An excerpt from
The American Enemy
The History of French Anti-Americanism
Tocqueville & Co.: "A Sugar-Coated America"
"I believe there is no country, on the face of the earth, where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad difference of opinion, than in this"—America, of course. A rough draft from Tocqueville? No, a letter by Dickens. The novelist wrote these lines to John Forster after he came back from his American trip in 1842. As for Tocqueville, in 1835 he wrote in the first volume of Democracy in America: "I know no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America. … In America the majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it." Tocqueville and Dickens agree: there was nothing more problematic in America than having unorthodox opinions. Baudelaire would soon repeat it, in one of his articles on Poe: nothing was harder over there than exercising the two rights of man all the Declarations had left out—the right to contradict oneself and the right to take one's leave. These lines by Tocqueville and the chapter they are from, "The Omnipotence of the Majority," would become, in France, the most readily cited from Democracy in America for over a century. In this respect, we can speak of an anti-American use of Tocqueville; it is this use and not Tocqueville himself we will discuss here. We will need to take some distance from his works—as well as some chronological liberties—and evoke the rarely ingenuous "revival" of the Democracy by anti-Americans of the next two generations. It will be a glance back at Tocqueville, downstream.
A play that caused a flap in Paris in 1873, Victorien Sardou's L'Oncle Sam, depicted a young Frenchman striking out for the United States with Democracy in America under his arm. Fortunately Madame Bellamy, an experienced compatriot, warns him against such dangerous reading: "It is a sugar-coated America—Beware!"
"The majority in the United States," Tocqueville had written, "takes over the business of supplying the individual with a quantity of ready-made opinions." It is as though the doxa, which he unmasked across the Atlantic, had avenged itself in France: after his death in 1859, Tocqueville became a prisoner to his caricature. For several decades, he was presented as a man with only one thing to say (which was judged untrue: that the United States was essentially democratic); and as a militant with a single cause (promoting the idea of democracy by systematically praising America). He would be simultaneously and contradictorily portrayed as an abstract dogmatist and a patent lobbyist, as well as a pontificating prophet constantly proved wrong by events. The American Civil War did not help his reputation. Tocqueville had dismissed as very improbable any desire for secession by one or several states. And even if, against all odds, such a thing should occur, he had guaranteed that no armed conflict would result and that the Union would come to terms with these defections. This double "mistake" would be put to his discredit all the more because his book had nothing to offer either camp during or after the war. Supporters of the Southerners could hardly be proud of the very negative portrait Tocqueville had painted of the South, which he depicted as unable to compete with the Puritan and democratic North. And as for those in favor of the Union, for whom the slavery issue was fundamental, they were irritated by Tocqueville's position: after affirming his abolitionist principles, he still concluded that upholding the status quo for as long as possible was the South's only chance for survival.
Writing off Democracy in America in three words—"sugar-coated America"—Victorien Sardou pretty much summed up the reductive impression of Tocqueville held by his 1873 Parisian audience, which had not needed Madame Bellamy's advice in order to stop reading him. Nowadays, Tocqueville's book strikes us as uncommonly high-minded and intellectually isolated, but the image its detractors gave of it up to the end of the nineteenth century was very different. Whenever it was mentioned (it was almost never quoted), it was most often lumped together with works by Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville's traveling companion, and Michel Chevalier or Philarète Chasles. These books were not very similar, yet they were criticized for being dictated by the same apologist bias. Their authors were presented as a little club, a clique. Critics said: look how they scratch each other's backs! Look how Monsieur de Tocqueville gives his pal De Beaumont such good press. Look how Philarète Chasles, fifteen years later, defers to Tocqueville's and Chevalier's authority on the very first page of his Études sur la littérature et les moeurs des Anglo-Américains au XIXe siècle (1851). For the early anti-Americans of the 1880s, this warranted throwing them into the same basket.
If these so-called henchmen of America and democracy played a part in the birth of French anti-Americanism, it was despite themselves, by being misused. The anti-American discourse that took off in the 1880s exploited them in two overlapping, and often overlapped, ways. First, by artificially conflating the works and making this corpus out to be an American lobby, it justified itself as a counterattack. A secret plan was decried in Tocqueville and Chasles—one that preached imitating America, though this was not in fact to be found in either work. In Tocqueville, descriptions were not at all prescriptive, and Chasles explicitly warned his readers against the temptation to copy America and its institutions: "are the decrepit children of our jaded world right in imitating, despite their past, an American autonomy of which they do not even have the seeds? Will they succeed in the attempt? We might well be doubtful." Paying such remarks no heed, their detractors gained an argumentative legitimacy from this supposed conspiracy.
A second use of Tocqueville and his "group" appeared at the end of the century: a certain number of "con" propositions were singled out in the works of reputedly "pro" authors in order to bulk up the docket of anti-American accusations. Democracy in America was revisited—but this time as an abandoned monument where each visitor took the stone he wanted for his own little hovel. The fragmentary hijacking of the work was facilitated by its state of neglect. It was "a celebrated book, about which everybody speaks and which scarcely anybody reads now-a-days," observed the author of American Life in 1892. Current Tocqueville specialists say he was right. During its author's lifetime, Democracy's exposure was a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation. Published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, the book had a first printing of 500 copies and "never went beyond 10,000 copies in its author's lifetime. It therefore had few readers," writes Françoise Mélonio in her introduction to the first Democracy, "but what readers they were!" She goes on to cite Royer-Collard, Guizot, Chateaubriand, Vigny, and Lamartine. So it was only relatively unsuccessful? Successful but limited to a specific circle? Assessment of the book's initial reception varies. But it is undeniable that an eclipse followed. Even as Parisians were applauding L'Oncle Sam, and the Third Republic, for better or for worse, was settling in, Tocqueville was heading into "long-lasting neglect."
The only people who did not completely forget about him were the anti-American polemicists. Few of them quoted him, as we have noted, and no one bothered to refute him. But his name was ritually pronounced and then immediately cast aside. Late-nineteenth-century anti-Americans never tired of repeating the theme of "a sugar-coated America." Their fundamental charge was the same as Sardou's: Tocqueville had sugar-coated the United States, selling the French his democratic America like a fraudulent delicacy. Early anti-Americans were remarkably unanimous on this point, and we will see their opinion reappear later on in very different political families: Frédéric Gaillardet would give his book the title L'Aristocratie en Amérique as an invitation to his readers to "turn Tocqueville inside out," and the Baron de Mandat-Grancey would apologize for being somewhat related to the viscount, but pride himself on not sharing any of Tocqueville's detestable democratic opinions. Paul de Rousiers, a representative sent by the Musée Social, would denounce Tocqueville's mistake in "giv[ing] French people the idea that affairs in the United States are entirely managed by the democracy," saying he was not "excusable for forming such an opinion." This Tocqueville-as-straw-man was often mirrored, in preambles and prefaces, by a Tocqueville-as-foil. The former was synonymous with fraud, the second with failure: he had not discovered America's secrets; they remained to be exposed. In short, his book needed to be rewritten. This was Paul Bourget's strategy in 1895. He only mentioned Tocqueville in order to stress his inadequacy: "The book that sums up such a society remains to be written." At last Bourget was here…
Disdained and speedily dismissed by the majority of anti-American polemicists up to the end of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville paradoxically came back into favor at the turn of the century, as though by a new turn of the wheel of fate. The discovery was made that it was not impossible to use him, despite himself, for the right cause, and that weapons against America could be culled from the Democracy. One book in particular was a turning point in its double use of Tocqueville: Émile Boutmy's Éléments d'une psychologie politique du peuple américain (Elements of a Political Psychology of the American People). The writings compiled in this volume by the founder of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques date from 1890 to 1892; he updated and supplemented them in 1901. Right from the start, Boutmy seems to lament the discredit Tocqueville has fallen into. In so doing, he confirms the anti-Tocquevillian atmosphere holding sway in those years: "People willingly imply that Democracy in America is now a dated, outmoded book, which politicians no longer look into to learn something." Readers looked to less "abstract" authors, such as Bryce, the author of American Commonwealth, whom Boutmy tells us has "dethroned" Tocqueville.
An introduction like that seems to suggest Tocqueville will be categorically rehabilitated. But such is not the case. Purporting to reopen the case and, we might think, overturn the ruling, Boutmy condemns the convict. Tocqueville, in Boutmy's opinion, was less a political observer or a social analyst than an "impatient moralist." A pathetic guide to the action, he was grievously wrong "in several of his predictions," such as the lasting dissolution of the different political parties and the Federal Union: "Tocqueville convinced himself that the Union, without ending legally and actually, would soon be no more than a shadow and a name. These were two utter mistakes: the Union was finally consolidated, the theory of states' rights was abandoned, and the two parties have remained the framework for all political activity." A bad analyst and unlucky prophet, Tocqueville had the additional shortcoming of using outdated methodology unworthy of the irrefutable science now known as "political psychology": "the political deductions Tocqueville so complacently makes hardly touch on universal man, a personage we do not encounter. As for a racial or national psychology, something especially important for a politician to master, he does no better than offer particular facts to help tease one out, through corrections and shades of meaning, from the mediocre base of abstract psychology." In the end, Boutmy comes back to Mr. Bryce and recommends reading him instead of "militant observers" such as Monsieur de La Boulaye, Monsieur Claudio Jannet … and Monsieur de Tocqueville. Not only is the Englishman scientifically superior to them, but his works, moreover, "contain, for whosoever looks closely, elements for the most sizable case ever brought against a people." Between the "abstract" Frenchman, with his blameworthy leniency, and the Englishman, whose severity was backed by science, there was no need to weigh the pros and cons.
So, was it curtains for Tocqueville? Yes, but not completely. After throwing out his appeal, Boutmy saw no problem with calling him back as a witness. For the prosecution, of course. It was a discreet entrance, a modest reappearance, but nevertheless it ushered in the new role Democracy in America would play: lending the anti-American discourse, by choice cullings, its unassailable authority. Since Boutmy was eager to persuade his readers that the United States was an "unbearable environment" and that no Frenchman in his right mind could survive there, he tugged at Tocqueville's sleeve and courted his approval. You think I am exaggerating, Boutmy seemed to be telling his readers; lend Tocqueville your ears: "This democracy has spiritualized violence." We can listen to him, then—but only when he is against the United States.
"Anyone who supposes that I intend to write a panegyric is strangely mistaken," Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 introduction. His early-twentieth-century opponents did not just take his word for it; they looked for concrete proof. From then on they would use several passages—and always the same ones—to develop arguments that were all the more precious because they came from the enemy's mouth. Tocqueville's subtlety, his exhaustive twists and turns—and also, admittedly, his contradictions—lightened these scavengers' workload. They compiled a little anthology of salvageable ideas: in the United States, there was no legislative continuity; the government had no administrative stability; it was not money-wise, as was believed in Europe; the House of Representatives was an incredibly vulgar assembly; America's immorality was the immorality of social climbers and more dangerous than the immorality of the "great" under a monarchy; the inhabitants had "a sort of prejudice" against everything intellectual; there was an "absence of great writers in America so far" because "literary genius cannot exist without freedom of the spirit"; the country was nothing but turmoil and commotion; society appeared "agitated and monotonous"; the Americans were "restless in the midst of their prosperity," "serious and almost sad even in their pleasures." All those things could effectively be found in Democracy in America, and many others as well, like the reproach Mrs. Trollope made against the Americans of being unable to accept criticism…
All these excerpts and highlights, plucked out of the Tocquevillian garden, would be haphazardly replanted into anti-American flower beds, with the central bouquet being the famous page on "the power exercised by the majority in America over thought" in chapter 7 of the first Democracy. "Formerly tyranny used the clumsy weapons of chains and hangmen; nowadays even despotism, though it seemed to have nothing more to learn, has been perfected by civilization." This is already far from Verrières and the petty despotism of provincial America criticized by Stendhal; it is, however, much closer to modern fears of despotism, which no longer needs to "clumsily str[i]ke at the body" but instead exerts its control directly in people's minds.