Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch.

Reading between the lines.
April 18 2010 8:48 AM

The Best Road Trip Ever

What Tocqueville and his friend really did on their travels.

Discovery of America cover.

Why does Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America exert such a pull on Americans? Certainly one reason is Tocqueville's evident esteem for the United States. Prevailing European views of 19th-century Americans might be summed up by the British novelist Frances Trollope's denunciation: "I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions." They were provincial boors, violent, obsessed with money, and constantly spitting dirty brown tobacco juice.

But here was a European aristocrat of impeccable credentials, descended from both branches of the French nobility, the noblesse d'épée (sword) and the noblesse de robe (juridical); one of his ancestors had even fought with William in the conquest of England. Raised in a château, endowed with the manners of a noble, Tocqueville wrote in the polished, epigrammatic style perfected by the 17th-century French aristocrat, François de La Rochefoucauld. And best of all, he saw not degeneration but Europe's future in the bold American experiment in democracy.

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Over time, Tocqueville's penetrating observations gradually hardened into a canon: proverbs about American society, handed down from on high, that still ring eerily true. Alexis de Tocqueville the man and traveler became "Tocqueville," the timeless authority on the American soul.

It is a curious fate for a work so clearly anchored in its time and place—written by a borderline depressed twentysomething, a young man torn between an idealized aristocratic past and an uncertain democratic future, tortured by existential angst and worried his life wouldn't amount to much. In   Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Leo Damrosch, who teaches literature at Harvard, has seized an opportune moment to scratch the polished surface and explore what lay behind the oracular pronouncements. At a time when generalizations about the American soul seem risky at best, it is somehow reassuring to learn that even the great Tocqueville was often winging it—and that some of his direst fears have not come to pass.

Tocqueville was a young lawyer starting his career when King Charles X of France, whose Bourbon family had reclaimed French rule since the fall of Napoleon, was overthrown in the July Revolution of 1830. Although he was a descendant of families long associated with the Bourbon monarchy—his great-grandfather had defended Louis XVI in his trial before the French National Convention before both were executed at the Guillotine—Tocqueville swore allegiance to the new regime.

Politically isolated and distrusted by both of France's major political camps, Tocqueville decided it would be a good time to get away. So he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, an aristocrat from a similar background and in a similar political position, persuaded their bosses to let them go to the United States on a mission to investigate American prisons, then considered the model of humane incarceration in the Atlantic world. (This was, to repeat, a very different time.)

Tocqueville was almost comically unprepared for the exercise. Just 25 years old when he arrived in the United States, he knew next to nothing about the country whose identity he was seeking to plumb. A "tireless pursuer of women"—he may have fathered a child with a servant before leaving for the United States—Tocqueville, along with Beaumont, flirted his way through salons and dinner parties, stumbling along in mediocre English, complaining about the prudishness of American women. "Would you believe," Tocqueville wrote a friend six weeks into his trip, "that since our arrival in America we have been practicing the most austere virtue?"

Rather than rely on the book published years after his return to France, as most scholars do, Damrosch draws on the letters Tocqueville wrote home to friends and family, as well as various unpublished notes he took during his trip. The material gives a life and freshness often absent from drier academic tomes.

In the first place, we learn that Tocqueville would not have made a very good traveling companion. "Repose was contrary to his nature," Beaumont later recalled. "The slightest loss of time was unpleasant to him. … [H]e was always leaving before he arrived." It must have been an exhausting trip for poor Gustave.

Yet the frenetic pace had its uses. Following the pair in their journey allows us to see how, where, and when Tocqueville formed his ideas about the United States. We find the friends in Boston, mingling with that city's famed "Brahmin" class and drawing conclusions about the tyrannical tendencies of popular majorities. In Philadelphia, with its civic institutions and traditions of religious pluralism, they pondered the importance of voluntary associations. Tocqueville's brief tour of the West, newly settled by restless entrepreneurs, inspired reflections on the importance of individualism to American life. Born of a journey through 17 of the nation's 24 states, Tocqueville's observations on American life emerge less as the product of a single brilliant mind and more as a consequence of dialogue with Americans throughout the country.