Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

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  • 0:07 From France with Curiosity
  • 2:38 Slavery and the Plight…
  • 6:02 Much to Admire
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Shirley
In this lesson, we'll learn about Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote a book about his observations of American society during the Jackson era.

From France with Curiosity

In the 1830s, Europe was reeling from war, revolution, and a decaying aristocracy. The old world was hampered by old ideas, and many Europeans did not hesitate to criticize their societies and cultures and look abroad for better models of government.

De Tocqueville and de Beaumont studied the United States on behalf of the French government
French Studied United States

Two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, signed on to study the United States on behalf of the French government, which by then had suffered through the wars of Napoleon, the rule of the mob, and now was again in the hands of a monarch. America, to them, seemed special, and they wanted to know why.

Traveling to America aboard a steamer, the two men had come to take a look at American prisons - yes, prisons - but their real purpose was withheld from officials in France, and that was to study what made America special. For you see, America was an experiment, a young country full of Europe's cast-offs, its ne're-do-wells, its dreamers, its Puritans, its pious - all of those who sought a new life and opportunity in the new world.

Without question, those who came to America and continued to come as free immigrants, were regarded in quaint romantic light by many in Europe, but as of yet no real study of the American experiment had been completed.

Over the next nine months, the two men did their best to study America's prisons, but de Tocqueville was more interested in the society around him, and kept careful, detailed notes of what he found. Upon returning to France, de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, and it has become a classic of history, cultural studies, and American studies. So what did he find?

Quite a few things, but what struck him most was the American expression of equality, not merely in the ability of Americans to elect those who governed them, but in their income, living conditions, and personal liberty.

Upon returning to France, de Tocqueville published his studies on American society
Democracy in America

It was not that all Americans were materially equal, but from rich to poor, the social positions of free, white Americans were not enforced by society, institutions, or luck of birth, as they were in Europe. To be sure, some Americans were better off than others, but it was de Tocqueville's opinion that the United States offered social mobility to all who were willing to work for it, or were endowed with the creativity and entrepreneurship to achieve it.

Slavery and the Plight of the Indians

Given our knowledge of Jacksonian America, it is clear that de Tocqueville and Beaumont missed several realities, including the large number of urban poor. Based on his writings, we also know that he had little contact with the lower classes of American society, moving instead among the more wealthy and connected elites. This did not mean he took no notice of poverty, but it most certainly colored his more rosy experiences and ruminations on American life.

What he most certainly did not miss was the fate of the African slaves and the Indians. Both races, de Tocqueville wrote, shared a common sadness. One lost in servitude, the other lost in its liberty.

What did he mean? He explained that the fate of the African slave in the United States was to be born into this condition of servitude, cut off from his culture, his religion, and even the language of his ancestors, bent like iron to the will of his master.

From cradle to grave, the slave would know nothing of free will, even as his reason remained intact. De Tocqueville could not help but be saddened at witnessing how one race of men could treat another with such barbarity. Yet, he was not without hope. De Tocqueville witnessed the absence of slavery in the Northern states, and the general mood for abolition that was boiling under the surface in other regions. However, he noted that even when free, the black man would not enjoy the same rights and privileges of the whites, leading most likely to a level of societal conflict yet unseen inside the United States.

De Tocqueville was saddened by how slaves were not allowed free will

It was, in his opinion, going to be nature's way of punishing the Europeans who had made slaves of a race other than their own. While not a comforting idea, he believed the conflict to be inevitable.

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