Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French diplomat, historian, and scientist. In the 1830s he came to America to examine our prison system but traveled extensively to study America as a whole. His conclusions were printed in 1835 in two volumes called Democracy in America. I have had both volumes in paperback for a while and decided to read volume 2 first because it covers a more general list of topics from morals to manners.
The reading is fairly difficult and requires attention to the author’s train of thought. After all, he was a French diplomat and an educated man of the aristocratic nineteenth century. Tocqueville’s assessment of early America has been one of the standard reviews since it was written. He calls the young American democracy a democratic revolution and says in his preface, “I wish to speak of it with all sincerity. Men will not receive the truth from their enemies, and it is very seldom offered to them by their friends; on this account I have very frankly uttered it.” Much of his critique is a comparison of the aristocratic countries of Europe, especially France and Great Britain, and the democracy of America. In the former, the greater part of the citizens were poor and not free to express themselves and the higher class had no challenge to their position. This leads to traditional ways of thinking and doing. In America Tocqueville saw equality in citizens and government officials. He also saw a more humble people who treated one another with equal respect and were thankful for equal opportunity. He writes, “Thus, to comprise all my meaning in a single proposition, the dissimilarities and inequalities of men gave rise to the notion of honor; that notion is weakened in proportion as these differences are obliterated, and with them it would disappear” (p. 242). Also, “If, then, a state of society can ever be founded in which every man shall have something to keep and little to take from others, much will have been done for the peace of the world” (p. 252).