Book Review: Tocqueville and Beaumont by Andreas Hess

Review by Marcus Morgan

Andreas Hess is professor in sociology at University College Dublin. He is the author of The Political Theory of Judith N. Shklar. Exile from Exile(Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and, together with Samantha Ashenden, editor of Judith N. Shklar’s On Political Obligation. Lectures in Moral Reasoning (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2018).  Tocqueville and Beaumont: Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times was published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.    

In Tocqueville and Beaumont: Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times, Andreas Hess provides a fluid, concise, and engaging intellectual history of the lives and thought of modern democracy’s most famous early observers. Given their personal roots in the vanishing Ancien Régime, it is perhaps odd that Tocqueville and Beaumont would fill this role, but Hess argues that it was precisely their status of being caught between new and old worlds (both geographically and historically) that allowed them to extol the promises of emerging democracy, whilst simultaneously diagnosing some of the more worrying contradictions it displayed.

The book’s primary academic contributions consist in redressing the typical imbalance of focus upon Tocqueville at the expense of Beaumont (an imbalance in part explained by Beaumont’s own efforts at establishing Tocqueville’s posthumous reputation), and in demonstrating how their work is best understood together, as an inseparable whole. Hess explains how their entire output, even when sole-authored, was produced in consultation with one other, and reflected a division of labour that emerged from their respective temperaments and intellectual strengths. Whilst Tocqueville’s more restrained and methodical mind dealt better with analytical, zoomed-out, and comparative social and political questions, Beaumont’s more passionate and empathetic character was better suited to rendering experiences of social injustice, occasionally even in the form of fiction. Substantively therefore, whist Tocqueville tackled the prospects of democracy on both sides of the North Atlantic, Beaumont concerned himself with slavery and fate of native peoples as the American frontier pushed Westwards, as well as the experience of the Irish under British colonial rule.

Hess illustrates this division of labour in his account of how the first volume of Tocqueville’s classic, Democracy in America, was published the same year, 1835, as Beaumont’s Marie, or, Slavery in the US. Tocqueville’s work assessed the main features of America’s emerging political system, primarily for a French audience, stressing how the smooth functioning of the structures of US political institutions relied upon the morals and mores—‘habits of the heart’—that infused the population’s shared culture. Part of America’s success, in contrast with France, was to be found in the enrichment that such civil culture provided political life. Nevertheless, Tocqueville warned of the dangers of democracy extending too far, both in its encouraging a culture of envy, and in its producing an unrestrained ‘majority’s tyranny’ in which the multitude itself became the despot and individual liberty and minority interest were threatened. Beaumont’s Marie, by contrast, provided an early example of what has more recently been called ‘social science fiction’—a mixture of fictional narrative and empirical social science—concerned with the continuation of slavery, the plight of women, and the suffering of American natives. Hess contends that the two publications ought to be read together as providing ‘two sides of the same coin’, balancing the light and the dark of emerging democracy and addressing the shared problematique of how to preserve their cherished aristocratic notion of liberty in an age increasingly preoccupied with equality.

The book describes their travels to England, where they admired parliamentary democracy but deplored the misery and grime of industrialisation, and Ireland, as captured in Beaumont’s (1839) L’Irlande, a book that Hess previously co-edited with Tom Garvin for Harvard. For Beaumont, the colonial suppression of Ireland serves as the grim underbelly of English democracy, as slavery had America’s. Hess also addresses their careers as politicians during the short-lived Second Republic, and their efforts towards abolitionism and prison reform, the topic of research that had initially brought them to America. Such social reform, Hess stresses, was always tempered by the paramount concern with protecting the non-utilitarian liberty they held so dearly. Finally, the book provides an unflinching critique of the limits of Tocqueville and Beaumont’s own liberalism as found especially in their support for French colonialism in Algeria.

Although the primary purpose of Hess’s book is not an evaluative one, clear problems exist with Tocqueville and Beaumont’s conception of liberty, which (in contrast to that of both the socialists and the burgeoning bourgeois class) they conceive as a good to be pursued and defended in itself. This position fails to address the reliance of such liberty upon the material conditions that enable its enjoyment. Tocqueville’s defence, for instance, of the right to property as a foundation for such liberty (65) only really works if one is lucky enough to possess any. Equality and liberty are analysed by the two collaborators as at best in tension, at worst incompatible, an error of opposition that even the liberal tradition itself now recognises. On conceptual questions such as these, Tocqueville and Beaumont’s own class backgrounds appear to have limited their political insight.

Moreover, their caricatures of socialism, which they equate with dogmatic demands for absolute equality, lack nuance. Tocqueville, especially, tilts at windmills in his painting socialism as apolitical in its demanding ‘the impossible’ of reinventing society entirely anew. For one thing, this presentation neglects those currents of socialism—common even in the pre-industrial French utopian tradition—that built upon the concrete mutual care and communalism found in the everyday life of non-socialist societies. Moreover, he fails to extend his critique of dogma to his own shibboleth of non-utilitarian liberty, which is presented as somehow above and beyond ideology; a matter of reason or practical politics. Current threats to Western democracy have come not, as Tocqueville might have foreseen, from the tendency towards despotism of overarching government, but rather from the social consequences of decades of dogmatic commitment to the rolling-back of the state.

Nevertheless, this book provides plenty of good reasons why these two thinkers demand our continued attention. Perhaps foremost, as Hess concludes, is their offering a model of how comparative political history can be argued, rather than merely documented. Hess has produced an excellent intellectual biography, which will no doubt serve as a classic introductory text not only for sociologists, but for historians and political scientists alike.

Review by Marcus Morgan, University of Bristol, UK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.