When the Aristocrat Met Democracy

Article excerpt


Notwithstanding the rebellion against King Charles X and the subsequent installation of Louis-Philippe I, Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont determined to continue in the service of the French government, a decision their aristocratic families vehemently opposed. Believing that serving abroad would insulate them from the effects of France's uncertain political atmosphere, the two friends seized upon a hotly debated topic, prison reform, and proposed that they tour the United States extensively, gathering material for a report on American prisons.

Even as he arranged the prison project, however, Tocqueville privately planned to make the most of his diplomatic access, hoping to examine all the workings of that vast American society that everybody talks about and nobody knows.

From a short-term perspective, Mr. Damrosch recounts, their solution was hardly an unmitigated success. Government officials granted their proposal but demanded that Tocqueville and Beaumont finance the trip themselves and summoned them home after nine months, abruptly cutting the trip in half.

The trip provided no political security, either: Upon their return, Beaumont fell prey to his political enemies and resigned from office and Tocqueville chose to do the same. Tocqueville went on to hold a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, but, in Mr. Damrosch's words, he played a significant role in national politics, but never a leading one.

Drawing on some sources not yet in print, including the Tocqueville collection in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, Mr. Damrosch provides an introduction both to where Tocqueville was coming from (the title of Chapter 1) and to where he went. Mr. Damrosch familiarizes readers with the 1831-32 American landscape - from cities such as Boston and Philadelphia to stretches of near-wilderness - that inspired Tocqueville to fill hundreds of pages with his impressions of American political institutions, manners, customs and morals and nearly every aspect of American society.

The Frenchmen visited numerous prisons - from the Sing Sing Prison in New York, in which inmates worked for 11 hours every day without any form of communication, to the Quaker-run Eastern State Penitentiary, where complete isolation often drove prisoners mad. They admired the discipline of American prisons, especially in comparison to their corrupt French counterparts. Nonetheless, both were quickly bored by a series of enthusiastically guided tours and considered them a distant secondary interest. (Beaumont was taking notes for a novel.)

As Enlightenment philosophy prevailed in Europe and ancient regimes crumbled, Tocqueville saw democracy as a force that inevitably would eclipse aristocracies. Indeed, he set out unconvinced of the notion that democracy is superior to other ways of life but firmly convinced of the necessity of understanding it.

For Tocqueville, democracy could not be reduced to a mere form of government; rather, he described it as a state of mind as much as a political system, consisting both of institutional structure and habits of the heart. Mr. Damrosch discusses Tocqueville's insights into the problem of the tyranny of the majority. …