Tocqueville’s world and ours

by Sara Morano ’13, Contributing Writer

Embedded in Alexis de Tocqueville’s prolific work, Democracy in America, is a lofty promise.

According to Professor James Ceasar,  “A new political science for a new age” is what Tocqueville set out to create when in 1835 he published the first volume of Democracy in America; an astonishingly rich collection of observations, analysis and predictions on American political life.

Ceasar visited campus last week as part of Furman’s Tocqueville program. Since 2006, the noted program, has  welcomed speakers to campus to “say something about Tocqueville”, as Professor Ceasar jokingly introduced the substance of his lecture on Wednesday night.

What followed in Ceasar’s hour-long presentation, titled “Tocqueville’s World and Ours”, was a rigorous examination of Democracy in America’s “new political science” and a search to answer, “What was Tocqueville putting behind him?” with his declaredly new approach.

The University of Virginia professor took as his first clue to answering this central question that Tocqueville’s thorough study is perplexingly silent on the Declaration of Independence, though an important American work of his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson.

Ceasar considered many possibilities to finally deduce of the  omission was deliberate.

He quoted Tocqueville as once writing that Thomas Jefferson was “the most powerful apostle democracy has ever had” and put aside the possibility that the snub of the Declaration of Independence was meant for its author.

Instead, he concluded that Tocqueville left out the Declaration of Independence, with language borrowed heavily from the writings of John Locke, because its basis in the theory of  Natural Rights.

Ceasar identified Natural Rights Theory and  the 17th century political science of Locke and Adam Smith as what Tocqueville wanted to usher out for his new age of new political science.

The Revolution of 1789 had left many in France disillusioned with natural rights theory as it played out in their own country.

At the core of Democracy in America is Tocqueville’s choice to focus his observations on the institutions, habits, social customs, and “soul” of America rather than the written record of its philosophical origins in 1776.

Cesar invoked the work of many other scholars in examining his conclusion that Tocqueville’s new science was a depreciation of natural law.

He advised the audience to take notice of the rhetoric of universal rights in the current political discourse and punctuated the end of his expansive lecture when he asked it be “an agenda setting  for future meetings of the Tocqueville program”