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Tocqueville's America

The French author's piquant observations on American gumption and political hypocrisy sound remarkably contemporary 200 years after his birth

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I got the surprise of my life when, at age 36, I walked into the United States consulate in Montreal to apply for a visa and was told I was a U.S. citizen. I was born and raised in Canada, but because my father was born in the States, I'd unknowingly been a Yank all along.

Within a few weeks, I was working in New York City, where the pace was faster, the voices louder and the opportunities greater than in Canada. At first it seemed strange to be competing with my colleague in the next office, rather than being in league with him against management's follies. But soon enough I was enjoying it all, including the rivalry. Still, even after many years, I sometimes felt like a stranger in a strange land.

So I welcomed Alexis de Tocqueville as a fellow outsider who had also set out to understand Americans. Born 200 years ago this month, the author of Democracy in America wound up explaining this country better than anyone before or since.

He was only 25 and a sort of apprentice judge when he journeyed to America, in 1831, along with a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, a deputy public prosecutor. For nine-and-a-half months, they traveled the nation (with a brief foray into Canada), amazed, he put it in a letter home, at "the quantities of things one does manage to stuff into one's stomach here." They ventured south to New Orleans and as far north as Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Ostensibly, Tocqueville came to study American penitentiaries, which were of great interest to French prison reformers, but he had in mind a larger agenda, "a great work which will make our reputation someday."

He was an indefatigable reporter, asking questions of ordinary workmen, doctors, senators, professors, governors, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, President Andrew Jackson, ex-President John Quincy Adams and Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the richest man in America. Then Tocqueville went home and wrote Democracy in America, an instant bestseller when the first of its two volumes was published in 1835. The title has never been out of print. (He let Beaumont handle the prisons report.)

Yet Tocqueville's great work is also, as a critic put it, "one of the world's least-read classics." I took that as something of a challenge, and set out to read every word.

Tocqueville's perceptions remain breathtaking, such as his analysis of how Americans had come to dominate the transatlantic trade in a few short decades. American ships cost almost as much to build as European ones, he noted, and American sailors earned much more than their European counterparts. What made the difference was that "the European navigator is cautious about venturing onto the high seas. He sets sail only when the weather is inviting." By contrast, the American "sets sail while the storm still rages" and "often ends in shipwreck, yet no one else plies the seas as rapidly as he does." And while a European will call at several ports on a long voyage, an American sailing from Boston to buy tea in Canton will put into port only once in a two-year voyage. "He has battled constantly with the sea, with disease, and with boredom. But upon his return, he can sell his tea for a penny a pound less than the English merchant." (This passage and others quoted from Democracy in America are from the graceful and lively translation by Arthur Goldhammer, published in 2004 by the Library of America.)

The America that Tocqueville discovered was rich in contradictions. "I have often seen Americans make large and genuine sacrifices to the public good," he observed, "and I have noted on countless occasions that when necessary they almost never fail to lend one another a helping hand." At the same time, he went on, "Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life's woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it."

Tocqueville (as a nobleman, his last name, when used alone, was unburdened by the "de" that attaches to, say, the lower-born de Gaulle) was deeply worried about what he called the tyranny of the majority, which "in the United States enjoys immense actual power together with a power of opinion that is almost as great. And once it has made up its mind about a question, there is nothing that can stop it or even slow it long enough to hear the cries of those whom it crushes in passing.

"The consequences of this state of affairs are dire and spell danger for the future." It was his best-known insight.

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