DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. By Alexis de Tocqueville; transl. by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Univ. of Chicago Press. 722 pp. $35
I first encountered Democracy in America in the 1835–40 Henry Reeve translation (revised by Francis Bowen, edited by Phillips Bradley), and fell in love with its rolling sentences and flowing turns of phrase. The more highly praised 1966 translation by George Lawrence and J. P. Mayer, with its different phrasing and, at certain points, different interpretations, jarred me; I found myself going back to Reeve to make certain my memory wasn’t playing tricks. Though the Lawrence-Mayer volume seemed more lucid on some matters, the fluidity of the earlier translation and its older usages provided an appropriately 19th-century feel. A few days with the French original persuaded me that the Lawrence-Mayer version was generally the more reliable, but, like the Reeve, it often seemed rather free spirited.
In this new translation, Harvard University political scientists Mansfield and Winthrop adopt a decidedly literal approach, striving above all to translate the French faithfully. (I regret that they did not use the more literal title for Tocqueville’s classic, On Democracy in America, to signal their fidelity, but sticking to the traditional English title was probably necessary to avert confusion.) They seek "to convey Tocqueville’s thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today," and to provide a readable text in terms of "what can easily be read now, not what we might normally say." In a long introduction—which is a short book in itself—they provide the best entry point into Tocqueville’s thought now available in English.
As Tocqueville attempts to analyze with impartiality the new regime of democracy and the old regime of aristocracy, his key terms include la liberté, l’individualisme, and l’égalité. One sentence uses all three words, and the three versions of the sentence suggest the different spirits animating the translators. Tocqueville writes: "Les Américains ont combattu par la liberté l’individualisme que l’égalité faisait naître, et ils l’ont vaincu." Reeve-Bradley: "The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it." Lawrence-Mayer: "The Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality, and they have won." Mansfield-Winthrop: "The Americans have combated the individualism to which equality gives birth with freedom, and they have defeated it."
In retrospect, I am glad that I was introduced to this classic in the melodious, freer translation of Reeve and Bradley. But I would now direct new readers to Mansfield-Winthrop, where they are assured of getting much closer to the original thought. A rare spirit such as Tocqueville’s, after all, induces respect; one wishes to fit one’s mind as exactly as possible into the nuances of his thinking. It is not often that scholars of high stature show such reverence for greatness in others that they submit their own egos to full and faithful service, but that is the gift Mansfield and Winthrop render Tocqueville, and the noble service they render us.