Tocqueville Visits America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During a nine-month tour of the United States, the young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville gathered the material that he would use to write Democracy in America—a classic analysis of American social and political institutions that still offers insights into modern American institutions.

Summary of Event

In May, 1831, two young Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, arrived in the United States. Both were magistrates whose official purpose in coming to the New World was to study the U.S. prison system and penal reforms. However, there was another and more important reason for their visit: They wanted to observe democracy at first hand. The experience of France’s July Revolution (1830);and Alexis de Tocqueville[Tocqueville] July Revolution of 1830 had convinced the two aristocrats, especially Tocqueville, that history was moving toward equality and democratic institutions. A study of the United States, where such conditions already had been reached, would provide an important lesson for the future. As Tocqueville observed, it was not Tocqueville, Alexis de Democracy in America (Tocqueville) Historians;Alexis de Tocqueville[Tocqueville] [kw]Tocqueville Visits America (May, 1831-Feb., 1832) [kw]Visits America, Tocqueville (May, 1831-Feb., 1832) [kw]America, Tocqueville Visits (May, 1831-Feb., 1832) Tocqueville, Alexis de Democracy in America (Tocqueville) Historians;Alexis de Tocqueville[Tocqueville] [g]United States;May, 1831-Feb., 1832: Tocqueville Visits America[1680] [c]Historiography;May, 1831-Feb., 1832: Tocqueville Visits America[1680] Beaumont, Gustave de Jackson, Andrew

merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find there instruction by which we may ourselves profit. . . . I confess that, in America, I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.

The travelers’ path, which took them to a number of cities and states, included an exploration of the Michigan wilderness north of Detroit, visits to pioneer cabins, and a steamboat ride down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The travelers not only experienced diverse features of the American landscape but also formed impressions of the different peoples living in American society and the relations among the different races. Some of Tocqueville’s impressions were more favorable than others. For example, he was disconcerted by some of his experiences with Native Americans whom he met. These included encounters with a group of Iroquois Iroquois in Buffalo and a group of Choctaws Choctaws;removal of traveling down the Mississippi River to a forced resettlement in Arkansas ordered by President Andrew Jackson. Believing it was inevitable that the Native American way of life would succumb to the influences and policies introduced to the United States by European immigrants and their descendants, Tocqueville wrote in one of the many notebooks he kept that “the Indian races are melting in the presence of European civilization like snow in the presence of the sun.”

The travelers returned to France after a nine-month tour of the United States, After they drafted their official report on the U.S. prison system and submitted it to their government, they began to write their separate analyses of the U.S. system. Beaumont Beaumont, Gustave de set down his reflections in Marie: Ou, L’Esclavage aux États-Unis (1835), a study of race relations in the United States in the form of a novel. Although Marie contained many penetrating observations, the fictional approach and somewhat limited scope of the book accounted for its modest reception. By contrast, Tocqueville’s work, a panoramic view of U.S. civilization, won greater recognition and praise.

Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique (1835, 1840; Democracy in America, 1835, 1840) revealed “the image of democracy”—and of Jacksonian America as well—that Tocqueville had discovered during his travels in the United States. For the young Frenchman, the most striking characteristic of U.S. democracy was “the general equality of condition among people.” In Tocqueville’s view, equality of condition was “the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” Issued in two parts, his book analyzed the effect of this phenomenon on U.S. civilization.

In the first part of Democracy in America, published in both French and English in 1835, Tocqueville analyzed the U.S. political system, describing the workings of township, state, and federal governments, and commenting on the roles of political parties, newspapers, and public associations. The key principle governing the operation of the system, Tocqueville declared, was the principle of the sovereignty of the people, outgrowth of equality of condition. “The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe,” he observed. Among the advantages of democratic government, Tocqueville cited the fact that it “brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens.” In addition, democratic government creates “an all-pervading and restless activity” that, although it makes for less methodical and skillful public administration than other forms of government, is nevertheless more productive: “if it does fewer things well, it does a greater number of things.”

The chief disadvantage of democratic government, in Tocqueville’s view, stemmed from the “unlimited power of the majority in the United States.” He believed that its effect on public opinion was particularly harmful. Tocqueville’s observations on the relations between African Americans and Euro-Americans in northern states such as Pennsylvania, where slavery was outlawed, helped to contribute to this conclusion. Although the freedom of African Americans was legally recognized, Tocqueville saw that the force of public opinion concerning African Americans had created conditions under which black and white people did not mix as social equals. Moreover, African Americans often did not feel comfortable taking part in the political process, although they were legally entitled to participate. His reflections on “the tyranny of the majority,” its sources and consequences, constitute one of the major themes of Democracy in America.

Tocqueville published the second part of his work in 1840. In that part, his approach was more philosophical. Although he often illustrated his remarks by referring to his experience in the United States, he was concerned primarily with revealing the universal principles of democracy and showing their effect on intellectual and social life. He was less concerned with the politics of democracy than with the culture shaped by widespread equality of condition.

In the course of his analysis, Tocqueville pointed out the difficulty of reconciling equality and liberty. Equality of condition nurtured a preference for equality over liberty, he observed. “Democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom,” he explained,

left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.

Paradoxically, although liberty was threatened by equality of condition, it nevertheless remained people’s best protection: “to combat the evils which equality may produce, there is only one effectual remedy: namely, political freedom,” Tocqueville declared. He also emphasized the leveling tendency inherent in democracy. Equality of condition produced a monotonous uniformity of manners and opinions. Under democracy, individualism gave way to conformity. “As the conditions of men become equal among a people,” Tocqueville observed,

individuals seem of less and society of greater importance; or rather every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands conspicuous but the great and imposing image of the people at large. This naturally gives the opinion of the privileges of society and a very humble notion of the rights of individuals; they are ready to admit that the interests of the former are everything and those of the latter nothing.

Significance

During the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville was one of a number of notable European visitors to the United States who included Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope. However, his unbiased yet friendly approach and the accuracy of his observations distinguished him, in the eyes of the people of the United States, from what one contemporary newspaper called “our common herd of travelers.” Democracy in America exerted a considerable influence on American thought during the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century witnessed a revival of interest in the work. More than 170 years after its original publication, Tocqueville’s work still offers valuable and penetrating insights into the nature of U.S. democracy and ranks as one of the classics of political philosophy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaumont, Gustave de. Marie: Or, Slavery in the United States—A Novel of Jacksonian America. Translated by Barbara Chapman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. New translation of the novel that Beaumont wrote after returning home from the United States with Tocqueville in 1835.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drolet, Michael. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Social Reform. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Study of Tocqueville’s writings on such diverse social issues as prison reform, pauperism, and the problems of abandoned children.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hereth, Michael. Alexis de Tocqueville: Threats to Freedom in Democracy. Translated by George Bogardus. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Argues that Tocqueville was not simply interested in describing and commenting on the fundamental principles of democracy, but also was committed to their further development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mancini, Matthew. Alexis de Tocqueville. New York: Twayne, 1994. A brief but insightful account of Tocqueville’s writings. Discusses Democracy in America and looks especially carefully at Tocqueville’s views of Native Americans and slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pierson, George W. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. Lively and thorough reconstruction of Tocqueville and Beaumont’s visit to the United States, based on published and unpublished sources. An abridged edition of this book, Tocqueville in America (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1969), reduced sections on women and Native and African Americans as “matters of lesser interest.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Richard. American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of “Democracy in America.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Retraces Tocqueville’s journey across the United States a century and a half later. Engagingly weaves Tocqueville’s reflections with commentary on current social conditions in places visited by Reeves and interviews with prominent U.S. citizens.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schleifer, James T. The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. An informative, scholarly work that argues that the ideas found in Democracy in America took shape from Tocqueville’s notes, drafts of his manuscripts, and his readings of works by others, such as the Federalist papers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America, 2004. New translation of Tocqueville’s classic work on American institutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Journey to America. Rev. ed. Edited by J. P. Mayer and translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Presents the fourteen notebooks Tocqueville kept on his tour of the United States to record his interviews and observations, which served as the basis for his reflections in Democracy in America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolin, Sheldon S. Tocqueville Between Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. A distinguished political philosopher, Wolin examines Tocqueville’s political life by tracing the development of his theories about democracy and other political issues.

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