Skip to main content

The Demands of Glory: Tocqueville and Terror in Algeria

  • Kevin Duong

It is now commonplace to acknowledge Alexis de Tocqueville's support for Algerian colonization. Less well understood, however, is why he also endorsed the French strategy of “total war” in the regency. How was Tocqueville's liberalism linked to the specific shape of violence in Algeria? By situating his Algerian writings in the intersecting intellectual contexts of the 1840s, this essay argues that Tocqueville endorsed total war in Africa because of his passion for glory. Far from an aristocratic anachronism, that passion was the product of contemporary scientific debates over voluntarism in France. It was also shaped by the lingering legacies of revolutionary republicanism and Bonapartism which defined glory in terms of national defense. By tethering modern liberty to this conception of glory, Tocqueville provided resources for rationalizing settlerism's exterminationist violence.

Hide All

1 Sessions, Jennifer E., By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 4765 .

2 Le Cour Grandmaison, Olivier, “Guerre coloniale: guerre totale? Brèves remarques sur la conquête de l'Algérie,” Drôle d'Epoque 12 (2003): 5973 ; Bennoune, Mahfoud, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830–1987: Colonial Upheavals and Post-independence Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 4142 .

3 de Tocqueville, Alexis, “Notes on the Voyage to Algeria in 1841,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, ed. Pitts, Jennifer (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 56 .

4 Alexis de Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, 71.

5 Welch, Cheryl B., “Colonial Violence and the Rhetoric of Evasion: Tocqueville on Algeria,” Political Theory 31, no. 2 (2003): 237.

6 Welch, “Colonial Violence,” 253–34; Richter, Melvin, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” Review of Politics 25, no. 3 (1963): 390.

7 Berlin, Isaiah, “The Thought of de Tocqueville,” History 50, no. 169 (1965): 204; Pitts, Jennifer, “Empire and Democracy: Tocqueville and the Algeria Question,” Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 3 (2000): 297 , 311.

8 Pitts, “Empire and Democracy,” 298; Welch, Cheryl B., “Tocqueville's Resistance to the Social,” History of European Ideas 30, no. 1 (2004): 83107 .

9 Richter, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” 396; Boesche, Roger, “The Dark Side of Tocqueville: On War and Empire,” Review of Politics 67, no. 4 (2005): 739 .

10 Pitts, “Empire and Democracy,” 316; Kohn, Margaret, “Empire's Law: Alexis de Tocqueville on Colonialism and the State of Exception,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 41, no. 2 (2008): 255–78.

11 Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” inWritings on Empire and Slavery, 129.

12 Rid, Thomas, “Razzia: A Turning Point in Modern Strategy,” Terrorism and Political Violence 21, no. 4 (2009): 617–35; Gallois, William, A History of Violence in the Early Algerian Colony (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

13 Le Cour Grandmaison, Olivier, Coloniser, Exterminer: Sur la guerre et l’État colonial (Paris: Fayard, 2005).

14 Hazareesingh, Sudhir, “Memory, Legend and Politics: Napoleonic Patriotism in the Restoration Era,” European Journal of Political Theory 5, no. 1 (2006): 7184 ; Hazareesingh, Sudhir, The Saint-Napoleon: Celebrations of Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

15 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387409 .

16 Alexis de Tocqueville, “Second Letter on Algeria,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, 25.

17 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 63.

18 Rid, “Razzia,” 621.

19 Tocqueville, “Second Letter on Algeria,” 24.

20 Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill, March 18, 1841, in Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Boesche, Roger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 150–52.

21 Richter, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” 384.

22 Siedentop, Larry, “Two Traditions of Liberalism,” in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Ryan, Alan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 166 .

23 Craiutu, Aurelian, “Rethinking Political Power: The Case of the French Doctrinaires,” European Journal of Political Theory 2, no. 2 (2003): 135 .

24 Jainchill, Andrew, Reimagining Politics after the Terror: The Republican Origins of French Liberalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 1215 .

25 Mantena, Karuna, “Social Theory in the Age of Empire,” in Empire and Modern Political Thought, ed. Muthu, Sankar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 324–50; Mantena, Karuna, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5661 ; Nisbet, Robert A., “The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” American Journal of Sociology 49, no. 2 (1943): 156–64; Daston, Lorraine J., “Rational Individuals versus Laws of Society: From Probability to Statistics,” in The Probabilistic Revolution, vol. 1, Ideas in History, ed. Krüger, Lorenz, Daston, Lorraine J., and Heidelberg, Michael (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 295304 .

26 Siedentop, “Two Traditions of Liberalism,” 160; Behrent, Michael C., “Liberal Dispositions: Recent Scholarship on French Liberalism,” Modern Intellectual History 13, no. 2 (2016): 447–77.

27 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (New York: Library of America, 2004), 5557 , 484. Future citations to this edition will be given in-text and abbreviated as DA.

28 Boesche, Roger, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 27 .

29 Tocqueville to Gustave de Beaumont, December 14, 1846, in Selected Letters, 181–82.

30 Drolet, Michael, “Carrying the Banner of the Bourgeoisie: Democracy, Self and the Philosophical Foundations to François Guizot's Historical and Political Thought,” History of Political Thought 32, no. 4 (2011): 645–90; Drolet, Michael, “Manners, Method, and Psychology: The Enduring Relevance of Tocqueville's Reflections on Democracy,” European Journal of Political Theory 11, no. 4 (2012): 487–98.

31 Jaume has traced the roots of Tocqueville's analysis, not to French debates in psychology, but to Lemannais. See Jaume, Lucien, Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013). For Tocqueville's analysis of the symbiosis between democracy and capitalism, see Janara, Laura, “Commercial Capitalism and the Democratic Psyche: The Threat to Tocquevillean Citizenship,” History of Political Thought 22, no. 2 (2001): 317–50.

32 Gaukroger, Stephen, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680–1760 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2010), 1116 , 162–86, 387–420; O'Neal, John C., The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

33 Goldstein, Jan, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 21102 , 182–232.

34 Cousin, Victor, Fragmens philosophique, 2nd ed. (Paris: Ladrange Libraire, 1833), xiii ; my translation of this and subsequent quotations from this work.

35 Goldstein, Post-Revolutionary Self, 8–11.

36 Cousin, Fragmens philosophique, xvii.

37 Ibid., xii–xiv.

38 Ibid., 210.

39 Tocqueville to Gobineau, September 16, 1858, in Selected Letters, 376.

40 Cousin, Fragmens philosophique, vii–viii.

41 Richter, Melvin, “Tocqueville and Guizot on Democracy: From a Type of Society to a Political Regime,” History of European Ideas 30 (2004): 6182 .

42 Jaume, Lucien, L'Individu effacé: Ou le paradoxe du libéralisme français (Paris: Fayard, 1997); Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le moment Guizot (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).

43 Cousin, Fragmens philosophique, 209.

44 Guizot, François, The History of Civilization in Europe, trans. Hazlitt, William (New York: Penguin Books, 1997; first published 1828), 18 .

45 Guizot, History of Civilization in Europe, 18–19, 21.

46 Boesche, Strange Liberalism, 46.

47 Richter, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” 364; Boesche, “Dark Side of Tocqueville.”

48 Guizot, History of Civilization in Europe, 18.

49 Tocqueville to Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, August 20, 1837, in Selected Letters, 118.

50 Tocqueville to Gustave de Beaumont, August 9, 1840, in Selected Letters, 142.

51 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 14.

52 Tocqueville to Paul Clamorgan, April 17, 1842, in Selected Letters, 158.

53 de Tocqueville, Alexis, The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau, trans. Lukacs, John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 149–50.

54 Hazareesingh, Sudhir, “Memory and Political Imagination: The Legend of Napoleon Revisited,” French History 18, no. 4 (2004): 481 ; see also Rosenblum, Nancy L., “Romantic Militarism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 43, no. 2 (1982): 249–68.

55 Boyd, Richard, “Tocqueville and the Napoleonic Legend,” in Tocqueville and the Frontiers of Democracy, ed. Atanassow, Ewa and Boyd, Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 265 .

56 Day-Hickman, Barbara Ann, Napoleonic Art: Nationalism and the Spirit of Rebellion in France (1815–1848) (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), 116 .

57 Porterfield, Todd, The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798–1836 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 7 .

58 Richter, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” 364; Boesche, “Dark Side of Tocqueville”; Jaume, Tocqueville; de Dijn, Annelien, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Pitts, “Empire and Democracy.”

59 Owen, David, “Machiavelli's Il Principe and the Politics of Glory,” European Journal of Political Theory 16, no. 1 (2017): 4160 .

60 Strong, Tracy, “Glory and the Law in Hobbes,” European Journal of Political Theory 16, no. 1 (2017): 6176 .

61 For a brief description of glory's decline after the Renaissance, see Hirschman, Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 912 .

62 Tocqueville to Louis de Kergorlay, October 18, 1847, in Selected Letters, 192.

63 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of “De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Nolla, Eduardo, trans. Schleifer, James T., 4 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010), 795 note c.

64 Tocqueville, “Second Letter on Algeria,” 24.

65 André Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography, trans. Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 321–24.

66 Tocqueville, “Second Letter on Algeria,” 25.

67 Tocqueville, “First Letter on Algeria,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, 7; Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” 140, 144–45.

68 Tocqueville, “Second Letter on Algeria,” 25.

69 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 61.

70 Ibid., 81.

71 Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism,” 388.

72 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 65, 87.

73 Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” 167.

74 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 59.

75 Ibid., 71.

76 Alexis de Tocqueville, “Intervention in the Debate over the Appropriation of Special Funding,” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, 127–28.

77 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 59.

78 Tocqueville to Henry Reeve, April 12, 1840, in Selected Letters, 142.

79 Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” 146.

80 Forrest, Alan, The Legacy of the French Revolutionary Wars: The Nation-in-Arms in French Republican Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Hazareesingh, “Memory and Political Imagination.”

81 Sessions, By Sword and Plow, 154.

83 Athanassoglou, Nina, “Under the Sign of Leonidas: The Political and Ideological Fortune of David's Leonidas at Thermopylae under the Restoration,” Art Bulletin 63, no. 4 (1981): 633–49.

84 Gallois, History of Violence, 14; Gallois, William, “Dahra and the History of Violence in Early Colonial Algeria,” in The French Colonial Mind, vol. 2, Violence, Military Encounters, and Colonialism, ed. Thomas, Martin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 325 .

85 Sessions, Jennifer, “‘Unfortunate Necessities’: Violence and Civilization in the Conquest of Algeria,” in France and Its Spaces of War: Experience, Memory, Image, ed. Lorcin, Patricia M. E. and Brewer, Daniel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 3334 .

86 Munholland, Kim, “Michaud's History of the Crusades and the French Crusade in Algeria under Louis-Philippe,” in The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture under the July Monarchy, ed. Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate and Weisberg, Gabriel P. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 154 ; Sessions, By Plow and Sword, 32–40.

87 Mantena, Alibis of Empire.

88 Sessions, By Sword and Plow, 125–73; Hazareesingh, “Memory, Legend, and Politics.”

89 Tocqueville, “First Letter on Algeria,” 7.

90 Tocqueville, “Essay on Algeria,” 69.

91 Ibid., 64,

92 Ibid., 67, 69.

93 Ibid., 71.

94 Ibid., 67.

95 Ibid., 62.

96 Ibid.

97 Ibid., 63.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid., 81.

100 Ibid., 68.

101 Ibid., 71.

102 Ibid., 70.

103 Traverso, Enzo, The Origins of Nazi Violence, trans. Lloyd, Janet (New York: New Press, 2003), 4775 .

104 Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” 142.

105 The Épinal print Défense héroïque de Mazagran can be viewed at

106 Sessions, By Sword and Plow, 166–68.

107 Tocqueville, “First Report on Algeria,” 135.

108 Ibid., 135–36.

109 Bell, David A., The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 3 .

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed