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`A New Kind of Liberal'

TOCQUEVILLE: A BIOGRAPHY by Andr'e Jardin, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 550 pp. $35

SINCE 1940, when it was rediscovered by a generation of Americans and Europeans who no longer believed in the inevitability of progress, Tocqueville's ``Democracy in America'' has supplied successive generations with models for the active life. Robert Nisbet - himself a modern Tocqueville - pointed out in 1976 that there are indeed ``many Tocquevilles.''

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As Nisbet suggests, and as a survey of recent books on Tocqueville confirms, the defining trait of today's Tocqueville is ambivalence.

``Democracy in America,'' his seminal work on the United States, while ostensibly a book in praise of democracy, speaks to each generation alive to the dangers of absolute power. The son of aristocratic parents who had been jailed for months during the Reign of Terror under daily expectation of execution, Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831 and published the first volume of ``Democracy'' in 1835. An immediate hit, it was followed five years later by Vol. 2, in which his many minute observations of democratic institutions and customs bore philosophic fruit that, like the apples on the fabled Western Isle, still replenish themselves.

Tocqueville's ambivalence toward democracy can be seen on every page of Andr'e Jardin's ``Tocqueville: a Biography.'' Reviewers, not sure what to look for, have been impatient with Jardin's patience with detail. There's more to Tocqueville than his quotes. As Jardin shows, an early - he was 16 - religious crisis left all in doubt for Tocqueville. Thereafter his exceptionally clear mind was often troubled by complexity, by shades of meaning, by insights into the unintended consequences of unwise though well-intended human acts. Jardin's portrait is of a thinker bound by a sense of responsibility to put his thoughts to the test of political life.

As historian, Tocqueville believed that the French Revolution furthered the trend toward centralization embodied by the rejected monarchy. As heir to the vita activa of the landed aristocracy and the classical humanists, Tocqueville opposed the socialism championed by the radical left. As intellectual, he scorned the leveling influence of equality, especially when organized by zealous bureaucrats. These tensions defined his life as a politician - as, in his phrase, ``a new kind of liberal.''

Tocqueville was a good comparative sociologist. Jardin's meticulous accounts of Tocqueville's trips and commentary on places amount to a portrait of the age of revolution. His early travels to America and England were supplemented by trips to Germany and Italy as minister of foreign affairs in 1849. Occasionally Jardin hazards a literary judgment, as when he delightfully suggests that the ``Democracy'' of 1849 ``reminds one of a classical sonata.'' Crammed with quotations from all the writings, published and unpublished, Jardin's portrait could be said to be monumental if Tocqueville were not harder than any stone.

Tocqueville's ambivalence toward democracy was governed by his unshakable attachment to liberty. If Tocqueville first saw Europe and America at a revolutionary point of transition, he came to see that the mixture of elements could become ``a permanent fusion of revolutionary with democratic characteristics.'' As Jardin shows, Tocqueville lived to see the democratic element vote for Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte for president!

At that time, 1848, Tocqueville had realized his dream of the active life. His career was fueled by the success of ``Democracy''; he had indeed become - as he hoped he would - ``a new kind of liberal''; but he had a hard time convincing others of crucial distinctions - say between the democratic principle of nothing being done without popular backing, and the corruption of that principle into the expectation on the part of the people of the immediate realization of their desires.