Not for sissies

A leading conservative scholar's hardball new translation of Tocqueville's classic "Democracy in America" is a daunting example of tough love.

Topics: Books,

Not for sissies

Consider, if you will, the morass of our presidential election while reading a few observations from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” the 19th century classic, which has been newly translated, edited and introduced by Harvey C. Mansfield, a Harvard University political scientist, and Delba Winthrop, his wife, a Harvard lecturer:

” …one can still consider the moment of the Presidential election as a period of national crisis.”

” …the parties have a great interest in determining the election in their favor, not so much to make their doctrines triumph with the aid of the president-elect as to show by his election that those doctrines have acquired a majority.”

“Parties are an evil inherent in free governments.”

“In the United States, it is people moderate in their desires who involve themselves in the twists and turns of politics. Great talents … turn away from power in order to pursue wealth … It is to these causes as much as to the bad choices of democracy that one must attribute the great number of vulgar men who occupy public office.”

“Democracy in America” is as relevant today as it was when first published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840. For Tocqueville did for democratic government what Euclid did for geometry, Aristotle for drama, Darwin for biology and other great analytical minds for a host of other subjects — he arrived at many clear and simple truths based on careful observation. This is not to say, however, that all his findings are correct. Many were wrong; more are now dated. Yet no one has better understood and explained the nature of democracy, and its impact on human nature.

Tocqueville’s portrait of America is as much political Rorschach test as a profile of the early American character. It is a work of ethnohistory, sociology and political philosophy to which people of all political persuasions turn for authority. A small sampling of those who quote Tocqueville is illustrative of his broad appeal: Vojislav Kostunica (on the fall of Slobodan Milosevic), Sen. John McCain (2000 Republican Convention speech), President Clinton (1995 State of the Union), Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (opening 104th Congress), Ross Perot (1995 book on Medicare), Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (Powers vs. Ohio), James Reston (memoir of the New York Times reporter), Margaret Thatcher (autobiographical book), Lani Guinier (the law professor’s book, “The Tyranny of the Majority”), Robert Reich (Clinton’s secretary of labor’s book, “The Work of Nations”), Dan Quayle (autobiography) and Richard Nixon (autobiography).



A check of the Congressional Record for the 104th Congress shows almost twice as many Republicans as Democrats cite Tocqueville. This confirmed my hunch that he is slightly more popular with the right than the left. Or is it that for conservatives Tocqueville represents a state to which they would like to return, while for progressives he represents a place from which we started? This is not always clear, for more often than not Tocqueville is quoted out of context. When viewed in context, however, his study of America shows the roots of our democracy and its early growth.

The United States was young on May 11, 1831, when the 25-year-old French aristocrat arrived at the port of New York. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, was busy ushering in a new era in which all Americans could improve both their social and their political standing. Commerce and trade thrived in the Northeast, and agriculture (tobacco and cotton) created wealth in the slave-owning South. Vast unsettled territories of the American continent were being seized from indigenous Indians by wave after wave of westward-migrating settlers seeking new land and a new life. When Tocqueville arrived with his traveling companion, Gustave Beaumont, our burgeoning nation consisted of 24 states with an official population of 12.8 million people.

Tocqueville and Beaumont, lawyers and French magistrate judges, came to America ostensibly to study the country’s penitentiary system. But, as Tocqueville later explained, this was a pretext, “an excuse: [we] used it as a passport that would allow [us] to go everywhere in the United States.” Beaumont, who wrote to his father as they sailed to New York, explained rhetorically: “Wouldn’t it be good to have a book that gives an accurate notion of the American people, that paints a broad portrait of their history, boldly outlines their character, [and] analyzes their social state?” The young noblemen wanted to observe the workings and ways of American democracy because they believed their findings could serve as a prototype for France.

They explored America for nine months, studying its geography and history; interpreting the town, state and federal components of its confederated union; discerning the impact of democracy on people and institutions like the church, the press and public officeholders. Traveling by foot and horseback, stage coach and river boat, they started in the North, then went West, South and back East, to meet with people from every walk of American life: tradesmen and farmers, craftsmen and manufactures, teachers and ministers, slaves and masters, Indians and Indian hunters, mayors and judges, legislators and governors, congressmen and senators, cabinet officers, a Supreme Court justice and a former president, John Quincy Adams. Like auditors, they filled notebooks with what they saw, heard and learned.

History does not explain why their considered collaboration never came to fruition. Beaumont did most of the work for their joint study, “The Penitentiary System of the United States and Its Application in France” (1833), and they remained lifelong friends, yet the contemplated book that Beaumont described to his father would be written by Tocqueville alone. Tocqueville, it appears, had the mightier mind and pen. Regardless, in 1842 Beaumont’s American experience became a successful novel, “Marie, ou l’esclavage aux Etats-Unis (Marie, or Slavery in the United States),” although it was not translated into English until 1958.

“Democracy in America” was first translated from French to English in 1838, by Henry Reeve, an Englishman. When first asked to undertake the project, the 22-year-old Reeve wrote in his diary that the study was “perhaps the most important treatise on the science of states that has appeared since Montesquieu … I decline to translate it because I do not believe in my inmost heart … I will not promulgate an erroneous doctrine.” Less than a month later, after a dinner with Tocqueville, he reported in his diary that he found the author “a very agreeable man, and the more I see of his book (which I have now nearly finished) the more I like it. My first impression as to its democratic tendency was entirely erroneous. He regards democracy as the inevitable lot of Europe, and as an evil which we had best prepare to meet, since we can not escape it.”

Reeve and Tocqueville became fast friends. But in a letter to Reeve, dated Nov. 15, 1839, Tocqueville took issue with his translator’s work on the first volume. He felt that Reeve was softening his criticism of the French aristocracy, and that prompted him to instruct: “I beg you earnestly to struggle against yourself on this point and to preserve my book its character.” Because of Reeve’s attitude, and Tocqueville’s concern, this first translation has always been under a bit of a shadow.

Nonetheless, Reeve’s translation enjoyed great popularity in the United States. It was not until the late 1880s that its popularity began to weaken, although as late as 1899 a special edition of “Democracy in America” was released as a part of the series called the World’s Great Books published by D. Appleton and Company. By the 1920s, the book had gone out of print in the United States.

In spring 1945, as World War II was coming to its brutal climax, Americans were again examining their history, and Knopf published a revised (but not completely new) translation of “Democracy in America” by American scholar Francis Bowen. While critics were pleased to have “the first reissue of this classic” in years, they were underwhelmed with the partial translation effort. The Brits sniffed that the book was “not easy to render into English, and on this side of the Atlantic it will seem to many people that Henry Reeve did a better job than his pedantic corrector, Professor Bowen.” Jacques Barzun, the French-born American historian and linguist, observed, “Unfortunately, Tocqueville is still given us in a stiff, ambiguous and often incorrect English.”

The Cold War — uncannily predicted by Tocqueville, who foresaw Russia and the United States competing for global mastery — further renewed interest in “Democracy in America.” While few high school or college students were assigned the entire book, countless young Americans read chapters relating to equality, individualism and the operations of a civil social order, which helped them define themselves vis-`-vis the Soviets. The anti-Communism of the Cold War made Tocqueville a staple of American education.

In 1966, Harper & Row, in Great Britain, published a completely new English translation of “Democracy in America” by George Lawrence (a translator of Tocqueville’s later books), which arrived in the United States in 1967 to mixed reviews. The Journal of American History questioned, “What, one may well ask, is the need for a new translation if it fails, as this one does, to offer any substantial improvement over the old?” The Library Journal, on the other hand, found that “George Lawrence has provided … a translation that flows freely and is a pleasure to read.”

With two prior translations, why has the University of Chicago published yet another? This is very lengthy work, I’d guess over 300,000 words. So bringing out a new translation was no small task. Libraries and used book stores everywhere are still filled with Reeve and Lawrence translations. In fact, the Reeve translation, now in the public domain, can be downloaded free from a number of online sites. The explanation for this new translation would appear to be the translator — Harvey Mansfield.

I first met Mansfield in the reception room of my doctor’s office in Santa Monica, Calif. He was lying on the floor, and I mistook him — since he was upside down — for the author Tom Wolfe. More exactly, he was on the cover of the September-October 1999 issue of Harvard Magazine, which had fallen to the floor. When I picked it up, I discovered the dapper-looking gentleman, with a cream-colored sport coat and matching Panama hat, was Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., described as a translator and analyst of the works of Machiavelli. The magazine cover dubbed him the “Prince of Conservatives,” noting his criticism of Harvard’s liberal political culture. Since that first encounter, I have seen him, from time to time, on the Fox News Network, which unabashedly relishes his conservative credentials and thinking.

Mansfield arrived at Harvard in 1949 as a student, and it seems he never left. He graduated summa cum laude in 1953, received a Ph.D. in 1961 and joined the faculty in 1962. The student-published review of Harvard studies, “The Confidential Guide,” states that his history of political theory course is “one of the best classes you can take at Harvard.” But he’s tough. Students joke that the initial “C” in his name stand for “C-minus.”

Mansfield is known to stir passions on campus with hyperbole that the Harvard Magazine refers to as his “rhetorical rapier thrusts.” The 68-year-old political philosopher opposes homosexuality; he says it’s a “shameful” practice of people who are “not generally happy.” He opposes affirmative action. He is sufficiently concerned about the wake of feminism that he is writing a book about manliness.

The natty, occasionally flamboyantly attired professor is described as a quiet man, said to be shy, never a self promoter. While his conservative political views are treated as a tolerable embarrassment, if not a nuisance, in the liberal Harvard community, Mansfield’s influence is understood to be great, an influence driven by his intellectual acumen and accomplishments. His previous books include studies of Edmund Burke, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, classic liberalism, the writings of Thomas Jefferson and works on Machiavelli: “The Prince by Niccolr Machiavelli” (translated 1985), “Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power” (1989), “Machiavelli’s Virtue” (1996), and “Discourses on Livy by Niccolr Machiavelli” (translated 1996).

Another measure of Mansfield’s influence can be found in “Educating the Prince: Essays in Honor of Harvey Mansfield,” edited by Mark Blitz and William Kristol, a collection of essays by 21 of his former students, themselves distinguished scholars, the best and brightest addressing subjects close to the heart of their former professor. Among his admiring students are the professors who will assign Tocqueville readings to today’s and tomorrow’s students, and there is no question which translation they will use.

My only previous reading of Mansfield’s work is his “Taming the Prince,” a book I thought I wanted to read, but never finished. Yet I did manage to digest its analysis of the lineage of modern executive power, which Mansfield traces from Aristotle to Machiavelli, then through Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Baron de la Brhde et de Montesquieu. He takes political philosophy very seriously, finding it a guide to contemporary politics. Now, after having read the entirety of his new Tocqueville translation, and given my prior samplings, I must warn that Mansfield is not always user-friendly.

This fact is announced, however. I’m only confirming. Mansfield and Winthrop, the former student he married, acknowledge and explain the difficult nature of their translation in an introductory note:

Henry Reeve was trying to be helpful to Tocqueville’s readers by preventing them from thinking too well of democracy; but he was being too kind to them. It is better to let them, or force them to, make their own discoveries. We would rather attract readers to Tocqueville than bring him to them, and make him too cheaply available for our purposes today (which are not those of Henry Reeve). We do not want people to stop quoting Tocqueville — God forbid! But perhaps they should quote more faithfully, and work a little harder when they read him.

This “work a little harder” approach is not surprising coming from a prophet of manliness. In short, this translation of Tocqueville is not for the faint of heart. It is not a “pleasant read” like the free-flowing Lawrence translation. Rather it is riddled with stilted, awkward, atypical sentences that make it difficult to read easily or quickly. Compare, for example, the Mansfield and Winthrop translation, with the Reeve and Lawrence, on Tocqueville’s explanation of how great men became involved in the founding of America, a passage that appeared to be difficult for them all:

Reeve: When America was struggling in the high cause of independence to throw off the yoke of another country, and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world, the spirits of its inhabitants were roused to the height which their great objects required. In this general excitement distinguished men were ready to anticipate the call of the community, and the people clung to them for support and placed them at their head.

Lawrence: When America was engaged in the most just of struggles, that of a people escaping from another people’s yoke, and when it was a question of creating a new nation in the world, the spirits of all rose to the height of their efforts’ goal. In this general excitement outstanding men anticipated the people’s call, and the people welcomed them with open arms and put them at the head.

Mansfield and Winthrop: When America struggled for the most just of causes, that of a people escaping the yoke of another people; when it was a question of introducing a new nation into the world, all souls rose to reach to the height of the goal of their efforts. In that general excitement, superior men ran to meet the people, and the people, taking them in their arms, placed them at their head.

I find the Mansfield and Winthrop translation, of this and other passages, the most difficult to understand. There will be no Evelyn Wood dynamic reading of their material.

While they don’t expressly state it in their 70-page introduction, Mansfield and Winthrop imply that they find the Reeve and Lawrence translations unsatisfactory. Mansfield has been studying and teaching Tocqueville with the translations of others for over four decades. Clearly, he knows the work. His publisher, University of Chicago Press, states that the new translation “is based on recent critical French editions” of the Tocqueville text not available to the prior translators, so it is not surprising that Mansfield and Winthrop tackled “Democracy In America.”

And I have little doubt their translation will become the new standard of Tocqueville’s classic. Because their work is not for sissies, let me share a tip: If I were one of Mansfield’s students with an assignment to read his “Democracy In America,” I would also have either a Lawrence or a Reeve translation, or both, handy, because at times I found them helpful ponies in understanding this new translation of what Mansfield and Winthrop call “at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” I agree with their assessment, regardless of how difficult their translation makes it for readers to share it.

John W. Dean served as counsel to President Nixon from 1970 to 1973. He now writes a column for Findlaw and is the author of several books, with the next to be published in January 2004, a biography of Warren G. Harding. .

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