Sunday, July 29, 2007

Alexis De Tocqueville : Touring America

I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.

~ Alexis de Tocqueville

I subscribe to The Writer's Almanac email written by Garrison Keeler. Strangely, I don't usually enjoy his radio program too much, but that could be because they play too many reruns on weekends when I'm driving and tuned into NPR on 90.1 here in Atlanta.

Anyway, here is one essay that struck a chord with me today. It is about Alexis de Tocqueville and his 1835 book Democracy in America. The excerpt is on this page:

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris (1805). He's remembered for the book Democracy in America (1835), which he wrote after he took a trip to the United States when he was just 26 years old. He wanted to write about the American style of government as a way of improving the government of France. After a brief stop in Newport, he arrived in Manhattan at sunrise May 11, 1831. Over the course of the next nine months, he traveled more than 7,000 miles, using every vehicle then in existence, including steamer, stagecoach, and horse, going as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin, and as far south as New Orleans.

More than anything else, Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American democracy actually worked. He wrote, "America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle classes can govern a State. ... Despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough."

He also believed that one of the fundamental characteristics of all Americans was a certain kind of restlessness. He wrote, "An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing ... he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere. ... In the end, death steps in and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of happiness, which always escapes him."

For those of us who prefer to be YouTubified, we are in luck.

This video is more about the United Way, but it covers its Alexis de Tocqueville society celebration and describes his life:

One very frightening and prophetic quote from him is as follows:

"I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all for fear of being carried off their feet. The prospect really does frighten me that they may finally become so engrossed in a cowardly love of immediate pleasures that their interest in their own future and in that of their descendants may vanish, and that they will prefer tamely to follow the course of their destiny rather than make a sudden energetic effort necessary to set things right." - Alexis De Tocqueville

That's pretty scary because it resonates with the shameless promotion of what passes for "entertainment" in our culture. Entertainment bores the hell out of me. I want to create. I want to think. Stop feeding me nonsense.

Here is a lengthier discussion about Alexis de Tocqueville and his impact and legacy. One of the speakers is from Wappingers Falls, in the Hudson Valley, New York, where I am from originally and much of my family still lives.

This comes from, a great web site for information about de Tocqueville.

Finally, reading more about his book "Democracy in America" from Wikipedia, here is an excerpt:

In Democracy in America, published in 1835, Tocqueville wrote of the New World and its burgeoning democratic order. Observing from the perspective of a detached social scientist, Tocqueville wrote of his travels through America in the early 19th century when the market revolution, Western expansion, and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life. He saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as the community. A critic of individualism, Tocqueville thought that association, the coming together of people for common purpose, would bind Americans to an idea of nation larger than selfish desires, thus making a civil society which wasn't exclusively dependent on the state.

Tocqueville's penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American civic life. In describing America, he agreed with thinkers such as Aristotle, James Harrington and Montesquieu that the balance of property determined the balance of political power, but his conclusions after that differed radically from those of his predecessors. Tocqueville tried to understand why America was so different from Europe in the last throes of aristocracy. America, in contrast to the aristocratic ethic, was a society where money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites, where hard work and money dominated the minds of all, and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.

The uniquely American mores and opinions, Tocqueville argued, lay in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries. Unlike Europe, venturers to America found a vast expanse of open land. Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and "middling" values began taking root.

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