“This book is not precisely in anyone's camp.” Should we take at face value this statement at the end of the introduction to volume one of Democracy in America? Or should we see it, more subtly, as an echo of the quotation from Ovid with which Montesquieu prefaced The Spirit of the Laws: prolem sine matre creatum, a work created without a mother? For Tocqueville, as for Montesquieu, the point is by no means to forgo the inspiration of past sources but rather to announce a new method – the “new political science for a world altogether new,” which he evokes in keeping with the science of society for which The Spirit of the Laws laid the groundwork. From the first volume of Democracy in America – weaving together geographical causes, laws, and customs – to The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, which redeploys the method of Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, Tocqueville pursues Montesquieu's project: to determine the causes of institutions (laws, customs) and assess their effects in a comparative light, to theorize the adaptation of legislation to the “genius” of the people it is meant to govern, and to explain the deep causes of radical historical breaks, without denying any leeway to the human will.
Nevertheless, it is not sufficient to quote Tocqueville's famous phrase about his three “fetish authors”: Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Pascal. Beyond the parallels, we need to revisit an affinity that his contemporaries recognized but that has since been lost from view. Like the American Framers such as Madison and Hamilton, Tocqueville knew his debt to the “rarest political writer” of all time. In his eyes, however, Montesquieu was never a politician and would doubtless not have known how to be one. It is therefore necessary to separate theory and practice. As a political theorist, Tocqueville drew on analyses of England as a free, trade-oriented nation, and he suggested that the French should study the “American model,” to see liberty “as if in a mirror” and judge how free were their own institutions. As a politician, Tocqueville gradually distanced himself from the author of The Spirit of the Laws.