Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville; drawing by David Levine


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…

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