Alexis de Tocqueville


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A Life

Hugh Brogan

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“Magisterial. . . . The authoritative life for our time."—Washington Post Book World

Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the greatest political thinkers of all time. Born a French aristocrat, he lost nearly his entire family in the Reign of Terror, and he spent most of his adult life struggling for liberty under the unsuccessful regimes of nineteenth-century France. 

At age twenty-five he travelled to America and encountered democracy for the first time. This firsthand experience contributed to his incisive writing on liberty and democracy. The ancien régime launched the scholarly study of the French Revolution, and Democracy in America remains the best book ever written by a European about the United States. This is a brilliant account of his life.

Hugh Brogan held the R. A. Butler Chair in History at the University of Essex and since retiring has had a research professorship there. His books include The Penguin History of the United States and biographies of John F. Kennedy and Arthur Ransome.

Click here for an extended question & answer discussion with the author.

"This is a magnificent biography. Hugh Brogan’s knowledge of the details of Tocqueville’s life is extraordinary, as is his erudite account of his family life and of French politics and society in the first half of the nineteenth century. And how splendidly the book is written! Tocqueville’s life was marked by a triumph of character; Hugh Brogan’s biography is a triumph of history and letters."—John Lukacs

"Brogan has written a masterly biography of this modern original whose thoughts remain relevant after 150 years. Writing in clear, often lapidary prose, Brogan judges when judgment enlightens and suspends judgment when not; his humanity and his immersion in the literature are evident on every page. . . . Brogan's [book] will be the definitive account of Tocqueville's life for generations to come. . . . Enthusiastically recommended for all libraries."—Library Journal(starred review)

“Brogan has written the definitive English language biography of the best known and most perceptive foreign interpreter of the American experience. The work's major achievement, however, is its lucid presentation of Tocqueville in the French contexts of monarchy and revolution that shaped his perceptions of the emerging democracy across the Atlantic.”—Dennis Showalter, Colorado College

“Brogan vividly captures the brilliance and complexity of Alexis de Tocqueville: prophet of modern democracy bound to the old regime by family and feeling; lover of liberty and the rule of law who felt the lure of empire; bold and restless spirit who recoiled from revolution. This is a vibrant and compelling biography.”—Alan Houston, University of California San Diego 

“It might be thought that Tocqueville is by now a rather familiar figure, but he emerges anew from Brogan’s consummately skilful presentation as an intricate and in some ways contradictory personality. . . . It is hard to do justice to the artistry with which Brogan renders this complicated character. . . . Though I have read Tocqueville on and off over many years, I felt as if I knew the man behind the writings for the first time. Brogan has given us a masterly reconstruction of the European milieu by which Tocqueville was formed, and the definitive biography of one of the nineteenth century’s most representative thinkers.”—John Gray, Literary Review


“On switching off the light after reading War and Peace, Edmund Wilson, an American critic, would find his bedroom ‘full of people’. Something like that happens with this biography of Alexis de Toqueville. . . . Hugh Brogan has a historian’s grasp of the period and a novelist’s gift for character.”—The Economist (A 2006 Book of the Year)



“One of the delights of this remarkable biography is to . . . see the past as if it were the present. . . . A biography as humane, learned, humorous, and perceptive as this extends our understanding of ourselves and where we came from.”—Hilary Spurling, The Observer


 "As timely as it is formidable. His biography ranks with Nicholas Boyle’s Goethe and David Cairns’s Berlioz as an outstanding example of the genre."—Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph


"A wonderfully rich life in which action had been balanced by contemplation, reason by emotion, and to which this superb biography does full justice."—Tim Blanning, Sunday Telegraph

“This magisterial biography serves up all the interesting personal details in the life of Tocqueville, the man who most influenced America and its self-perception. But the heart of the book is Tocqueville’s travels in the United States and the writing of Democracy in America. . . . This is an engrossing and erudite account.”—Publishers Weekly


“The subject . . . receives the complete examination from British historian Brogan. His theme is Tocqueville’s intellectual distancing from his family’s political pedigree, which was landed, noble, and instinctually royalist, and Tocqueville’s diffident approach to the democratic trajectory of the age. . . . This biography is most significant for the way it integrates Tocqueville’s daily life with the development of his political thought.”—Booklist

"Excellent."—New York Observer

"[This biography] is warm, witty, intimate, exhaustive, digressive, autumnal, and not in the least idolatrous."—John Leonard, Harper's Magazine

"Brogan not only tells a complicated story fully and clearly; he also engages the reader in all sorts of wonderful asides and observations. . . . Brogan's book is hard to put down."—Joe Mysak,

"An outstanding, exhaustive, nicely written account that has been many years in preparation. . . . [A] fine biography."—M.D. Aeschliman, National Review

"A magisterial account, 50 years in the making. . . . If this is not the definitive life, it is only because no such thing is possible. It is surely the authoritative life for our time. . . . Brogan's achievement here is monumental. He wears his learning lightly, the analysis conveys a distilled wisdom that is blessedly bereft of academic jargon, the prose is engaging, and the posture toward Tocqueville is appreciative but never mindlessly celebratory. This is a book virtually certain to win some major prizes."—Joseph J. Ellis, Washington Post Book World

"Hugh Brogan is a British scholar richly specialized in French as well as American history. No one is better qualified to write this first exhaustive biography in English, and Brogan does not disappoint."—Michael Kammen, Boston Sunday Globe

"Mr. Brogan's book is wonderfully learned and intelligent. . . . The strength of the book comes from Mr. Brogan's narrative talent and remarkable knowledge of Tocqueville's life and times. The biography reads like a novel, combining humor and urbanity with erudition and insight."—Thomas Pavel, Wall Street Journal

"For almost two centuries, there has been no comprehensive English-language biography of Tocqueville. That gap is now filled by Hugh Brogan's absorbing, exhaustive Alexis de Tocqueville. . . . Along with [his] thorough tracking of Tocqueville's intellectual development, Brogan also offers a close analysis of his personal life. . . . Much of Tocqueville's life was aimed at discovering a form of government that could reclaim past French glories. Brogan's biography is a marvelous tribute to that life."—Vikram Johri, Christian Science Monitor

"A welcome addition. Brogan writes with intelligence and style entertaining to a serious reader, and instructive to students of biography."—Harvey Mansfield, New Criterion

"Perhaps because Tocqueville wrote so well and so prolifically, no one before has undertaken his biography. Brogan's book is bursting with details of Tocqueville's private and public life and the intricacies of the politics of his country and the era."—

"Brogan's book will have to be reckoned with by all Anglophone students of Tocqueville. It is lively, comprehensive, well-researched, and exceedingly well-written."—Daniel J. Mahoney, Claremont Review of Books

"[This book] is so elegantly written, so masterfully told, that it feels more like paging through the scrapbook of a dear friend than an excursion through antebellum American and French history. . . . This complex, intellectually curious and wonderfully engaging personality comes vividly to life in the skilled hands of Brogan, a biographer and historian of the first order. What an absolute pleasure."—Michael J. Bonafield, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"In an erudite and combative new biography, [Brogan] presents many of Tocqueville's misgivings about democracy as specious and reactionary. . . . Brogan's expertise pays constant rewards to the reader, his knowledge of 19th-century French politics is comprehensive and his attention to context punctilious. . . . It is a brisk and admirably accessible account of how Tocqueville gave a name to certain misgivings about democracy that are with us still."—Christopher Caldwell, New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)

Listed as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review

"Brogan's book reads like a novel, weaving aspects of Tocqueville's private life into a grand narrative about the ideas and actions of Tocqueville."—Aurelian Craiutu, American Historical Review

"A monumental life-and-times biography, as rich in detail about post-Revolutionary France as it is about Tocqueville himself."—Jeff Broadwater, Journal of the Early Republic

Named one of the 100 Notable Book of 2007 by The New York Times Book Review

Included in the Washington Post Book World's Holiday Guide (2007)

Selected as a 2008 AAUP University Press Book for Public and Secondary School Libraries.
ISBN: 9780300136258
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
736 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
16 b/w illus.

Sales Restrictions: For sale in North America only