Alexis de Tocqueville is often quoted as a sort of Olympian oracle, lofty and impersonal. Hoping to influence the turbulent political scene of his day, he strove for a dispassionate, even-tempered style, which can sound somewhat aridly abstract when translated too literally into English. But in fact the great De la démocratie en Amérique is a young man's book, deeply rooted in an adventurous journey Tocqueville made through the country in 1831-32, when he was 25, accompanied by his close friend Gustave de Beaumont. They had a long stay in New York, astonished by its commercial energy; they reached what was then the western frontier in Ohio and Michigan; they visited Montréal and Québec (in their opinion a survival of the "old France"); they voyaged by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi; and they traveled by stagecoach through the South, taking in Washington at the end.
Tocqueville was a tireless questioner on almost every subject. He paid special attention to the legal system, since he was trained as a lawyer and had been commissioned by his government to investigate the penitentiary system in the United States. Above all, he wanted to understand why American democracy was so stable and successful whereas in France it was practically synonymous with anarchy.
Tocqueville's family were aristocrats on both sides, and his father, a distinguished provincial prefect, never ceased to wish that the ancien régime could be restored. Alexis was convinced, however, that the future belonged to democracy, and intellectually he acknowledged that it should, though emotionally he retained the values of his upbringing. ("He got married to democracy," Sainte-Beuve said, "with deep reservations; it was a marriage of reason and necessity, not inclination.") Tocqueville's metaphor for conservative resistance to the course of history may have been suggested by his visit to Niagara Falls: "In the middle of a rapidly flowing river, we stare obstinately at some scraps of debris that are still visible on the riverbanks, even as the current is pulling us along and forcing us backward toward the abyss."
Interestingly, most British visitors to America were condescending and snobbish. Tocqueville was no snob, and he listened gratefully to everyone who could furnish information or ideas, whether it was the ex-president John Quincy Adams in Boston or a backwoods storekeeper in Michigan. It probably helped that his English, though serviceable, was not entirely fluent, so that he wasn't offended by nuances of American usage as the British were.
Three informants in Boston were especially valuable, and they will serve to illustrate how brilliantly he developed his thinking from hints gathered throughout the journey, jotting them down in little cahiers for later reflection. One of the Bostonians was Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard and a former mayor, who observed that the colonies had been essentially self-governing before the American Revolution. Not only that, each township managed its own affairs. In France it was just the opposite. As Tocqueville would show in his later masterpiece, L'Ancien régime et la révolution, the France of his day perpetuated the centralized bureaucracy of the Bourbon monarchy, and the effectiveness of local initiative in America would have been unthinkable in France.
Still more thought-provoking was Jared Sparks, who was then working on a biography of George Washington. It was Sparks who suggested to Tocqueville the famous phrase "the tyranny of the majority." When the Démocratie came out (in two parts, 1735 and 1740) Sparks was annoyed, objecting that Tocqueville had gone far beyond the limited meaning he gave the term, in which a majority in the legislature may become excessively powerful until another election displaces it. But what had struck Tocqueville was a deeper insight: that majority opinion imposes a potent conformity of thought. "The master no longer says, 'You will think like me or die;' he says, 'You are free not to think like me, and you will keep your life and your goods and everything else, but from this day forward you are a stranger among us . . . Go in peace, I leave you your life, but the life I leave you is worse than death.'"
Most interesting of all was Francis Lieber, a German immigrant who had settled in Boston as a journalist and would later become a distinguished political scientist. What Lieber emphasized was that democracy was as much a state of mind as a political system. "The republic is everywhere," he said, "in the streets as much as in Congress . . . The people have the republic in the marrow of their bones." This sounds very much like the social contract of Rousseau, an ongoing commitment to the common cause, rather than a Lockean contract negotiated in the past among independent individuals. As it happens, Rousseau was one of Tocqueville's three favorite writers (along with Montesquieu and Pascal).
The conversations with Lieber produced a striking instance of the treacherousness of idioms when translated literally. "Every day," he told Tocqueville, "I'm more inclined to think that constitutions and political legislation are nothing in themselves. They are the superstructure, to which only the mores and social condition of the people can give life." Speaking French, Lieber was making an analogy to oeuvres mortes, the upper parts of a ship, which by themselves would be useless unless the great submerged hull - the oeuvres vives alive in the sea - bore them onward. Several of Tocqueville's modern translators, not realizing this, gave "dead creations," but neither Lieber nor Tocqueville was likely to think of the constitution as dead.
The frontier interested Tocqueville even more than the established culture of the East, because it was there, he believed, that each new arrival could truly forge a new life for himself. Ohio struck him as exhibiting "democracy without limit," whereas Boston was dominated by patrician Brahmins like Adams and Quincy. And on the Mississippi he met an extraordinary character who contributed an especially important perspective to the Démocratie. This was Sam Houston, former governor of Tennessee (and not yet the hero of Texas), who came aboard their steamboat just as a sad, ill-clad band of Choctaw Indians were being set ashore at the outset of the infamous Trail of Tears.
Houston, who had grown up among the Cherokee and had a Cherokee wife, had much to tell Tocqueville about race relations in America, a subject that would eventually fill an enormous chapter one hundred pages long. The key, Houston said, was that the Indians and the black slaves occupied opposite extremes on the scale of freedom, with profound psychological consequences. Indians were encouraged from early childhood to be completely independent and to make every decision for themselves; it would be all but impossible, therefore, for them to assimilate into American culture. The slaves, contrariwise, were never allowed to make any decisions at all, and lived passively because any initiative would be punished.
From this Tocqueville, who abhorred slavery, developed an impressively sympathetic insight: "The Negro of the United States has lost even the memory of his homeland. He no longer understands the language his forefathers spoke, he has abjured their religion, and he has forgotten their mores. While thus ceasing to belong to Africa, he has however acquired no right to the good things of Europe. He remains trapped between two societies, isolated between two peoples, sold by one and rejected by the other, and in the entire universe there is only the home of his master to give him the incomplete image of a fatherland."
De la démocratie en Amérique is thus not only a landmark of political thought, but more widely a study of an entire culture. And some of its most memorable insights are as valid today as they were in the 1830s, for example the nature of the anomie that can afflict upwardly striving individuals who find that their goal keeps receding even as they hasten toward it. "This is the reason for the singular melancholy that inhabitants of democratic countries often experience in the bosom of abundance, and for the disgust with life that sometimes seizes them in the midst of their easy and tranquil existence."