Why does Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America exert such a pull on Americans? Certainly one reason is Tocqueville’s evident esteem for the United States. Prevailing European views of 19th-century Americans might be summed up by the British novelist Frances Trollope’s denunciation: “I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” They were provincial boors, violent, obsessed with money, and constantly spitting dirty brown tobacco juice.
But here was a European aristocrat of impeccable credentials, descended from both branches of the French nobility, the noblesse d’épée (sword) and the noblesse de robe (juridical); one of his ancestors had even fought with William in the conquest of England. Raised in a château, endowed with the manners of a noble, Tocqueville wrote in the polished, epigrammatic style perfected by the 17th-century French aristocrat, François de La Rochefoucauld. And best of all, he saw not degeneration but Europe’s future in the bold American experiment in democracy.
Over time, Tocqueville’s penetrating observations gradually hardened into a canon: proverbs about American society, handed down from on high, that still ring eerily true. Alexis de Tocqueville the man and traveler became “Tocqueville,” the timeless authority on the American soul.
It is a curious fate for a work so clearly anchored in its time and place—written by a borderline depressed twentysomething, a young man torn between an idealized aristocratic past and an uncertain democratic future, tortured by existential angst and worried his life wouldn’t amount to much. In Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, Leo Damrosch, who teaches literature at Harvard, has seized an opportune moment to scratch the polished surface and explore what lay behind the oracular pronouncements. At a time when generalizations about the American soul seem risky at best, it is somehow reassuring to learn that even the great Tocqueville was often winging it—and that some of his direst fears have not come to pass.
Tocqueville was a young lawyer starting his career when King Charles X of France, whose Bourbon family had reclaimed French rule since the fall of Napoleon, was overthrown in the July Revolution of 1830. Although he was a descendant of families long associated with the Bourbon monarchy—his great-grandfather had defended Louis XVI in his trial before the French National Convention before both were executed at the Guillotine—Tocqueville swore allegiance to the new regime.
Politically isolated and distrusted by both of France’s major political camps, Tocqueville decided it would be a good time to get away. So he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, an aristocrat from a similar background and in a similar political position, persuaded their bosses to let them go to the United States on a mission to investigate American prisons, then considered the model of humane incarceration in the Atlantic world. (This was, to repeat, a very different time.)
Tocqueville was almost comically unprepared for the exercise. Just 25 years old when he arrived in the United States, he knew next to nothing about the country whose identity he was seeking to plumb. A “tireless pursuer of women”—he may have fathered a child with a servant before leaving for the United States—Tocqueville, along with Beaumont, flirted his way through salons and dinner parties, stumbling along in mediocre English, complaining about the prudishness of American women. “Would you believe,” Tocqueville wrote a friend six weeks into his trip, “that since our arrival in America we have been practicing the most austere virtue?”
Rather than rely on the book published years after his return to France, as most scholars do, Damrosch draws on the letters Tocqueville wrote home to friends and family, as well as various unpublished notes he took during his trip. The material gives a life and freshness often absent from drier academic tomes.
In the first place, we learn that Tocqueville would not have made a very good traveling companion. “Repose was contrary to his nature,” Beaumont later recalled. “The slightest loss of time was unpleasant to him. … [H]e was always leaving before he arrived.” It must have been an exhausting trip for poor Gustave.
Yet the frenetic pace had its uses. Following the pair in their journey allows us to see how, where, and when Tocqueville formed his ideas about the United States. We find the friends in Boston, mingling with that city’s famed “Brahmin” class and drawing conclusions about the tyrannical tendencies of popular majorities. In Philadelphia, with its civic institutions and traditions of religious pluralism, they pondered the importance of voluntary associations. Tocqueville’s brief tour of the West, newly settled by restless entrepreneurs, inspired reflections on the importance of individualism to American life. Born of a journey through 17 of the nation’s 24 states, Tocqueville’s observations on American life emerge less as the product of a single brilliant mind and more as a consequence of dialogue with Americans throughout the country.
Given the relatively limited scope of his interlocutors—judges, diplomats, and especially lawyers like himself, largely “the rich and locally famous” whom he met in a veritable festival of teas and dinner parties and “soirées dansantes”—it’s hardly surprising that Tocqueville got some matters wrong. One of his first impressions, for instance, was recorded only four days after he arrived in New York: “The entire society seems to have merged into the middle class.” Damrosch has little patience for this idea, correctly dismissive about a comment that set more than a generation of scholarship down a path that proved to be a dead end.
Busy chatting in the parlors of wealthy Americans, Tocqueville didn’t seem to notice the artisans slowly being forced into unskilled labor, or immigrant dockworkers, or freed blacks struggling to eke out a living on the margins of American life. He bumped into Native Americans being expelled from the eastern states on the infamous Trail of Tears. But he didn’t make much of it, failing to connect that experience to his own reflections on the danger of the tyranny of the majority. As for slavery, he rushed through the South without even bothering to visit a plantation. Little wonder he saw only a middle class in America.
The summary nature of Tocqueville’s travels through the South might have made Damrosch a bit more skeptical of his perspicacity when it came to slavery. Indeed, one of the enduring puzzles about the trip is why Tocqueville mustered so little interest in questions of race and slavery (addressed in a single chapter of the 93 that composed the two-volume work). Beaumont, on the other hand, made it the central analytical thread in his own book on the United States, Marie or, Slavery in the United States: A Novel of Jacksonian America (1835).
For Beaumont, it was “most certainly a strange fact, so much slavery amidst so much freedom.” This feature of American life, along with its consequence—”the violence of the prejudice that separates the race of slaves from that of free men”—furnished the essential paradox at the heart of the account he produced from his travels, which could only, for Beaumont, be represented as fiction. Alas, Damrosch is not particularly interested in Beaumont—less, even, than George Pierson was in his great work on Tocqueville’s travels, published in 1938.
Clearly Tocqueville, unlike Beaumont, believed that slavery and racism did not touch on “the essential nature of democracy,” as Damrosch puts it; these were mere “regional differences.” It is a strange view, coming from someone who so often understood regional characteristics as national traits. When he did turn his mind to the subjects, moreover, Tocqueville was exceedingly gloomy, convinced that a multiracial democracy was impossible. If slaves ever gained their freedom, he predicted a genocidal war: “the most horrible of all civil wars, and perhaps the destruction of one of the two races.”
Damrosch is impressed by Tocqueville’s thinking on this subject: “extraordinary in its depth and clarity.” That hardly seems right, though. Tocqueville’s famous predictive powers failed him here. One of the most striking features of emancipation, as it actually happened a generation later, was the lack of violence foreseen by Tocqueville and many others. “Men go wild and fight for freedom with bestial ferocity when they must,” the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois would later write, “but human nature does not deliberately choose blood—at least not black human nature.”
If Tocqueville got matters so wrong, that may be because he was too influenced by his interlocutors, who were similarly pessimistic about the future of multiracial democracy. This was, after all, the Age of Jackson, when Native Americans were being brutally expelled from their homelands in the Southeast, slavery was in the midst of its massive expansion through the Southwest, and racism was growing throughout the North.
In an era when Tocqueville’s darker ruminations about the fragility of American democracy and the dangers of tyranny of the majority have proven sadly prescient, it is nice to think that even Tocqueville underestimated some of the possibilities implicit in American democracy.