Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in 1831, ostensibly to study the prison system. But he studied much more.
Over the next nine months he traveled all over the country, talking to people from all walks of life, observing, and taking notes. He met with political leaders, including Sam Houston, John Quincy Adams, and President Andrew Jackson. In short, he studied America.
After returning to France he wrote “Democracy in America.” The first volume appeared in 1835 and the second in 1840. Now regarded as a classic, “Democracy in America” is the most astute analysis of American society written in the 19th century, and it is still studied today.
At a time when many Europeans disdained America and expected the experiment in republican self-rule to fail, de Tocqueville saw much to admire in America.
The freedom and liberty of American citizens astounded the French traveler. As he put it, “The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe,” and “Any discussion of the political laws of the United States must always begin with the dogma of the sovereignty of the people.”
Although favorably impressed by democracy, de Tocqueville had a low regard for America’s political leaders. He discovered with astonishment that “good qualities were common among the governed but rare among the rulers.” The most outstanding Americans, he concluded, “are seldom summoned to public office.”
Upon entering the House of Representatives, he was struck by “the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly” and the absence of any famous men. Almost all the men were “obscure” and some were from “the lowest classes.” The presidency, he believed, had declined in the fifty years from Washington to Jackson, “a man of violent character and middling capacities” who lacked “the qualities needed for governing a free people.”
In general, Americans viewed government not as a blessing but as a necessary evil.
De Tocqueville was amazed at the feverish activity he observed throughout the society. “It is not impossible to conceive the immense freedom enjoyed by the Americans, and one can also form an idea of their extreme equality, but the political activity prevailing in the United States is something one could never understand unless one had seen it.”
When de Tocqueville first arrived in America, he was struck by the “religious atmosphere of the country,” and the longer he stayed the more conscious he became of the “important political consequences resulting from this novel situation.” Although a diversity of sects existed, they preached the same morality. “Christianity reigns without obstacles by universal consent.”
De Tocqueville concluded that “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot.”
In literature, art, and music, America lagged far behind Europe. Although journalists had little prestige, the newspapers were so numerous that the press’s influence was second to that of the people.
De Tocqueville was concerned about “the tyranny of the majority” and he viewed slavery as “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the country.”
De Tocqueville made several predictions which were fulfilled.
He predicted that America “would become the leading naval power on the globe,” and that America would expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific and would have a unified population of 150,000,000. He also realized that the United States and Russia, though different is so many ways, would one day each control “the destinies of half the world,” a prediction that became a reality after World War II.
Another prediction was more ominous. “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”