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A prolific correspondent

« Keep this letter. It will be interesting for me later on. »
(Letter to Louis de Kergorlay,
June 29, 1831)

From the first note that he wrote to his tutor the Abbé Lesueur at the age of six to the final letters written on his deathbed in Cannes, Tocqueville never stopped writing letters to countless correspondents, calling them to witness that which he had experienced, observed and analyzed, in order to constantly keep the special relationships that he had with them alive. This torrent of correspondence - which will take up a full twenty volumes when the Complete Works published by Gallimard reaches completion - offers the reader a shifting and sensitive portrait of Tocqueville in close touch with the fluctuations of his feelings and the turmoil of his epoch, a world away from the gray, prim prose that characterizes his more serious works. Day after day, Tocqueville candidly shares his observations, feelings and impressions with both family and friends, whether from the deck of a ship about to set sail for the United States, in the thick of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, in his post as Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Second Republic, and even in prison at Vincennes following Louis Napoleon's coup d'état. Through the correspondence with his family, Tocqueville is successively attentive to his mother, funny and facetious when writing to his cousin Eugénie de Grancey, tender and loving towards his wife, and sometimes even angry in letters to his brothers. The letters he exchanged with his friends, particularly Louis de Kergorlay and Gustave de Beaumont, when they are not detailed corrections of one of their manuscripts, have the air of heartfelt confidences. His exchanges with some of his deputy friends and intellectual correspondents are also a place of political reflections and interminable philosophical controversies.
Nevertheless, despite the wide variety of his correspondence - which ranges from simple reports about his health to a veritable treatise on English history - the tenor of Tocqueville's letters nearly always goes beyond the pleasure of the merely anecdotal. He rarely misses the chance, depending on his inclinations at the time, to go from the specific to the general, from a single incident to a philosophy of history, from his stomach troubles to the misery of the human condition. This prolific correspondence thus constitutes today one of the most important keys to his works, to the progressive shaping of his convictions as they were put to the test by daily events, the evolution of his sensitivity as well as his great talents as a moralist. Tocqueville, who sometimes explicitly requested his correspondents to keep his letters, was aware of the historical and literary interest that they represented, and one is forced to conclude that they are ample testimony to his lucidity, to his deep intellectual honesty, and to the great cohesion that brought together his personality, his thought, his political action, and his works.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville, anonymous, photograph of an oil painting
© Y.-A. Durelle-Marc

Archives

Lettre à sa cousine Eugénie de Grancey sur les Indiens

Letter to his cousin Eugénie de Grancey about the Indians; private collection
© AD Manche/A. Poirier

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