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Alexis de Tocqueville, caricatured by Honoré Daumier in 1849

Ernest Hemingway famously said of Scott Fitzgerald that he wrote two very good books and “one which was not completed which those who know his writings best say would have been very good”. The same might be said of Alexis de Tocqueville. Hardly anyone would deny the status of both Democracy in America and the later The Old Regime and the Revolution as classics of political literature and analysis but few would readily accord the same distinction to Tocqueville’s posthumously published Recollections. But here, in a text that Tocqueville never quite finished and that he wrote not for “public viewing” but for his own satisfaction, is what some might regard as Tocqueville’s third masterpiece.

Tocqueville spent the early 1840s as something of an underperforming politician in the July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe. Always a poor public speaker, he never quite made the grade. But by January 1848 he had come to understand that the Orleanist regime was in deep trouble. As he told his parliamentary colleagues, they were lulling themselves to sleep on an active volcano.

So when, a month later, the February Revolution burst forth and Louis-Philippe as plain Mr Smith went into exile in England, Tocqueville knew exactly where he stood. There was no chance of preserving or restoring the monarchy. The newly-proclaimed Republic had to be built upon sound constitutional and liberal principles. And this meant that the Republic had to be protected from the wilder excesses of socialism.

To that end, Tocqueville did his best to ensure that France would adopt a constitution that copied as closely as possible that of his beloved stable and prosperous America; in parliamentary debates he denounced calls for a recognition of the right to work, defending private property to the hilt; with a rifle on his back, he enthusiastically endorsed the brutal repression of the popular insurrection in June 1848 prompted by the closure of Louis Blanc’s National Workshops. For five months in 1849 Tocqueville also served as minister of foreign affairs.

It was when this last sorry episode — Tocqueville, with considerable ineptitude, oversaw a breach of diplomatic relations with the United States — was brought unceremoniously to an end that, already in ill-health, he retired to his country estate in Normandy and began to reflect on these bitter experiences. Parts of what became the Recollections were subsequently written in Sorrento over the winter of 1850-51 and then, upon his return to France, in Versailles as the threat of a coup d’état by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became ever more real. A first (imperfect) edition was published by Tocqueville’s grandnephew only in 1893.

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