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.