Exploring democracy, American style

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Abridged with an Introduction by Michael Kammen, translate by Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

This particular version of the Tocqueville classic is an entirely new translation prepared as part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture. The series editors point out that texts such as this are designed specifically to give readers the opportunity to study the past in a similar manner to that of professional historians. Further, the editors remind us that historians often welcome multiple points of view as a story’s telling can be as important as what the story says (v).

Pr. Kammen describes Democracy as “the most famous and profound inquiry into the society, polity, and culture of the United States” (vii). A quick glance at most American history textbooks would confirm this observation, as readers would be hard pressed to discover an edition that ignores Tocqueville’s trip to the United States and the subsequent observations. Tocqueville tells us much about America in the age of Jackson, though as Kammen reminds us, he also makes observations about issues such as liberty and equality that speak to modern readers too (vii).

Democracy from Bedford includes sections and chapters that are regarded as both famous and represent the mindset of Tocqueville on a range of issues. Kammen also includes background information on Tocqueville himself, the journey he took, defines how Tocqueville used terms like democracy and equality, and adds a chronology and questions for consideration section. In his preface, Kammen makes reference to one of the concepts from Tocqueville with which I have always been fascinated – the Frenchman’s insistence that democracy was irresistibly the future for human society. I still wonder about that point, though certainly democracy is, in my mind, the preferred form of governance.

Tocqueville’s work was originally published in two volumes after he returned to France, drawing on observations he made while traveling with a companion in 1831 and 1832. Tocqueville was attempting to describe how American society and politics worked, especially in relation to the still new federal system. As one would anticipate with any memoirist, Tocqueville was heavily influenced by the culture and politics of his native France, particularly his impression of a lack of liberty, political stability, and the presence of despotism in his native land.

Tocqueville was descended from an aristocratic family that suffered mightily during the French Revolution. His maternal great-grandfather lost his head to the guillotine after acting as legal counsel for Louis XVI, his parents were imprisoned during the Terror, and eventually, his father lost status and power as France swayed back and forth between Republic, restored Bourbons, and constitutional monarchy. Born in 1805, Tocqueville’s full name is a mouthful – Alexis-Charles-Henri-Maurice-Clerel de Tocqueville. He was the third son and educated by a private tutor who instructed him in faith (Catholic) and the classics. By the time he was 16, Tocqueville had been exposed to a variety of enlightenment era thinkers, including Voltaire and Rousseau. These influences would impact his views on democracy and religion for the rest of his life (1-3). Democracy gives the reader the “best hits” of Tocqueville’s travels and entices people to consider the unedited version.

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