Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter One
THE ECONOMY OF THE NEW WORLD

WHEN TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Alexis de Tocqueville set out on his voyage across the Atlantic in April 1831 he had only a vague notion of what he would find in the United States, based on a few books that gave a romanticized and often superficial view of the country. What he experienced during his nine-month-long visit took him by surprise and excited him: he found a very different type of society with an extremely dynamic economy and a people who loved to do business. Everybody wanted to make money and be successful, and the result was a booming entrepreneurial economy.

All of this surprised and shocked Tocqueville, who was suspicious of materialism and used to people who were weighed down by class and tradition. There were also quite a few economic phenomena that he did not know how to make sense of, especially the growth of industry and what looked like the emergence of a new and powerful economic elite. All of this set his mind working and inspired him to slowly translate what he had experienced during his trip into the remarkable picture of U.S. society and its economy found in the two volumes of Democracy in America (1835, 1840).

To get close to the way that Tocqueville tried to understand the U.S. economy one has to look at the way he went about his observations; how he tried to organize the information he collected; and how he came up with explanations. Tocqueville's method—both when it came to the study of the economy and the rest of society—was, as he put it, to generate “ideas” by a close study of “facts.” The process of thinking things through, on the basis of information that he had collected, was hard and painful for Tocqueville. Without it, however, he believed little of interest could be accomplished.

Tocqueville had no desire to simply produce a book with impressions from his travels; thus it is in this sense misleading to present Democracy in America as belonging to the genre of travel literature. Neither did Tocqueville want to produce a history of the United States or a narrative in which one event follows another. There had to be transparency in the explanation—the social mechanisms that accounted for the phenomenon in question had to be explicitly and carefully presented—both when it

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