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 subzero temperatures, are as admirable as his enthusiasm for brutal and psychologically destructive prison regimes is depressing.

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America is in competition neither with recent full-scale biographies nor with the hundreds of pages of step-by-step itinerary that Pierson provides. Damrosch is a master of “less is more.” He tells us just enough to explain why Tocqueville and Beaumont came to be heading for the United States in the spring of 1831; and he provides a crisp and elegant account of how Tocqueville turned travel notes, letters home, and correspondence with his American informants into the masterpiece of Democracy. He rounds things off with a short and plangent account of Tocqueville’s frustrating political career, his disillusionment with politics, and his early death from consumption; without undue haste a dozen pages cover the last twenty years of Tocqueville’s life.

Damrosch’s theme is the impact of that journey around the United States on Tocqueville’s ideas, and what it taught (or failed to teach) him. He is admirably evenhanded; like most critics, he notes that Tocqueville failed to appreciate the importance of political parties to the American political system, never mentioned Tammany Hall, underestimated the significance of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and exaggerated both the economic equality and the cultural uniformity of America. But he gives Tocqueville full credit for his hatred of slavery; and he is especially taken with Tocqueville’s sensitivity to the loss of Native American culture and the brutality of Indian removals.

He takes his cue from Sheldon Wolin’s description of Tocqueville “between two worlds,” the aristocratic and the democratic. Native American culture was in its way aristocratic, and its destruction induced in Tocqueville the same pangs as the erosion of aristocracy in France. The inert and depressed prisoners in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary could not stir his feelings; the bedraggled Cherokee he encountered in Memphis on their “trail of tears” to their new home in Oklahoma did.


Tocqueville described himself afterward as having become a “half- Yankee.” He was an unlikely enthusiast for American democracy. He was an aristocrat from a very old Norman family; his ancestors had fought alongside William the Conqueror in 1066. His existence was a stroke of luck: his parents narrowly escaped the guillotine during the last days of the Terror in the summer of 1794. Numerous relatives, including grandparents and cousins, both male and female, had perished.

Tocqueville’s father, Hervé, was the only male survivor of his immediate family. His mother’s health never recovered; she bore three sons of whom Alexis was the youngest, but was plagued by migraines and nervous ailments, and died in her fifties. His father was made of sterner stuff; after the defeat of Napoleon and the return of the Bourbon monarchy, he occupied a series of administrative jobs, culminating in 1826 in the much-sought-after post of prefect of the department of Seine-et-Oise, based in Versailles. He had little time to enjoy it; first he was made a peer, which meant the end of his career as an administrator, then the Revolution of 1830 evicted the Bourbons and brought in Louis-Philippe, which put an end to his political career in the House of Peers.

Alexis was by then twenty-five years old. He was small, sensitive, extremely intelligent, highly sexed and prone to indiscreet love affairs, extremely ambitious, but uncertain how he might make his name. Many of his family had military careers, but his health was too uncertain for that. His father used his position to secure Alexis the unpaid job of juge-auditeur (apprentice judge) in the court at Versailles. Alexis had studied law in Metz, where he lived when Hervé was prefect of the Moselle district; and he took the law seriously enough to suggest in letters from America and in Democracy itself that lawyers might form an American aristocracy, not of birth but of talent and public usefulness. But he was a reluctant recruit. Damrosch gets Tocqueville’s ambivalence right: he was sur- prised that he enjoyed the work, but he had no taste for legal minutiae, and no desire for a legal career. He did not wish to become a “legal machine.” He wanted a career in politics.

At Versailles, he met the two most important people in his life. One was Gustave de Beaumont, another aristocratic young man who was a fellow judge and also not quite sure what to do with himself. The other was Mary Mottley, an Englishwoman a few years older than himself with whom he fell passionately in love and eventually married. She was a wholly unsuitable match for a French aristocrat with a strong sense of his family’s social distinction; her father was a naval captain, but beyond that almost nothing seems to be known about her, in itself evidence of her unsuitability. Unlike his previous affairs, which had been intense but short-lived, this one was intense and was to last until his death; he was a far from faithful husband, but he was a devoted and passionate one, and his feelings were returned, although his infidelities caused terrible pain and appalling rows.

Marriage was out of the question while his mother was alive, but Tocqueville was determined to marry beneath him when he could. Because Marie—as she was always known—destroyed their correspondence after Tocqueville’s death, we do not know what he told her about his American journey—only that he wrote incessantly and clandestinely, getting his letters to her through the good offices of a friend who could be trusted to give them to la voisine.

The 1830 Revolution led to the expedition. Tocqueville and Beaumont came from Bourbon loyalist families who regarded Louis-Philippe and the Orleans as illegitimate, and as such both men were objects of suspicion to their superiors. The new regime demanded that officials sign a loyalty oath. They signed, very reluctantly. Promoted, Tocqueville signed once more, defending himself to his intransigently legitimist cousins and skeptical brothers. It was only a matter of time before their superiors found a way to remove him and his friend. Tocqueville and Beaumont found a temporary solution. Both had visited French prisons and had been appalled; they were undisciplined, ill-managed, and filthy; the friends of prisoners came and went; worst of all, no thought was given to the rehabilitation or reformation of the criminals incarcerated within their walls.

They had heard accounts of some new American prisons. Influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, they emphasized control over every aspect of the prisoner’s life, taking care that the prisoner never knew when his jailers were watching him. Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary emphasized isolation as well. Initially, prisoners had simply been left in silent, solitary confinement; the speed of their mental deterioration led to a change. They were still isolated, but were given useful work to do in their cells, both to stop them from going mad and to give them a skill to use on release. Sing-Sing emphasized collective hard labor and discipline enforced by guards with whips. There, too, silence reigned, and once they were back in their cells, prisoners never knew when a guard wearing socks over his shoes to muffle his footsteps might creep up and peer in. Tocqueville and Beaumont proposed to their superiors that they should study the penitentiaries of the United States; and La Système penitentiaire aux États-Unis was the first fruit of the American journey. It was a distinguished work that secured the Montyon Prize and gained its authors—in fact it was wholly written by Beaumont—election to the Academy of the Social Sciences.


Whether their superiors were eager to see them gone or persuaded by the thought that they would get some useful research without paying a sou is not clear, but the two men were given eighteen months unpaid leave, later cut to nine months while they were in the United States; and off they went, arriving in New York in May 1831. It is not certain how far Tocqueville had the idea of writing Democracy in mind when he went. He cannot have been very sure what he might write; he found it hard to form a clear picture of the book even when he was at home writing it, and unkind critics have always said that clarity was not his strongest suit. But others have complained that he knew all along what he was going to say.

Leo Damrosch gives a credible account of someone who went to America well prepared, but who began to clarify the ambition that resulted in the book only after some weeks there. We should recall André Jardin’s emphasis on the importance to Tocqueville of François Guizot’s lectures on the history of European civilization, which he attended before he went to America. Guizot had emphasized the importance of studying both a civilization as a whole and the long, slow, but irreversible rise of the middle classes and its meaning for the social, economic, and political life of Europe. These are the emphases of Democracy. It is easy to believe that Tocqueville arrived in the United States expecting to see the society depicted in Democracy. Many European commentators were already convinced, in the words of John Stuart Mill, that in the United States there was “none but a middle class.” Tocqueville thought so, though Damrosch takes him to task for it. Did he not see, wonders Damrosch, that there were great disparities of income and wealth in America?

He did, but they were less striking than those he knew in France, and for him the ethos of “equality of condition” trumped inequalities of income and wealth, as it does for Americans today. About 80 percent of Americans today call themselves “middle class,” whereas 57 percent of British respondents call themselves “working class,” although the distribution of income and wealth in Britain and the United States is very similar, as are rates of social mobility.

What was this egalitarian ethos? It was the universal belief that with luck and hard work, anyone could become rich, and that if he did, his money was as good as anyone else’s; the measure of success was money, and money is uninterested in birth, manners, or refinement. The possibility that a man might start poor and make himself rich by hard work and some luck was also part of the ideology of the frontier, which Tocqueville may have been the first to articulate. The great difference between Europe and America was that in America, a man who had failed might move west and try again; in Europe, he would be trapped. No doubt reality fell far short of this idealized picture, but people are affected by their idea of reality more than by reality itself.

Coming from the French aristocracy, Beaumont and Tocqueville arrived in America with more than enough introductions to ensure that their social engagements would distract them if they let them. They mostly did not. In the mornings, they read, and on their social rounds, they interrogated everyone they met: “We go about constantly questioning the people we encounter,” Beaumont wrote in a letter home. “We squeeze whoever falls into our hands, and at night we write up what we’ve heard during the day.” This was to be the pattern throughout their nine months. Tocqueville boasted that “we’ve become the most pitiless questioners in the world.”

In return, they were smothered with help. They might be studying prisons, but their hosts ensured they saw all and any places of confinement that could be found for them. Damrosch writes:

In a carriage provided by their hosts, they visited in the course of a single day a reformatory for juveniles, an insane asylum, an establishment for deaf-mutes, a poor-house, and the prison on Blackwells island (now known as Roosevelt Island) in the East River.

Damrosch’s account is agreeably infected with the high spirits of the travelers’ correspondence, and he gives proper weight to another of their abiding preoccupations—young women. They had sworn to each other to be chaste during the trip, but it was a burden, and they sighed over many an attractive girl with whom nothing more than the lightest flirtation was possible. Their letters suggest that they barely kept their hands off the daughters of their hosts, but the young ladies themselves recalled their perfect manners. This self-denial was not without importance when Tocqueville came to write Democracy. He conceived the idea that American women were the exact reverse of Frenchwomen. In France, girls were protected by their families with the utmost care; after marriage, women with the chance to do so took lovers without the least qualm. In America young women had a freedom that would have scandalized the French; upon marriage they vanished into the home and acted as a sort of moral police, enforcing sobriety, prudence, and economic self-reliance on their menfolk. It is hard not to wonder whether he would have had a less idealized picture if he had behaved rather worse himself.

The investigators did what they said they would do. Damrosch is puzzled that they were not more skeptical about the supposed success of both Sing-Sing and Eastern State Penitentiary, which they visited some months later. But he points out that the unconcern for the misery of the prisoners that so appalls modern readers was almost universal among visitors. The one exception was Charles Dickens, who knew a lot about prisons, and was much less inclined than Tocqueville and Beaumont to believe that criminals were a different species from the rest of us. Once they had seen Sing-Sing, they decided it was time to explore the country. They headed for the then northwest frontier and the Great Lakes. Tocqueville’s determination not to write a travelogue was sorely tested; in fact, he wrote a manuscript, Quinze jours dans le désert—Two Weeks in the Wilderness—that he did not publish, but that the faithful Beaumont published after Tocqueville’s death.

That trip, combined with a short visit to French Canada—Quebec—brought out the romantic in Tocqueville. They were led through the forests by Indian guides, who seemed to know their way by magic, and at one point they encountered the most famous of all their interlocutors, a French-Indian half-caste, the bois-brulé, whom they heard singing an old Norman song as he paddled a canoe through the trackless forest. Tocqueville’s otherwise suppressed chauvinism came to the surface; if only the French had hung onto North America. But he knew it was hopeless; the French would have recreated the isolated, self-centered villages from which they had come. It took the Anglo-Saxons to break out and build a new society in the wilderness.

Back from the frontier, they interrogated the political and intellectual aristocracy of Boston, including John Quincy Adams and Jared Sparks, then headed south and west. The epic part of the journey was now before them. After Philadelphia and its prison, they traveled to Memphis and New Orleans in the worst winter anyone could recall. What should have been an easy journey by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi became a nightmare; their boat hit a rock on the Ohio and settled so firmly on it that the boat did not sink and another boat saved them. The Ohio froze, so they traveled by stagecoach to Memphis, where ice was unheard of, to find the Mississippi frozen and half a dozen steamboats trapped in the ice. Finally, a larger boat arrived, broke through the ice, and took them to New Orleans—and took the displaced Choctaw leaders on the ship across the river to Arkansas on their way to Oklahoma.

Having lost so much time to the weather, their trip through the South and thence to Washington was brief. They never inspected a plantation, though it is hard to imagine that anything would have made Tocqueville’s intense hatred of American slavery any fiercer. They were struck by the differences between the French in New Orleans and the French in Quebec, which Tocqueville put down to the effects of climate, reaching for the favorite variable of his beloved Montesquieu. They were annoyed at being told to return home nine months sooner than they had planned, but once they began to make their way north, they were eager to get to New York and then home to France. That was a pity, because it meant they shortchanged Washington and were too distracted by homesickness to pay proper attention either to President Jackson or to Congress.

On returning, Tocqueville soon resigned from the judiciary in company with Beaumont, and settled down to write Democracy. The first volume praised American democracy almost without reservation. The United States had solved the central modern problem: reconciling freedom and equality. This was partly a political achievement, but even more a cultural one. The second volume, published five years later in 1840, reflected his growing doubts, fueled as much by his experience of the politics of France as by further reflection on America. But he kept in touch with his American informants, including Francis Lieber, Theodore Sedgwick, F.W. Beckwith, and Jared Sparks—the last a very sharp critic of Tocqueville’s obsession with the dangers of a tyranny of the majority; and he read voraciously.

Democracy brought him fame and election to the French Academy. He went into politics and was elected to the National Assembly in 1841; he kept his seat through the upheavals of the next decade until Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état of 1851 drove him out of politics entirely. He was not a successful politician; as he knew, he could not ingratiate himself with people for whom he felt indifference at best and contempt at worst. After 1852, he became increasingly disillusioned both with popular politics and with the United States.

His doubts about the chances of democracy in France are apparent in L’ancien régime et la révolution. His “third masterpiece,” as Mill called it in a letter of thanks, set out to understand not only why the French Revolution had occurred, but why in spite of all the bloodshed and social upheaval it had made so little difference to the political culture of France. France suffered from over-centralization, an excess of bureaucracy, and an incapacity to find its way between the ungovernability of the Parisian mob and submission to military adventurers like the two Napoleons. L’ancien régime is full of wonderful insights, particularly on the self-destructive role of the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy; but it is hard not to see it in the context of Democracy, as a further reflection on the differences between the French and American experience. The French lacked the talent for self-government that Democracy volume one praises, and seemed to be doomed to suffer the despotism that volume two fears may be the fate of democracy in America. In that light, L’ancien régime is almost Democracy volume three; given Tocqueville’s concerns, he could not help writing about France when writing about America and writing about America when writing about France.

Nonetheless, and as the editors of Tocqueville’s post-1840 correspondence with Americans say, it is as well for his reputation as an admirer of America that he did not write a more unmistakable Democracy in America Volume Three.2 He was particularly distressed by the intransigence of the slave states and the probability of slavery spreading westward and into Latin America. Even in the first volume of Democracy he had expressed his doubts about the possibility of abolishing slavery without civil war. He died in 1859 and never saw his fears realized, but two years earlier he had told Francis Lieber that the passions stirred up by slavery would have reduced any European country to civil war already.

It was not only the worsening conflict over slavery that disillusioned him. His doubts about American moneymaking and his fear that commerce drove real politics out of everyone’s mind had intensified, as had his contempt for the loudmouthed ignorance of both the American public and many American politicians. The anxieties of Volume Two of Democracy were focused on the dangers of “soft despotism,” a condition in which the population were reduced to a sheep-like dependency on a state that made them comfortable, saved them the necessity of thought, and destroyed their will by enervation rather than oppression. It frightened Mill into writing On Liberty twenty years later. At the end of his life, the old anxieties of the critics of popular government came to the fore, especially the fear of chaos and the dangers of mob rule and plutocracy.

Tocqueville remains an astonishingly live figure; in the past few years, there have been several new translations of Democracy, as well as biographies and other studies of varying length. The obsession with a book 175 years old, written by a very young man about a country so different from today’s, is surprising. Not everyone is enthusiastic; Garry Wills argued in these pages that Tocqueville got America almost completely wrong3; and Sean Wilentz and Rogers Smith share Leo Damrosch’s disquiet that he paid too little attention to the people for whom “equality of condition” was far from a reality. Nor has everyone admired Tocqueville because he admired America. Many years ago, David Riesman found Tocqueville’s idea of the “lonely crowd”—that individuals would find themselves alone in the midst of a multitude, unable to think any thoughts but those of the multitude—all too applicable to postwar America. “Other-directed” personalities were what Volume Two of Democracy feared, and Riesman thought America had produced.

More recently, communitarians and conservatives looking for a corrective to what they see as an exaggerated and corrosive rights-based individualism have seized on Tocqueville for inspiration. From Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart—a direct quotation from Tocqueville—through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, we are urged to rediscover the talent for “association” that Tocqueville saw as the secret of the American success in combining freedom with public spirit. Tocqueville’s insistence on the role of religion in making us good citizens strikes the same sympathetic chord in the communitarian heart of writers such as Michael Sandel.

More crudely, Tocqueville thought socialism was both mad and wicked, and that attempts to relieve the distress of the poor would destroy the economy, as many conservatives still do. He is mentioned over a dozen times in Glenn Beck’s new book Broke. But I suspect that Leo Damrosch is right in thinking that the reason why Tocqueville appeals to readers of so many political persuasions, and even to critics who leave hardly any of his larger claims unscathed, is essentially temperamental. He is extraordinarily engaging, as a person, as a thinker, and as a writer, and Tocqueville’s Discovery of America captures him well.

This Issue

December 9, 2010