Writings on Empire and Slavery by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts.
De Tocqueville by Cheryl B. Welch.
Welch's volume in the Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought series from Oxford University Press is no elementary introduction to one of the most fascinating students of the modern world. Welch maintains that Tocqueville's "new science of politics" contradicted the powerful post-revolutionary call for social science, which arose precisely in order to explain the French Revolution and its consequences. The irony of her approach is that it focuses our attention on his style, his rhetoric, but not the core of his political philosophy.
Those political concerns become clear in Tocqueville's Writings on Empire and Slavery, which contains his reports on Algeria, notes on the Koran, and an essay urging the emancipation of slaves. Here we see the author of Democracy in America outlining a sort of Barbarism in Islam—and how to civilize it. Jennifer Pitts, the translator of these writings, condemns Tocqueville's defense of French imperialism. But Tocqueville sees civilizing trends in Algeria: "the whole younger generation of Arabs speaks our language, and they have already partly adopted our mores." Noting that Arabs and French serve together in the military, he concludes: "There is, then, no reason to believe that time will not succeed in amalgamating the two races. God is not stopping it; only human deficiencies can stand in its way." But of course political men realize that there is no end to "human deficiencies"—hence the ongoing need for force. Tocqueville may well have underestimated the political nature of man, but not to the extent that these two scholars imply.
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This article appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books