Discovering bad roads, leaky boats, unwilling women
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Quotes from "Democracy in America" have long peppered our political conversation like so much seasoning on a hamburger, an easy way to spice things up, but superficial at best.
Leo Damrosch's new book makes us hungry for the real thing. A literature professor at Harvard specializing in 18th-century France, his brightly told and original account of Alexis de Tocqueville's nine-month mission to the United States from April 1831 to January 1832 reawakens appreciation of the Frenchman's work.
It's soon obvious in his telling that Tocqueville would not have succeeded without the input and support of his companion, fellow aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont. The two young legal authorities -- Tocqueville was 26, Beaumont, 29 -- hatched a plan to get out France during political uncertainty.
They would study the new American penal system as the crime rate rose in Europe and cries for prison reform were growing louder.
Working with both men's notes, letters and reports in the original French, Mr. Damrosch recreates their experiences in an almost intimate, "we are there" treatment.
They depended on each other for company and advice during their many long excursions by steamboat, stagecoach and on foot. The railroad system was barely beginning, leaving them to the mercy of the nation's rude highways and unreliable riverboats.
America in 1831 was a thinly populated near-wilderness, obsessed, in the view of the Frenchmen, with commercial interests and acquisitions, but also invested in making its new democratic system work.
Moving from Boston to New Orleans, with a side trip to Montreal to soak up a little "old country," the pair encountered a variety of American hospitality and were never turned away. Along the way, they passed through New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati (staying only a night in Pittsburgh), Detroit, several Southern towns, then barely villages, and a disappointing Washington, D.C.
In between banquets, dances and unsuccessful attempts to seduce American women, Tocqueville proved to be a tireless interrogator, as Beaumont reported:
"We go about constantly questioning people we encounter, we squeeze whoever falls into our hands and at night, we write up what we've heard during the day."
Dutifully visiting the experimental prisons of Sing Sing and Auburn in New York State and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Tocqueville was attracted instead to the broader questions of American politics and society, particularly the treatment of African-American slaves and the native peoples.
All of what he saw disturbed him and his concerns were woven into his book.
Much of the praise for "Democracy in America" is prompted by its observations about the country's emphasis on independence, local government, citizen participation, a mix of religious denominations and most often, the author's belief that class distinctions were disappearing.
Mr. Damrosch explores these observations carefully, comparing them with a range of American historians and Tocqueville's contemporaries such as Charles Dickens who despised America. The Frenchman found much to admire and praise, despite his renunciations of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
Back in France and filtered through several years' contemplation, Tocqueville was uncertain about America's future, a point often overlooked.
Ineffectual in 1831, the federal government always held the possibility of increasing its power and control over its citizens, Tocqueville perceived later while writing the second part of his book.
"The scope of the central power expands imperceptibly in all directions, even though everyone wants it restrained," he wrote. "A democratic government, therefore, increases its power by the mere fact that it continues to exist. Time is on its side. ... One may say that the older a democratic society is, the more centralized it becomes."
His observation is one of many insightful comments on a country where he spent but nine months, but continued to inhabit in his mind for years. Mr. Damrosch's book is equally insightful.
First Published May 23, 2010 12:00 am