Democracy In America
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
In 1831, French aristocrats Alexis de Tocqueville, age 26, and Gustave de Beaumont, 29, visited the U.S. to see for themselves if democracy was as successful in America as they had heard, and if so, to discover why. They traveled for nine months through seventeen states and Canada: trying to experience as much as possible; taking careful notes recording ordinary conversations as well as interviews with politicians and scholars; and pursuing an understanding of American laws, politics, economics, and society. Both men later wrote books about America: Beaumont, a novel, and Tocqueville, the widely read classic of the social sciences, Democracy in America.
In an intriguing incident in Democracy in America, a "wealthy planter" in remote Pennsylvania offered Tocqueville emergency shelter. The planter turned out to be a political exile from France, who Tocqueville recognized as a well-known "demagogue" of the French Revolution. Yet now, in America, this exile talked like "an economist or a landowner" about laws and morals. I imagine the former agitator had discovered property rights. The astonished Tocqueville concluded that one's opinions change with one's fortune, and he chalked it up to the "influence of prosperity."
Tocqueville, born to a noble family shortly after the French Revolution, was in a unique historical position. He had personal contact with the reality as well as the ideals of aristocracy, revolution, democracy, and dictatorship. To him, the value of studying America was that America (unlike, say, France) had escaped many of the pitfalls ("evils") of democracy. He attributes this in part to the availability of virtually free land and resources. But more important, he said, were the American laws and Constitution. And even more important than laws were American "customs and manners," many dating from colonial times or before, that facilitated democracy.
The "customs and manners" that Tocqueville describes--some of which he admires and some of which he does not--have been remarkably persistent until today. Here is just one example, in which Tocqueville discusses "why the Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity":
An American "clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications."
It's not possible to briefly summarize the scope--or the relevance, or the intelligence--of Democracy in America. Topics include: the tension between majority rule and the rights of the minority; the quality or lack thereof of elected officials; the independence of women; the consequences of slavery; individualism; the separation of church and state.
Most people today--progressives, neoconservatives, socialists, libertarians--could find in Democracy in America something provocative that would challenge their assumptions. The deeper controversies discussed by Tocqueville are particularly relevant in this election year.
Addendum: In this review, I was unable to do justice to a relatively readable book, completely modern in sensibility and tone, which analyzes trends that are still current. Essential.
Reader's Advisory: Before reading Democracy in America, I read an older edition of the entertaining Tocqueville in America by George Wilson Pierson. Tocqueville in America quotes the diaries and letters of Tocqueville and Beaumont as it follows them on their journey across America. The straightforward conversational prose and honest opinions in the diaries and letters are in themselves highly interesting. A knowledge of where Tocqueville and Beaumont had been and what they had been doing gave me context for Democracy in America, along with little doubt of Tocqueville's fairness and true opinions. Tocqueville in America is excellent background as well as a potential substitute for working through the more formal Democracy in America.
Copyright © 2008 by Heidi Boudro