“A Citizen In Search of a City“
A Review of
Tocqueville’s Discovery of America.
By Leo Damrosch.
Tocqueville’s Discovery of America.
By Leo Damrosch.
Hardback: FSG, 2010.
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Everyone claims and quotes him, but not all understand him. Tocqueville has been lauded in multiple circles, snippets of writing heralded as revelation for one cause or another. Like other famed authors, name-dropping, quote-swapping present day promoters project their point of view through past figures, whose personal life is largely unknown. Thankfully, the task of understanding the French sociologist is now benefited by Leo Damrosch’s brilliant study, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America.
His own country in an uproar for some two score years by his lifetime, Tocqueville sought another, more stable form of order. Always on his mind was his homeland. Comparisons to the French way of life were consistently being made. Whereas in America “free association” (116) often took place without incident the French relied on soldiers to keep order. So, a unified yet decentralized government mystified Tocqueville. He constantly voiced a wish that the American mindset could eradicate French authoritarianism. He ogled local governments where people ruled themselves. Competition of ideas gained power without force. The Federalist Papers showed “how abstract ideas could be given life in practical institutions” (191). Voluntary associations were a result of positive individualism leading to small government and large community commitment. An important theme Damrosch establishes is how much local American voices are transposed into Democracy. The observations belong to Tocqueville but the origin of ideas often came from the mouths of Americans.
Ideas became life. Living became habits. If there is a famous concept remembered most from Tocqueville it is enlivened by the famous phrase “habits of the heart.” Damrosch quotes Rousseau at length, “The most important law of all is engraved not on marble or brass but in the hearts of the citizens . . . It preserves a people in the spirit of their founding, and it imperceptibly substitutes the force of habit for that of authority” (107). Here is the core of Tocqueville’s celebration of the American spirit. What made America great, the Frenchman surmised, was self-interest. “The doctrine of interest properly understood does not produce great sacrifices, but day by day it prompts little ones . . . it advances gradually closer to virtue through the habits” (142). While it is unfortunate that Damrosch does not enlighten his reader to the definition of “pursuit of happiness” (then, it meant “virtue”), the author does all a service by saying the core of Democracy in America is “crystallized” in the practice of moral habit.
As an outsider looking in, Tocqueville had the twin benefits of distance and clarity: the first helping objectivity, the second, singularity. Seeing Americans as they were buttressed what was heretofore unknown for the Frenchman—limitless freedoms. Perhaps what Tocqueville and his traveling companion Beaumont saw was so strange because it was so foreign to their own national experience. It must not be lost on the reader that many of the people Tocqueville met in America came for reasons of liberty. Some settlers, for instance, just out of indentured service on the east coast, saw western lands as freedom; a point well documented by Damrosch in chapter four.
Individualism sprang from the soil of solitude (74). Often isolated from neighbors—certainly from distant kin—self-reliance was imperative for Americans moving west. In an odd way, individualism could lead to oppression. When an idea becomes rooted in public thought, it may suppress free thought other than that which has become acceptable. Freedom might “internalize rigid attitudes and inhibitions” (101). With obvious exceptions, the opposite tended to occur. American individualism led to independent thought and ultimately unity. In Tocqueville’s own words “What is most striking . . . is the spectacle of a society going forward all by itself, without guide or support, by the single fact of the concurrence of individual wills” (112).
So while freedom profited industry and hard work, to some it became obsession (36). Materialism was (and is) an American stumbling block. Yet it is the innovation, change, energy, and “hodgepodge” (136) of open opportunity which moderates the impact of wealth. With a free people, correction is possible. Together with religious influence, education is essential “to teach men how to govern themselves” (140). The specter of unfettered wealthy influence was a problem not in America but France! Tocqueville’s comment is instructive for those who question free market entrepreneurialism. Saying that American individualism contributed to the common good instead of opposing it, he concludes, “At bottom they feel themselves equal, and they are” (140).
And here is the crux: equality can only exist where there is liberty. Equality is possible when choice is present. Equality comes from the soil of free thought. Contrarily, equality imposed by governments squelches liberty. Herein lays the problem for Tocqueville’s France and every other culture dependant upon top-down authority. Damrosch well observes “Equality and despotism . . . could easily coincide” (202). America’s existence was based on equality of opportunity, not outcome. “Equality of social conditions” (28) was “a great river toward which every surrounding stream seems to flow” (202) which impressed Tocqueville. But those who think government can impose equality bypassing personal freedom will find themselves beholden to the state; a problem Tocqueville saw in France. Only someone who lived through the tumult of revolution could rightly set the foundation. Samuel Adams in a speech before the Philadelphia state house said in 1776, “If you love wealth better than liberty the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom, go from us in peace.”
Clearly Tocqueville writes about American personal, cultural connections. If all historians were so honest about every subject, connections between place and time would not be summarily removed from the understanding of one’s subject. Here, hermeneutics (science of interpreting texts) celebrates the intention of the author. The reader is also reminded that a study of history must have multiple sources since all streams contain their own pollutants. So many today wish to allow current interpretations readjustment of the past. Loaded with 21st century perception, it is thought that modern views trump those who actually lived in a certain time and place. As Damrosch says early, “For a modern American reader, these events . . . are lost in the abyss of time. They serve as a reminder of our inevitable need to simplify history and focus it on ourselves” (36).
Tocqueville’s singular cultural lapse is his misunderstanding of religious influence on America. Commenting on a Methodist chapel scene, Damrosch rightly says about Tocqueville, “In this area of experience, in short, Tocqueville’s objectivity failed him. Not only did he exaggerate the irrationality of evangelical religion, but he missed its social role in addressing anxieties of the American people that would be central to his own analysis” (52). It should not come as a surprise, then, that the reader discovers religious terror overwhelmed Tocqueville (72). So, Tocqueville would constantly wonder at and be impressed by American commitment to The Almighty. “Providence” he defined as an “irresistible current of history” (139) which for him personally was a “longing unfulfilled” (215-16). Tocqueville harbored his own “universal doubt” (5) and “sorrows of the soul” (6). In retrospect, perhaps it was agnosticism that supported his objective view of religious impact on American culture. Damrosch’s original research elucidates one event where the Frenchmen exclaims, “It seems to me that I have just heard the language of the Gospel spoken here” (116). Overlaying the impact of the Second Great Awakening, Damrosch shows that even the materialism that worried Tocqueville’s outlook for America was blunted by “the world of the spirit” (51).
In the end, it was Tocqueville’s spirit, after returning to his homeland, that was a “citizen in search of a city” (222). France’s political upheavals would continue until only some fifty years ago when a “Tocquevillean republic” was finally established (224). This unique distance from France allowed the Frenchman to proclaim himself “half American.” Tocqueville is both generous and honest toward his subject. Self-critical writing processes minimized his personal point of view. Eight years before completion permitted extensive notes and memories to congeal. True sociological research—spending time with his subject—allowed a balanced presentation. Moreover, Americans and Tocqueville enjoyed each other. Fittingly, since its publication, opposing viewpoints find support within its pages because of Tocqueville’s evenhanded treatment of the issues. But it was the brilliant analysis of describing external conditions by the internal “habits of the heart” that sets Democracy in America apart as a classic work of literature.
Leo Damrosch’s brilliant study of the book and its author is in itself, in a class by itself. Damrosch is as generous to his subject as Tocqueville was to America. Damrosch organizes his study as a linear time line weaving idea-threads through the text. Careful reminders of the historian create ongoing instruction which seek to temper the reader’s current perspectives. Damrosch introduces cultural implications of travel, law, Indians, frontier, and even what it is like to be at rest in a forest. Beginning with Tocqueville’s personal, national, and political background Damrosch allows us to see Tocqueville is both a dispassionate voyeur and a passionate believer in the good of America. It is right that the “longing” (215-16) for completion that Tocqueville and all humans feel is left as a final insight. America provided a place for many to pursue their dreams. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America allows the reader to see why those dreams, more often than not, became reality.
Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com