Alexis de Tocqueville: Letters From America

Alexis de Tocqueville was only 25 years old when he set sail from France for his 1831-32 journey across the United States. Although he was traveling ostensibly to study the American prison system, he became an astute observer of the life and political times of the country. From the first collection in English (tr. Frederick Brown), The Hudson Review (Autumn 2009) has published 40 pages of Alexis de Tocqueville's Letters from America, the back story of Democracy in America. Almost two centuries later, his reflections on the country's political, cultural and physical landscape remain relevant to our current preoccupations:


Among ideas that preoccupy me, two bulk large, the first being that this population is one of the happiest in the world, the second that it owes its immense prosperity less to its characteristic virtues, and even less to a form of government intrinsically superior to all others, than to its peculiar conditions, which result in perfect accord between its political constitution and its needs and social state. . . . Everyone works, and the vein is still so rich that all who work it succeed rapidly in gaining the wherewithal to achieve contentment. . . . Restlessness, which harrows our European societies, seems to abet the prosperity of this one. Wealth is the common lure, and a thousand roads lead to it. Politics therefore occupies only a small corner of the canvas. I have no doubt that it does more stirring up in the most ostensibly peaceful European state than in the entire American confederation. No newspaper, among those we read every day, devotes as much space to matters of general import affecting government as to the price of cotton. What space remains is monopolized by discussions of local interest, which feed public curiosity without in any way causing social turmoil.

To resume, the more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth, that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied. I see certain institutions work here that would predictably work havoc in France; while others that suit us would have evil effects in America. And yet, unless I'm sadly mistaken, man is not different or better on one side of the Atlantic than on the other. He is just differently placed. At some later date I shall tell you what strikes me in the American character.


Here we are truly in another world. Political passions are only superficial. The one passion that runs deep, the only one that stirs the human heart day in and day out, is the acquisition of wealth, and there are a thousand ways of acquiring it without importuning the State. To draw comparisons between this country and Europe and to entertain the idea of adapting to one what works for the other is blindness, in my opinion. I thought so before leaving France; I am confirmed in that belief the more I examine the society in the midst of which I now find myself. This is a world of merchants who give some thought to public affairs only when their work affords them the leisure to do so.


At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far, this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride. It seeps through their politeness.


It was our first venture into America's hinterland; until then we had seen only the seacoast and the banks of the Hudson. Everything here was quite different. I believe that in one of my letters I complained of finding almost no more woodland in America; I must now make honorable amends. Not only does one find wood and woods in America, but the whole country is still a vast forest with man-made clearings here and there. From atop a church steeple, one sees trees as far as the eye can reach swaying in the wind like waves of the sea: everything bespeaks newness. Settlers establish farms by cutting down trees to within three feet of the ground. Soil is tilled between the stumps and eventually crops grow up around them. They pock the fields of grain. What is more, wild plants continue to germinate in soil cultivated this way, with the result that every plot is a confusion of wheat stalks, saplings, tall grass, and creepers. Men forever struggle against the forest in a contest from which they don't always emerge the victor.

These observations would fuel the future classic Democracy in America:

At this moment I am revolving many ideas about America. A fair number still reside in my head; I've scattered the seed of many more onto notepaper; others crop up in summaries of conversations I've had. All these raw scraps will be served up to you. You will not find them interesting in themselves but will judge whether something of value can be drawn from them. During the past six weeks of our journey, when my body was more tired and my mind more serene than it has been for a very long time, I have given much thought to what might be written about America. Drawing a complete picture of the Union would be an utterly impractical venture for someone who has spent only one year in this immense country. I believe, moreover, that the boredom of such a book would match its instructiveness. One might, on the contrary, by being selective, present only that which is pertinent to our own political and social state. The work would thus be both of permanent interest and of moment. There you have the general idea, but will I have the time and capacity needed to furnish it? That is the question.