Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pp, $27.
April 18, 2010        


Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pp, $27.



            Writing a book is usually a humdrum affair. You read a lot of other books and articles in your field, produce a draft, polish it, send it out, wait anxiously for reviews, gnash your teeth over the reviews (or the lack of reviews), compulsively check the book's Amazon ranking for a month or so, and finally sink back into oblivion and despair, vowing never to write another one.

            The career of few books resembles this paradigm less than that of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In 1831 the 25-year-old French aristocrat, with his fun-loving cousin Gustave de Beaumont, made the six-week Atlantic crossing to the New World. The two young civil servants had persuaded the French government to send them on an inspection tour of American prisons; and in due course they produced a lengthy report and proposals for penal reform. But their unexpressed purpose was to satisfy their and their countrymen's intense curiosity respecting "that vast American society that everyone talks about and no one knows."

            Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Harvard professor Leo Damrosch narrates their journey through salons and saloons, the beautiful Hudson River Valley and the trackless Wisconsin forest, clouds of merciless mosquitoes and flocks of gorgeous parrots, as they sat jolted and shivering in their stagecoaches and helplessly saw their steamboats wrecked on rocks and stuck fast in the frozen Mississippi; it describes their encounters with Boston Brahmins and Southern planters, backwoodsmen and shopkeepers, Quakers and Shakers, suffering slaves and dispossessed Indians. A scholar of French literature, Damrosch has mined the large deposit of Tocqueville's and Beaumont's letters and journals, here and in France. The result is neither another biography of Tocqueville (two excellent ones have recently appeared in English) nor another study of Democracy in America, but rather a genial and colorful portrait, on a modest scale, of an astonishing young country and the likeable young man who first interpreted it to Europe.

            What did Tocqueville discover in America? By now we all know, or think we do: the tyranny of the majority, the rise of individualism, the pervasive influence of commerce on character, and above all, the reciprocal effects of a society's institutions and its moeurs, that versatile French word that signifies morals, customs, attitudes and, most expressively, "habits of the heart." Beyond these brilliant descriptive and analytical accomplishments, though, Tocqueville's fundamental purpose was comparative. After four decades of political turbulence, the future of France, between royal, aristocratic, and popular rule, was uncertain. Tocqueville was a pioneering social theorist, but first of all he was a French patriot and public man, eager to help his countrymen find their way in the modern political wilderness.

            Democracy in America is not a literary masterpiece; Tocqueville was not a superb stylist, like Burke or Marx. And he has tics: his taste for abstraction and antithesis, for example - what Garry Wills calls "the floating character of Tocqueville's maxims" and his "taste for the grand simplification" - can be wearying. Yet now and then he stings, as when he comments on the theft of the country from the Indians by legal chicanery: "It would be impossible to destroy men with greater respect for the laws of humanity."  And the splendid passage in which he explains that the capacity for democracy grows with its exercise, that "the humblest individual who is called on to cooperate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect," is, as they say, worth the price of admission.

            It is a melancholy truth, however, that the world Tocqueville described has all but passed away. John Stuart Mill wrote two influential essays on Democracy in America that helped establish the book's reputation in the English-speaking world. Mill joined Tocqueville in congratulating the United States on having overcome the great evil of pre-democratic governments, which consisted in "the class interests of small minorities wielding the powers of legislation, in opposition both to the general interest and to the general opinion of the community ... a tacit compact among the various knots of men who profit by abuses, to stand by one another in resisting reform."

            Alas, that great evil has returned and in fact pretty much defines contemporary American politics. As the recent or imminent fate of health-care legislation, climate-control legislation, financial-reform legislation, and the military budget all demonstrate, the "various knots of men who profit by abuses" - the leaders of roughly a dozen industries: banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, energy, defense, agribusiness, chemicals, media, telecommunications, software, and retailing - and the organizations by means of which they "stand by one another" - the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, etc. - collectively own the American government. No measure they are united in opposing stands any chance of becoming law. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision makes this state of affairs irreversible, for a very long time at least.

            Still, American democracy, like Athenian democracy, was a grand thing once. No less than Pericles' orations and Plutarch's Lives, Tocqueville's great book will live on to inspire any future generation that seeks to revive the noble but elusive ideal of popular self-government.


George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?