The Image of Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville. By: Theodore Chasseriau.

America, in the early part of the 1800s, developed a reputation for being an experimental society. It was a prime example of popular rule, which brought a unique perspective to the world stage. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 304.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America in 1831 originally to learn more about America’s prison system and report back to France. See id. at 306. After his tour of America, he returned to France and published a series of volumes entitled De la démocratie en Amérique, which was translated to English and widely published. Id. He wrote: “In America I saw more than America. I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we [in France] have to fear or to hope from its progress.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen (New York, 1945), I, 14.

He saw that democracy was not only a political construct, it was also a social one where “increasing equality—of dignity, influence, wealth, and political power—an irrepressible tendency in the modern world.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 306. For de Tocqueville, the most important value was liberty, as where it is impeded, even by the majority, it can result in “overt repression” and “conformity of opinion.” Id.

Notably, de Tocqueville’s companion Gustave de Beaumont, upon returning to France, published a novel called Marie, “a searing indictment of American racism, focused not on the South but on the North.” Id. at 307 citing Gustave de Beaumont, Marie, trans. Barbara Chapman (Stanford, 1958); see also Louis Masur, 1831 (New York, 2001), 40-46. His book sold well in France, but was only translated to English in 1958 and virtually had no impact on the institution of racism. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 307.

During these years, America was experimenting with its freedom as well, as de Tocqueville and Beaumont inevitably saw. At this time, there were utopian experiments popping up throughout the country, with socialism permeating many communities and attracting widespread interest. See id. at 294. Many of these utopian communities did not last long, but some lasted well into the 1800s, with one closing on Long Island in 1863. See id. citing Janet Hermann, Pursuit of a Dream (New York, 1981), 3-34.

De Tocqueville and Beaumont were not the only visitors to America, however. An Englishwoman, Harriet Martineau, visited America in 1834-36 and observed that “Americans have realized many things for which the rest of the world is still struggling, yet the civilization and the morals of the Americans fall far below their own principles.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 308 quoting Harriet Martineau, Society in America (London, 1837), III, 299-300 (internal quotations omitted).

Many observers of Americans took note that Americans were “obsessively preoccupied with earning a living and relatively uninterested in leisure activities.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 310. Some noticed that there was an “overwhelmingly commercial tone of American life,” with there being “the worship of the ‘almighty dollar.'” Id. quoting Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842; Boston, 1867), 211.

As inspiring as America could be in certain ways, the reality is that the British Empire had abolished slavery in 1833, and the Second French Republic abolished slavery in 1848. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 312.

Americans had developed their own unique way of life, distinct from Europe, by the 1820s and 1830s. As George Washington had hoped, America was continuing its great experiment and was achieving surprising results. In some ways, it was behind the curve, such as the issue of abolishing slavery. In other ways, it was effectively pioneering a new path of widespread popular rule and freedom, with a keen focus on increasing prosperity and wellbeing.

These circumstances were positioning America to become a study in what a free democracy could achieve, and the world was beginning to take notice, albeit with criticism. That criticism was certainly legitimate, as America was not achieving the fullest extent of its principles, permitting slavery to continue and racism and sexism to permeate all facets of society.

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