Alexis de Tocqueville, who died 160 years ago today, was in his mid-20s when he set out for a nine-month tour of the United States. He was in an unsettled state at the time, full of energy and ambition but unable to wholeheartedly endorse either side in France's political controversies. Tocqueville's father, a noble from Normandy, had risen to become prefect of Versailles under the Bourbon monarchy, but the “July Revolution” of 1830 had just thrown the Bourbons out in favor of a constitutional government, and the fortunes of the aristocratic Tocqueville family were falling. Tocqueville felt politically homeless.
As a civil servant, the young Alexis de Tocqueville was required to swear allegiance to the new regime. He agonized over the decision before reluctantly deciding to swear his oath. The next day he wrote a letter to Mary Mottley, who would later become his wife:
I have finally taken the oath. My conscience offers no reproach, but I am nevertheless deeply wounded, and I shall count this day among the unhappiest of my life. … The thought eats away at me. All my inherited pride rebels. … I am at war with myself. This is a new condition, terrifying to me. … As I uttered those three words, my voice changed, and I felt my heart pounding so hard that I thought my chest would burst.
Tocqueville suspected that the new government—a monarchy chastened and constrained by the middle class—was likely to fall into crass materialism, but he also felt that a move away from the aristocratic old regime was necessary. “I despise the new king,” Tocqueville wrote to his friend Charles Stöffels a few days after taking the oath, “yet I will support him more resolutely, I think, than those who have cleared the way for him.” During the next months, while he was still feeling trapped and “at war with himself,” he conceived and planned his journey to America.
Happily for us, Tocqueville was able to channel this internal conflict toward the satisfaction of a powerful literary ambition. He wanted to write a big book, certainly something more than the report on prisons that was the official purpose of his trip. He hoped to find in America a new way forward, an alternative to the dead-end he saw in post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic France.