More than most writers, Alexis de Tocqueville was an architect of language. In Democracy in America he sought to create a harmonious edifice, a structure in which each part was carefully proportioned and subordinated to a conception of the whole. In a letter to his friend and traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont, he said, "I am more and more convinced that the overall effect is chief among the merits of a book and that one must have the courage to make all the sacrifices necessary to achieve it."1 Tocqueville was perfectly conscious of the overall effect he wished to achieve. He described it well in characterizing the literary qualities that an aristocratic nation would be likely to value: "Style will seem almost as important as ideas and form almost as important as substance. Tone will be polite, measured, and even. The mind will invariably move at a stately pace, seldom with haste, and writers will devote more effort to perfecting their works than to producing them."2 At the same time, he recommended avoiding "aristocratic jargon," because jargon excludes: "Any aristocracy that sets itself entirely apart from the people becomes impotent. This is true in literature as well as in politics."
In preparing this translation, these lines of Tocqueville's have been my guide. Fidelity to his ideas is perhaps easier to achieve than fidelity to his stylea style of classical sobriety, "almost anachronistic for the Romantic era."3 His first tutor, Abbé Lesueur, had also been his father's tutor. As a citizen of the Republic of Letters, Tocqueville was therefore more a man of the 18th century than of the 19th, and he seems to have taken from his tutor something of the 18th century's love of clarity, elegance, and balance in prose. His father's library, filled with translations of ancient authors as well as the French classics of the 17th century and the great philosophes of the 18th, probably influenced his writing even more than his classes in rhetoric, a subject in which he excelled.4
What stands out above all in Tocqueville's style is a remarkable and almost paradoxical combination of solidity and grace. His affirmations buttress one another without ever becoming ponderous or ungainly. Although he is the most quotable of authors, his sentences do not go in for what he disparaged as "facile beauties," nor do they depend on "surprise and novelty" or "intense and rapid emotions" for their effects. The "polite, measured, even tone" and "stately pace" at which he aimed may be prosaic qualities, but heedless translation can undo them all too easily. A writer of Tocqueville's mastery can cast a spell over his translator. The rightness of his French seems so incontestable that one hesitates to tamper with his choices. If an English cognate is available for a word he used in French, there is always a temptation to use it rather than cast about for a more adequate English equivalent. If he ordered his words and clauses in a certain way in order to achieve a balanced period in the original, there is a temptation to acquiesce in his example rather than make the extra effort necessary to achieve a similar equilibrium in English. Yet to succumb to these temptations is at times to betray the author by excess of fidelity. A fine discrimination is required, a tactful judgment as to what sacrifices are necessary and warranted in order to achieve the desired "overall effect." Each such decision may in itself be small and almost negligible, but a translation is the concatenation of thousands of small choices. Like the writer, the translator needs the courage to make sacrifices. At times, that may mean eschewing a misguided literalism in order to preserve some quality of the original that would not otherwise survive. At other times, it may mean translating literally even at the risk of producing a formulation that sounds oddly foreign in English.
In one instance it was necessary to take issue with Tocqueville himself. In volume one, part I, chapter 5, Tocqueville placed the English word "township" in parentheses after the French phrase la commune de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. Previous translators have taken this as an indication that Tocqueville intended the French commune to be equivalent to the English "township." Hence they have him refer in subsequent passages to "township meetings," "township officers," and the like. But New England was famous for its "town meetings"; Tocqueville took his local nomenclature from a book called The Town Officer; and a letter that he wrote to Jared Sparks on December 2, 1831, refers to communes as "towns." Sparks, his principal informant on these matters, consistently refers to "towns," not "townships."5 Hence it seems forced and artificial to perpetuate what I believe to be a slip of Tocqueville's pen by emulating the choice that previous translators have made. I have accordingly broken with tradition on this point.
There are in Democracy in America certain words that amount to terms of art, words that acquire a special meaning from the way Tocqueville deploys them in his argument. One such term of particular importance is moeurs, which I have rendered into English using the cognate term "mores." Tocqueville uses "mores" to mean something more than "the accepted traditional customs and usages of a particular social group." Although he is usually content to allow special meanings to emerge from his use of a word in a variety of contexts, in this key instance he supplies a definition, but not until the word has been used many times: "By mores I mean here what the Ancients meant by the term: I apply it not only to mores in the strict sense, what one might call habits of the heart, but also to the various notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind. Thus I use this word to refer to the whole moral and intellectual state of a people."6 Here the translation of a French word by a cognate is not misleading, because in both languages the meaning of the term is inflected by Tocqueville's idiosyncratic usage.
Tocqueville often uses the terms "nation" and "people" interchangeably as a stylistic device to avoid repetition. I have therefore allowed myself on occasion to substitute one for the other when necessary to achieve a more euphonious English sentence. There are places, however, where Tocqueville speaks of a nation composed of more than one people, and there the distinction has been rigorously maintained. In addition, he sometimes refers to the states of the Union as "nations" when he wants to emphasize their sovereign rights. Where a literal translation would have obscured his meaning, I have translated as "state" (and indicated the alteration with a translator's note). La souveraineté du peuple is often rendered as "popular sovereignty," a phrase common enough in English and frequently conducive to less cumbersome translation than the more literal "sovereignty of the people."
Tocqueville refers to the various branches of the American government as "powers": le pouvoir judiciaire, for example. While it might be more natural to translate as "the judicial branch," something would surely be lost, so I have repatriated the Gallicism.
Tocqueville makes frequent use of the verb se confondre, whose translation proved problematic. Previous translators have generally rendered this as "intermingled," but this translation implies that the components of a mixture retain their identities, whereas se confondre suggests a loss of identity, a condition of indistinguishability, so I have preferred to translate the term in most instances as "blend." The nuance may be of some significance, particularly in the chapter on the "three races that inhabit the United States" (pages 365-476 in this volume), where the frequent occurrence of this verb is worth noting.
In one respect this translation departs significantly from previous translations of Democracy in America. Tocqueville translated passages from a substantial number of English texts into French and included them in his book. Some of his translations are quite faithful, while others are so free as to amount to interpretations of the originals. It was therefore decided to provide the reader with translations of Tocqueville's more liberal renderings. These retranslated passages have been incorporated into the body of the text; the original English passages are included in the notes so as to allow the reader to judge what Tocqueville did in each case.
It is a rare honor for a translator to work on a classic of the magnitude of Democracy in America. I hope that I have been able to do it justice. I would like to thank Daniel Gordon, Patrice Higonnet, and Cheryl Welch for comments on portions of the manuscript and above all Jon Elster and Olivier Zunz for their careful reading of the entire text. These vigilant readers have improved the translation substantially. Any flaws that remain are of course entirely my own.
This is not the first translation of Democracy in America, nor will it be the last. I hope that it has qualities that will give the reader without French an idea of the stately grace of Tocqueville's style as well as a rigorous and faithful rendering of his ideas. Tocqueville enjoys a unique position in the history of literature and thought: a philosopher also notable as a literary stylist, he is the only Frenchman who can claim to be part of the American canon as well as the French. It is my fervent hope that the pleasure I took in translating his work will prove contagious.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003
1. Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville et les Français (Paris: Aubier, 1993), p. 34.
2. See page 540.31-35 in this volume.
3. André Jardin, Alexis de Tocqueville, (Paris: Hachette, 1984), p. 357.
4. Ibid., pp. 60-63.
5. I am grateful to Olivier Zunz for directing my attention to the Sparks-Tocqueville correspondence on this point.
6. See page 331.27-33 in this volume.