BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Alan Ryan, who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
ALAN RYAN, AUTHOR, "INTRODUCTION TO ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE'S DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA": Well, in one sense, a fairly straightforward question. He was the man who wrote the most interesting account of American political culture, American national character, the implications of American experience for European democracy that anybody ever penned. In another way, it's rather difficult. He was a French aristocrat. His parents were nearly killed in the revolution. He was at odds with the kind of society he grew up in, in the 19th century. In simple terms he was born in 1805, died in 1859, wrote two books, at least if you can count "Democracy in America" as one and "The Ancient Regime" -- "The Old Regime of the Revolution" as the second. Wanted to play an active part in the politics of his own country, permanently frustrated in doing that. He left the world a masterpiece about democratic parties.
LAMB: Why is he quoted so often by American politicians?
RYAN: Well, this is rather mysterious, because on the face of it, the world he wrote about vanished not long after he wrote about it. He came to America at a time when the western frontier was no further west than Michigan, a time when a visit to Kentucky was a visit to the outer reaches of civilization, when Memphis had 25 inhabitants or thereabouts. It's a world utterly vanished, and yet, something about what he said about American national character has survived 150 million new immigrants, survived industrial transformation. Strikes a bell with mid 20th century people, anxious about the lonely crowd; strikes a bell with late 20th century people anxious about the role of central government. It permanently strikes some sort of national anxiety and the result of which is almost everyone can and does quote him into their purposes.
LAMB: I want to show in just a second a couple of American politicians quoting Mr. de Tocqueville -- or Tocqueville?
RYAN: I think in this country one says Tocqueville. Strictly, he's Alexis Henri Clerel de Tocqueville. But when I gave a seminar for the National Endowment for Humanities on Tocqueville, they said firmly that around here, he's called Tocqueville.
LAMB: What's the derivative of the name? How did he get the name?
RYAN: It was just the little village in Normandy from which the family comes was called Tocqueville, so it's like any other of these names, it's just a locality.
LAMB: Do you have any idea exactly where the village was or is? Is there still a village there?
RYAN: There is a village there. There's even a family house, and friends of mine who take an interest in his biography that I, as a political theorist on the whole don't, actually go and visit the house, and dig up the archives and continue to work on him there to this day. It's quite near Rouen, towards the mouth of the Seine.
LAMB: Now before I show this clip, I'm holding the "Democracy in America," the Everyman's version, Everyman's library.
LAMB: How did you get into this?
RYAN: Well, by the usual accident by which academics tend to get into things. The old Everyman's library, which was published by, I think, Dent in England and by Dutton in this country, had rather petered out, and a couple of years ago an enterprising English publisher decided to revive it, latched upon me to do introduction to a new version of Rousseau's "Social Contract," liked it so much, said, "I know you know about Mill. You must, therefore, know about Tocqueville. How about Tocqueville, too?" And since I had it in mind to give a seminar on Tocqueville, I said, "Yes. Why not?"
LAMB: So an Englishman was responsible for this.
RYAN: Well, the English publisher -- this, in fact, is very much an American edition. It's the edition that Knopf put out just after the war, with an introduction by an historian called Phillips Bradley. And what was astonishing is when he did it the book had been out of print in the United States for something like 25 years, that the translation had been made practically as soon as the book was published in 1836. But, interest in Tocqueville in America somehow petered out after the First World War, and the Phillips Bradley edition, which Knopf published over here, was the first edition for years and years. And then after the war there was a great revival. I don't know how many new editions there are now, but there are certainly a very large number -- enormous number of student abridgments, which produced 200 or 300 pages out of the whole 900.
LAMB: Now this is copyrighted 1994.
RYAN: Well, I think that what's copyrighted, as far as I could work out, is my introduction ...
LAMB: That's what I mean.
RYAN: ... which is a new introduction, essentially, for late 20th century students. It's very much for people who haven't read Tocqueville, who don't know much about who he was or why people fell upon it so much in the 19th century, and also, given my own taste and interests, with a certain amount of waving a hand towards contemporary late-20th century interests. But the actual translation is a modernized version of a mid-19th century translation. There's been one more recent one, in 1968, but not substantially different. I think very few people feel very passionate about the later translation vs. the old Henry Reeve one.
LAMB: You are where? Where are you teaching right now?
RYAN: I teach at Princeton. I did 20 years teaching in Oxford and thought, in my late 40s, that if I didn't move, I have done the same job for 40 years. So I lit out for Princeton.
LAMB: How long you been there?
RYAN: Eight years.
LAMB: We'll come back and talk a lot more about this, but first I want to make the connection with the American elected official and Mr. Alexis de Toqueville. Let' watch this.
[Excerpt from the C SPAN coverage of the opening of the 104th Congress]
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Speaker of the House): "This is what de Tocqueville wrote, quote, 'Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number. Its members are almost all obscure individuals whose names bring no associations to mind. They are mostly village lawyers, men in trade or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society.' Now if you put women in with men, I don't know that we've changed much, but the word vulgar in de Tocqueville's time had a very particular meaning and it's a meaning the world would do well to study in this room. You see, de Tocqueville was an aristocrat. He lived in a world of kings and princes. And the folks who come here, come here by the one single act that their citizens freely chose them."
[Excerpt from C-SPAN coverage of the State of the Union Address]
President BILL CLINTON: "If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America, as de Tocqueville pointed out when he came here a long time ago, has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves, and to work together to find common ground. And in this day everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply cannot wait for a tornado, a fire or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another."
LAMB:: What's your reaction?
RYAN: Well, hysterics, I think, really. It's absolutely true that Tocqueville's view of American society was a view from the French upper classes. He referred in letters home, when he first got here in May of 1831, to what he called the stinking arrogance of Americans, the fact that halfway through a conversation with you they insist on, you know, spitting some long stream of tobacco juice into the corner of the room or that they'd shake hands with you as though they'd known you for 10 years, and so on and so on. I mean, his first impression was this was society of the most appalling vulgarity -- no manners, no social adroitness, no finesse, the lot -- I mean, what you'd expect somebody brought up in a French aristocratic household to think when encountering shopkeepers, bank clerks, persons engaged in commerce.
He changed his mind. He came to like it. He came to think that this was the surface appearance of a society that was too mercantile for his taste, but tremendously lively, vivid, ambitious, constantly on the move, wanting to do new things, intellectually, scientifically, politically creative. So he very soon changed his mind about what you might think of as American character. There'd been an amazing book two or three years before, by a man called Captain Basil Hall, recording his travels among the Americans, in which he just mocked them high and low, said their institutions are useless, their religious beliefs appalling, their manners terrible. And since he toured the country with a whining child, unhappy wife, disagreeable servants, and people had been hospitable, friendly, warm -- take him everywhere -- Americans on the whole were rather sensitive to the kinds of things that visitors said about them. Tocqueville made a very good impression, and people thought of him as being much more gracious, much more friendly, much less snobbish in the sort of middle class way than most of their British visitors. And he never put his foot in it like Mrs. Trollope did or like Dickens did 10 years afterwards. I mean, he didn't go in for that kind of snobbish social reporting.
Gingrich's view gets half the story right and the other half as far wrong as you could possibly get it. What happens is de Tocqueville comes to America and says, "Can you run a republic without an upper class? Can you run a republic that doesn't have something like the Roman aristocracy, the Roman Senate, to look after it? Can you really give power to shopkeepers, small farmers, bankers, industrialists?" When he came, he thought the answer might very well be no, because the French Revolution had begun by giving power to this kind of middle class, and within four or five years Tocqueville's grandfather had been executed and his parents had come within 24 hours of going to the guillotine themselves.
So Tocqueville thought that what republics did, if they didn't have a proper ruling class, was to fall open to chaos and disorder or, if they were lucky they might sort of end up as a kind of centralized, Napoleonic sort of state, in which some despotic presidential type would be sustained by the hoi palloi, but you wouldn't get political freedom. So he very much thought that what he was watching was an experiment. He thought that it was, so far, working much better than anyone could have guessed, but nonetheless wasn't entirely optimistic about it. Mere voting was not something, I think, he set very much store by. I mean, the great Gingrich cry of "They're sent here by their electorates," I think, cut no great ice with Tocqueville. Tocqueville's question is what sort of people send them? What sort of people are they? What sort of institutions do they run? Are they sober, public spirited? Do they have proper foresight, they care for the liberties of the people? I mean, it was large, anxious, post French Revolution questions.
LAMB: Back again, though, so we can get the perspective, that when he came here with his friend, Beaumont, he was 25?
RYAN: He was 25.
LAMB: 1831, Andrew Jackson was president.
LAMB: How many people, do you know, were living in the United States then?
RYAN: I don't --
LAMB: You said that Memphis had 25 people in it, or was that...
RYAN: Well, this the account you get, in [Andre] Jardin [author of "Tocqueville, A Biography], in maybe 25 houses. It's just a landing stage on the banks of the Mississippi, surrounded by forest at that time. The whole country can't have had a population, I'd have thought, of more than about 20 million, but I have no real idea.
LAMB: I think it was 13 million in about 1858, because we were tracking that during the Lincoln Douglas Debates that were recreated last summer.
RYAN: Right. I mean, the crucial thing is that it's absolutely tiny compared with the great wave of immigration that comes in from 1848 onwards, and then, of course, enormously once steamboats get well established in the 1880s to the First World War.
LAMB: When he came in, his sole purpose for coming here at that time was to do what?
LAMB: Or was there a sole purpose?
RYAN: ... his official purpose was to come and study American prisons. He was a magistrate, and he and Beaumont were fellow magistrates in Versailles, which was a town outside Paris. So they were magistrates in a small French town, really.
LAMB: Were they elected?
RYAN: No, appointed.
LAMB: And what did they do as magistrates?
RYAN: Well, they heard civil cases. They helped in the administration of the district. It wasn't exactly like being an American judge, because you had more of a roving administration of your district. Because the way in which the French governed the country was much more centralized, much more bureaucratic. And the difficulty was that both Beaumont and Tocqueville belonged to families whose loyalty was to the Bourbon monarchy -- or the Bourbon branch of the French monarchy. And when Charles X was pushed out of office in 1830, in a rather small scale revolution, and Louis Philippe succeeded -- this was the Orleans branch of the ruling family -- their position became rather intolerable, because they'd been appointed under the old family.
They were objects of suspicion to the new family. They were both very aristocratic in their tastes. They thought of Louis Philippe as an upstart and an adventurer, and so their position was very, very delicate. They had sworn the appropriate oath of loyalty, but very reluctantly, and so they wanted to get out of an uncomfortable position. Had they said, "Can we go and look at America?" they'd simply have got the sack, so they said, "We want to go and study American prisons." And, indeed, they wrote a book called, "The Prison System of the United States and Some Implications for France." Book name is "La Systeme Penetentiere," hardly ever read, but actually, very influential on French prison practice.
They finally got permission, originally for 18 months. While they were here it was cut down to 12 months, and they were constantly reminded before they went that they were meant to be going off not just to have a holiday, not just to get out of a sticky position, but actually to look at prisons. And they did. I mean, they actually did look at American prisons and did write the book.
LAMB: How long were they here?
RYAN: Only nine months.
LAMB: How did they travel around?
RYAN: Well, it varied a good deal. They mostly had to travel by horse and carriage of one kind and another, on rather badly made up roads. A lot of the time, of course, they traveled by boat, which was the most efficient way of getting, for example -- well, it would have been the most efficient way of getting down the Ohio to the Mississippi and getting down the Mississippi, had it not been the case they did it in the dead of winter, and it was the worst winter for many years. They nearly drowned. They were in a steamship that hit a reef on the Ohio River and promptly sank, but luckily, it sank onto the reef that it struck, which stopped the gap long enough for another steamship to take them off. Going down the Mississippi, they found that Memphis was frozen in. Finally, a boat came up from New Orleans, meant to go north -- passengers wanted to go north. They were going ashore, wanted to go south. The captain throws the passengers off, Tocqueville and his friends go south. A combination of stagecoach, horse and cart -- anything that served, really -- sometimes on foot, sometimes by canoe. They were very much exploring a very rough and a not yet fully explored country.
LAMB: I've got a bunch of books here that I've delved into, some of them on our Booknotes program here, where people quote him, and I want to pull some of that out. There's a reference to the fact that he kept 14 notebooks.
LAMB: Are those available and translated?
RYAN: They're not, for the most part, translated, but the collected works, which is now sort of half complete -- or, perhaps, more than half complete -- has them in one of the volumes on Toqueville's "Journey to America." I've never sat down and worked my way through them. I mean, it's one of the tasks which, when I am let off the hook of teaching introductory political theory, I shall eventually go and do. Quite a lot of letters have been translated. There are selections from the notebooks that are pretty good -- secondary literature, starting with Pearson's book in 1938, on the trip to America. I mean, they're lively jottings -- very much day to day to day jottings on what he comes across.
LAMB: So he just wrote all this down like a diary?
RYAN: Very much so, and when he had time to stop and take notes on what their experiences of the last few days were, that's what he did. An awful lot of research for writing the two books he actually did after he got home. I mean, not merely did he come to this country at an age when most graduate students are having trouble finding a subject for dissertation, he then went home, piled up an enormous quantity of books on America and hired a couple of assistants to help him annotate and take them to pieces and work out just what he thought about them, and then wrote the first volume, "Democracy of America," in one year flat.
LAMB: Which year? Now he was here in 1831. What...
RYAN: Well, the first thing they did when they went home, he went on a visit to England. They had to sort out their relations with their superiors. In fact, both he and Beaumont resigned from the magistracy. They gave up fairly rapidly on trying to keep on good terms with their superiors. Beaumont was asked to serve as a prosecutor in a political trial, which was deliberately meant to embarrass him. He resigned; Tocqueville resigned in solidarity with his friend. So they were then quit of that. They wrote the account of the American prison system, which took them until something like 30 -- middle of '34. Then he sits down and writes -- it comes out in French in '35; first reviewed in English in '36. So it's all rather rapid.
LAMB: And there's a second volume.
RYAN: And the second volume comes out in 1840, and is much less directed to telling people what America's like; much more directed to brooding on the implications, and for sort of drawing fairly large sociological thoughts about the American experience.
LAMB: Now this Everyman edition has both your introduction and it has volume one and volume two?
LAMB: When you were asked to write an introduction how did you go about getting ready for that, and did you have all the information already in your head?
RYAN: Well, not in any very straightforward way. My interest in Tocqueville, essentially -- I mean, it's not quite either Speaker Gingrich or President Clinton's interest, but it's much more like their interest than it is that of a 19th century historian, which I am very much not. My interest, really, came from having, myself, written a lot about John Stuart Mill over the last 30 years or so.
LAMB: Who was?
RYAN: Well, he was, in a sense, the English equivalent of Tocqueville. He was the man who wrote on liberty and representative government, which is the great sort of central Victorian tracts about liberalism and liberal democracy in modern industrial society. And it was Mill who made Tocqueville's reputation, because otherwise, though the French thought the book was wonderful, it could easily have just belonged among all sorts of accounts of America written by all sorts of French travelers, because the French were rather fond of America, thinking, not unreasonably, that they had done rather a lot for American independence. And so there'd always been a steady stream of rather friendly accounts of America by French writers.
And it was when Mill reviewed the Henry Reeve translation that people began to say, "This is really a book for any kind of would be liberal society in the 19th century." And it forms the basis for what lies behind Mill's book on liberty, for example. And Mill's views about what the dangers are of democracy, and the dangers of democracy and freedom, are entirely taken out of his reading of Tocqueville, and his views about the difficulty of getting good leadership in a democracy almost entirely taken out of de Tocqueville. So it becomes an enormously influential book in that way. And then, if you're my age, what really began the Tocqueville revival after the Second World War was David Riesman's book, the "Lonely Crowd." And that was a book which picked up the great anxiety that Tocqueville pictured when he said that you could be lonely in the middle of a crowd. You could be an individual in...
LAMB: In America.
RYAN: Oh, yes, this was very much directed at the Americans. I mean, this was very much Tocqueville's moral message to an American audience. It said, "You may live in crowded, bustling cities" -- which, after all, New York, Boston, Philadelphia already were, and that's what he saw most of in this country. He was very impressed by commercial life. And so he said, "You may go to work, bump into hundreds and even thousands of people in the course of a day, but you may still be utterly lonely because you may have no inner resources, you may have no psychic strength, you may have no strength of character that allows you to think your own thoughts. You may always want to do what your neighbors expect you to do." You may always be, as the modern jargon has it, other directed.
And he thought -- what Mill very much picked up from him, and Riesman very much popularized in the 1950s -- was that the great danger of democracy was that it simply killed people's will, that people wanted to be like their neighbors. They wanted to think the thoughts their neighbors thought. They began to censor themselves before they began to have unorthodox thoughts. They wanted to conform, not because they approved of what the majority thought, not because they'd come to some independent view that the majority was actually right, but just because it was the majority. And there's a rather terrifying chapter in which Tocqueville says that how America's a free country, there is less real liberty of opinion in the United States than in any other country. And what Riesman picked up was that the so to speak underside of American friendliness and affability and American sociability was this kind of conformist sort of gentle despotism. And so I really picked up Tocqueville very much from that sort of 1950s position, very much from a sort of John Stuart Mill position, rather than, as it were, 19th century history.
LAMB: This Everyman Library edition by Knopf costs -- What? -- about 18, 19 bucks?
RYAN: Something of the sort.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many they printed up in this country?
RYAN: No idea at all. People who write introductions are telephoned, are given a fee, hand in their introduction; it is either declared intelligible or unintelligible. If it's intelligible, it's printed. And that's as much role as you play in it. This isn't a case of rescuing an obscure author, where, really, one rushes around and says, "No one's ever heard of this man. You must print a great many." The nice thing about these editions, if I may say so, is that they do actually produce a rather handsome, well bound hardback book at something like a paperback price, and I think that's where the hope is, that people will want to read fairly solid editions and will go back and reread. And since Tocqueville is a pretty slippery character, you want a book that would last for several readings. You don't want the kind of thing that comes unglued on second inspection.
LAMB: I'm going to ask you about slippery in a minute, but one of the references you suggest or mentioned in the book is "Tocqueville: A Biography" by Andre Jardin. And you can find this in the bookstores.
LAMB: Why this -- what's special about this book?
RYAN: Simply that it is recent. It's very comprehensive. Jardin is the editor of Tocqueville's collected works, the French edition -- the Pliard edition, so he knows Tocqueville and everything he wrote absolutely cold. And ...
LAMB: You know him, by the way?
RYAN: No, never met him.
LAMB: This is a 1988 book?
LAMB: Or it's '83 in France and '88 here.
RYAN: '83 -- the French edition's '83, that's right, and it's translated perhaps seven years ago into English. The nice thing is that the book one would really like someone to go and rescue would have been Pearson's.
LAMB: George Pearson.
RYAN: Yes. His book on Tocqueville and Beaumont's voyage in America.
LAMB: It's hard to find.
RYAN: It's extremely hard to find. Princeton Library has two copies, both of them falling to pieces. And it's a very nice book and highly readable. And there's not really been any successor to it, and so it's a sort of really good narrative account of what they got up to. It's unbeatable, but Jardin has a lot of it in his book.
LAMB: In '81 in this country -- and you mentioned this in the book -- is this one right here by Richard Reeves, who's an American author...
LAMB: ...who's been on this program -- "American Journey," where he went around the United States, tracing the steps.
RYAN: It's wonderful, yes. I would very much would like to do the same thing myself, and ...
LAMB: You going to do it?
RYAN: Well, given nine months from the exigence of my employers, it would be rather fun. Of course, now it would be actually rather easy to do now because the actual distance they covered isn't, by modern standards, particularly enormous. I'm afraid that many of the things that gave them pleasure no longer exist. Country houses in Yonkers, for example, have long since ceased; the idea of country houses overlooking the East River in New York, something that vanished 100 years ago. So the America that they went round is pretty thoroughly lost, which...
LAMB: Saginaw, Michigan...
LAMB: ...Green Bay, Wisconsin...
LAMB: ... no Chicago.
RYAN: No Chicago. That's right.
LAMB: Cincinnati, Memphis, Nashville...
LAMB: ...New Orleans...
RYAN: It's places that are really river stops and, of course, when they get out on what was then the Northwest frontier, it's places where fur trappers and traders come to exchange their furs and so on for other kinds of goods to keep them going. It's -- very much sort of halts on trading routes that they stopped at in the first time around. There's quite a funny account in Jardin -- and in Beaumont -- of their trip on Lake Huron and up to the junction with Lake Superior, where what I think was described as the first tourist boat ever to ply those waters happened to come past when they were there, and they spent two or three days in the company of what they regard as pretty uninteresting local company, just touring the Great Lakes, which they thought wonderfully beautiful. But note -- I mean, countries, after all -- strikingly different.
LAMB: Got to mention the other cities, Norfolk and Washington and Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York and Boston.
LAMB: Where did the two of them spend the most time? I know they went to Canada for a couple weeks.
RYAN: Yes. Of course, the Canadian trip's quite important in their views of the United States, because one of the things which -- quite interesting about them and quite difficult to slot into the use that anybody makes of them these days -- is, of course, they were very, very ambivalent about the English as colonists. They thought that the English were hard, Puritan, stand-offish, tough, commercial minded, and they thought the French were just very much nicer, and they rather hoped that the Quebecois might actually rise up and liberate themselves and form an independent French nation. And they lamented the fact that the French had given up on their American empire in the 1760s.
I mean, they felt rather strongly that if the French had held the line on all those Mississippi posts, so they could have hemmed in the English colonists, that it would have made a great deal of difference to the future of the country and would have given the French a chance to have a sort of proper colonial empire. So they held some views that I think wouldn't go down very well in 20th century America. And their vision of the dealings with the English, with both the blacks and the Indians, were very much affected by their views about the French dealings, particularly with the Indians.
LAMB: The English dealing with them or the Americans dealing with them?
RYAN: Well, the Americans. I mean, that's what they thought of. I mean, essentially they thought the America they were watching was a branch of a sort of English Puritan venture, but its character had been formed by the fact that the country was most successfully settled by the English Puritans. And so they were always on the watch out for what they took to be that rather toughly Puritan character expressing itself in American social life.
LAMB: Let me ask you, though -- and I've got this stack of books here, and we did some research, looking through past Booknotes, and I'm looking at a list here that includes Margaret Thatcher and David Frum, Philip Howard and William Bennett, Stan Evans and Henry Kissinger, Lani Guinier and Ben Wattenberg. It goes on -- Dixy Lee Ray, Garry Wills, George Will, Don Oberdorfer, Larry Sabeto, Brian Kelly -- more and more. All these people -- and we didn't get to all of them -- all quote Tocqueville. And ...
RYAN: Yes. I have a colleague at Harvard, Bob Putnam, who wrote a rather splendid book on democracy in Italy, which takes off from Tocqueville's interest in civic association and the voluntary spirit, and he wrote a piece for a Nobel conference in Sweden called "Bowling Alone, or the Collapse of Associations in America," which was praised by George Will, taken up by Newt Gingrich, and therefore Putnam, who is some sort of center left, welfare state liberal, wondering what he's done to deserve all this attention from people whose great aim is to smash the state rather than to reconstruct the welfare state. So it's quite clear that Tocqueville feeds into the anxieties of everybody right across the political spectrum, from, as it were, soggy welfare state liberals like myself, right out to revolutionaries like Professor Gingrich, and to -- well, anxious Catholics like Garry Wills. I mean, there's something in him for everybody.
LAMB: I'm going to pick up -- I've got a stack here -- just a bunch -- and none of this may work, but I want to read ... I'll go to the quote that I found in these books and just get your reaction. Here's Dan Quayle's book that he wrote, called "Standing Firm." And he's really talking about how the media would make fun out of something he would say when he would make a mistake. He said, "I have pronounced the name of the French writer de Tocqueville as 'Tockaville' instead of 'Toke VEEL.'"
RYAN: It wouldn't have gone down well with the owner.
LAMB: "Earth shattering stuff like this, often without any coverage on the day it appeared." In other words...
LAMB: ...wasn't happy with this. Is the mispronunciation of the name something that happens often by people?
RYAN: I suppose. I mean, I rather share -- well, I think I hold two views. I mean, I hold Quayle's view that it doesn't matter, but I think I hold the cynics' view that, you know, if you employ Bill Kristol to do your thinking for you, you should at least get the names right. And he's got no business quoting people if he can't actually work out who they are, so I think there's a two edged complaint.
LAMB: Here's "The End of History and The Last Man," which was...
RYAN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ...written by Francis Fukuyama. These are all Booknotes -- former guests.
RYAN: But I should declare a vested interest. I wrote an extreme nasty review of Fukuyama, so ...
LAMB: Well, this is just one small quote. It says -- he says in here, "According to de Tocqueville, the strength and stability of American democracy was due to the fact that American society was thoroughly egalitarian and Democratic long before the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written. Americans were born equal."
RYAN: Yes. I mean, that's broadly right, that one thing Tocqueville makes tremendous fuss about is the fact that the country was Yankee, that it was founded -- I mean, Tocqueville is rather curious, in the sense that he did not really spend time to speak of in the South, he also held a view, which is fairly debatable, which was that the whole country's political character was set by the North. So, I mean, this was partly accidental. He wanted to stay in Charleston. Time ran out on them. They had to miss it, so they only spent a very short time in New Orleans. They dashed hell for leather from New Orleans up to Washington. They can't have done more than just chat to people in the South, and so they had no really strong impression of how solid Southern culture was. What they saw of it, they didn't like. They thought that it was sort of weird combination of aristocratic pretension, loose sexual morals, riffraff, poor trash white behavior. So they were very dubious about what they thought was distinctively Southern about the South.
What they thought made the country work was the Puritan values of the North. The great thing about the Puritan North was it began with the dissenting church and the town assembly. These were small self governing communities answerable to themselves and to God, not much governed -- absolutely self reliant. And so, of course, their view was that it had always been democracy from the bottom up and that that allowed any amount of general chaos to occur in the political system without destroying the Democratic egalitarian structure of society.
LAMB: You said Tocqueville died when he was 53. Did he ever marry?
RYAN: Oh, yes. Tocqueville's sex life, which is another of the things which Jardin is very good at, was quite curious. He was a very passionate young man -- I mean -- when I say young, then I mean really young -- 16, 17, 18. Constantly got into scrapes that his family had to bail him out of. Obviously, spent his time sort of making love to working class girls, thinking he ought to do the decent thing and marry them, the family pulling him out of this by the collar. He was offered arranged marriages, which the aristocracy constantly went in for, refused all of them, went back to Paris and married an Englishwoman called Mary Motley, who was, as I say, rather feebly, in my introduction, six to nine years older than he because nobody quite knew when she was born. But she was certainly older than he was.
She was very much not an aristocrat, I mean, sort of English commercial middle class. He was devoted to her. They quarreled incessantly. There are epic stories of him throwing the dinner at her because she ate so slowly, and she was very phlegmatic, just what he needed. He was a very twitchy, restless, anxious character -- couldn't bear the fact that she ate slowly. So halfway through the meal, he can't bear this pace, throws the dinner at her. She -- no reaction. Calls to the servant, says, "Bring in another slice of pate," and it was, in a funny way, a highly successful marriage. It didn't satisfy Tocqueville entirely. There were various things that made him unhappy. He had tuberculosis all his life -- that's why he died so young. And he was probably sterile so they had no children. That distressed him because he had a sense of wanting the lineage to continue. He's only the third son and that didn't not make much difference, but it made some to him, if he wanted his line and family to go on. It obviously wasn't entirely sexually sufficient for him, as he had affairs on the side in the French manner, but he was highly successful and somehow absorbed his emotional energies in a way that needed absorbing.
And he was quite curious about the difference between French marriage and American marriage, thought one of the great things about America was that the family was such a strong institution. And he thought that the French middle classes and upper classes behaved much worse inside marriage than Americans did, thought that in America women were freer before marriage, less free afterwards, and that that was a good thing.
LAMB: Another quote here. Here is another Booknotes book that we did -- Brian Kelly, "Adventures in Porkland."
RYAN: I've never read it.
LAMB: Well -- we...
RYAN: Books at least entertain.
LAMB: He quotes Senator Bob Byrd of West Virginia as saying, "I happen to believe that this country still has the spirit to which de Tocqueville referred over 150 years ago when he said, 'The incredible American believes that if something has not yet been accomplished, it is because he has not yet attempted it.'"
RYAN: Yes. Well, that was the side of America that Tocqueville really admired. He -- I mean, this is where the ambivolence breaks loose, I think. He thought that the restless commercial industrial get ahead temperament was wonderful, that it was one of the things that, on the whole, would keep America as a free country. What he worried about, because he thought that it tended to have less of an outlet in intellectual and cultural and artistic life than it had in the rest of American life. So what you might think of as the continuous American high spirit was very much something he approved of, and thought it was what made the country so wonderful; thought it went too much on commerce, too much on money, not enough on arts; not enough on literature; not enough on culture, generally.
LAMB: Here's Haynes Johnson's book and it's called "Divided We Fall," and inside it says, "America, I saw" -- he just takes this book and puts at the front of the book. He says, "In America, I saw more than America. I sought the image of Democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices and its passions in order to learn what we have to fear or hope...
RYAN: That's right.
LAMB: ... from its progress."
RYAN: That's right. That's the great Tocqueville claim. He goes to America to see the future of Europe and what -- I mean, what the title of Haynes Johnson's book reminds one of, of course, is that what Tocqueville was frightened of was whether you could have democracy and any kind of social cohesion without having centralization, without having something rather like the kind of government that Napoleon inflicted on France. And that's one of the things which I think 20th century admirers of Tocqueville are actually not usually willing to look at, I think, enough. Because people tend to say -- Tocqueville said we were wonderful because we were high spirited, energetic and locally self reliant. And Tocqueville also says that economic progress, the rise of commerce, the confining of people to their economic lives always threatens you with centralization, despotism, the arrival of Napoleon, government by great men and military heroes.
And, of course, one thing that he was frightened of, that Americans seem to be half prone to and half not, is, of course, turning generals into political leaders. He'd have thought that if someone like General Grant becomes president, that it'll be like Napoleon, and he'd have been very surprised, I think, to find someone like Ike being such a civilian figure, because, you know, the French legacy was always that if a general became ruler, what he wanted to do was to become absolute, wanted to become an emperor as well.
LAMB: What party would Alexis de Tocqueville be in if he were here in the United States today and a politician?
RYAN: Oh, that famous American party, the minority of one.
LAMB: Wouldn't be in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?
RYAN: I don't see how he could. I don't see how he could, for all kinds of difficult and complicated reasons. He didn't have the sort of anti governmental rage that I think fuels Gingrich and particularly the freshman intake of the House. I mean, although he thought it was wonderful that Americans did so well without government, he nonetheless thought that countries needed governments, and he'd have thought it was part of the job of a government to sustain a national culture and to sustain artistic endeavor and to try to elevate the minds of the citizenry. So that sort of, as it were, "let's tear it all down and see what we are left with" kind of mood would never have come to him at all. After all, his father was a prefect; I mean, his father actually ran a French department, and Tocqueville is very much writing against the background of a very strongly centralized hierarchical state. He's not writing against the background of a modern welfare state. So I think, really, he'd have had great trouble signing up for the sort of current Republican enthusiasm for "Let's smash it and see what happens next."
I think, on the other side, he couldn't have subscribed to the Democratic Party of the last 20 or 25 years for all kinds of reasons. Any urge to boot religion out of schools he'd have thought was suicidal. He thinks religion comes first and education comes second. And...
LAMB: But was he religious, though?
RYAN: No. Well, that's really difficult. I say no, but, of course, I also want to say yes. He did not, so far as one can tell, literally believe in the dogmas of the Christian faith as set out by the Catholic Church.
LAMB: He was born Catholic?
RYAN: He was born Catholic. He seems to have lost his faith in his late teens, read 18th century philosophical writers and thought they were right, that it was literally incredible. But he was brought up by man called the Abbe Leseur, who he has referred to as his Bebe, who was a reactionary, diehard, monarchist Catholic priest. And Tocqueville would never have said anything to give him pain or distress. He thought that all societies needed something like a religious faith to hold them together. And, of course, this is a very old theory. I mean, this is a view which skeptical defenders of republics have believed ever since Machiavelli. I mean, Machiavelli -- who knows what he believed? But he thought that all republics needed some civic faith to keep them going. And Tocqueville very much thought that.
LAMB: By the way, where's he buried?
RYAN: Do you know? I've no idea.
LAMB: When he died he was 53.
RYAN: He died in '59.
LAMB: Of what?
RYAN: Of tuberculosis, I assume. I mean, whether he died literally of tuberculosis or whether he died of a heart attack consequent upon it because his lungs gave out, I don't know. But it's the eventual effects of TB that killed him. And he's dying, really, from the sort of middle 1850s onwards.
LAMB: We're running out of time. I want to jump in here with some more books. Here's the book on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and...
RYAN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ...and it's by Liva Baker, and inside she uses a quote that has something to do with the judicial system. She says, "Whenever a law that the judge holds to be unconstitutional is invoked in a tribunal in the United States, he may refuse to admit it as a rule. This power is the only one peculiar to the American magistrate, but it gives rise to immense political influence." And it goes on here.
RYAN: He was very struck. What he did when he went home after visiting America was to take the federalists and the commentaries on the federalists of justice and Professor Kent with him, and he became convinced the constitutional framework of the United States was absolutely central to understanding how the whole thing worked. And what he does is, he says something which is a very pure Tocqueville story. He says, "Although the geography of the United States has a great influence on the country, the laws matter more than the climate, and the customs of the people matter even more than the laws." So he wasn't the kind of person who thought, rather as some post Cold War Americans think, that you could just pick up the American Constitution, hand it to the Europeans and say, "Right. Get on with it." He very much thought that it worked because Americans could work it.
LAMB: Here's another one.
LAMB: This is Lani ...
RYAN: The famous -- the famous phrase.
LAMB: This is Lani Guinier's book, "The Tyranny of the Majority." By the way, that phrase is found throughout Tocqueville's book.
RYAN: Yes, starts with Jefferson.
LAMB: And you write it up a lot.
RYAN: Because Tocqueville came from a background in which the notion of the tyranny of the majority made no sense. I say, French republicans, French revolutionaries thought that what freedom was what you got after the people launch a successful insurrection, threw out kings and priests -- what they then would have was freedom. And Tocqueville followed Jefferson and passed the news on to Mill that the majority could always tyrannize over minorities. What he also passed on, which is partly what Lani Guinier picks up -- and also partly what she doesn't -- is that you could get something which was almost more interesting than a majority doing in a minority, which was that the whole of the public could do in one individual, that public opinion could squash the imagination of individuals. And that worries him more than anything that worried either Madison or Jefferson.
LAMB: Neil Postman, who also wrote "Amusing Ourselves to Death," did "Technopoly," and was a guest on Booknotes. He writes: "The first concerns what is usually called the American character, the relevant aspect of which Tocqueville described in the early 19th century, quote" -- this is Tocqueville -- "The American lives in a land of wonders," he wrote. "Everything around him is in constant movement. Every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in his mind, the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement."
RYAN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: "Nowhere does he seek any limit placed by nature to human endeavor. In his eyes, something that does not exist is just something that has not been tried."'
RYAN: Right. Well, of course, that's what you quoted from Senator Byrd as well. It's the great story. He very much held the view -- which, of course, then became the frontier thesis later in the century -- that it was just wonderful for Europeans to come into a country in which untamed hinterlands just beckoned you on to do new things. And there had been an old French tradition of writing about America in those terms, the romantic writers just going on about the trees, and everybody had to go and see the Niagara Falls. And Tocqueville, characteristically, says -- "They were wonderful," he says, "but the Americans will no doubt build a mill or a cotton textile factory at the bottom in the next 10 years."
LAMB: Margaret Thatcher quotes Tocqueville only once in this big, huge volume.
RYAN: Well, a woman who did more to destroy English local government has no business quoting Tocqueville at all, ever.
LAMB: But she quotes him about Russia, when he, as you write, talks about America and Russia, the only two ...
RYAN: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: ... countries in the world that you ought to keep an eye on for the future. Why was he so interested in Russia?
RYAN: I don't know. I've never understood that. Curious enough, Hagel, who lived before him, said the same thing. And there obviously is some strand which thinks of Russia as a sort of sleeping giant, and that if it modernizes it's going to become a great dynamic force in the future.
LAMB: We only have about three minutes left. You've been at Princeton for eight years. What's the difference between being at Oxford and being at Princeton?
RYAN: Well, the architecture in Oxford is genuine. The day before I came, I had dinner with Gerald Ellifore from The New York Times. He said, "Well, I hope you enjoy it," he said, gesturing at New College under a full moon. He said, "But you must remember, this is the real thing." Princeton students are cheerfuller than Oxford students. They have precisely the American view that "If great things haven't yet been accomplished it's because we're just on our way to do them."
LAMB: Where were you educated?
RYAN: I was educated at Oxford.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
RYAN: I grew up in Sussex and in Surrey, in the home counties; born in London. From the age of about 17, I had a tremendous hankering to come to the United States. I used to dream of sailing under the Verrazano Bridge, tying up at Pier 33, as in all the old movies that I watched in my teen age. I think the first thing I ever really liked was "On the Town," and had a great desire to walk up Broadway.
LAMB: What do you teach?
RYAN: What do I teach? I teach anything and everything in the history of political theory. I particularly teach sort of 20th century liberal writers. I've got a book about to appear on John Dewey, which I regard as my contribution to earning my American citizenship. Dewey, of course, the opposite extreme from Tocqueville, thought we needed more organization rather than less, more centralization, new kind of liberty ...(unintelligible) -- I mean, one of the 20th century interrogators of Tocqueville.
LAMB: By the way, how many times have you read "Democracy in America"?
RYAN: The whole thing, I should think, four; some bits of it, I should think by now I must be on my 30th or 40th go, particularly when there's a seminar coming up and I'm not absolutely sure just what he says about some particular issue.
LAMB: This is the latest edition that you can find in your bookstores. It's a hardback, 1994 copyright, with the introduction by Alan Ryan, professor at Princeton, on Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," Everyman's Library. We thank you very much for joining us.
RYAN: Nice to be here.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.