U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Of Hope and History: Tocqueville’s “Democratic Historians” and Free Will

This is a guest post from Timothy K. Minella. Minella recently finished his PhD in history at the University of South Carolina, where he is presently a part-time instructor. His dissertation is titled “Knowing in America: The Enlightenment, Science, and the Early Republic” and directed by Ann Johnson. – TL


Peter Wirzbicki’s excellent post from December on hope and history prompted me to reflect on various narrative styles in historical writing. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America provides one way to think about agency and imagination in history.

Responding to recent critiques of a hope-filled style of historical writing by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tim Tyson, Wirzbicki argues that looking to history as the primary guide to present-day politics constrains the possibilities for the imaginative reshaping of society. He explains that in response to narratives that emphasize progress, historians have stressed the power of historical forces in shaping human experience. Structures of white supremacy and capitalism, products of historical forces, are so strong that perhaps nothing can fully overcome them. Wirzbicki counters this pessimism by contending that the facts of history should not be seen as a straightjacket that limits the possibilities of human action. As he puts it, history “can provide the building blocks with which we build an ethical or existential outlook, but the task of constructing those values is ours and ours alone.”

Tocqueville dealt with similar issues in his analysis of the “democratic” style of history. In the “aristocratic ages” that proceeded the rise of democracy, Tocqueville argued, historians dwelt on the particular personalities and decisions of powerful figures to explain the course of history. This method changed radically in an age of equality like that of early nineteenth-century America. In a society with relative social equality, the individual appeared quite small and weak when compared with the great mass. Gone were the few prominent men of aristocratic ages who seemed to exercise a disproportionate influence on the fate of society. Thus, historians shifted their focus from great men to great forces that shaped human history. In a democratic age, “society would seem to advance alone by the free and voluntary action of all the men who compose it. This naturally prompts the mind to search for that general reason which operates upon so many men’s faculties at once, and turns them simultaneously in the same direction.” A democratic historian, Tocqueville continued, delighted in creating a “system,” or general theory, that explained how all the events in the past were connected with each other. The democratic historian turned to general causes such as “the characteristics of race, the physical conformation of the country, or the genius of civilization” to explain the progress of society. (1)

Although Tocqueville thought that historians in democratic ages were right to focus primarily on these general causes, he worried that a history without the agency of individuals could strip human beings of any power to shape their own destinies. A history which emphasized general causes over “individual action,” Tocqueville argued, led people to believe that “societies unconsciously obey some superior force ruling over them.” He continued, “A cause sufficiently extensive to affect millions of men at once, and sufficiently strong to bend them all together in the same direction, may well seem irresistible: having seen that mankind do yield to it, the mind is close upon the inference that mankind cannot resist it.” Thus, democratic historians “not only deny that the few have any power of acting upon the destiny of a people, but they deprive the people themselves of the power of modifying their own condition, and they subject them either to an inflexible Providence or to some blind necessity.” For these historians, the characteristics of a nation (including its geography, “origin,” and “character”) determined its fate, and no human effort could alter its destiny. Aristocratic history, with its emphasis on individual character and virtue, taught people “how to command.” Democratic history could only teach people “how to obey.” Such an attitude in democratic society threatened the “great object in our time”: “to raise the faculties of men, not to complete their prostration.” (2)

Reflecting on Tocqueville’s arguments about aristocratic and democratic styles of history, I would suggest that the field of intellectual history might be uniquely positioned to provide an account of humanity that does not dismiss the power of general causes (such as institutional racism, economic structures, etc.) but also affirms the role of imagination and individual action in transcending those general causes. In my research, I have spent quite some time with John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and other philosophers in the British empirical tradition. For the most part, these philosophers grounded all knowledge in experience of one kind or another; they wanted to bring the sciences down from the clouds of speculation and make experience the foundation of their method. Locke famously declared that each human mind came into existence as “White Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas.” Yet he admitted that once the mind formed ideas through experience, the mind could then combine and rearrange these ideas in infinite ways. Thus, Locke argued that our experiences provide us with ideas, but each human mind has the freedom to imaginatively manipulate these ideas. Similarly, Wirzbicki asserts that history might provide us with the raw empirical data, but each of us must imaginatively reason through this data to produce a vision for future action. Intellectual history follows a similar sort of method. Social structures, the physical environment, and culture—the general causes that Tocqueville identified in democratic history—clearly exercise a powerful effect on the ideas that people have thought and articulated throughout the past. We might even call these general causes the simple ideas that form the raw materials for the intellect. But these general causes do not determine the form of the complex ideas that people have developed in the past. The mind still exercises a good deal of freedom in choosing what to make of the empirical facts presented to its attention. (3)

As historians, we are often asked why it is valuable for young students to learn history in a world that prizes technical skill and practical results. Usually, I attempt to answer this question by arguing that improving students’ understanding of the past will make them more informed citizens. The view of intellectual history that I have presented here suggests a more precise way to justify the value of historical study. By revealing how people in the past have exercised their free will in reasoning about the facts of their existence, intellectual history can teach students how to command and question, not just obey. Intellectual history can show that people in the past were not paralyzed by their own circumstances. No matter how oppressed certain people were by social structures, their minds remained free to imagine any number of possibilities. The trouble, of course, is gaining access to their thought, which sources do no always permit. In studying intellectual history, then, students’ faculties would be raised, not prostrated.


(1) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1863), 103-5, available at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=aeu.ark:/13960/t9x06xb4h;view=1up;seq=6.

(2) Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:106-7.

(3) John Locke, The Works of John Locke Esq., vol. 1 (London: Arthur Bettesworth, 1727), 32, 39, available at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433006428688;view=1up;seq=11.