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If Tocqueville Could See Us Now

July 2024
21min read

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.

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?

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?

Of course I wanted to explore America in my time, but I wanted to do it within a structure. I wanted a structure that would both challenge me and force me to do it. I had seen too many good people just go out wandering about the country, talking to people and then coming back to write it all down. For me, it was not just a matter of talking to people but of testing observations, ideas, and conclusions against Tocqueville’s masterful set of documents. Of course you’re just stunned by the fact that if you ask the same questions that he asked in 1831 of people in somewhat similar positions, you get the same answers for all practical purposes. Americans today, talking about politicians, say almost word for word the same negative things Tocqueville heard about Daniel Webster and Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. You suddenly realize that there is something called an American. And you also realize that a lot of what you have read and written in your own lifetime is just nonsense. People are not changing all that much, they are not being radically altered by the circumstances of the moment—they are Americans doing what Americans have always done. One of the most extraordinary sentences he wrote appears in an essay that was not published until after he died. He describes standing in the wilderness at Saginaw Bay—where the city of Saginaw, Michigan, is today—and he said a little romantically that there was nothing between there and the Pacific Ocean. Of course that wasn’t literally true. Santa Fe existed, as did Los Angeles, but he accepted the English version of history and he said, “It’s this nomad people which the rivers and lakes do not stop, before which the forests fall and the prairies are covered with shade, and which, after having reached the Pacific Ocean, will reverse its steps to trouble and destroy the societies which have formed behind it.” What he was talking about is precisely what’s going on in America today—that’s what the frost belt versus sun belt or East versus West controversy is all about. We are troubling and destroying the societies behind us, whether it’s the New York subway system or the manufacturing plants in Detroit, and it’s all part of our national character. Our national character is to move on—use it and move on—and it should have been perfectly predictable that we would do that. We will debate for fifty years rebuilding the Northeastern cities, but we won’t do it.

Is that what you meant when you said that if you ask the same questions you get the same answers, whether you or Monsieur de Tocqueville is the questioner?

The answers are often similar, although our conclusions may vary on some things. But I agree essentially with Tocqueville’s view of the American character, which as far as I can define it is a belief in the very basic rhetoric of the country—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few other documents, all of them evolved from the King James version of the Bible. Americans believe in majority rule—just watch our children at play: they decide by voting what game to play, whether the ball was fair or foul. Other people don’t do that. Take equality of opportunity: Americans believe in a system where if everybody has the same shot, the best will survive. Americans believe that the government that governs least governs best. They believe that. They violate it all the time and they have violated it throughout history, but that piece of rhetoric is part of our essential character.

Is it a corollary that part of the American character is that Americans need to feel good about themselves and about their leaders?

I don’t think they have to feel good about their leaders—I could argue that they have to feel bad about their leaders so long as they feel good about themselves. Tocqueville said that Americans are told from birth they are the last best hope of mankind. They are told they are better than other people—it is both our strength and our weakness, our glory and our shame, that we really believe that. He spotted that then, and it sure as hell doesn’t look different to me.

Tocqueville and Beaumont needed a reason to get out of France, so they cooked up a plot to study American prisons.

If you talked to Europeans during the Watergate period, many would ask why we were getting so excited—these things go on all the time. And yet Americans were outraged.

Yes, we believed that the problem with Watergate was that it was not open—we believe in openness. That sounds like a new value but it’s also an old value with us. Tocqueville was appalled by something that appalls Ronald Reagan today, and that is that we conduct the public’s business in public, and we are the only society in the world to believe in that.

But what do the reactions on the part of the American public to Watergate or the reaction to bribes paid by American companies overseas say about us? Many businessmen would say that’s the price of doing business. But Americans can’t seem to stomach that. They forced President Reagan to back off his initial human rights policy, which was basically to downplay human rights. Do all those things tell us something about Americans?

The key lies in our belief that we are better than people in other parts of the world. We have always looked at Europe and Asia as being decadent—in 1832 as well as in 1982. It’s true that in private we will not only accept but will encourage and thrive on antisocial, unethical behavior—but once it becomes public, our code is that it has to be dealt with. Other societies do not necessarily believe that. There is a public cynicism in other societies that is not part of ours. Perhaps it never developed because we had no pressing enemies for such a long time. We believed we were different and better.

Yet Americans tolerated slavery and racism—how does that square with what you said?

Well, it doesn’t square, and we haven’t been able to resolve it yet. John Quincy Adams told Tocqueville that race was a cancer gnawing at America, and I don’t disagree. I think that we have not even come close to resolving it. We have rejected the worst option: Tocqueville talked about a race war along the Gulf of Mexico where blacks and whites were about equal in number. Of course, whites would win—because whites would come from other parts of the country to guarantee their victory. And he saw very clearly that we were literally destroying the Indians—"making them disappear” was his phrase—because they stood in the way of “progress.” He wrote also of an option for dealing with freed blacks, which was essentially to practice a classical colonial policy: pick off the smartest, strongest, and toughest leaders among blacks and essentially co-opt them—make them part of the majority society so that the remaining black minority is left with only brute force as a means of survival. And that’s exactly what we have done and what we are doing right now. People like Maxine Waters, the majority leader of the California Assembly—she’s black—told me stories of how blacks are moved up and out before they become dangerous to the white majority. Every day we are paying a price because we endanger everything in the country by our inability to deal with what Tocqueville—and Jefferson, too—thought was our inherent racism.

How did you decide whom to interview in your retracing of Tocqueville?

If there was a clearly equivalent person, a counterpart in the same place, like the mayor or governor of New York—I almost always searched him out. John Quincy Adams, whom Tocqueville interviewed, was an embittered ex-President, so it was pretty clear to me that the equivalent person in the United States today was Richard Nixon. The conversations echo across the years. Adams says that slavery is the root of almost all the troubles of his country and time and of all his fears for the American future. Nixon answers the same questions by saying that the fundamental racism is still there, that it will always be there. Then, like Tocqueville, the lines of inquiry I was pursuing at any given time led me to certain people, and those people led me to others. In some cases I chose my subjects by generic description—the greatest merchant in Louisville, for example. This time around, the Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, did exactly what his predecessor, Walter Bowne, did—both gave dinners and both invited only their own cronies to answer a visitor’s questions.

Was there any worry on your part that Tocqueville interviewed the elite of this young nation—did you worry that by following his path you would get a distorted and essentially elitist view?

I had an advantage that he didn’t have—I am an American. He had the advantage that it was all strange to him and therefore more striking. So I think I knew something about how the majority of Americans live, but if you’re going to talk about ideas and you neglect to talk to elites, then people are going to tell you the same thing over and over again. A politician generally has an ordinary mind and is going to see the world in a certain way because of his perception of his role. The same is true of an auto worker or whatever—unless he is extraordinary. Extraordinary people are going to take things to different levels, so you search them out.

Tocqueville visited twenty-four states. Why did you limit yourself to his route and not take in the West?

I originally intended to travel through the Western states. I had worked out an arc from Houston up the Pacific Coast coming out in Alaska, which would have been easy because I was living in Los Angeles at the time I was doing the traveling. But about halfway into the project I realized that I thought there was only one American—Tocqueville and I agreed on that—and that regional differences were minimal. The man whom I interviewed three years ago as the greatest merchant in Louisville now lives in New York City. The editor of the Baltimore American whom I interviewed is now the editor of the Dallas Times Herald. They are the same people, I thought, everywhere in America.

Look at surveys of voter attitudes—it’s certainly fair to say that New Yorkers tend to be more liberal than, say, people living in Houston. Aren’t they different?

I don’t see any great differences. I think they are on either side of a line that is conservative rhetorically and liberal operationally. I didn’t even see any difference between middle-class blacks and whites in any part of the country.

Yet earlier you talked about racism—so you certainly saw differences between blacks and whites.

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?

Well, he was stunned the day he got here to see that there were five banks in Newport, which was a little town. He was always stunned by the commerce of the Americans and what he called their “breathless cupidity. ” I think what struck me most and would strike him as an astounding phenomenon would be the presence of women at West Point—women at the military academy of the most powerful military nation in the world. Of anything I saw, I think that tells the most about America and where it’s going and what it is.

Wasn’t it his view that women were squaws?

He thought American women were docile. He talked about women making America great because mores are what determine how a society is—and women control mores with an emphasis on morals. He found America was not a very promiscuous place compared with Europe, and he thought that women determined this. He talked about American women as being dull extensions of their husbands, and wrote joking letters to his sister-in-law asking why she couldn’t be more like American women and not bother anybody. It is interesting that he did not mention women in his first volume. But he got married between his first and second volume and then he started to mention women and he asked the question: If this kind of relentless drive for equality in America continues, won’t the real revolution come when it encompasses women? But he thought that the end point was much, much farther away than in fact it was.

Tocqueville talked about the inherent conflict between equality and liberty—between democracy and a republican form of government. Did you find that same inherent conflict in your journey?

He saw democracy much more in conflict with liberty than I did, but we both agree that the great American passion is for equality. He felt that people would always give up liberty for a little more comfort, a little more equality. But I think Americans have a pretty good sense of what liberty is, and they want that too.

The founding fathers believed that their republican form of government could always keep democracy in check through the division of power, by being sensitive to and balancing the power of factions. Did Tocqueville think they were right?

He thought egalitarianism would have to win out in the end and that the ability of leaders to lead would wither. But when he was here he felt most power rested with the individual states and that it would be very hard for that power to become centralized. He was wrong. The Civil War and subsequent wars pushed us into centralized government. And the federal courts ordered the central government into action during the civil rights strife from 1953 to the present. He could not have foreseen how a republican form of government could deal with the race problem, because, as he said, “It is impossible for a people to rise above themselves. ” But Americans did that in regard to race—the majority decided that the treatment of the minority was intolerable within the confines of American rhetoric, and the federal courts were used to change the government of America forever.

Have the attitudes of Americans toward government changed since Tocqueville visited us?

No. In Tocqueville’s day Americans thought politicians were bums, and the people still think politicians are bums. People who go into politics are self-selected and they tend to have certain self-interested characteristics in common. Tocqueville, who looked down on American politicians, was appalled. He deduced that the political second-rankers were demagogues who didn’t care about anything except their own futures. He asked how the country could survive with leadership like this and was told that only if Americans had to live under one demagogue would there be trouble—but that mediocre politicians cancel each other out. I totally believe that whatever problems there are on the political leadership level of the country, they are overwhelmed by the concourse of individual wills and energy that actually make up the United States of America. That is our secret and the genius of our democracy and freedom. This country can absorb almost anything, and it has certainly proven it can absorb mediocre politicians.

Do you see a group such as the Moral Majority as a temporary or as a fundamental phenomenon?

I think of it as a permanent—absolutely permanent—force in America that peaks intermittently. One of its peaks was the revival movement when Tocqueville was here. I tend strongly to disagree with Tocqueville’s view of religion in America. Because he was a Catholic and because he was a Frenchman who came from a country where everyone had the same religion, he tended to see Catholicism as the center of a great Christian culture. To him America was moving toward a kind of Unitarianism that, to a Catholic, meant a belief in nothing. But Tocqueville was wrong then and is certainly wrong now. The magnetic center of the American religious universe was once New England Puritanism and frontier revivalism; it has evolved into the establishment, main-line, Protestant churches and the fundamentalists who always react to modernism. The Moral Majoritarians are always going to be with us and they are going to rise and fall depending on what other forces in the society are doing, whether those forces revolve around Darwin or Freud or Marx or liberal Democrats. The fundamentalists rise like a counterbalance—not necessarily an unhealthy thing. They keep America on a certain course.

John Quincy Adams, whom Tocqueville interviewed, was an embittered ex-President, so it was pretty clear to me that the equivalent person in the United States today was Richard Nixon.

How about President Reagan’s New Federalism and talk of returning powers to the states—is that consistent with what you see as the movement of our history, or is that a temporary phenomenon?

No, I think we will debate that forever. When I was a kid it was called States’ rights. There’s no difference between Reagan’s proposed New Federalism and States’ rights that I can see. I think that debate will go on throughout the history of this republic but will become more and more hollow as time goes on because I think more and more of the government’s functions will be centralized. It’s an inevitable trend.

If you look at the life of Freud or Christ or Marx or even Adolf Hitler, one could conclude that they illustrate the power of an idea or a set of ideas to move people and nations. If you look at Tocqueville—this frail figure, dead over a hundred years—what ideas did he bequeath to the world that have altered human behavior?

I don’t think he has moved the world on the scale of those you have named. In his own lifetime he was certainly a great success and he did become foreign minister of France for a few months. What he did do was make a significant leap in the development of analytical tools to deal with political and sociological phenomena. He really was far ahead of his time, but others learned very quickly from him and advanced human knowledge. For us, the great thing is that he saw America whole. You cannot read Tocqueville without agreeing that he knows who we are. And that will be his great value to Americans as long as there are Americans.

In a non-Freudian way, how did the experience of living with Tocqueville change you?

Fewer things that I used to think were important are as important to me now. For instance, to make a living I am a newspaper columnist. But I did not read the papers this morning because I know in general that nothing can happen in the United States on any given day that’s going to change the way it is or the way Americans are.

I’ve got some news for you then. Your mortgage rate went up this morning.

That changes my life but it does not change the fact that this is a roaring commercial society in which the people who control pools of money will exploit everybody else to the extent that they can before everybody else comes back with the hammer of political power to keep them within some kind of sane limits.






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