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Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 61, No. 379, May, 1847   By:

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Transcriber's Note: Minor typos have been corrected and footnotes moved to the end of each article.


M. De Tocqueville is one of the greatest, perhaps the very greatest, of the political philosophers of the present day. Alone of all his contemporaries, his best works will bear a comparison with those of Machiavelli and Bacon. Less caustic and condensed than Tacitus, less imaginative and eloquent than Burke, he possesses the calm judgment, the discriminating eye, and the just reflection, which have immortalised the Florentine statesman and the English philosopher. Born and bred in the midst of the vehement strife of parties in his own country, placed midway, as it were, between the ruins of feudal and the reconstruction of modern society in France, he has surveyed the contest with an impartial gaze. He has brought to the examination of republican institutions in the United States, the eye of calm reason and the powers of philosophic reflection. The war cries, the illusions, the associations of neither party have been able to disturb his steady mind. Though a man of rank, descended, as his name indicates, of an ancient family, he is not bigoted in favour of the old régime; though belonging to a profession where strenuous efforts can alone ensure success, he is not blind to the dangers of the new order of things. The feudal ages, with their dignified manners, glorious episodes, and heart stirring recollections, are not lost upon him, but they have not closed his eyes to the numerous evils which they brought in their train. Modern times, with their general activity, vast achievements, and boundless anticipations, have produced their full effect on his thoughtful mind; but they have not rendered him insensible to the perils with which they are fraught. He is a Burke without his imagination a Machiavelli without his crimes.

M. De Tocqueville, it is well known, is a firm believer in the progress of society to a general system of equality and popular government. He thinks that, for better or for worse, this tendency is inevitable; that all efforts to resist it are vain, and that true wisdom consists in accommodating ourselves to the new order of things, and making the transition with as little confusion and individual distress as may be. America he considers as the type of what Europe is to become; though he has grievous misgivings as to the final result of such a prostration of the great interests of society as has there taken place, and is too well read a scholar not to know that it was in the institutions of the Byzantine empire that a similar levelling resulted in ancient times. But being thus a devout believer, if not in the doctrine of perfectibility, at least in that of ceaseless progress towards democracy, his opinions are of the highest value when he portrays the perils with which the new order of things is attended. Alone of all the moderns, he has fixed the public attention upon the real danger of purely republican institutions; he first has discerned in their working in America, where it is that the lasting peril is to be apprehended. Passing by the bloodshed, suffering, and confiscations with which the transition from aristocratic ascendency to democratic power is necessarily attended, he has examined with a scrutinising eye the practical working of the latter system in the United States, where it had been long established and was in pacific undisputed sovereignty. He has demonstrated that in such circumstances, it is not the weakness but the strength of the ruling power in the state which is the great danger, and that the many headed despot, acting by means of a subservient press and servile juries, speedily becomes as formidable to real freedom as ever Eastern sultaun with his despotic power and armed guards has proved.

The works of this very eminent writer, however, are by no means of equal merit... Continue reading book >>

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