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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
I saw a difference in white perception of white people and 14 black people and the black perception of black people and white people. America will accept anyone—blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics (who were an exotic minority when Tocqueville was here)—but they have to pay a high price: they’ve got to conform, to be like everybody else.
When you went on your journey, you didn’t have the letter of introduction Tocqueville had—you weren’t a famous visitor coming from afar. How did people receive you and did they know of Tocqueville?
It was really amazing. I obviously knew a lot of the people in advance or at the very least had mutual friends, but I was stunned at how much people knew about Tocqueville. In Louisville, Barry Bingham, Sr., the chairman of the board of the Courier-Journal newspaper, literally took me around town—which is exactly what happened with Tocqueville. John Siegenthaler, publisher of the National Tennesseean, did the same and not because of who I was but because those people revered Tocqueville. Everybody I met really cared about America, but it was astonishing how much they cared about him. Let me add one thing: I did not meet a single person who talked about living any place but America and I don’t remember more than a handful of people even bringing up the fact that we might have something to learn from some other society or some other country. Which shows the great love people have for this country, the fact that they are essentially satisfied with life here and the fact that they are indeed arrogant if they believe they can’t learn from other people.
How does that square with the talk that America, after Vietnam and after Watergate, suffered from a kind of guilt syndrome in which we questioned our values and hated what we had done—or what we had seen some of our leaders do?
Tocqueville said again and again in his letters home that these people have a great bent toward human perfectibility. I talked to a professor of European history at Harvard who said Americans are the only people in the world who don’t believe that the world’s moral problems have been solved. That bent toward perfectibility, that we can be better as a people, that we can rise above ourselves individually, is the most attractive thing about Americans. It relates to what happened when Reagan appeared to abandon the human rights policy, why Reagan found himself in trouble when he appeared to officially sanction government aid to racially discriminatory schools. Whatever people feel individually about race, as long as democracy is working, Americans will not allow things like that to happen officially or in public.
So again you come back to the kind of contradictions in the American character that Tocqueville wrote of.
Our form of democracy probably comes closer to institutionalizing the fact that all people behave differently in private than in public. They generally tend to behave better in public—and Americans do more things publicly than any other people in the history of the world.
He viewed American women as dull extensions of their husbands and asked why French women couldn’t be so.
You say you were surprised at how many of your subjects knew of Tocqueville. Had President Nixon or, say, Governor Carey of New fork read him?
Nixon clearly had read him. He was generally aware of what his ideas were and he was certainly familiar with that period of French history, though few laymen are. Hugh Carey was familiar with Tocqueville and actually gave me a copy of the inaugural speech of his nineteenth-century predecessor, Governor Enos Throop, to whom Tocqueville had spoken.
Let’s do some comparisons between how the young nation looked to Tocqueville in the 1830’s and how it had changed when you went around the country.
Flint, Michigan, is a city at the point where Tocqueville crossed the Flint River in the middle of a wilderness and was greeted by a local resident who had a pet bear—in fact, that man was the only resident of Flint at the time. Washington, D.C., was practically a desert. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were cities whose characters had already begun to be established even though the city of New York was on the lower end of Manhattan Island at that time and Fifty-ninth Street was considered to be the country. But the big change—the thing that you would most tend to overlook- was what the highways have done for the country. Water travel came first, of course, and you realize that most of the cities visited by Tocqueville developed along the waterways. The country then developed for a short period of its history along the railroads, but now the highways lead the way—the superhighways being one of the most significant physical developments in our lifetime.
Certain things stunned Tocqueville when he was here. Did you find yourself comparably surprised?