Sociologists at Work: Essays on the Craft of Social Research

Sociologists at Work: Essays on the Craft of Social Research

Sociologists at Work: Essays on the Craft of Social Research

Sociologists at Work: Essays on the Craft of Social Research

Excerpt

In 1831, shortly after de Tocqueville and his companion, Beaumont, arrived in America, they were guests in the home of "a great landowner" who lived up the Hudson River from New York City. Interested in the consequences as well as the antecedents of democracy in America, de Tocqueville inquired of his host what chief drawbacks were contained in democratic society. The answer he received—that inheritance laws equalized the portions of the heirs—was to plague the observer from France for the remainder of his American tour. For apparently it was from this remark that de Tocqueville developed a view which attributed to inheritance laws the effects of leveling the population, restricting the development of class boundaries, small houses, instability of the social fabric, and so forth.

Not until near the end of his journey did he have conversations correcting his point of view. Despite the months he spent visiting stately homes, touring prisons, riding horseback through Michigan with Indians, being a guest of mayors, governors, and congressmen, of laborers, tenant farmers, and rivermen, too late did he come to realize that the inheritance laws did not require equal portions, that subdivision was likely to be of money and not property, and that, in any event, American commercial success could not be passed on as readily as French territorial success to the next generation.

As George Wilson Pierson, historian of de Tocqueville and Beaumont's American odyssey, states:

[The pattern of inheritance was] a very inadequate explanation of the origins of social equality and political democracy in the United States. Unfortunately they entertained no doubts and made no investigation. As a result, before the two friends were to discover their error, the thought about the influence of the inheritance laws had obtained . . .

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