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Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?


Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.”1

Some people are astonished that a twenty-six-year-old Frenchman with imperfect English could write the best book on America, after a brief visit to the country. I am astonished that anyone can think that he did. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America with his friend, the twenty-nine-year-old Gustave de Beaumont, in 1830, ostensibly to make a report to the French government on penal reform in the United States. The two men carefully gathered statistics and testimony for their 440-page book on the subject (which consumed much of their time in America).2 But when Tocqueville wrote his more sweeping analysis of American democracy, he gave no measurements of American incomes or the distribution of them, of American products or the things traded for them, of American currency or credit systems.3

Tocqueville is uninterested in the material bases of American life. It is as if he ghosted his way directly into the American spirit, bypassing the body of the nation. There is practically nothing in his first volume, and little more in his second volume, about American capitalism, manufactures, banking, or technology.4 He rides around on steamboats without noticing how crucially they were changing American life. He does not describe the speed, convenience, or dangers of this new technology. He also ignores the infant railroad industry and the burgeoning canal systems.5 Boston was one of the two cities he stayed in longest, but he was not curious enough to look at the factories in nearby Lowell. He does refer to cotton production, without recognizing the key to that production, the cotton gin. The importance of these developments was obvious to another French author, Michel Chevalier, who visited America four years after Tocqueville and emphasized the Industrial Revolution’s importance to its future.6

Even John Stuart Mill, who praised Democracy on its appearance, noted: “It is perhaps the greatest defect of M. de Tocqueville’s book that, from the scarcity of examples, his propositions, even when derived from observation, have the air of mere abstract speculations.”7 James Bryce agreed with this criticism, saying that Tocqueville reasoned a priori rather than from facts he found in America.8 He “divines” America—or “intuits” it, as Bryce said.

A fact usually omitted in discussions of Tocqueville is the shallow empirical basis of his study. Though he and Beaumont spent nine and a half months in America (May 5, 1830, to February 20, 1832), much of that time was consumed by their inspection of prisons. During their first two months in the country, they devoted five weeks to the study of prisons in New York alone (the House of Refuge, Sing Sing, Auburn, Blakewell’s Island, Brideville, and Bellevue). Later they spent three days at a prison in Massachusetts, three days at one in Connecticut (where they did not notice a bitter rift in management and an impending breakdown), four days at two in Pennsylvania, two at one in Maryland, and a day at one in Louisiana. All told, they spent about two of their nine and a half months in America narrowly focused on prison life.9

When they were not conscientiously pursuing their prison work, the pair made some trips only remotely connected, or not connected at all, with what went into Democracy—like their week and a half in Canada, where they hoped to find a free French rebellion against Britain, or the whole month spent on the Great Lakes and in the Michigan-Wisconsin territory, a trip that served Beaumont’s book on Indians but contributed nothing to De-mocracy‘s theme, the impact of equality.10 Thus the usable time collecting material for that book is contracted to about six months, and the time was disproportionately distributed: seven months were spent in the North—Thomas Hart Benton noticed that almost all of Democracy‘s conclusions are drawn from Northern sources, formed while Tocqueville was fresh in the country and seemed particularly impressionable.

Even in the North, Tocqueville’s time was not distributed across the whole of society, since he showed little interest in what ordinary people were doing at their work or in their homes: “To acquire information about institutions and public establishments, etc., etc., we really have to see people, and the most enlightened are in the best society.” This attempt to get to “the best people” in the North meant that Tocqueville took many of his views from the last remnants of the Federalists, who supplied him with what he thought necessary to democracy, a moderating counter to extreme egalitarianism. He picked up Jared Sparks’s evaluation of George Washington, and wrote that the first president was “admirable in his resistance to the exaggerations of popular opinion. There’s his superiority, his culminating achievement.” He also parroted the Federalists in scathing remarks on Andrew Jackson, and on populist leaders like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett.11 He came to think of Jackson as the anti-Washington:

General Jackson is the agent of the state jealousies; and he was placed in his lofty station by the passions that are most opposed to the central government. It is by perpetually flattering these passions that he maintains his station and his popularity. General Jackson is the slave of the majority.

Pierson rightly concludes: “Tocqueville clearly looked harder for Federalist arguments than for Jacksonian justifications. He even seemed to feel that there was more to be learned in Boston than in Ohio.”

When Tocqueville and Beaumont finally turned south in December, unusual cold blocked their way, frozen rivers holding up their steamers and snowdrifts miring their stagecoaches. Tocqueville spent days debilitated by illness. Thus the dash through the South left them time for only one day each in passing through Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, and Mobile. Their longest stays were in New Orleans (three days) and Washington, D.C. (four days). They rushed back to New York for their boat home, but had to idle away ten days because the boat’s departure was delayed. Fleeting as was this exposure to the South, it was sufficient for Tocqueville to pick up all the prejudices of the region:

The Negro has no family: woman is merely the temporary companion of his pleasures…. Am I to call it a proof of God’s mercy, or a visitation of his wrath, that man, in certain states, appears to be insensible to his extreme wretchedness and almost obtains a depraved taste for the cause of his misfortunes?…If he becomes free, independence is often felt by him to be a heavier burden than slavery; for, having learned in the course of his life to submit to everything except reason, he is too unacquainted with her dictates to obey them…. In short, he is sunk to such a depth of wretchedness that while servitude brutalizes, liberty destroys him.

In his erratic traversing of the country, what Tocqueville did not see is often more interesting than what he did. Though he gives unstinted praise to New England town meetings, he never attended one. Nor did he ever see an American university. Though he stayed in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, he did not look in on Harvard, Columbia, or the University of Pennsylvania. Yale he could not see since he did not go to New Haven. The same is true of Princeton. He wanted to visit West Point, but his steamboat did not stop there. The lack of interest in the intellectual life of America is reflected in his book’s omission of American thinkers, academics, and artists—no mention is made of authors admired at that time, of Poe or Longfellow or Whittier, of Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper.

Behind his omission is Tocqueville’s prior assumption that philosophy and art will not prosper in a democracy. The disappearance of an aristocracy, he thought, must lead to a more diffused but duller happiness, where extraordinary people will lack the leisure, or the subsidization from grand patrons, to engage deeply in philosophy or art. Pierson recognizes that both Tocqueville and Beaumont “were not interested in American literature”—which did not prevent Tocqueville from generalizing about it, without specific examples:

Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States…. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former, statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modeled in plaster.

Tocqueville had no time to look at plaster statues.

The only state capital Tocqueville visited (rather than simply passed through) was his first one, Albany, a rural hamlet far from the energies of New York City, where he let the lack of trappings for what he recognized as government convince him that Americans had no government. This idea became unbudgable and went into Democracy:

Nothing is more striking to a European traveler in the United States than the absence of what we term government, or the administration. Written laws exist in America, and one sees the daily execution of them; but although everything moves regularly, the mover can nowhere be discovered…. The administrative power in the United States present nothing either centralized or hierarchical in its constitution; this accounts for its passing unperceived.

A man for whom government was invisible had no trouble accepting Jared Sparks’s word that the United States had no political parties—at a time when strife raged over Andrew Jackson’s open party patronage:

Great political parties, then, are not to be met with in the United States at the present time…. In the absence of great parties the United States swarms with lesser controversies, and public opinion is divided into a thousand minute shades of difference upon questions of detail.

The lessons drawn from Albany indicate that Tocqueville would probably not have benefited by a longer stay in America. Most of his opinions were formed at his first encounters with an idea, and they were rarely altered afterward. He had been in America only a month when a nostalgic member of the Livingston family told him that the principal cause of equality in America was the abolition of primogeniture. Tocqueville already thought that was true of his own country, where noblemen had held large estates from ancient times—and he took it as equally true of America, where primogeniture never had a stifling hold on society. In the same way, Tocqueville got his exaggerated notion that the entire system of American government had grown from town meetings in an early conversation with the Boston-booster Jared Sparks. His exaggerated estimate of the political importance of jury service he derived in September from two Boston lawyers.

This propensity to form instant judgments is behind Tocqueville’s claim that America was leading the world in a return to Roman Catholicism, so that “our posterity will tend more and more to a division into only two parts, some relinquishing Christianity entirely and others returning to the Church of Rome.” He derived this notion from conversation with two priests who were confident they were converting the whole nation to their religion. The first man, met during Tocqueville’s first month on American soil, was a New Yorker, Father John Power. The second was a French missionary in Michigan, Gabriel Richard, who said that Protestants had no religion they could sustain—they were “rienists.”

  1. 1

    Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “Editors’ Introduction” to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. xvii. Another new translation, that of Arthur Goldhammer, has just appeared in the Library of America series.

  2. 2

    Tocqueville wrote to a friend in 1835: “The penal system was a pretext” for his trip (François Furet, preface to Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, Paris: Flammarion, 1981, p. 9). But he and Beaumont had to conduct their investigations dutifully, both to live up to their commitment in France and to impress their hosts in America (the official status of investigators opened doors that their youth might have kept closed). In fact, Americans took them to prisons more frequently, and spoke of them more insistently, than the travelers would have preferred.

  3. 3

    It is typical of Tocqueville’s approach that he gives precise statistics on the vast consumption of alcohol in America, and on the large number of temperance societies founded to oppose this, but includes the statistics only in the prison report, not in Democracy. See George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938), pp. 479–480.

  4. 4

    In his second volume Tocqueville does mention the tariff and the Bank of America, but only to castigate Andrew Jackson’s attitude toward both, not to discuss the merits of either. He says that the attack on the bank reflected the way a democracy “is irritated by so permanent an institution.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve, revised by Francis Bowen, corrected, edited, and with an introduction and notes by Phillips Bradley (Knopf, 1945), Vol. 1, p. 179.

  5. 5

    Tocqueville took some notes on these matters, but did not consider them important enough to reflect on in Democracy. Had he done so, said George Wilson Pierson, “the whole emphasis of his book would have been different.”

  6. 6

    James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 73.

  7. 7

    John Stuart Mill, “Tocqueville II,” p. 238.

  8. 8

    The Constitution of the United States as Seen in the Past,” in James Bryce’s Studies in History and Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press, 1901), p. 322.

  9. 9

    My figures are drawn from Pierson’s itinerary. Admittedly, the prison commissioners were doing other things on the nights of their visits to prison, but they were also studying prison documents and writing preliminary findings about them on the days when they were not at the prisons. The prison where they did not see the management coming apart was Wethersfield.

  10. 10

    Tocqueville held that American Indians were outside his subject, equality, since they were not equal to white men, but were their inferiors, and too tenacious of their inferior system to enter into the democracy: “The superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment, is the white, or European, the MAN pre-eminently so called; below him appear the Negro and the Indian…. I believe that the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish, and that whenever the European shall be established on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, that race of men will have ceased to exist…. They consider labor not merely as an evil, but as a disgrace; so that their pride contends against civilizations as obstinately as their indolence.” Democracy, Vol. 1, pp. 332, 342–343.

  11. 11

    Jared Sparks, who gave Tocqueville his views on town meetings, was the first to instruct him on President Jackson’s deficiencies, a view Tocqueville repeated without questioning. For Houston and Crockett, see Pierson, pp. 607–608.

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