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Tocqueville and the American Experiment

Tocqueville and the American Experiment

Professor William R. Cook Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Course No.  4863
Course No.  4863
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

How is it possible that perhaps the greatest book about U.S. democracy ever written was penned by a Frenchman visiting this country 175 years ago? Why is it still relevant in today’s ever-changing political landscape?

Now you can draw your own conclusions as you join Professor William R. Cook for a spirited exploration of Alexis de Tocqueville and his unique observations of this young nation that resulted in the two volumes of Democracy in America.

Democracy and Our National Identity

Democracy is so much a part of our national identity as to be inseparable from it. It is all too easily taken for granted as we live our lives, debate our country’s issues, freely criticize our leaders, and cast our ballots.

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How is it possible that perhaps the greatest book about U.S. democracy ever written was penned by a Frenchman visiting this country 175 years ago? Why is it still relevant in today’s ever-changing political landscape?

Now you can draw your own conclusions as you join Professor William R. Cook for a spirited exploration of Alexis de Tocqueville and his unique observations of this young nation that resulted in the two volumes of Democracy in America.

Democracy and Our National Identity

Democracy is so much a part of our national identity as to be inseparable from it. It is all too easily taken for granted as we live our lives, debate our country’s issues, freely criticize our leaders, and cast our ballots.

But in today’s world, where we are also trying to understand how to make democracy a part of the national identity of other nations, an in-depth understanding of this remarkable political system is especially relevant.

What is American democracy, and why has it flourished? Is there something unique in our national character, in our social fabric and communities, that makes the United States especially fertile ground for the growth of democracy? Can American democracy be exported? Does it naturally fortify itself over time? Or do its benefits, ironically, work to undermine its strengths?

After more than two centuries of living with democracy, fundamental questions like these often go unasked.

Yet there was a time when the unique relationship between the American people and their government was still new, barely two generations old, and these questions were very much at the forefront of the age’s greatest minds.

One of those minds belonged to a 25-year-old French nobleman, a lawyer named Alexis de Tocqueville, who journeyed here in 1831, and whose written observations at that time left us a lasting and provocative look at U.S. democracy’s formative years.

Tocqueville took this journey with another young lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont, who had written a report on French prisons. Although the official purpose of the trip was to research innovations in the American penal system, the two of them—especially Tocqueville—had in mind a much broader use of the credentials provided them by their government.

Tocqueville wanted to observe firsthand the successful political experiment that was evolving in the United States and take his findings home to France, which was itself trying to shape its own young democracy.

A Hero Claimed by Liberals and Conservatives

The remarkable book that resulted—Democracy in America—has been called both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America.

Published in two parts, one in 1835 and the second in 1840, it reveals, in its 700 pages, insights about democracy and the American character that have led both liberals and conservatives to claim Tocqueville as their own, often by citing the very same passages, and often out of context.

And its prescience runs so deep that it includes Tocqueville’s prediction, more than a century ahead of the fact, of the eventual emergence of the United States and what was then pre-Soviet Russia as the world’s reigning superpowers.

In Tocqueville and the American Experiment, Professor Cook leads you on an engaging and energetic discussion on Tocqueville, his journey, his writing of Democracy in America and, most of all, his thoughts on the young nation he was observing. For Tocqueville, it seems, had opinions about almost everything he encountered in America, and not exclusively politics and “classical” issues such as the nature of the judiciary and the role of freedom of the press. He wrote of:

  • The meaning of family in a democracy
  • Race and the damage done by slavery
  • The crucial role of women
  • Religion as a moral guide
  • The dangers of turning religion to political ends.

Seeing Ourselves Through a Foreigner’s Observations

“Tocqueville,” notes Professor Cook, “provides the brilliant observations of an outsider that still allow Americans to understand themselves better for having encountered his writings.

“Furthermore, in a time when America is encouraging nations around the world to adopt democratic values and is engaged in nation building, Tocqueville can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish.

“Whatever we feel about particular American policies,” he continues, “we as a nation are trying to build democracies in other places.

“To do that, we have to ask, what in America is transferable to other cultures and other histories, and what isn’t? What are the most fundamental things, and what are secondary and tertiary in importance? What kind of education is needed to create not just a democratic institution, but what Tocqueville himself calls the ‘habits of the heart,’ [the American characteristics that] make a democracy more than a form of government but a way of life?”

A Professor’s very Personal Interest

Professor Cook will be familiar to Teaching Company customers. He has taught subjects that range from Dante to St. Francis to St. Augustine, but his interest in Tocqueville comes from a very different place than his background as an award-winning medieval historian.

Ever since his days as an undergraduate, he has been fascinated with democracy. In 1998 he decided to take a semester off to run for Congress, describing his campaign as a kind of “laboratory” for examining how democracy works. A careful reading of Democracy in America was part of his preparation.

Although he lost that race, a course in Tocqueville has since become part of the array of subjects he teaches.

It is especially interesting to realize that as Professor Cook describes Tocqueville’s journey and illustrates Tocqueville’s insights with examples from his own small town in upstate New York, that many of those insights were gathered in the same district in which Professor Cook ran for Congress.

Tocqueville spent several weeks in that area, including significant time as the guest in the Canandaigua, New York, home of a man named John Canfield Spencer, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, held two Cabinet offices in the presidential administration of John Tyler, and was a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Spencer was instrumental in the American publication of Democracy in America. He contributed an introduction and some corrective footnotes—but his greatest contribution may well have been in the long conversations he had with Tocqueville.

Although Tocqueville never mentions Spencer’s name in his book, he did record some of those conversations verbatim. Professor Cook points out how those discussions, included in his letters and his journal, not only influenced Tocqueville’s thinking, but offer a window to us today into how that thinking evolved over the years between Tocqueville’s journey to America and the appearance of his book.

Freedom of the Press and Centralized Government

A primary example of Tocqueville’s changing opinions over the nine-year interval between his visit and the completion of Democracy in America concerns freedom of the press.

Describing those changes in the same friendly, conversational style that marks his presentation of the entire course, Professor Cook notes how Tocqueville was initially quite nervous about the unbridled freedom of the press he found in America, fearing that a dominant press might acquire too much power. But Tocqueville was used to the far more centralized press of France, with only a small number of major newspapers. It is fascinating to see how his views evolve as he learns more about the vibrant American press and how its many outlets serve to prevent the centralization of power.

Tocqueville constantly cautioned against the centralization of governmental administration. He believed that if Congress or a state legislature passes a bad law that is administered centrally, for example, the bad effects are felt everywhere. But if those laws are administered locally, there will always be places where the application will be less rigid and the impact of the bad laws thus less onerous. This would provide an opportunity for public demonstrations that would make changes in those laws more likely.

What Else Did Tocqueville Believe?

As Professor Cook traces Tocqueville’s journey and thoughts about the society he is exploring, you’ll see certain concerns emerge repeatedly.

Tocqueville believed, for example, that the forces that held democracy together and made it work most efficiently bubbled up through society, rather than trickling down from government.

He thus saw serving on juries—especially juries in civil cases—as a crucial part of the education of the citizenry, a “school free of charge,” to use Tocqueville’s own words.

“I think,” Cook quotes Tocqueville, “that the practical intelligence and good political sense of the Americans must principally be attributed to a long use that they have made of the jury in civil matters.”

Professor Cook shows how Tocqueville saw much of American daily life as education in good citizenship, with both political and civil associations providing fertile training grounds.

In the case of political associations, participants would have an opportunity not only to advance causes they believed to be in their own self-interest, but to gain practical experience in learning what he called “self-interest well understood.” In giving up their time and energy, and working with other people, citizens would learn how individual self-interest had to be placed within the context of the common good.

In the case of civil associations, Professor Cook uses the story of a cat rescue group in his own town of Geneseo to illustrate Tocqueville’s notion of how civil associations help make life better.

Concerns as Deep as His Admiration

He admired the vibrancy of citizen participation at the base of American democracy, but Tocqueville also saw things that deeply concerned him.

As a system dependent on the will of the majority, democracy needed to be always vigilant against the tyranny of that same majority, the danger that it could rule almost absolutely over the minority.

That danger wasn’t likely to come from government, for there were constitutional safeguards in place. Instead, Tocqueville saw the threat of majoritarianism in the speech that swirled around him, even going so far as to note that despite all of the opinion he heard being voiced, he had found less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion in America than any place he had been!

Although the circle of discussion in America is very broad, he said, its perimeter is clearly delineated. Those whose views fall outside of that circle, even though their views are permitted, are cut off from power, with political careers closed to them. They can become the butt of jokes and, in the worst of cases, the victims of social persecution.

Tocqueville was also concerned about the long-range implications of what he called “equality of conditions,” a term roughly equivalent to what we call equal opportunity. For Tocqueville, equality of conditions was fundamental to democracy, giving “a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern and particular habits to the government.”

But in a society in which such a principle pertains, a society without built-in privilege, Tocqueville also saw a danger. He feared that people might well seek other ways to experience the feeling of being special, either by withdrawing into the family or by the selfish pursuit of material wealth.

Tocqueville even coined a term—individualism—to describe this threat, and urged renewed attention to maintaining vibrant local governments and political and civil associations that will constantly demonstrate the advantages of entering and participating in the activities of the public square.

A Book for Today

Tocqueville can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish. His book can be seen both as an inspiration and a warning for Americans of the 21st century, providing insights and innovative ways to consider what we all too often take for granted in the United States.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    An Overview of Democracy in America
    The course begins with a brief overview of Tocqueville's masterwork. Written to educate the French about democracy, it was originally published as two separate volumes, released five years apart. x
  • 2
    Alexis de Tocqueville—A Brief Biography
    Professor William R. Cook introduces the young French nobleman, trained as a lawyer, whose most famous book was only one achievement in a life marked by several, including service as France's foreign minister and a history of the French Revolution still regarded as a classic. x
  • 3
    The Journey to America
    Though Tocqueville rarely describes specific events or conversations, his letters and journals allow us to follow him on his trip and get an excellent feel for the experiences he and his colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, have in America. x
  • 4
    Equality of Conditions and Freedom
    This lecture considers the meaning and implications of what Tocqueville introduces in Democracy in America's first paragraph as the foundation of the democratic enterprise: the concept he calls "equality of conditions." x
  • 5
    The Foundations of the American Experience
    Although democracy transcends any particular manifestation of it, Tocqueville stresses specific elements of the American experience that lead to its particular expression of democratic principles, including its roots in England, its form of Protestant Christianity, and its geography. x
  • 6
    Does America Have a Mixed Constitution?
    Americans are often taught that we have a classical republic, consisting of elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. However, Tocqueville challenges this idea by arguing that there is only one overarching principle at work in America: democracy. x
  • 7
    The American Constitution
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's admiration of—and concern over—the American Constitution, with special focus on the role of the federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, and the eligibility of a president for re-election. x
  • 8
    The Judiciary and Lawyers in America
    We shift to other levels of the judiciary to see what Tocqueville has to say about justices of the peace, lawyers, and the vital role of juries as schools of democracy. x
  • 9
    Democracy and Local Government
    For Tocqueville, democracy to a large extent trickles up rather than down, with local elections and offices providing both efficiency and a democratic laboratory, both of which are dangerously subject to damage by the centralization of administration. x
  • 10
    Freedom of Speech in Theory and Practice
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's views on the necessity and danger of freedom of speech, including his discussion on the limitations placed on speech not by law, but by custom. x
  • 11
    Freedom of the Press
    We see how Tocqueville's views on freedom of the press clearly evolved between his work's two volumes and also enjoy the opportunity of using his own journal's word-by-word record of a conversation he had on this subject as a case study of his interviewing method. x
  • 12
    Political Parties
    Political parties as we understand them were only in their infancy when Tocqueville arrived in America. We examine his definition of "great" and "small" parties in explaining why the new realities of his time demand a new political science. x
  • 13
    The Problem of the Tyranny of the Majority
    For Tocqueville, the danger of the tyranny of the majority is one of the most serious facing a democratic society. With even institutional safeguards offering insufficient protection, he looks to political associations as an essential barrier against that tyranny. x
  • 14
    Political Associations
    Tocqueville defines political associations as groups of people united for a particular political purpose. He examines how they function and how they act effectively to advocate for the particular issue they agree about. x
  • 15
    Civil Associations
    The great complements to political associations in a democracy are civil associations, those private organizations without a political focus. Tocqueville argues that they not only help bind Americans together, but also are important to the functioning of democracy. x
  • 16
    Blacks and Indians
    Tocqueville cannot paint a picture of America without dealing with race, especially black slavery and the "Indian problem." Although some of his predictions have not proved accurate, his perspective can be helpful in understanding contemporary American society. x
  • 17
    Mores and Democracy
    This lecture examines what Tocqueville calls the mores of democracy—its "habits of the heart"—including the possible implications as we seek to help nations without a tradition of democracy quickly create egalitarian and free societies. x
  • 18
    Christianity and Democracy
    Democracies are prone to changing values because of their majoritarian nature. Hence, an important question is: Where is the anchor of democracy to be found? For Tocqueville, that answer is in religion generally and Christianity specifically. x
  • 19
    Education and Culture in Democracies
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's belief that education in America is broad but shallow, with the average person knowing more than his or her counterpart in Europe, but with America lacking great scientists, writers, philosophers, and artists. x
  • 20
    Individualism in America
    Tocqueville's different take on the trait he called "individualism" creates a useful prism through which to examine this quintessentially American phenomenon and what he saw as its dangerous tendency to cause Americans to withdraw from the public sphere. x
  • 21
    The Desire for Wealth in America
    Tocqueville is disturbed by the materialism he sees in America, with people so caught up in pursuing riches that they ignore other important aspects of what it means to be human, and even fears a long-range threat to equality of conditions. x
  • 22
    The Democratic Family
    This lecture focuses on Tocqueville's observations of the modern democratic family, with special focus on the role of women, both in the daily life of America and in its success. x
  • 23
    Are Democracy and Excellence Compatible?
    From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have debated whether democracy destroys excellence or encourages it. This lecture examines the question of excellence or mediocrity as it is raised in a variety of contexts throughout Democracy in America. x
  • 24
    Tocqueville’s Unanswered Questions
    The course concludes by reviewing Tocqueville's most important insights and applying them to the next 175 years of American history. Of course, our nation's story is still developing, but we can ask which possibilities that Tocqueville outlines are at present those in the ascent. x

Lecture Titles

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William R. Cook
Ph.D. William R. Cook
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 43 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Lively & Engaging AUDIO: CDs This is a really interesting and thought-provoking course about a 700 page two-volume work by a Frenchman, published originally in 1835 and 1840. In twenty-four well-developed and engaging lectures, Professor Cook ably shows why ‘Democracy in America’ is so widely regarded as the greatest work ever written on one country by the citizen of another and, surprisingly, why it is still relevant after all this time. ‘Democracy in America’, according to Professor Cook, is “…an important analytical tool for Americans to use, even in the 21st century…[It] can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish…[as well as] an inspiration and a warning for Americans of the 21st century…[challenging] people anywhere on the political spectrum…[providing] insights and ways of questioning what we all too often take for granted in America” (Course Guidebook, Pages 1 and 2). What I liked most about this course is Professor Cook’s thematic approach. He provides relevant context, not only about events of the time, but also background on Tocqueville’s statements and thinking, as well as relating them to present day events and concerns. All of this is done in an easy but by no means meandering fashion, often weaving in details from modern day life (for instance, discussing the operation of a charity event in which Professor Cook participated, his involvement with local government and his run for Congress, and the results of a scholarly study, ‘Bowling Alone’, to make points about political and civil associations that Tocqueville thought so important for the proper functioning of democracy). ‘Democracy in America’ is not a work of great detail, but one of “generalizations and insights” (Page 5) and Professor Cook does a great job in showing how Tocqueville came to some of his conclusions and who most likely influenced his thinking. He also shows where Tocqueville got things wrong, notably regarding state governments, or seemed to be unaware, for instance about the Erie Canal and the Transcendentalist movement. To me, however, the most valuable aspect of this course is Professor Cook’s teasing out the great civics lesson that is ‘Democracy in America’. There is much to ponder here, from the importance of jury service, freedom of the press, the role of religion, the influence of women in the family, citizen participation in social and political organizations, and individuals pursuing “self-interest well-understood” ensuring that democracy flourishes, to the positive and negative aspects of equality and individualism (a term created by Tocqueville) on democracy, the dangers to democracy from the Tyranny of the Majority and, as it crops up repeatedly in the lectures, centralization of administration. This just skims the surface of this fine course on Tocqueville’s work. Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this course for me concerns Tocqueville on Native Americans and African-Americans. As Professor Cook mentions in the lecture, Tocqueville gave more space to this subject than any other in ‘Democracy in America’, but it is more often than not left out of most abridgements. Spurred on by Professor Cook’s riveting lecture, I pulled down my old copy of ‘Democracy in America’ to read the 103 page chapter (The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States) on my own, and was very impressed by Tocqueville’s detailed analysis, finding it really striking and prescient, confirming, too, how well Professor Cook had handled matters in the lecture. Though thematic, the course lectures reference relevant sections and pages of the Mansfield and Winthrop translation of ‘Democracy in America’ (University of Chicago, 2000). This is fine if you have this or another recent translation, but I found that my 1940s update of the original Henry Reeve translation had a different organization for volume one, throwing everything off for me. A minor matter. Just something to keep in mind, however, if you want to actually follow up the lectures with reading from the source. Not many of us have the time these days to wade through a 700 page study, especially one from the 1830s, but many would benefit as citizens from Tocqueville’s insights. Professor Cook has done a great service in his wonderful analysis and presentation. The most surprising aspect for many, as for me, is that Professor Cook is a medievalist. I am sure a specialist in the American history would be more precise and detailed in his treatment of ‘Democracy in America’, but I will stick with Professor Cook, not only for his engaging style and evident knowledge of, attachment to, and respect for the work, but also because I suspect, from the numerous comments on his community activities (which some might find irritating and/or extraneous), that he likely is just the type of person Tocqueville had in mind when describing the best of citizens in this country. I am so impressed by Professor Cook’s lectures on ‘Democracy in America’, I am going on to some of his other TC courses, especially Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and “St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’. March 28, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Professor is a clown I had assumed that the professors teaching these courses were serious scholars who presented their material with dignity. This professor is more like an MTV wannabe, or should I say like a clown. He gesticulates constantly and broadly, throwing his arms up in the air to the point where I, a watcher, ducks. He also constantly refers to his home town with reference to virtually everything Tocqueville discusses. Shame on you for allowing this wildly untamed character to join the other distinguished scholars who taught the many other courses I purchased. Please find someone else to teach this course, and if you do, I'll happily return this terrible one and buy the new one. September 3, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Great Guide to Tocqueville The lectures provide a context for the student to read and better understand Tocqeville. An introduction to the author and his world is provided, followed by guided readings through the work. I had previously read Tocqueville in different translations, but this was a more meaningful experience ( and a great translation is recommended ) November 11, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great! As a "Great Courses" "nut", I loved this course. I loved Cook's course on Machiavelli, also, and that is why I chose another topic by this professor. His knowledge of small town politics/social clubs is crucial to understanding Tocqueville and the reasons why politics "worked" in America for so long. Local involvement!!! People rubbing elbows with ALL classes and uniting on specific topics, so that they had power to effect outcomes and votes. Grass roots--which Tocqueville witnessed along with a Bible in every home and a book on Shakespeare???. With people retreating to their family/home with thinking that the government will be "fine" without input and their volunteering---is why we are in the trouble we are in today. We let Alinsky types do the "grass roots" and control content in our public schools for decades. In contrast, our churches today have been largely empty in the last 40 years. Many groups like "Elks" are dying. People are too busy or over taxed to get "involved". Group Think (PC) has silenced the masses--they are afraid of speaking out and being destroyed like a Ted Cruz or a Ron Paul. People are punished if they "think" outside the box, and children are humiliated/laughed at if they hold Christian views which are outlawed in public schools since the 50s . It is an atheist "group think" world now, with only a collective "worldview" which was antithetical to most people in Tocqueville's America. Rugged individuality and God were crucial to Americans and politics was a local idea. This healthcare debacle and Marxist control of public education (Common Core) would not have been possible until massive brainwashing of children--the removal of all Classical Knowledge (Adam Smith, John Locke) Maybe the internet will change this---but the lack of "face to face" humanization--is disappearing and people are losing the ability to "talk" face to face. We have been trained/conditioned to "never" discuss "politics and religion" the only two important things worth talking about and what led to the Revolution and founding of the USA. Politics and Religion were even discussed in the early 1900s America---but no more in polite circles where there is disagreement. That is because of the PC ideology (Marxism/Fascism) which will not allow dissenting ideas. Cook gave the best interpretation of Tocqueville that I have run across and I am a history nut. Absolutely "fair" and "balanced" and he talked about the areas which Tocqueville didn't address and some of the areas he didn't quite understand or predictions that just turned out plain wrong. But much of Tocqueville was brilliant insight---a good "foreigner's" perspective on life in 1830's America. October 25, 2013
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