Democracy in America

I recently purchased, and am reading, the book Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.

I will refer to this book from time to time on the blog. In this post, I discuss some background about the book.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who, as a young man, toured the United States, as a young country. He had studied history and law. He wanted to learn how democracy worked in America, so that he could take lessons back to France.

Tocqueville spent nine months touring the United States in 1831-1832. He visited 17 of the then 24 states. He visited with many people, both famous and not, including President Andrew Jackson, his predecessor John Quincy Adams, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence—Charles Carroll of Maryland, and Sam Houston of Texas (not yet a state). Tocqueville was 25 years old when he left for America. He traveled with a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, who was 29.

You can learn more about the tour that Tocqueville and Beaumont took in the United States from the Alexis de Tocqueville Tour, a series of programs produced by C-SPAN in 1997-1998 that followed the path they took. Links: Wikipedia, C-SPAN.

After returning to France in 1832, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, published in French in two volumes—one in 1835 and one 1840. English translations were published at the same time. Today the two volumes are usually published as one book. I purchased the translation by the husband and wife team of Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop of Harvard University, first published in 2000. I have the paperback edition published in 2002. The first sentence in the Editors’ Introduction is:

Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.

Clearly there is continuing interest in what Tocqueville had to say, as evidenced by the 1997-1998 C-SPAN series, the 2000 translation by Mansfield and Winthrop, and three other new translations since then per Wikipedia. Democracy in America is often quoted even today by people from across the political spectrum.

I won’t pretend that I am reading the book straight through. It is massive at about 800 pages, which includes both original volumes plus 75 pages or so of introduction and notes by Mansfield and Winthrop. But the book is well organized, and I am guided in my study by a set of lectures from The Great Courses Company: Tocqueville and the American Experiment, which I have listened to several times since purchasing it in 2006.

The course guide for Tocqueville and the American Experiment lists the following major themes in the book:

Democracy is the way of the future.

Because of changes taking place in the world, there is a need for a new political science. Democracy in America is meant to be a part of this new political science. America has a unique history and geography, and its form and practice of democracy cannot be imitated.

The essence of democracy is equality.*

Democracy depends on broad participation of citizens in public life at the local level. [This resonates with me now that I am on the town selectboard!]

Equality* leads people to withdraw into themselves.

The success of democracy hinges on vibrant local political and social institutions that will limit the centralization of administrative power and encourage people to be active in politics.

*By “equality,” Tocqueville does not mean equality of outcomes. He means something closer to equality of opportunity, but it is not exactly that, either. He certainly means to include equality before the law, but it is more than that. Included in his meaning is a lack of aristocracy (he was himself a French aristocrat). He also had many negative things to say about slavery. Tocqueville calls what he means “equality of conditions.”

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