Brogan’s expertise pays constant rewards to the reader. His knowledge of 19th-century French politics is comprehensive and his attention to context punctilious. Nor does he beat around the bush: Tocqueville’s cousin and confidant Louis de Kergorlay is “a young idiot” and the legitimist insurrectionist the Duchesse de Berry “one of the silliest princesses in all European history.” And although this book is rigorously chronological, it detours into mini-essays on pivotal topics — Tocqueville’s relationship with his invalid mother; Foucault’s reading of Tocqueville’s ideas of incarceration; and so forth. It is never dreary. Tocqueville’s life is always a pulsing intellectual and political drama.
But it is a drama in which Brogan is mostly at odds with his subject. Tocqueville’s goal as a deputy during the 1848 revolution was to protect both liberty and order. In Brogan’s view, he did a poor job of distinguishing between the two. Brogan blames conservative property owners for the excesses of the socialist revolutionaries. “The notables,” he writes, “Tocqueville among them, projected their own violent hatred and panic onto the urban workers, and in doing so created the very monster which they feared.” Brogan faults Tocqueville for “impudence,” “blindly prejudiced” views, an “obsessive cult of property” and a “ruthless hostility” to lower-class Parisians. That Tocqueville now considered himself a republican meant little. “Whatever he called himself,” Brogan writes, “the nobles knew that he was one of them.”