Tocqueville’s Lesson

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
University of Chicago Press, 722 pp., $35.00

Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” So claim the editors of this new edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. These are indeed bold judgments, but certainly defensible ones. In fact, I am hard put to come up with a better book on democracy or a better book on America.

That this should be so is quite astonishing. Tocqueville was a Frenchman and anything but an American-style democrat. He was born into a royalist family; indeed, his paternal grandfather was guillotined by the Jacobins in the French Revolution, while his father narrowly escaped execution. Yet he spent his life telling his countrymen not to hate the consequences of that revolution. He was a proud aristocrat who had no appreciation of ordinary people and in fact thought they were as boring and as commonplace as potatoes. Yet he never despaired of democracy. He visited the United States ostensibly to study only its prisons but actually to study its democratic culture. Nevertheless, he wrote his book about America while all the time thinking about France. Indeed, as he told a correspondent in 1847, “I did not write one page of it without thinking about her and without having her, so to speak, before my eyes.” He came to America in 1831—nearly a century and three quarters ago—and stayed for only nine months. And yet in that brief time this foreign aristocrat was able to gather enough information about Americans and enough insight into their character and their government to write what is arguably the best book ever written not only on America but also on democracy itself. No wonder we find the achievement remarkable.

Yet of course Tocqueville relied on more than his nine-month visit to the United States for his achievement. As we know from James T. Schleifer’s masterful study The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1980), Tocqueville drew on many additional sources for his knowledge of America. Upon his return to France not only did he read a wide variety of books and documents concerning the United States, but he also continued to correspond with Americans he had met, many of whom were ex-Federalists or proto-Whigs frightened by the victory of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Moreover, he hired as his research assistants two young Americans traveling in France—Theodore Sedgwick III and Francis J. Lippitt. Tocqueville especially questioned Sedgwick about many issues, including federalism and American mores. It is impossible to tell what influence this young grandson of an old Massachusetts Federalist and the son of a Jacksonian Democrat had on Tocqueville (or vice versa). But young Sedgwick impressed Tocqueville enough to become his lifelong friend, and Sedgwick’s subsequent distinguished legal career certainly revealed a Tocquevillean balance between faith in democracy and fear of majority tyranny.

In a foreword to Schleifer’s book, the distinguished Yale University scholar George W. Pierson, whose 1938 book Tocqueville and Beaumont …

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