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Coming to America

(Original review by Michael McDonald at The Claremont Institute...)

"The Tocqueville family's first encounter with democratic revolution was not a pleasant one. Members of his mother's family, including Lamoignon de Malesherbes, were arrested on trumped-up charges of sedition against the French republic and guillotined in April 1794. But for the fall of Robespierre three months later on IX Thermidor (July 27), the same fate would likely have befallen Tocqueville's parents, who had also been jailed. Instead they walked free after ten months in a fetid prison. Their experiences of the Revolution only deepened their attachment to the ancien régime. They did their best to ensure that the young Alexis was raised to adhere faithfully to both the Bourbon monarchy and Roman Catholicism.

Tocqueville grew up in a household where books mattered and literature set the tone. Until the age of 15, he lived with his mother and was educated by his father's tutor, the Abbé Lesueur. Lesueur, an ecclesiastic with Jansenist leanings, was a man who belonged more to the 18th century than to the 19th. Despite the religious education that he received from the Abbé, Tocqueville's encounter with the works of the French philosophes would later precipitate a crisis of faith. He would struggle throughout his life with doubt, but he never turned against religion or failed to appreciate it. Lesueur's importance to Tocqueville may be gleaned by a letter that Tocqueville wrote to his brother after learning of Lesueur's death: "Yesterday evening, I prayed to him, as I would to a saint."

Tocqueville entered law school in Paris in 1824 and became an apprentice magistrate in 1827. It was then that he met Gustave de Beaumont, who was three years older and a magistrate. They formed what would become a lifelong friendship. Tocqueville also began to study history, attending François Guizot's lectures on French civilization at the Sorbonne. He would always be deeply conscious of the fact that he was an aristocrat. In one of the letters from America he writes: "Bound to the royalists as I am by a few common principles and a thousand family ties, I find myself in a way chained to a party whose conduct often strikes me as dishonorable and almost always extravagant. I can't help taking their faults deeply to heart, even as I condemn them with all my might."


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