My latest big reading project has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I picked it up because I felt obligated to get serious about American history and I wasn’t able to think of a better place to start. A fabulous library can actually be an embarrassment if you haven’t read the fundamentals.
Tocqueville is not really writing American history at all. He is as interested in understanding the continual revolutions in France (this was published in 1835 and 1840). Furthermore, he sees France and America as instances of a growing equality which is irresistable and even providential. Hence Democracy in America is a work of political and social theory, and many times I wished he would include just one example of the (very plausible) generalities he was expounding.
It should be impossible, but I have the nagging sense that Tocqueville’s thought has such a distinctive bent that it might be possible to sum up this long book. He seems to see in everything American a kind of golden mediocrity. American education was not sophisticated, but it was widespread and suited to American life. American laws were not particularly inspired, the leaders not particularly powerful, but many, many Americans took energetic part in making and remaking them. Perhaps most importantly, the United States, though not long independent, had a long tradition of local government to counter the dangerous centralizing tendency of democracies.
Of course it’s hard to refrain from comparing Tocqueville’s often awed perceptions of America with our own. (I wish I knew what to make of the idea that 170 years later, these perceptions should still carry some weight.) He thought that individualism was a danger to a country in which people are generally alike and no hierarchy exists to connect people step by step to society at large. If Americans are no longer civically engaged to the degree that so astounded him, then we may have lost a great bulwark of freedom. This is probably the strongest impression the book left on me. We also can’t take the ever increasing equality Tocqueville saw for granted. He saw industrial labor as the one (then exceptional) factor against rising equality; I have no idea what he would have made of the service economy.
Tocqueville seems to have gotten the Civil War almost exactly wrong. He believed that the North was indifferent to slavery, that race war would inevitably follow any emancipation, and that the question was to what degree the North would aid white southerners in the event of a slave rebellion. I suppose it isn’t strange that misconceived fears would play a big part in the build up to disaster.
What will I read next? To me there are few obvious classics of American history per se; I suppose this says more about how the canon is formed than about Americans or history. Thucydides and Herodotus are the classics, but they are also simply the earliest long narratives we possess in the West, and it’s not even clear to me that the events they describe are as unique or self contained as I sometimes imagine. What classics of American history am I missing? Does Common Sense count? The Federalist is surely too narrowly focused? Is it necessary to widen our scope a little? What about novels like The Red Badge of Courage?