- Historic Sites
If Tocqueville Could See Us Now
In a new book, the political journalist and columnist Richard Reeves retraces Alexis de Tocqueville’s remarkable 1831-32 journey through America. Reeves's conclusion: Tocqueville not only deserves his reputation as the greatest observer of our democracy—he is an incomparable guide to what is happening in our country now.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
With some qualifications. He liked the people he met in Philadelphia and Boston. He didn’t like the people he met in New York. It was too commercial. For him commerce and politics showed the worst of the American personality. But he began more and more as he traveled to warm to Americans, although again and again, in his notes and works, he always remembered to put in either an afterthought or a barbed footnote about our almost monomaniacal pursuit of wealth. Of course, he was already wealthy and we weren’t.
How did he go about the process of reporting during the time he was here?
Well, he wouldn’t have called himself a reporter, of course, because journalism was not anything like what it is today. But he was very proud to think of himself as a scientific observer. He felt he had standards and an intellectual structure that permitted him to study any given situation. It could be argued that he was one of the inventors of what has come to be known as political science. He applied system to his observations, and that’s what encourages us to call him a great reporter. He did not just-look at a situation and think, “Oh, this guy is the President of the United States and this other guy is president of the National Bank, and since they have different backgrounds and don’t like each other, there is going to be a lot of trouble. ” What he saw was an inevitable clash between the role of government and the role of an independent national bank. Though the National Bank no longer exists, the current President of the United States has just attacked the head of the Federal Reserve Board. This is essentially a continuation of the same conflict.
How did a French aristocrat come here for the first time at age twenty-five, spend only nine months, then have the audacity to spend the next eight years writing two volumes that have come to be known as perhaps the definitive work on America?
Well, he was very smart. He was certainly the best of those who had done what we would now call sociopolitical observation. Many people wrote “traveling” books at the time, but they were purely observational. They did not analyze on the level that he did. I think he was able to do it because he had a mind that could deal in the abstract with what he saw in the specific. He was an incredibly talented observer. Even though he was so young and had never gone to a formal school, people like him were much better educated than almost anyone is today. He had no trouble, for instance, in dealing with anyone in authority—real authority—not merely with politicians but with the great men who, in the era, usually spoke French.
Yes, but he acknowledges that much of his education in democratic government came only after he had returned to France and had studied the history of English institutions.
True, but he retained the American observations in his mind and was able to take those eight years before coming to some of the conclusions in the book. He had the chance to think through an awful lot, and he hired two American assistants who worked with him full time in Paris. He wasn’t working against a deadline.
“Deadline” is a word that lets me switch to you—how did you come upon the idea of retracing Tocqueville’s journey?
I got the idea as soon as I found out that his notes existed and that scholars had done a great deal of work with them in both France and America. People knew where he had been, whom he had talked to, and what he had asked them. My own education was as an engineer, so I had not read Tocqueville as an undergraduate. I really began to read him when I became a reporter at The New York Times—and at the Times it was like a game: when you wanted to put depth into a story on the Congress, lawyers, the judiciary, the Catholic Church, whatever—you reached for Tocqueville. I always suspected there were more copies in the city room of Democracy in America than of The New York Times Style Book. You always knew that Tocqueville had said something on whatever you were writing about. If I quoted him, the editors would stop by and say, “There’s a lot of scope and breadth in that story, Reeves. ” We all did it. My interest in Tocqueville became really serious when someone gave me the copy of his translated notes, which had been released by the French in the 1950's. I then found out that it was George Wilson Pierson at Yale who had found his letters and notes and had published them in a remarkable 1938 study called Tocqueville and Beaumont in America.
But, in writing your book, was your interest to pay homage while tiptoeing in Tocqueville’s giant footsteps, or was it to explore America today?