The Pequod Review:
Alexis de Tocqueville (along with his fellow Frenchman Gustave de Beaumont) was sent to the United States by the French government in 1831 to study the American prison system. But Tocqueville used his nine-month tour across seventeen US states to explore not just our jails, but American political and civic life more broadly. The result is the astonishingly rich study Democracy in America. More philosophical than historical or empirical, the book has deep insights into American life — our national pride, civic engagement, religious beliefs, racial attitudes, and family life.
It’s hard to overstate how difficult of a project Tocqueville was undertaking, considering the complexity and turbulence of 1830s America. The country had recently elected an anti-establishment populist as president (Andrew Jackson) and was rapidly expanding westward toward the Pacific Ocean. There were also emerging economic, racial, and regional tensions that would soon lead to a violent civil war. But the country had an enviable political stability (especially compared to France) and one which seemed to channel conflict toward manageable outlets while maintaining the legitimacy of local and national government.
Tocqueville was able to take these chaotic trends and synthesize them into an incredibly intelligent analysis of American society, as well as representative democracy more generally:
The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but it imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence.
If a [democratic] society displays less brilliance than an aristocracy, there will also be less wretchedness; pleasures will be less outrageous and well-being will be shared by all; the sciences will be on a smaller scale but ignorance will be less common; opinions will be less vigorous and habits gentler; you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.
Tocqueville’s book may lack detailed analytical rigor, and he was fundamentally uninterested in specific historical events; instead he focused on the customs and moral habits that seemed to be essential features of the American people:
I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.
There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.
By the side of these religious men I discern others whose looks are turned to the earth more than to Heaven; they are the partisans of liberty, not only as the source of the noblest virtues, but more especially as the root of all solid advantages; and they sincerely desire to extend its sway, and to impart its blessings to mankind. It is natural that they should hasten to invoke the assistance of religion, for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith; but they have seen religion in the ranks of their adversaries, and they inquire no further; some of them attack it openly, and the remainder are afraid to defend it.
And he is also a charming stylist:
I have always thought it rather interesting to follow the involuntary movements of fear in clever people. Fools coarsely display their cowardice in all its nakedness, but the others are able to cover it with a veil so delicate, so daintily woven with small plausible lies, that there is some pleasure to be found in contemplating this ingenious work of the human intelligence.
The pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.
This is an extraordinary book that remains highly relevant today.