Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, by Leo Damrosch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $27)
American readers usually first learn about Alexis de Tocqueville as an ingenious young Frenchman whose journey here in 1831–32 helped him uncover the essence of the young democracy, which he summarized in a seminal and prophetic book, Democracy in America. Scholars and pundits on both the left and the right find in its two thick volumes ready-made quotations to buttress their arguments about the permanent character of American civilization. In his new book, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, Harvard literature professor Leo Damrosch breaks with this pristine reading and in the process rejuvenates well-trodden ground. His book arrives at a timely moment, since last fall the Hudson Review published remarkable letters that Tocqueville wrote, mostly to his parents, both on his way to America and after landing. Translated for the first time into English by Frederick Brown, the letters, like Damrosch’s book, shed new light on this giant whom we thought we already knew.
This is not to say that the letters and the Damrosch book destroy the Tocqueville myth or minimize the man’s genius. But they do make him more human, and above all, they explain the circumstances that underlay his insights. From the early letters, some written on the voyage over, we discover that Tocqueville knew a lot about America already. Just 25 when he set off, he had read much about the New World in French and in English. He knew where he was going and why.
Officially, Tocqueville and his close friend Gustave de Beaumont, both magistrates for King Louis-Philippe, went to the U.S. to study the American penitentiary system, which operated on the principle of reeducation, in contrast with the punishment-based French model. On returning, they submitted a powerful report to the French government that found little to recommend in the American approach. However, behind this official endeavor, they both intended to write about America as a whole, in order to “become famous,” as Tocqueville wrote to his parents. For his part, Beaumont would publish a novel inspired by his travel.
The ingenious young Tocqueville had not just ambition but an agenda. His letter to his father—dated June 1831, at the outset of his American journey—reveals his intentions: “Knowing as we do exactly what we want to ask, the most humble conversation is instructive and no man, whatever his social rank, is incapable of teaching us something.” Tocqueville wanted to learn mostly what would fit the preconceived idea he had for his own book: that America was fundamentally different from Europe. The young nation was inventing a new kind of democratic, egalitarian society. From the outset of the trip, as the Hudson Review letters reveal, Tocqueville had a plan for the book. As Damrosch then shows, he stuck to it. Finding Boston too similar to Europe, he went off to see the frontier—Detroit, Nashville, and Memphis. Tocqueville’s ideal American was the frontiersman: well-educated (at least compared with the European peasant), individualistic, and conquering. This new man—the hero of Tocqueville’s epic philosophy, a true democrat—was free of the social prejudices of his European ancestors. Tocqueville renders him like something out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dreams, with some Hellenistic touches thrown in.
As Damrosch points out, though, Tocqueville had his blind spots. He didn’t understand that most Americans he happened to meet were upper-class New England Brahmins, the American equivalent of aristocracy—and thus his America looks much more egalitarian than it actually was. And Tocqueville’s own prejudices come through in his derisive portrait of President Andrew Jackson, who, in the middle of an electoral campaign, granted Tocqueville and Beaumont an interview at the White House. Tocqueville resented Jackson as uncouth and uneducated, and Tocqueville’s fear of the “tyranny of the majority,” and of public opinion generally, revealed his aristocratic leanings. He loved democracy as an egalitarian ideal but would have preferred that it be guided by enlightened elites, not Jacksonian populism. This built-in contradiction, as Damrosch rightly points out, helps explain the nostalgia that imbues the whole of Tocqueville’s writings.
Damrosch is at his best when discussing Tocqueville’s sources. Based on Tocqueville’s correspondence and notes, and Beaumont’s notes as well, Damrosch has reconstructed Tocqueville’s itinerary and described the people he encountered. They weren’t always happy with his reconstructions of their conversations. When Tocqueville later wrote about “the potential for a stultifying tyranny of the majority,” Jared Sparks, editor of a Boston literary journal and one of Tocqueville’s leading sources, became indignant: he complained that Tocqueville had misunderstood his meaning, which was simply that a majority in the legislature might abuse its power. In Sparks’s view, even if that did happen and the legislature passed oppressive laws, “the majority will certainly be changed at the next election.” Which version of this famous insight in Democracy in America is closer to the truth? It remains an open debate.
Much of Tocqueville’s reputation for prophecy rests on his writing on the inevitability of civil war between the North and the South. Tocqueville was truly shaken by the immorality of slavery, but his fear of a coming civil war, as Damrosch shows, was fully indebted to John Quincy Adams. It was the former president, fluent in French, who explained to Tocqueville how “slavery has altered the entire state of the South.” Before Tocqueville did, Adams envisioned that the conflict over slavery could lead to the dissolution of the Union. Tocqueville deserves credit, however, for understanding and conveying the gravity of the issue a generation before the Civil War occurred.
If Tocqueville had been just a social thinker or a political philosopher, we probably wouldn’t be reading him today. He happened to be a gifted writer as well. Another of the Hudson Review letters, addressed to his mother and dated December 25, 1831, describes the deportation of the Choctaw Indians beyond the Mississippi at Memphis. One feels heartsick today at Tocqueville’s description of “the women carrying children tied to their back or swaddled in blankets.” The Americans, he adds, “being more humane, more respectful of law and legality, never bloodthirsty, are more profoundly destructive of the Indian people than Spaniards. And we cannot doubt that within a century, there will no longer remain on the North American continent, a single Indian nation.” Alexis de Tocqueville may have championed American democracy, but he was not naive.