It has been said of Alexis de Tocqueville that he is the most frequently quoted and least read author of all, rivaling and surpassing even William Shakespeare for this dubious honor. Virtually every American social scientist who as much as pays lip service to tradition manages to quote Tocqueville at least once. But this deference is to the author of Democracy in America, not of The Old Regime and the Revolution, for the latter book is, with the exception of one passage, neither read nor quoted. The Old Regime is neglected today because it is a political history, and today political history is not appreciated. What is “political history”?
Tocqueville's “political history” belongs to a genre of which he considered Montesquieu's “Sur la grandeur et la decadence des Romains” to be the finest example. Tocqueville thought that the nature and habits of his intellect suited him to evaluating modern societies and foreseeing their probable futures, but at the same time he believed he could do this most effectively in historical studies. While flatly denying that one can learn lessons from history in any simple sense, he did nonetheless hold that from an examination of historical particulars one can grasp the universal principles of social existence. His intention in writing The Old Regime was to enable his reader to achieve this same grasp. He, like Montesquieu, would not merely recount facts, but make known their causes and consequences and judge them. He would have to choose his facts well, so that they supported his theses. He would have to present them without making “the character of the work … visible” in the hope that “the reader would be conducted naturally from one reflection to another by the interest of the narrative.” Thus what I have called political history is understood by Tocqueville to be a selective, but not necessarily incorrect, use of the facts of history for the purposes of shedding light on the present and of teaching others to see and judge the present for themselves. Given Tocqueville's stated intention, we cannot read his work as either scientific history or political polemic.