Though he will turn 200 this year, the words of Alexis de Tocqueville are still read and applied by modern day politicos, intellectuals and students.
In celebration of the philosopher’s birthday, Yale’s extensive collection of his manuscripts is now on display at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The exhibition, formally titled “Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Beaumont, and the Challenge of Democracy,” went on display two weeks ago in preparation for the upcoming international Alexis de Tocqueville conference commemorating the bicentennial of his birth at the end of the month. The 19th century French writer is famed for his lifelong study of the reinforcement of equality and liberty in modern governance.
Tocqueville’s priceless working manuscript of “Democracy in America,” for which he is famed, is currently on public display at Beinecke as part of the exhibit, Beinecke Director Frank Turner said.
“This is one of Yale’s great treasures because we can literally see Tocqueville’s own handwriting,” Turner said.
Also in the collection and on display are several first editions of “Democracy in America,” which is arguably the most influential work written by a foreign observer of the United States, Turner said. The French philosopher published his book at the age of 30 after visiting the United States with his close friend Gustave de Beaumont. The book examines the role of government, religion, press and class structure in shaping 19th century America. Turner said “Democracy in America” was well-received in France and appreciated even by French conservatives who did not believe that democracy and religion could coexist peacefully as Tocqueville described it in America.
Yale’s collection includes manuscripts by Tocqueville, his close friend Gustave de Beaumont, their families and associates, and copies by contemporary copyists. The collection also contains numerous letters written to and by Tocqueville, including a letter sent by John Quincy Adams. Part of the exhibit is devoted to the original writings of French political philosophers who influenced Tocqueville, including the work of Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
“We’re privileged to help in the celebration of Tocqueville’s 200th birthday,” political science professor Steve Smith said. “It will be great for Yale students to hear leading Tocqueville experts share their views.”
Yale has been steward of Tocqueville materials for three-quarters of a century, owning all of the Tocqueville materials presently on display in Beinecke, Turner said.
According to Turner, most items in the exhibit came to Yale between the early 1920s and 1950s, before the Beinecke was built. After World War I, Yale history instructor Paul Lambert White, who was interested in Tocqueville’s work, went to France and visited the Tocqueville family chateau on the coast of Normandy.
“White became friendly with the family and began assembling and making transcripts of Tocqueville’s personal documents and manuscripts,” Turner said.
White died early of appendicitis and his widow left his Tocqueville materials to Yale. In 1926, professor George W. Pierson went to France and continued White’s work, adding more manuscripts and first or early editions of Tocqueville’s writing. In the 1950s, the Tocqueville family was short of money and decided to put the working manuscript of “Democracy in America” on the market. Yale alumnus Louis Rabinowitz purchased the historical document and donated it to Yale.
By the end of the 1950s, Yale housed several Tocqueville materials, transcripts and the working model of “Democracy in America” in Sterling Memorial Library’s rare book collection. Other materials were added by later acquisition. These items were later moved to the Beinecke Library when it opened in 1963.
This exhibition marks the library’s third public display of Tocqueville materials.
“Now, students and faculty can all learn about this great writer firsthand,” Turner said.
Yale in collaboration with the Tocqueville Society organized the commemorative conference, which will take place Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Following the conference, the exhibition will remain on display for the first three weeks of October.