If Tocqueville Could See Us Now

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When AMERICAN HERITAGE heard that Richard Reeves had undertaken to follow the route, one hundred and fifty years later, of a classic exploration of America’s people, places, and institutions, we assigned his friend and colleague Ken Auletta to ask the kinds of questions our readers might if they had the luck to find themselves sitting next to Reeves on a flight to, say, Buffalo or Memphis. (American Journey: Traveling With Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America, by Richard Reeves, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.)

Tocqueville was among the two or three greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century. Yet he was only twenty-five years old in 1831 when he came to study America. How did he come and why did he come?

He came to make his reputation and to escape a tricky political situation at home. Tocqueville’s father was in the court of Charles X and was made a peer of the realm, so young Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont were brought to the court and were essentially magistrates in training. Tocqueville was on national guard duty outside the palace when Charles X fled in 1830—and that was the end of the Bourbon monarchy. Then came a period in which everybody had to sign loyalty oaths. Tocqueville was by nature and inclination an aristocrat but he also had intellectual ties to liberal democracy. Although many of his friends refused to sign loyalty oaths to the new, more democratic government—and his family was against it—he and Beaumont did. But then there came new waves of loyalty oaths and they were demoted. So it was a good time to get out of the country. Tocqueville’s private agenda was to become an expert on America and write a book about it, which would lay the foundation for a future political career in France. But he needed a reason to get out of France honorably, and he and Beaumont cooked up a plot to go to the United States to study American prisons—which were considered more advanced than those of Europe.

 
 
 
Tocqueville was stunned the day he got here to see that there were five banks in Newport, which was a little town.

And the French fell for this?

Yes. The cell system of American prisons was seen as an improvement over the common yard of the medieval European model, so when Tocqueville and Beaumont asked to go as an official commission to study that, the government agreed. But all expenses for the trip had to be paid by the Tocqueville and Beaumont families.

Did they come with their minds already made up?

I don’t think they knew what they were going to find here. They had both been strongly influenced by the lectures of people such as Guizot, who believed that an increasingly egalitarian and democratic movement in Europe was inevitable. So their guiding star was the thought that what they were going to see in America might well be what the future held for France, where their real interests lay. America was thought of then the way we would think of a Third World country; there were only 13,000,000 people here. When Tocqueville started out he did not foresee that America would become a superior world power. But he soon arrived at that conclusion. One of the things he is famous for is his prediction, at the very end of his work on America, that one day the world would be divided into two spheres of interest—American and Russian.

Was that prophecy based on the nature of the resources that he saw those nations as having? Or did it have to do with the particular energy of the people?

Well, I don’t know how much he knew about the Russians, because he had never been there. Judging by his notes in America, I think he knew within two weeks what the future of America was going to be. He predicted that the population of America would rise to at least 150,000,000, which is like going to Morocco today and saying that it will some day have a population of 125,000,000 people. That would be an extraordinary thing to say. The population of the United States did hit over 150,000,000 about one hundred and fifty years after he was here, which shows how accurate he was.

And yet his initial impression of Americans, at least after one week, was highly unfavorable. Why did he change?

Well, I think we grow on people—I think he never could have liked most Americans, because their manners were bad and they were loud and boastful. By European standards, almost no Americans were educated. Tocqueville makes a lot of the distinction between education and useful education. The word “useful” to him had the same connotation as “vocational” has to us. So he didn’t believe that an American, simply because he had studied the law, was necessarily an educated person.

But he warmed up to us, after all?