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.”

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).

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.

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.” 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 …

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