Tocqueville in America
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Columbus Day and the discovery of America. Or at least he made the physical discovery, and even that is contested. What other Americas were there to discover? One might say: the political discovery of the American Republic’s early successes. Alexis de Tocqueville and his Democracy in America were crucial, but who would cite a French aristocrat with discovering the importance of American democracy? Everyone.
Born in 1805, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, Tocqueville saw several regime changes before embarking on his voyage to America: Napoleon to the restored Bourbons—Napoleon again!—back to the Bourbons—and over to the July Monarchy by 1830. Moreover, his family had suffered terribly as loyalists to the Bourbons during the French Revolution; some were executed; his mother and father imprisoned. At age twenty-five in April 1831, Tocqueville boarded Le Havre, bound for America with good friend, Gustave de Beaumont. Like many of the best discoveries, Tocqueville stumbled into what he found. To say that he thought of his trip as a distraction, or even an escape from the new regime he despised, is to say very little.
In the Introduction to Letters from America, Frederick Brown notes that “Tocqueville declared in private that the commission was hardly more than a pretext…. Tocqueville was seldom of one mind about anything, and he did not view matters without ambivalence when he climbed aboard.” After nine months, Tocqueville had what he needed to write Democracy in America. This new volume includes the complete set of translated letters from Tocqueville’s time in America, with relevant excerpts from Beaumont’s correspondence. The story of Brown’s thoughts on the letters was covered last year by Charles McGrath in the New York Times.
From this field trip, the younger Tocqueville is revealed through his letters home. “Would Tocquevilles who had escaped death almost four decades earlier survive this time around? Would he, who carried royal credentials to America, soon find himself in the vanguard of a new generation of émigrés? Was he a researcher or a fugitive?” Questions like these raced through his mind, and now, we have the field notes from one of the most important political philosophers of modern times, taken on our very home turf.