While Tocqueville was somewhat blind to the failings of America’s political system to address slavery and the role of the states versus federal government, his beliefs that democratic ideals would help improve France and the world were views he passionately promoted for the balance of his life as a writer and politician in France’s National Assembly. Tocqueville, who died from tuberculosis in 1859, spent his final years fearing that the democratic experiment might be failing due to slavery-driven sectionalism in America, as well as authoritarianism in France.

The Man Who Understood Democracy ties Tocqueville’s beliefs and thinking with other classical liberals of his time such as John Stuart Mill, both of whom advocated for liberty and the empowerment of a country’s populace to provide effective self-government for themselves. This book provides a solid foundation to understand Tocqueville’s passion and how it impacted his life after his journey to America.