April 20, 2023 12:51 pm ET
Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to the United States in 1831 is one of the most famous journeys in the history of political thought. As he recorded in “Democracy in America,” he found a flourishing and stable society characterized by an “equality of conditions” (among white Americans) and the pursuit of “self-interest well understood.” This was Tocqueville’s only visit to the U.S.; he watched the country’s slide into civil war from a distance. America, he wrote in 1856, had come to disappoint all the “friends of democratic liberty.”
Yet Tocqueville continued to travel until his death in 1859, visiting England, Ireland, Italy and Germany. The country that preoccupied him from the late 1830s onward was Algeria, France’s most important African colony, which he visited in 1841 and 1846. Tocqueville’s writings about Algeria are the most controversial part of his legacy.
French military involvement in Algeria began in 1830, and from the outset, some critics opposed the attempt to create an overseas French Empire. Starting in 1839, resistance from the indigenous Arab and Berber population led France to respond with brutal suppression, embarking on a policy of full territorial conquest and intensive colonial settlement.
Tocqueville was attracted by the possibilities of a French presence in North Africa. As early as 1837, he wrote that he had no doubt France would “be able to raise a great monument to our country’s glory on the African coast.” He wanted to see the country for himself and prepared meticulously for his first visit to Algeria in 1841, accompanied by his travelling companion in America, Gustave de Beaumont.
“As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator in Algeria.”
As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator, travelling far and wide, interviewing as many people as he could, always taking extensive notes. But in contrast to America, what he saw in Algeria was far from pleasing to him. Beneath the beauty of the scenery and the exoticism of the surroundings—the city of Algiers, he told his father, was like something from one of the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”—Tocqueville perceived a military regime that acted with obvious contempt not only for the Arab population but also for the French settlers. He also saw that the worst excesses of French governmental centralization had been imported into Algeria.
These initial observations informed Tocqueville’s later recommendations on French policy. To create a populous and flourishing colony in Algeria, he argued, French settlers should enjoy the same rights and legal protections as the citizens of mainland France. The exercise of arbitrary government and the excessive power of the military had to be ended.
Much less liberal and conciliatory in tone were Tocqueville’s remarks on how the indigenous population was to be treated. He argued that France had to complete the process of colonization as quickly as possible. He wrote that he had often heard complaints about the French in Algeria—that “we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children.” These, he countered, were “unfortunate necessities,” and to which any colonial power “is obliged to submit.”
“I believe,” he continued, “that the right of war authorizes us to lay waste to the country and that we must do it either by destroying crops during the harvest season, or by making those rapid incursions known as razzias, the purpose of which is to seize men or herds of animals.” European settlement and military repression had to go hand in hand.
In later years, and especially after his second visit to Algeria, Tocqueville showed greater concern for the well-being of the Arab population. War alone, he recognized, would not be sufficient to consolidate French conquest. For pragmatic reasons, the colonial administration needed to establish a community of interests between the indigenous population and the settlers. “Civilized peoples often oppress and dispirit barbarous peoples by their mere contact,” Tocqueville wrote, pointing to the U.S. as an example: “The Europeans in North America ended by pushing the Indians off their territory.” Here was a history of conquest that the French should not seek to repeat.
“Despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support. ”
Still, despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support for the creation of a French Algeria. The judgment he displayed as attentive and observant commentator on America deserted him in Africa. Why?
Three reasons stand out. First, Tocqueville felt the sense of national humiliation visited upon France after the fall of Napoleon. To become a great power again, France needed an empire. Second, he believed that, if properly managed, Algerian colonization could benefit France’s own population and economy, by turning the unemployed and idle into patriotic and productive settlers. Lastly, while Tocqueville did not endorse a theory of racial superiority, like many of his contemporaries he believed that European civilization was superior to the Muslim civilization he studied in the Quran and witnessed on his travels. French rule would be enlightened rule, and all Algerians, including the indigenous population, would ultimately benefit from it.
In fact, France’s Algerian colony was maintained only at enormous financial cost, and the hope that French settlers would gradually replace the Arab and Berber population was never to be realized. Although Algeria was annexed to France in 1848, military resistance to French rule continued into the first decade of the 20th century. Violent conflict returned in 1954, when Algerian nationalists launched a rebellion against French rule, leading to a brutal war in which thousands died.
The colonial project that Tocqueville supported in the 1830s finally came to an end in 1962, when Algeria achieved independence, leading thousands of French settlers to flee back to France. Tocqueville may have been prescient about democracy in America, but like many other Europeans he misjudged both the ease of establishing a colonial empire and the benefits that would follow.
Mr. Jennings is Professor of Political Theory at King’s College London. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America,” published by Harvard University Press.