Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: THE AMERICAN EXPEDITION. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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CHAPTER II.: THE AMERICAN EXPEDITION. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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THE AMERICAN EXPEDITION.
Although the inspection of prisons was the pretence rather than the purpose of the journey of the two travellers, they gave to the subject as much serious attention as if it had been their sole object.
They had scarcely reached New York (on the 10th of May, 1831) when they zealously proceeded to discharge the official duties of their mission. Sing-sing and Auburn in the State of New York, Wethersfield in Connecticut, Walnut-Street and Cherry-Hill in Pensylvania, all the establishments to which these places have given a name, and many others less celebrated in the annals of penitentiaries, were successively the object of their conscientious examination. A single example will give an idea of the importance attached by them to this task: the fact which we are about to mention will likewise throw a curious light on Tocqueville’s power of memory.
When they visited at Philadelphia the famous prison Cherry-Hill, where the system of solitary confinement both by day and by night was in full practice, they thought that the way to judge of its effects was to examine not only the physical condition of the prisoners, but besides, and above all, their moral state. It was true that the entry of the Director on every one of them was, “behaviour, perfect”—“conduct, excellent;” but the French commissioners could not help asking, what breach of discipline was possible to a prisoner confined alone between four walls, without any contact with his fellows? Permission, therefore, was asked to visit and converse with the convicts separately, without the presence of any official, in the hope that they would reveal their secret impressions, and the actual state of their feelings. Leave was granted, and Alexis de Tocqueville undertook this delicate duty, unassisted by his companion, who thought, with him, that a confidence which might be made to one would not be made to two. He devoted a fortnight to this minute inquiry, commenced at first from a feeling of duty, but continued with extreme interest, sometimes struck by the curious effects of seclusion on the human mind, and at other times deeply affected by the moral wretchedness unveiled to him. He often was led on by the interest of these tête à têtes to prolong them beyond the hours fixed by the discipline of the establishment, and was always detained by the poor prisoners, ingenious to prolong the, for them, rare opportunity of conversing with a man, though they knew not with how great a man. Tocqueville recorded on the spot, and afterwards revised, all that passed at these interviews. Soon, however, after quitting Philadelphia, he sought for these notes in order to show them to his colleague, but could not find them. He looked again, but in vain. At last he was convinced that they were lost. He then put together all that he could recall, and so deep was the impression which these secret conversations had made on him, that in a few hours he had restored to paper every one, without confusion or a single omission. The next day, when no longer looking for his notes, he found them. On comparing his recollections with these notes it was surprising to see how they corresponded, and with what prodigious fidelity his memory had reproduced the whole that had passed. A few details only had been forgotten but the leading thought was always there. In the work on the penitentiary system which was afterwards published, these notes appear under the title of “Enquête sur le Penitencier de Philadelphie.” (Inquiry into the Penitentiary of Philadelphia.) Alexis de Tocqueville had no memory for words nor for figures, but he possessed the strongest possible remembrance of ideas; when once grasped his mind retained them for ever.
The Inquiry on Penitentiaries being over, Tocqueville turned, it must be owned, with still more eagerness to the study of more general questions; and, assuredly, the political men by whom he had in France been charged with a special and official mission, had no reason to complain of his laying it aside for a time to fulfil the more comprehensive mission which he had imposed upon himself.
A description of this expedition cannot be expected in these pages.* It extended throughout the American Union. Alexis de Tocqueville began by studying the States of New England, of which Boston is the first; as, in order to have a thorough knowledge of a river, it is necessary to explore its source. Such a narrative would alone fill a whole volume, and would far exceed the limit assigned to this work. Nor could the author record the travels of Tocqueville without describing also his own, for their lives were at that time inseparably united. Might he not thus be carried towards a rock which he is peculiarly anxious to avoid? In spite of the charm of this expedition, connected as it is with the first impressions, and imbued with all the poetry of his youth, he has resolved to set aside all personal recollections, and to think only of the friend, the remembrance of whom ought alone to occupy him. The interest of Tocqueville’s journey consists, moreover, less in what he saw, than in his manner of seeing. His mode of observing was peculiar. It is impossible to imagine the activity of mind and body, which, like a burning fever, preyed upon him incessantly. Everything was to him matter for observation. He arranged beforehand in his head all the questions that he wished to solve, to each of which the incidents and conversations of each day bore reference. He never failed to note, then and there, every idea that occurred to him. For he had remarked that the first impression gives itself utterance almost always in an original shape, which, once lost, is not recovered. It is interesting to read now the little note-books which he always carried about with him to receive his first impressions. The germs of the leading thoughts of his work on Democracy are to be found in them; and more than one is transcribed literally. These memoranda are few and short. He observed much and noted little.
Whilst Alexis de Tocqueville was travelling over North America to study its institutions, and to penetrate to the very heart of the people, an Englishman, the pleasantest companion possible, was visiting the same country, with no other aim than to discover the varieties of game peculiar to the climate; and especially the different races of wild ducks. There were also two very distinguished Frenchmen, whose society was very agreeable, looking out for picturesque subjects for landscapes.
Of those who passed through, seeing nothing and looking for nothing, not even for wild ducks, it is not necessary to speak. These different modes of travelling are certainly equally fair and lawful; they are not mentioned here in order to censure those who travel for bodily exercise or as an agreeable pastime, but only to show that Alexis de Tocqueville travelled differently. Undoubtedly, between the man who produces a book from his travels, and another who brings back an album, there is an intermediate class neither so earnest as the former, nor so frivolous as the latter. But there is scarcely any traveller, however serious his aim, who does not at times seek for amusement or indulge in repose. Tocqueville, when travelling, never rested.
Rest was foreign to his nature; and whether his body were actively employed or not, his mind was always at work. While he never shrank from any effort which might diminish or use up his strength, he never could be persuaded to do anything to repair it. It never occurred to him to consider an excursion as an amusement, or conversation as relaxation. The two travelling companions conversed incessantly; and if what our good Ballanche says be true, that to discuss a subject well it is necessary to agree, they thought so much the same on all things, that their conversation must have been profitable. But from the first it took a serious turn, and thus could not be considered as rest. For Tocqueville, the most agreeable conversation was that which was the most useful. The bad day was the day lost or ill-spent. The smallest loss of time was unpleasant to him. This notion kept him in a constant state of tension; and in his travels it became such a passion, that he never reached a place without first assuring himself of the means of leaving it, so that one of his friends said that his departure always preceded his arrival.
There are countries in which the most industrious traveller finds, even in spite of himself, some occasions of rest and relaxation. For example: it sometimes happens that he meets one of the frivolous idlers, common enough in Europe, who seek for society in order to consume the time which they know not how to employ, and whose presence, although irritating, forces the brain to rest. In a country where nobody is idle and everybody sensible, Tocqueville could not profit by this salutary diversion. The admirable and universal good sense of the Americans attracted and captivated him. It was for him a mine of inestimable value, which he worked without ceasing; following thus impetuously, without halt or rest, the bent of his inclination.
And when one recollects how frail and delicate was the body which contained this ardent soul and restless spirit, one asks how such physical weakness could sustain so much mental activity! And it is even less easy to understand when one considers that, instead of sparing as much as he could this feeble body, he seemed to delight in submitting it to the severest, and even to the most dangerous trials.
It was thus, that one day, in spite of the obstacles which ought to have stopped him, he resolved to penetrate into the far west till he should reach the wilderness.
It was not on his part a mere vague curiosity—a mere natural desire to go where no one has gone before. His resolution had a more serious motive. Convinced that one of the first conditions of prosperity in America is the immense extent of space as yet unoccupied, he wished at least to make a réconnaissance in these regions,—to advance in the forest to the boundary of civilization,—to see the last pioneers and the first wild Indians.
Every journey is easy when one follows the beaten track; out of it there are always difficulties. For a young, robust man, like his travelling companion, such an enterprise, of course, was no sort of risk; but for health so delicate as his it was a real danger. The expedition could not possibly be accomplished unless by taking very long journeys, almost always on horseback, without stopping on the way; it was necessary to pass whole days without rest, and nights without sleep or even shelter. There were to be no more regular meals, no more inns, no more roads. These were certainly reasons sufficient for not undertaking such a campaign; and each one was urged upon him in the most pressing terms. But no resistance withstood his vehemence. It can scarcely be imagined how imperiously, when he wished for a thing, he proved to others and persuaded himself that it was the most reasonable in the world. The thought of danger never stopped him. He often showed his contempt for it, not only in America, but in his other travels—in England, in Ireland, in Algeria, and in Germany—even at times when his failing health required extra care and precaution. However, at the period we speak of, he was right; his excursion to the wilderness was accomplished, though not without much fatigue, yet without great detriment to his health; and none of his travels, perhaps, produced on him such vivid and durable impressions.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that Tocqueville, whom, in his travels, we have seen searching chiefly for ideas, remained insensible and cold before the sublime scenes of nature. On the contrary, no one was more affected and attracted by them. While all his intellectual faculties disposed him to meditation, another tendency of his mind inclined him to be a dreamer; and it was never but by an effort of will that he roused himself from the state of passive impressions to re-enter that of active ideas. It was judgment alone that prompted this effort, for the reverie to which he was inclined was for him always full of melancholy, and for that reason he fled from it. Intellectual activity was his refuge from troublesome or painful images. But never, at any period of his life, did Tocqueville allow himself to be so carried away by external impressions as under the irresistible charm of the great deserts of America, where all combined to enchant the senses, and to set thought to sleep. He has described these impressions in a little work called “A Fortnight in the Wilderness,” which the reader will find at the end of this memoir. These charming pages have never before been printed, owing to a circumstance which, perhaps, it is best to disclose here.
Whilst Tocqueville gave himself up to the study of American institutions, the occupation of his travelling companion was to collect a few sketches of manners, which he afterwards framed, with more or less success, in a novel entitled “Marie;” in it he naturally had described the forests, the solitudes, and the very wilderness visited by the two friends; he had made it the stage of his drama, he had transported thither his own emotions, and had thus attempted to convert his fiction into something real.
When later, however, Tocqueville published the second part of his work, describing the effects of democracy upon manners, he thought of appending this “Fortnight in the Wilderness” to his book; but when, as usual, he read it aloud to his friend whom he always consulted, the author of “Marie” imprudently predicted for it a far greater success than that attained by his own novel. At the time Tocqueville said nothing; but he had made up his mind, and nothing could ever induce him to publish what might trespass on the ground chosen by his friend, or appear as a rival to his work. There were in his friendship a refinement and a delicacy which demanded the greatest circumspection.
At the end of this memoir, immediately before the “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” is placed a pamphlet of only a few pages, published here for the first time, under the title of “Excursion to the Lake Oneïda,” and taken, also, from the memoranda of this expedition. It is an episode of the same kind. These fragments will show Tocqueville to the public in a new light. But his intimate friends alone can fully appreciate the sensibility and the poetry of his impressionable nature, united as they were with an intellect of such depth and clearness.
At a later period in their journey, when his health was expected to run no risk, it was exposed to much severer trials. Winter was approaching, and the travellers had resolved to reach the South before its arrival. Their plan was to reach the Ohio near Pittsburg, there to embark in a steamer, and to descend the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans; an extremely simple and easy journey in ordinary weather, even before the existence of railways. But this year winter came a month earlier than usual. Besides, in that country the extremes of heat and cold are great, and succeed each other without interval. A few days after their departure from Baltimore, where summer still lingered, they found the Alleghanys covered with the frost and snow which were to last for the whole winter. But, in order to shorten this account, which is meant to be only a sketch, it will be as well, in the absence of the notes of Alexis de Tocqueville, in this instance missing, to reproduce verbatim those which his travelling companion jotted down in pencil day by day.
“1st Dec. 1831.—Left Wheeling, ten miles from Pittsburg, by the steamer. The Ohio is covered with loose ice; its banks with snow. The navigation is said to be dangerous at night, especially in a dark night. However, we proceed. . . . towards midnight, an alarm!—all lost!—it is the captain’s voice! We have struck on a rock (Burlington Bar); our vessel has split; she is sinking every moment. Awful sensation!—200 passengers on board, and only two long-boats, each capable of holding ten or twelve people. The water mounts higher and higher; the cabins are already full. Admirable coolness of the American women: there are fifty, and not one scream in the face of advancing death. Tocqueville and I cast one glance upon the Ohio, which at this part is more than a mile in breadth, and carries down large masses of loose ice; we squeeze each other’s hands as a parting token. . . . Suddenly the vessel ceases to sink: her hull is jammed on the rock which she struck. What has saved her is the depth itself of the injury, and the rapidity with which the water, upon rushing in, makes her settle on the rock. . . .
“No more danger . . . . but what is to become of us, stranded in the middle of the river like convicts on a hulk?
“Another steamer, the William Parsons, passes and takes us on board . . . . we continue our voyage . . . . The 2d December reach Cincinnati; hasten to quit it again, driven away by the cold . . . . The 3d, leave Cincinnati; bitter cold. 4th, our vessel is stopped by the loose ice. We pass twenty-four hours in a little creek, where we have intrenched ourselves to wait for the thaw. It does not come. The cold increases.
“The captain determines to put us on shore. We reach it by gradually breaking the ice, and thus opening a passage for our vessel.
“We land at Westport, a little village in Kentucky, about twenty-five miles from Louisville.
“Impossible to find either a carriage or horses to take us to Louisville; we are forced to walk; our luggage is thrown into a cart, which we follow. We walk all day through woods, in half a foot of snow. America is still a vast forest.
“On the evening of the 7th December, arrive at Louisville. Here the same difficulty. The Ohio is not more navigable than at West Port. What is to be done? retrace our steps? revisit places already seen? Not to be thought of. But how to proceed?
“We are saved. We are told that we can travel southwards by land, till we reach a point where the navigation of the Mississippi is never impeded by ice. Memphis is suggested to us, a little town in Tennessee, on the left of the Mississippi, about forty miles off.
“On the 9th, leave Louisville in the Nashville stagecoach, a journey of two days and two nights. On arriving at Nashville, we hear that the Cumberland (a tributary of the Ohio) is frozen over,
“December 11th.—Departure from Nashville. As we proceed farther south, the cold becomes sharper. Never, they say, in the memory of man, has anything been known like it. So those who come but once are always told.
“Ten degrees below freezing.* The cold continues to increase. Our stage-coach turns into an open char-à-banc. Frightful roads. Precipitous descents. No regular highway. The road is only an opening cut in the forest. The stumps of the trees not completely cut away, so that they form so many impediments over which we jolt incessantly. Only thirty miles a day. ‘You have, have you not, very bad roads in France?’ says an American to me. ‘Yes, sir, and you have, have you not, very good roads in America?” He does not understand me; American conceit.
“After Nashville, not one town on the road; only a few villages scattered here and there till we reach Memphis.
“December 11.—A brace and a wheel, and then an axletree broken. Half the way on foot. We bewail our sad fate. ‘Complain away, then,’ we are told. ‘On the day before yesterday one traveller broke his arm here, and another his leg.’
“On the 12th, cold still more severe; we cross the Tennessee by the ferry; it is covered with huge masses of ice. Tocqueville benumbed with cold; he shivers all over. His appetite is gone; his head affected; impossible to go further; we must stop. . . . Where? what is to be done? No inn on the road. Extreme perplexity. The stage goes on. . . . . Here is a house at last; Sandy Bridge is its name—the Log House! no matter, we are set down.
“December 13.—What a day—what a night! Rough logs of oak piled up form the walls of the room in which Tocqueville’s bed is placed. It freezes hard enough to split stones. I light a monstrous fire; the flame crackles on the hearth, fanned by the draft which blows in on all sides. The moon shines on us through the crevices of the logs. Tocqueville gets warm only by burying himself under the blankets and the multitude of clothes which I heap upon him. Our host will not help us. Entire isolation and neglect. What to do? What will happen if the illness increases? What is the nature of the illness? Where find a doctor? The nearest is more than thirty miles off; it would take more than two days to go thither and back; what should I find on my return? The name of our hosts is Mr. and Mrs. Harris, small proprietors in the Tennessee; they own slaves; and, as slave-owners, they never work. The husband shoots, walks about, rides on horseback—gives himself the airs of a gentleman; they are little aristocrats on the feudal system, and they dispense hospitality at the rate of a dollar a day.
“December 14.—Tocqueville better. He will not have an illness, but he is too weak to leave; difficulty of finding anything fit for him to eat. Prodigious diplomacy employed to obtain from Mrs. Harris a rabbit killed by her husband. I give it to my invalid instead of the everlasting bacon.
“December 15.—Great progress; on the 16th Tocqueville quite well; his appetite returned; impatience to quit as soon as possible this inhospitable place. The stage-coach between Nashville and Memphis passes. What a vehicle! Tocqueville climbs into it not without difficulty. The cold is still intense. We travel two days and two nights; renewed symptoms, painful, but with no evil consequences.
“December 17.—Reach Memphis. Alas! the Mississippi, too, is covered with ice, and navigation interrupted. Memphis!—about as large as Beaumont-la-Chartre.—What a falling off. Nothing to see—neither men nor things. We roam about the forests of Tennessee; delight of Tocqueville, who kills two parrots with magnificent plumage. We find Shakespeare and Milton in a log hut.
“December 24.—The frost suddenly breaks. In the evening a steamer (the Louisville) appears, going down the river. In a few days she takes us to New Orleans, where we now are on the 1st January, 1832.”
The remembrance of Sandy Bridge and of a few disastrous days would not now be without a certain charm if, though as yet Tocqueville does not appear to have had even the seeds of the deadly malady by which he was prematurely cut off, one did not perceive the symptoms of the delicate constitution which was always on the point of breaking down, and which so often stood in his way.
[*]Independently of the motives here stated for abridging the account of this journey, there is another which will be, perhaps, better understood by the reader, namely the success of the book, published by M. Ampère, under the name “Promenade en Amérique,” in which, whatever can be suggested by a view of the United States has been detailed in the same spirit as that of the author of this memoir, with a vivacity which belongs to a direct narrative, and which recollection cannot supply.