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From Oblivion to Apotheosis: The Ironic Journey of Alexis de Tocqueville



Scholarship on the theme of Alexis de Tocqueville's changing roles in American culture constitutes a remarkably coherent discourse with distinctive conventions, structures, metaphors, and plots. Especially pronounced in the literature is a constantly repeated narrative – really a myth – that portrays Tocqueville as a vanished hero who suffered a prolonged period of oblivion and then made a celebrated return to play the role of guide to Americans as they faced the perils of the postwar world. Because of the lack of empirical support for this narrative, scholars inadvertently find themselves violating or disregarding elementary rules of evidence and logical argument when they address it. The extraordinary stability and coherence of this discourse are its most notable features: they have persisted, with no oppositional counternarrative, decade after decade for the past forty years. But all discourses have cracks and fissures. This essay reveals the ubiquity as well as the banality of the standard tragic-heroic narrative, and it provides a taxonomy of Tocqueville metaphors – Tocqueville as Orpheus, as Proteus, and as Christ. The supposed facts of Tocqueville's reception (with which these metaphoric clusters are identical) are false. There was no departure, oblivion, or triumphant return of Tocqueville. The mythic discourse advanced an account that had no support in the historical record.



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1 Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams Jr., 1 May 1863, The Letters of Henry Adams, ed. J. C. Levenson et al., 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 1, 350.

2 Kloppenberg, James T., “Life Everlasting: Tocqueville in America,La Revue Tocqueville/The Tocqueville Review, 17 (1996), 2036; rept. in James T. Kloppenberg, The Virtues of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 71–81, quotations on 73–74; and in Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, Norton critical edn, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Norton, 2007), 834–47. Subsequent references will be to Virtues.

3 Edward Chase Kirkland, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., 1835–1915: The Patrician at Bay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 25–27.

4 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, ed. Francis Bowen, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1862); idem, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, ed. Gustave de Beaumont, 2 vols. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862).

5 Smith, C. C., “Alexis de Tocqueville,Christian Examiner, 73 (1862), 669; New York Times, 4 July 1862, 2.

6 Adams, Letters, 1, 350.

7 A detailed account of Tocqueville's abiding importance after the Civil War appears in Matthew Mancini, Alexis de Tocqueville and American Intellectuals: From His Times to Ours (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), esp. 99–149.

8 Kloppenberg, “Life Everlasting,” 73.

9 Nisbet, Robert, “Many Tocquevilles,American Scholar, 46 (1976–77), 5975, 60.

10 Michael Kammen, Alexis de Tocqueville and “Democracy in America” (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), 11; Wilfred McClay, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 235.

11 Kloppenberg, James T., “The Canvas and the Color: Tocqueville's ‘Philosophical History’ and Why It Matters Now,Modern Intellectual History, 3 (2006), 495521, 498.

12 These volumes are described in Mancini, Matthew J., “Too Many Tocquevilles: The Fable of Tocqueville's American Reception,Journal of the History of Ideas, 69 (2008), 245–68, 249–53.

13 Herbert B. Adams, Jared Sparks and Alexis de Tocqueville (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1898); Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (London: H. Henry, 1896); idem, Voyage en Amérique, ed. R. Clyde Ford, Modern Language Series (New York: Heath, 1909).

14 Scott Sandage, “A Succinct Introduction to the Abridged Edition,” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), xi.

15 David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 91; Megill, Allan, “The Reception of Foucault by Historians,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 48 (1987), 117–41, 118.

16 Cheryl B. Welch, “Tocqueville in the Twenty-First Century,” in idem, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1; idem, De Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 224; Serge Audier, “de, Vers‘Nouveaux Tocqueville’?” The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville, 28 (2007), 183–89, 184. Audier's review is an exercise in redundancy that well illustrates the tightening of the ring of Tocqueville scholarship and of the hegemony of received opinion on this issue. Cheryl Welch is the editor of both the Review and the Companion. Four of the essays in the Companion had appeared previously in the Review (before Welch became editor). In his review, Audier alluded specifically to Welch's Companion essay in asserting that in 1900 Americans doubted Tocqueville's relevance because of economic and social change.

17 Daniel C. Gilman, “Introduction” to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, rev. Francis Bowen (New York: Century, 1898), viii.

18 Welch, Cheryl B., “Colonial Violence and the Rhetoric of Evasion: Tocqueville on Algeria,” Political Theory, 31 (2003), 235–64; Kloppenberg, James T., “Tocqueville, Mill, and the American Gentry,” The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville, 27 (2006), 351–79.

19 James T. Schleifer, “Tocqueville's Reputation in America,” in A Passion for Liberty: Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy & Revolution, curator Andrew J. Cosentino (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989), 19–22.

20 Welch, De Tocqueville, 224, emphasis added; idem, “Tocqueville in the Twenty-First Century,” 1.

21 Kloppenberg, “Canvas and Color,” 498.

22 Ibid., 497, 496.

23 Kloppenberg, “Life Everlasting,” 202, n. 11, citing Marshall, Lynn L. and Drescher, Seymour, “American Historians and Tocqueville's Democracy,” Journal of American History, 55 (Dec. 1968), 514, n. 7, citing Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought: An Intellectual History Since 1815 (New York, 1940), 259.

24 Kloppenberg, “Life Everlasting,” 74.

25 Marshall and Drescher, 514–15.

26 Nisbet, “Many Tocquevilles,” 64.

27 Kloppenberg, “Life Everlasting,” 73.

28 Olivier Zunz, “Tocqueville and the Americans: Democracy in America as Read in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Welch, Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, esp. 374–80.

29 Kloppenberg, “Life Everlasting,” 73, 74.

30 John Graham Brooks, As Others See Us: A Study of Progress in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1908), esp. 162–65.

31 Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 8; emphasis added.

32 Kramnick, “Introduction” to Tocqueville, Democracy, Norton critical edn, xv.

33 Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 3; Keslassy, Eric, “Le nouveau Retour de Tocqueville,” The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville, 24 (2003), 189–95, 189; Kloppenberg, , “Life Everlasting,” 73; Aurelian Craiutu, “Tocqueville's Paradoxical Moderation,” Review of Politics, 67 (2005), 599629, 599.

34 Welch, De Tocqueville, 224.

35 Nisbet, “Many Tocquevilles,” 63; Aurelian Craiutu, Review of Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville special bicentennial issue, H-France Review, 8 (2008), 112; Mélonio, Françoise and Zunz, Olivier, “Introduction,” The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville, 27 (2006), 710, 8.

36 Ovid, Metamorphoses 10: 79–85.

37 As illustrations of “not merely the intense politicization of Tocqueville but also the trivialization of Democracy in America,” Kammen observed that, while the conservative Washington Times cites Tocqueville more often than any United States publication, liberals and the left “by and large … simply do without Tocqueville.” Kammen, Alexis de Tocqueville, 36.

38 For a fuller account of Nisbet's misrepresentations on this issue see Mancini, “Too Many Tocquevilles.” While the Nisbet article is canonical, in the sense of being recognized as the standard account, this should not be taken to mean that the point of view expressed therein represents that of the editor who chose to include it.

39 Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings, “The Third Democracy: Tocqueville's Views of America after 1840,” introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville, Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Craiutu and Jennings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1; Craiutu, “Tocqueville's Paradoxical Moderation,” 602, original emphasis; Joseph Epstein, “Introduction” to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Bantam Classics, 2000), xxxiii–xxxiv; Welch, “Tocqueville in the Twenty-First Century,” 15; Audier, “Vers de ‘Nouveaux Tocqueville’?”

40 Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1996), 4: 432–35; 466–71.

41 Kloppenberg, “Canvas and Color,” 500, 496, 497, n. 4; Abbott, James R., “Whither Tocqueville in American Sociology?” American Sociologist, 38 (2007), 6077, 61; Welch, De Tocqueville, 237.

The author gratefully acknowledges comments by Michael McKeon, Charles H. Parker, and James K. Voiss, SJ.

From Oblivion to Apotheosis: The Ironic Journey of Alexis de Tocqueville



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