Critical Introduction

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Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique

Albert D. Pionke, University of Alabama

Trenchant but not superabundant, Mill’s marginal marks and annotations within his copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique are best understood in the context of Mill’s growing intellectual and political independence in the 1830s. The period from 1836 to 1840, when Mill was the de facto editor of and frequent contributor to the London and Westminster Review, came at a crucial point in his personal and professional development. During these years, Mill came to grips with the death of his father, the growth of his relationship with Harriet Taylor, and the beginnings of his correspondence with Alexis de Tocqueville, all of which contributed to the reappraisal of Utilitarianism—as a system of ethics and guide to politics—that motivates his later books.

In the critical introduction that follows, I shall reconstruct the most salient portion of this key early period in Mill’s history, focusing especially on Mill’s evolving attitudes towards democracy, expressed in Mill’s first and second reviews of Tocqueville’s work. Mill recalls this period in his Autobiography, an account which I supplement by also referencing his increasingly friendly correspondence with the French thinker. With this narrative in place, I then turn to the marginalia, which provides a somewhat different and more skeptical record of Mill’s initial thoughts while reading and reflecting upon Tocqueville

The later complexities of Mill’s thoughts on democracy, for instance, can be traced to this early period of work as an editor and reviewer. Mill himself says as much in his Autobiography, where he reveals that it was in the 1830s that he “ceased to consider representative democracy as an absolute principle,” even as, at the level of “practical political creed,” he continued “as much as ever a radical and democrat, for Europe, and especially for England” (CW 1.177). He more specifically credits his “reading, or rather study” of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with “shifting of my political ideal from pure democracy, as commonly understood by its partisans, to the modified form of it, which is set forth in my Considerations on Representative Government” (CW 1.199). Mill closes the subject by recommending that readers interested in “the consequent modifications in my practical political creed” compare “my first review of Democracy in America, written and published in 1835, with the one in 1840” (CW 1.201). It is not too much to claim, by the way, that these two reviews, the first in the London and Westminster Review and the second in the Edinburgh Review, not only introduced Tocqueville to British readers but also reconfigured and established the vocabulary for public debates of the next thirty years over the character of England’s emerging democracy (images of the pages of these reviews with Mill’s editorial corrections can be found elsewhere on this site, in JSM Bound Volume).

Both in 1835 and in 1840, in his persona as public reviewer, Mill is overwhelmingly laudatory, describing Tocqueville as “a philosopher, whose impartiality as between aristocracy and democracy is unparalleled in our time” and Democracy in America as “the beginning of a new era in the scientific study of politics” (CW 18.50, 18.156). However, in the context of the intellectual trajectory mapped out in the Autobiography, what is most interesting about the reviews is the evolving character of their disagreements with their common object of analysis. In 1835, Mill demurs from one of Tocqueville’s premises and two of his conclusions. First, he objects to the apology for aristocracy offered in part one of Democracy in America, arguing that “what was good in the influences of aristocracy, is compatible, if we really wish to find it so, with a well-regulated democracy” (CW 18.54). Second, on the basis of this point of difference, Mill later questions Tocqueville’s conclusion that democracies will always elect leaders inferior to those imposed by aristocracies; ordinarily, Mill concedes, this may be true, but “in national emergencies, which call out men of first-rate talents, such men always step into their proper place” (CW 18.76). Separately, he also doubts Tocqueville’s warnings about democracy’s tendency towards a widespread “tyranny of the majority”: “when we put inequalities of property out of the question,” Mill writes, “it is not easy to see what sort of minority it can be, over which the majority can have any interest in tyrannizing” (CW 18.80). As a “practical . . . radical and democrat,” Mill cannot bear to see aristocracies given too much credit, nor to attribute to the broader demos any tendency to resent those made exceptional by qualities other than wealth.

By 1840, Mill’s opinions move closer to those of Tocqueville, with whom he now publicly disagrees on only one point. Accepting the empirically-grounded analysis of the pernicious effects of democracy in the United States—including the dearth of superior leadership and the tyranny of the majority over public and private opinions—advanced in part two of Democracy in America, Mill nevertheless finds that Tocqueville has “confounded the effects of Democracy with the effects of Civilization. He has bound up in one abstract idea the whole of the tendencies of modern commercial society” (CW 18.191). Citing the example of Great Britain, a nation in which, “with the single difference of our remaining respect for aristocracy, the America people, both in their good qualities and in their defects, resemble . . . an exaggeration of our own middle class,” Mill posits that it is the commercial class’s single-minded pursuit of wealth that leads to the worst aspects of democratic society (CW 18.193). In addition to endorsing Tocqueville’s call for participation in local politics and voluntary associations, Mill also declares that “in a commercial country” what is needed to counterbalance the overvaluation of wealth and its social consequences is a combination of “an agricultural class, a leisured class, and a learned class” (CW 18.198). From a radical democrat defending the demos, Mill has shifted to a more conservative position of eliding the direct character of the broad public altogether and concentrating instead on how what we might call a new professional/intellectual aristocracy can safeguard a middle-class minority from the middle-class majority’s pursuit of filthy lucre.

Mill thought these shifting points of disagreement substantial enough that he sought to downplay them in his letters to Tocqueville, whom he was cultivating as a potential contributor to the London and Westminster Review in 1835 and with whom he had an established friendship by 1840. Thus, in September 1835, Mill describes his “nearly finished” review as only “a shade or two more favorable to democracy than your book, although in the main I agree, so far as I am competent to judge, in the unfavorable part of your remarks, but without carrying them quite so far” (CW 12.272). Two months later, in November, Mill sent an advanced copy of the completed first review to Tocqueville, along with a letter, this time in French, that minimizes his critique to “one small part only of your conclusions” (CW 12.284).1 The two men also corresponded in 1840, when, in May, still working on his second review, Mill politely obfuscates, “it will require much thought & study to appreciate your ideas so completely as to be qualified to say what portion of them I shall at last feel to be demonstrated & what, if any, may seem to require further confirmation” (CW 13.434). With its numerous ampersands, the apparent questioning by Mill of his own qualifications, and the rhetorical diminution from “feel” to “seem,” this letter is a study in deferred judgment. In December of that year, with the review published, Mill’s relief at the grace with which Tocqueville had received his critique about the conflation of democracy and commerce is discernible in his repetitive word choice: “You may imagine how much pleasure it gave me to find that you were pleased with my review of your Second Part” (CW 13.457). Measuring the work that he put into this second review, Mill goes on to admit, “I know how much thought [the second part of Democracy in America] calls for from the reader when I remember how long it was before I could make up my mind about it” (CW 13.458).

In the case of the 1835 essay, these letters are as close as we can get to Mill’s original thoughts and feelings as a reviewer.2 Happily, the same need not be said about the 1840 review of part two of Democracy in America. Mill’s personal copy of De la Démocratie en Amérique, held in Somerville’s College’s John Stuart Mill Library, contains both verbal and nonverbal marks that reveal degrees of skepticism about Tocqueville’s claims well beyond those in the published review, articulated with an unvarnished bluntness that likely would have made his new friend a bit disconcerted if only he had known.

Two initial annotations, one from each volume of part two, may help to show why Mill describes himself as still in the midst of “thought & study” in his May 1840 letter. The first appears in the inner margin of vol. 4, p. 113 alongside a passage in which, speaking as a historical sociologist, Tocqueville attempts to characterize the broad differences between democratic and aristocratic centuries. The former are affected more by what he calls “general facts,” whereas the latter take their lead more from “special influences.” Conceptually a little imprecise, this distinction emerges from the aristocratic premise and conclusion about leadership to which Mill objected in his first review. Remove the “special influence” exerted by superior aristocratic leaders, and what is left to affect society but the “general facts” of democratic life? Certainly not, for example, ex-editors of the London and Westminster Review, which fact, perhaps, contributed to Mill’s marginal appraisal: “This is all my eye –.” Mill evinces similarly naked incredulity on vol. 3, p. 170, when Tocqueville defends democratic societies for their superior authenticity. Although individual manners in the average democracy may be a bit basic, people at least behave like themselves without feeling the need to emulate their betters, he claims. To this generalization, marked with an emphatic double score, Mill’s one-word response is “No –.”

Mill’s marginal judgments also extend to greater lengths and levels of substance than these examples. For instance, on p. 293 of vol. 3, Tocqueville opines about the unique dangers of materialism in democratic societies. After asserting that it is the responsibility of democratic statesmen and intellectuals to continuously remind their self-improvement-obsessed countrymen of the greater rewards of heaven, he labels as “enemies of the people” all those who profess disbelief in the immortality of the soul. A confirmed atheist who nevertheless thought of himself as a Radical advocate for the demos, Mill might well feel himself painted with an unfairly broad brush here. His response, however, is not defensive dismissal, but rather logical objection. After registering his confusion with a question mark, he wonders, “Why of this [?] / only – if of th[?] / people, of all – [?] / not of all, of no[?].” Although a subsequently over-eager page-edge trimmer has unfortunately deprived us of the totality of Mill’s remarks—hence the bracketed question marks—we can, without unwarranted speculation, infer that Mill doubts the logical sufficiency of a deductive argument whose first principle, that materialists are the enemies of the people, is applicable only in certain circumstances.

Later in volume three, on p. 323, Mill even questions the basic truth value of another of Tocqueville’s assertions, this one about what we might call vocational determinism. In a paragraph that anticipates by over a decade Ruskin’s critique of the dehumanizing effects of industrialized labor in “The Nature of the Gothic” and by nearly forty years Morris’s ethical distinction between “Useful Work and Useless Toil,” Tocqueville writes of the degrading effects of a life “making heads for pins.” Such a worker, he says, “no longer belongs to himself” but to his “vocation,” which acts as an insuperable barrier to his pursuit of the “thousand different paths to fortune” that democratic “laws and manners” have made available to him. Mill’s response is a categorical rejection—“All this, mu[?] / be taken wi[?] / great reserv[?] / It is not tr[?] / as here state[?]”—discernible enough despite the missing outer margin. What we cannot know is whether Mill’s doubts here are rooted in his empiricism, his radicalism, or some combination of the two. What is clear is that this particular “great reservation” never made it into the 1840 review essay, although it may be one reason why Mill’s third published paragraph begins with the rather odd assertion that, “The importance of M. de Tocqueville’s speculations is not to be estimated by the opinions which he has adopted, be these true or false” (CW 18.156).

In addition to his marginal marks and rather cramped annotations, presumably made simultaneous to the initial act of reading, Mill occasionally writes more summative reflections at the ends of chapters or sections. For instance, at the end of vol. 4, chap. 14, “Some Reflections on American Manners,” Mill appends a lengthy note registering his empirical objection to the Frenchman’s ignorance of English culture:

American manners are greatly influenced by English men and English literature – and to one who knows England middle class England well, there is little in American manners new or revolting. How is it possible for one confessedly ignorant of England to say what is, and what is not, really American, in their manners – on what induction rests any proposition beginning with "Les nations democratique"?
Here we can see the argumentative basis for Mill’s published critique that Tocqueville has confused the effects of commercialization with the consequences of democratization. Moreover, in this marginal comment lies the germ of Mill’s subsequent comparison of “the American people” and Britain’s “own middle class”; although, for his published remarks, Mill removed all mention of Tocqueville’s “confessed ignorance” and did not question his friend’s powers of induction.

Mill saw clear similarities between Americans and Britons, not only in the present, but also projected into the future. On the back flyleaf of vol. 4 of Democracy in America is a neatly penciled annotation that imagines an even closer convergence of manner between English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost certainly written after reviewing his own marginal first reactions to Tocqueville’s text, the note begins with a page reference tied to an earlier nonverbal mark on p. 128. In what would come as no surprise to nineteenth-century British readers, Tocqueville characterizes Americans as thin-skinned and quick to take offense in response to criticism. Mill originally marked this passage only with a marginal double score. When he returned to it later, Mill displayed a caustic humor that may surprise those accustomed to the measured reasonableness of his mature publications:

This feeling has nothing to do with democracy – Wait, until the Americans by their great deeds, in arms, arts, science and literature, have taken a place among the great nations of the earth, and they will no longer be quarrelsome, and doubtful of their position – They will then be as proud haughty and self satisfied as the English – But not before –
It’s hard to tell whether the “insatiably vain” Americans or the “haughty and self-satisfied” British middle classes come off worse in this annotation.

That these examples of Mill’s reactions during and after his “study” of Tocqueville remain largely unknown is not just a consequence of their presence in a special collection kept behind locked doors in Oxford, but also a function of Mill’s practices of reading. Judging from the verbal and nonverbal marks in his copy of Democracy in America, Mill read a book, pencil in hand, making marks and cramped annotations and along the way. Although the intent of the former are sometimes hard to gauge, the latter seem almost entirely motivated by local disagreement with the text under review. Once he had finished this preliminary markup, Mill appears to have gone through the book again, writing more expansive responses in a cleaner hand and establishing the argumentative foundation, although not the actual phrasing, for what would become his published review. Like those of his contemporaries, Mill’s reviews would frequently include lengthy quotations from the original text; interestingly, in the case of his 1840 review of Democracy in America, none of the excerpted passages is one that Mill had himself marked while reading. Mill the published reviewer thus muffles Mill the private reader, allowing for Mill the retrospective autobiographer to trace a path of intellectual development far straighter than lived experience might suggest.


1 As Iris Mueller notes, “It is interesting to contrast the mild tone with which Mill expressed his differences in the letter to de Tocqueville with the far more definite expression of public pronouncement” (135n5).

2 Selections from this initial assessment of part one of Democracy in America were republished by Mill, first within his 1840 response to part two and then as roughly one half of an appendix to the later edition of this latter review that he included in Dissertations and Discussions, which first appeared in 1859. Although these later decisions concerning excerpts from the 1835 review may reveal subsequent steps in Mill’s evolving attitude towards democracy, they cannot take us back to 1835, when that evolution of Mill’s opinions was still in its nascent phase.

Works Cited

The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Ed. John Robson, et. al. 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-1991.

Mueller, Iris Wessel. John Stuart Mill and French Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

De la Démocratie en Amérique

Alexis de Tocqueville