The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville
25-year-old Alexis deTocqueville spent only nine-and-a-half months touring America in 1831-32. He saw much, he missed much, but he emerged from this trip with a powerful new understanding of modern history as a vital struggle between liberty and equality, and he produced a body of work that has helped Americans and others around the world think of themselves and their society anew.
What Tocqueville found in America, to his surprise, was a society where equality of status at birth (for the white population—Tocqueville, a committed abolitionist, was always clear about that)—could generate liberty for ordinary citizens to realize their potential and achieve their lives.
Great thinkers do not always have a life worthy of detailed telling. We often understand them better in conversation with other great minds across the ages rather than with their contemporaries. In this respect, however, Alexis de Tocqueville stands apart. His early life was shaped by the aftermath of the Revolutionary Terror in France, and he died two years before the start of the American Civil War. He was witness to a profound transformation of society and was as passionate about participating in politics to promote the right blend of equality and liberty as he was about studying the subject.
[Recorded on 22 September 2022.]