October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
Underrated What I Saw in America by G. K. Chesterton. In 1830 Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to write a report to the French government on American prisons. That so many people for so long have taken the resulting book, Democracy in America , to be so much more than that is in large part the result of Tocqueville’s own arrogance. It’s the lack of same that makes G. K. Chesterton’s What I Saw in America , published in 1922, so much more incisive.
Chesterton, of course, had advantages Tocqueville did not. Thanks to the railway system, Chesterton could travel as far west as Oklahoma. But Tocqueville would have had no interest in visiting any place very remote. To him, America meant the descendants of European aristocracy in the big Northeastern cities. Chesterton perceived that “the great part of America is singularly and even strikingly unlike New York.”
Tocqueville mistrusted democracy and was appalled that Americans would elect Andrew Jackson President, when “nothing in the whole of his career ever indicated him to have the qualities needed for governing a free people.” (Indeed, “the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always opposed him.”) Chesterton understood that “all the popular presidents, Jackson and Lincoln and Roosevelt”—“the names,” he noted, “have become curiously interchanged” —were closer in spirit to medieval kings than to modern constitutional monarchs and that they were permitted, even expected, to act as “democratic despots.”
In two of his most famous passages, Tocqueville claimed to know “of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America” and that “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” Chesterton, observing the fervor with which America entered World War I, understood what Tocqueville meant but made an important distinction. American public opinion “can be a prairie fire. It eats up everything that opposes it.” But “there is the grandeur as well as the grave disadvantages of a natural catastrophe in that national unity.”
Because he came to America 90 years later than Tocqueville and during an industrial boom, the Englishman was able to divine a deep contradiction in American democracy that escaped the Frenchman (who, in any event, had little interest in economics or industry)— namely, that “the democratic ideal of countries like America, while it is still generally sincere and sometimes intense, is at issue with another tendency, an industrial progress which is of all things on earth the most undemocratic: . . . Industrial capitalism and democracy are everywhere in controversy; but perhaps only here are they in conflict.” (There’s little doubt where Chesterton would have stood on the Wal-Marting and McDonaldization of the globe.)
Unlike Tocqueville, Chesterton fully embraced America’s vitality, which entitled him to criticize its attendant vulgarity. “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be,” he said to American friends as they gazed at the lights of Broadway by night, “to anyone who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”