Tocqueville’s America

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

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.

Few nations can muster the unity of Americans in times of crisis, as was shown in the aftermath of 9/11. But Tocqueville found another side to that unity. In America, he noted, "the majority erects a formidable barrier around thought. Within the limits thus laid down, the writer is free, but woe unto him who dares to venture beyond those limits....He must face all sorts of unpleasantness and daily persecution....In the end, he gives in, he bends under the burden of such unremitting effort and retreats into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth." (One thinks of the vitriolic attacks on the writer Susan Sontag for suggesting that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, and deploring the "unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators.")

Indeed, the landscape has perennially been littered with politicians who could attest to the truth of Tocqueville's insight, from Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Howard Dean in 2004. But some things do change: Tocqueville would have been amazed at the blogosphere, where absolutely nobody retreats into silence.

Still, to Americans accustomed to celebrating their independence and freedom, it must come as a stinging surprise to read Tocqueville's observation that he knew "of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America." Of course, in the 1830s, a pro-emancipation visitor might have hesitated to express his views in the U.S. South. But there are places in the United States today where one might hesitate to voice loudly an unpopular opinion; what with today's partisan divide, red-state views are seldom heard in blue states.

Like Shakespeare, Tocqueville speaks anew to each generation—and, as with Shakespeare, support can be found in his pages for a multitude of opinions. During the cold war, Tocqueville's perspicacity was much admired by political conservatives, who cited his ringing declaration that "the American's principal means of action is liberty; the Russian's servitude.

"Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe." But his observations about war would likely cause many liberals (among others) to nod in agreement: "I predict that any warrior prince who may arise in a great democratic nation will find it easier to lead the army to conquest than to make it live in peace after victory...."

A practicing Catholic, Tocqueville was struck by the religious aspect of the United States, which he judged to be far more dutiful than in France. He discussed this with members of all sects, and especially the Roman Catholic clergy, and found that "to a man they assigned primary credit for the peaceful ascendancy of religion in their country to the complete separation of church and state." Thus, he wrote, "As long as a religion rests solely on sentiments that console man in his misery, it can win the affection of the human race." But Tocqueville also cautioned: "Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire."

Sometimes it seems as if Tocqueville's piquant observations on political hypocrisy were about the Washington of today. He dryly noted both the growth of government and calls for its downsizing, and bemoaned the influence of special interests. As he observed, "There are always a host of men....[who] accept the general principle that the public authorities should not intervene in private affairs, but each of them seeks, as an exception to this rule, help in the affair that is of special concern to him and tries to interest the government in acting in that area while continuing to ask that its actions in other areas be restricted."

But despite Tocqueville's awareness of flaws and paradoxes in the U.S. system, Democracy in America is optimistic, admiring, even flattering. "I saw in America more than America," he wrote. "It was the shape of Democracy itself which I saw."

Of course, his critics maintain that he is wordy, repetitive and wrong on several counts—for instance, his prediction of a bloody war between blacks and whites in the South. (Though the Civil War perhaps came close enough to vindicating him.) But for me, seeing the United States through Tocqueville's eyes illuminated issues—the potential tyranny of the majority—that are more important today than ever. Through that tireless young Frenchman's eyes I at last understood my new homeland, and was able to take the final step toward embracing it without reservation.

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