If Alexis de Tocqueville were still alive, he would be over 200 years old, which would be only slightly more remarkable than a book he authored following a trip to the United States in his 26th year. In that year, 1831, Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, secured funding and permission to visit the young country to bring back suggestions for French penal reform. In reality, this was a ruse to visit the young country and observe a fledgling democracy, as Tocqueville was distressed by what he saw in France. If you’ve seen the Broadway production (or read the book) “Les Miserables”, the student revolt was set in the year 1832 – one year following Tocqueville’s trip, which should paint a vivid picture of what life was like for a French peasant in the early 19th century.
Tocqueville’s ensuing book, Democracy in America was released in two volumes, and remains something of a crystal ball preserved for almost two centuries so that we see both how far we’ve come, and how predictable some of it was.
To set the stage, the United States of America in 1831 consisted of 24 states, the President was Andrew Jackson, and the entire population was 13 million (versus about 330 million today). Tocqueville and Beaumont visited 17 of the states, venturing as far south as New Orleans and as far west as an isolated settlement called Green Bay.
Tocqueville and Beaumont spent one day in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Tocqueville’s terse journal entries survive, as do Beaumont’s letters home. Tocqueville mentions spending time with the local Iroquois village as well as this entry: “River crossed by swimming”. Interestingly, Beaumont wrote a letter home which contained little 21st century sensitivity, but with more detail about Tocqueville’s swimming excursion: “While I was on my expedition among the savages, Tocqueville was hunting, and nearly drowned himself. He is very shortsighted; he encounters a stream and thinks it very narrow; he therefore does not hesitate to swim across. But he had been mistaken, and this river was actually so wide that he was utterly worn out when he reached the other bank.”
If Tocqueville’s observations could be summarized in one excerpt from his writings, it might be this: “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations…In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”
This observation regarding American’s penchant for association – rather than predetermined interactions based upon class and wealth – is thankfully a unique American characteristic to this day. I thought of Tocqueville when a good friend returned from duty in Iraq. He described how, compared with Iraqis, Americans are much more willing to “pitch in” and make their communities work. He pointed to the many parents who coach youth athletic teams as an example. Other examples might be the VFW, the Red Hat Society, The Kiwanis, and the local Triathlon Club. Even Ralph Kramden’s membership in the Raccoon Lodge (presided over by “The Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler”) is an example. (Check with your parents or grandparents if that last sentence didn’t make sense).
By quickly forming, disbanding, and re-forming associations, American society today remains more vibrant than most European states, which coincidentally was exactly the point Tocqueville was making in 1831. Witness a France of 2005 where the young (and non-immigrant) rioted to maintain their protection from ever being fired.
This was not the stuff of America in 1831, and maintaining our national vibrancy today requires we continue to control government, rather than the opposite. Recent spending decisions by Congress should cause all of us unease, regardless of our specific position on farm subsidies or social programs. The road to the European nanny-state is paved with good intentions.
I would like to believe that Alexis de Tocqueville is cheering us on. I’m sure he would have applauded the concept of bloggers. I don’t know what he would make of today’s media, but of the journalists he found in the 1830’s, he said: “They certainly are not great writers, but they speak their country’s language and they make themselves heard”.
Published July, 2006