Tocqueville’s America

As the theory goes, travel is an education, which can help the individual better understand the wider world. This idea has merit, but I’d like to put a twist on it – the written journey of a past traveler can help the nation better understand itself now.

In 1831 a young Frenchman embarked on a journey to the young American republic and he documented his observations in a book called Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville was the son of aristocrats who had managed (just) to keep their heads during the Terror of the French Revolution. He toured the United States and interviewed all those he could.

What he observed:

On American sovereignty,

“The nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice by the agents of the executive government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.”

On patriotism,

“For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfillment of a duty or the exercise of a right, and a constant though gentle motion is thus kept up in society which animates without disturbing it.”

On the land,

“Everything is extraordinary in America, the social condition of the inhabitants, as well as the laws; but the soil upon which these institutions are founded is more extraordinary than all the rest… That continent still presents, as it did in the primeval time, rivers which rise from never-failing sources, green and moist solitudes, and fields which the ploughshare of the husbandman had never turned.”

On the elusiveness of freedom,

“When the bulk of the community is engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs. At such times it is not rare to see upon the great stage of the world, as we see at our theaters, a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd; they alone are in action whilst all are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws, and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country; and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall.”

When the people are content with building their own fortunes and uninterested in the affairs of state – a group of elites may step in to wrest their liberties from them.

How much we’ve changed? How much we’ve stayed the same?

– Amanda Stiver

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