Tocqueville’s Lesson

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Private Collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Travelers with an Indian guide in the Saginaw Forest’; drawing by Gustave de Beaumont from his trip to North America with Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America is lively, always interesting, and often touching. It also fills a gap in the literature that was deliberately created by Tocqueville himself. He went to America in 1831 ostensibly to study the reformed prison systems of several states, more practically to escape an awkward political situation, and most importantly to understand what democracy might mean for France by studying it in the country where it had triumphed. By “democracy,” Tocqueville meant more than political democracy: in 1831, not all white males in the US yet had the vote, and free blacks were being deprived of it; the movement for female suffrage was twenty years in the future, and the Senate was elected by the legislatures of the states, not the voters. Tocqueville meant what he called “equality of condition,” the absence of the barriers of birth and blood that were the essence of aristocratic societies.

He was not going to add to the already substantial travel literature. The very first sentence of the new Liberty Fund edition of Democracy in America tells the reader: “What you are about to read is not a travelogue”—“Ce qu’on va lire n’est pas un voyage.” By the time Democracy was published, the first volume in 1835 and the second five years later, innumerable European travelers had recounted their adventures and misadventures among the Americans. French writers in the eighteenth century had depicted a rural Arcadia, but in Tocqueville’s day they more often ventilated their dislike of American moneymaking and their conviction that so extreme a democracy was doomed to collapse in chaos. English writers specialized in being disobliging about American eating habits and the loathsome practice of chewing tobacco, with Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans causing particular offense. In his letters, Tocqueville was decidedly sharp about some of the Americans he met during his travels, including the folk hero Davy Crockett and the populist President Andrew Jackson; but Democracy is strikingly free of the hostility and snobbery of so many visitors. Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s readers are inevitably curious about the journey. Where did he go? Whom did he meet? How did he travel?

Leo Damrosch is not the first scholar to gratify this curiosity. In 1938, the Yale historian George Wilson Pierson took advantage of Yale’s acquisition of an enormous archive of letters and other material to publish Tocqueville and Beaumont in America 1; and recent biographers, such as André Jardin and Hugh Brogan, have by no means ignored the journey. No one interested in the contradictions of Tocqueville’s character could; his sangfroid when the steamboat in which he and Beaumont were traveling down the Ohio struck a rock and threatened to drown all on board, and his stoicism in enduring bouts of illness in hideous discomfort and …

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  1. 1

    It was republished in 1996 as Tocqueville in America, with Tocqueville’s lifelong friend, traveling companion, and literary executor mysteriously removed from the title page.