Don't Know Much

TODAY IN HISTORY: Don’t Know Much About® Tocqueville in America


Happy Birthday, Monsieur Tocqueville (born July 29, 1805; died April 16, 1859)

Observing a Choctaw tribe—the old, the sick, the wounded, and newborns among them—forced to cross an ice-choked Mississippi River during the harsh winter, Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote,

“In the whole scene, there was an air of destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung.” The Indians, he added, “have no longer a country, and soon will not be a people.”

Who was Tocqueville and why did he write all those interesting things about America?

The author of those words was an aristocratic, young French magistrate studying America’s penal system, named Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville, who arrived in America in May 1831 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. As young men who had grown up in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire, they came to examine American democracy with an eye to understanding how the American experience could help form the developing democratic spirit in France and the rest of Europe. The two spent nine months traveling the nation, gathering facts and opinions, interviewing Americans from President Jackson to frontiersmen and Indians. On their return to France, Tocqueville reported on the U.S. prison system, and Beaumont wrote a novel exploring the race problem in America.Don't Know Much About History

But it is for an inspired work combining reportage, personal observation, and philosophical explorations, and titled Democracy in America, that Tocqueville’s name became a permanent part of the American vocabulary. The book appeared in two volumes, the first of which appeared in 1835, the second in 1840. More than 150 years after its appearance, Democracy in America remains a basic text in American history and political theory.
Although many of his commentaries and observations were remarkably astute, and seem to apply as neatly to modern America as they did to the United States he found in 1831, Tocqueville did not always bat a thousand. Perhaps one of his greatest oversights was his assessment of the presidency as a weak office. In fact, he wrote at a time when Andrew Jackson was shaping the office as preeminent among the three branches, establishing the mold of a strong presidency that would be repeated in such chief executives as Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.

In many more matters, he was right on target. Critical of slavery –as well as the treatment of Native Americas– the Frenchman could see civil strife ahead. And he remains astonishingly correct about the American addiction to practical rather than philosophical matters and the relentless and practically single-minded pursuit of wealth. As he observed,

“I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men….”

You can read more about de Tocqueville and this period in Don’t Know Much About History. and A Nation Rising

In 1997, CSPAN retraced the Frenchman’s route through America. Here’s a link to the CSPAN site:

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