Front Page Titles (by Subject) PART II: How to Account for America? Tocqueville Looks at Some Particular Causes Physiques - The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America
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PART II: How to Account for America? Tocqueville Looks at Some Particular Causes Physiques - James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America 
The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Foreword by George W. Pierson (2nd edition) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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How to Account for America? Tocqueville Looks at Some Particular Causes Physiques
An Hypothesis Weighed and Rejected
During the first fifty years of American independence many Europeans admired and envied the prosperity and tranquility of the American republic but differed over the reasons for such success. In 1803 C. F. Volney repeated one of the most common explanations. After apologizing in the preface of his Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis for the work’s limited scope, he recalled his original intention to present a more general analysis of the American nation, which would have proven “by incontestable facts ... that the United States have owed their public prosperity, their civil and individual ease, much more to their isolated position, to their distance from any powerful neighbor, from any theater of war, finally to the general facility of their circumstances, than to the essential goodness of their laws or to the wisdom of their administration.”1
Much to his own regret, Volney fell far short of the broad study he had once envisioned. His text failed even to address the puzzle of America’s success, much less to provide the “faits incontestables” necessary to prove the author’s contention. But his idea did not languish; apparently it was standard furniture for the European mind, for so many later commentators offered the same opinion to their readers that in 1833, two years before the first part of Tocqueville’s Democracy appeared, the North American Review denounced the prevailing attitude:
When we venture to assign [as one of the causes of our prosperity], the character of our Government, the sages of Europe smile in conscious superiority at our simplicity, and assure us that we have become what we are in spite of our institutions, and not in consequence of them. When we hint at the fixed religious principles, the stern morality, the persevering industry of the pilgrim fathers of New England, who have formed the kernel of the whole population of the Union, we are scornfully told that the mass of the original settlers were, after all, the refuse of the British jails. The only principle of our success, which is readily admitted by our friends abroad as real, (it being one which confers no credit upon us) is the immense extent of our territory.
The Review urged the sages of Europe to reconsider their choice: “If this circumstance alone could make a people prosperous, it is not easy to see why civilization should not be as active on the vast central plateaux of Tartary and Mexico, as it is in the valley of the Mississippi.”2
Tocqueville, like his predecessors, would not escape the hard choices involved in this controversy. Eight days after he and Beaumont arrived in the New World, he wrote to Ernest de Chabrol and requested a lengthy description of his friend’s ideas about America. Hoping to lighten the imposed task, he also suggested several possible topics for reflection, among them: “To what cause do you attribute the prosperity of this nation?”3 The old riddle was clearly on his mind.
In October 1829, Tocqueville had explained to his new friend, Gustave de Beaumont: “There is a science that I have long disdained and that I now recognize not as useful, but as absolutely essential: it is geography. Not the knowledge of the exact meridian of some city, but ... for example, to get very clearly in one’s head the configuration of our globe in so far as it influences the political divisions of peoples and their resources; there is such and such a country which, by its solitary geographic position (position géographique) is called almost inevitably to enter into such and such an aggregation, to exercise such and such an influence, to have such and such a destiny. I admit that this is not the geography which one learns at college, but I imagine that it is the only one which we are capable of understanding and retaining.”4
So it was not only the challenge of a time-honored puzzle, but also his own expectations about the influence of géographie that led Tocqueville to devote much of his attention during his American visit to the ressources and the position géographique of the United States.
Like most travelers, Tocqueville found his first glimpse of land after a long ocean voyage “a delightful spectacle.”5 But on 10 May, a more prolonged view of the American coastline between Newport and New York gave him quite a different impression. From Long Island Sound the country seemed “not very attractive.” “All this coast of America,” he wrote, “is low and not very picturesque,”6 and another letter described the coast as low and sterile.7
So strong was this first reaction to the North American continent that in 1835 the author of the Democracy would observe: “On the eastern slopes of the Alleghenies, between the mountains and the Atlantic, there is a long strip of rock and sand which seems to have been left behind by the retreating ocean.... It was on that inhospitable shore that the first efforts of human industry were concentrated. That tongue of arid land was the cradle of those English colonies which were one day to become the United States of America.”8
Yet the trip from Rhode Island also had a more pleasant result. The steamboat rumbling under his feet, the immense distances, and especially a very peculiar American attitude caught hold of Tocqueville’s imagination. “In this country people have an incredible disdain for distances. Immense rivers ... and the canals that have been created to connect them allow traveling while doing four leagues [ten miles] an hour night and day, all in a superb structure which proceeds all by itself without jostling you in the least.... Thus people do not say that we are a hundred leagues from a country, but 25 hours.”9 Here was a people who thought not in terms of distance, but of time, and who made all possible efforts to whittle time into insignificance.
On 11 May, the travelers took rooms at a boardinghouse on Broadway. New York struck Tocqueville as “odd for a Frenchman and not very agreeable,” but the city’s surroundings elicited cries of admiration. “Imagine shores indented most fortunately, slopes covered with lawns and flowering trees and descending to the sea ... —add to that if you can—a sea covered with sails.”10
Soon more thoughtful consideration—no doubt inspired to some degree by talk with his many new friends in the city11 —replaced these initial emotional reactions to America’s géographie. And on 18 May, Tocqueville recorded some additional observations. In a diary note he first announced his recognition of several basic facts about the American continent: its immensity, its abundance, and the still (relatively) untouched condition of its interior. Here he also hinted about several broader effects of “accidental circumstance”: these republicans were an incredibly busy people who made the most of a physical situation that encouraged the full and free use of human energies.12
Tocqueville soon learned that the available opportunities even remedied some problems which had long tormented Europe. Schooling, for example, ceased to be a threat. “There is less to fear here than anywhere else from the malaise caused to a State by a great number of people whose education lifts them above their standing and whose restlessness could disturb society. Here nature provides resources which are still so far beyond all human efforts to exhaust them, that there is no moral energy and no intellectual activity but finds ready fuel for its flames.”13
Two weeks later he returned to these and other themes in a long letter to his father:
“Up to now I am full of two ideas: the first, that this people is one of the happiest in the world; the second, that it owes its immense prosperity much less to its peculiar virtues, less to a form of government of itself superior to other forms, than to the particular circumstances in which it finds itself, which are peculiar to it and which make its political constitution to be perfectly in accord with its needs and its social condition. [How closely the first part of this statement resembled Volney’s thesis of 1803.]
“... To sum up: the more I see this country the more I admit myself penetrated with this truth: that there is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of political institutions, and that their efficiency depends almost always on the original circumstances and the social condition of the people to whom they are applied. I see institutions succeed here which would infallibly turn France upside down; others which suit us would obviously do harm in America; and yet, either I am much mistaken, or a man is neither other nor better here than with us. Only he is otherwise placed.”14
Who or what might have suggested this relativistic hypothesis to Tocqueville? In one of his drafts for the 1835 Democracy, he would write: “Ideas for the preface. Irresistible movement of Democracy. Great fact of the modern world.... Aim of the work: to give some fair and accurate notions about this fact; beyond that I do not judge this fact. I do not even believe that there is anything in institutions of an absolute good. Montesquieu.”15
So possibly by a combination of observation and remembered reading, the young inquirer had deepened his analysis of the environment’s influence on the character of both the Americans themselves and their institutions. But even more important, he had judged the various reasons for the Union’s success and awarded primary importance to “particular” or “original circumstances,” a loosely defined term that apparently included both America’s physical and historical settings.
Scarcely a week later, Tocqueville composed yet another preliminary synthesis of his early impressions about the effects of America’s circonstances.
Picture ... a society formed of all the nations of the earth ... in a word a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without habits, without common ideas, without national character; ... What serves as a tie to those diverse elements? What makes of them a people? L’intérêt. That’s the secret. Individual intérêt which sticks through at each instant, l’intérêt, which, moreover, comes out in the open and calls itself a social theory.16
We are a long way from the ancient republics, it must be admitted, and yet this people is republican and I don’t doubt it will long remain so. And the Republic is for it the best of governments.
I can only explain this phenomenon in thinking that America finds itself, for the present, in a physical situation so happy that the interest of the individual is never opposed to the interest of the whole, which is certainly not the case in Europe.
What is it that in general leads men to trouble the state? On one side, the desire to attain to power; on the other, the difficulty of creating for himself a happy existence by ordinary means.
Here there is no public power and, to tell the truth, there is no need of it. The territorial boundaries are very limited; the states have no enemies, consequently no armies, no tax, no central government; the power of the executive is nothing, it gives neither money nor power. So long as things stay thus, who will torment his life to attain it?17
Now, on examining the other half of the proposition, you reach the same result. For if a career in politics is almost closed, a thousand, ten thousand others are open to human activity. The whole world here seems a malleable substance that man turns and fashions to his pleasure; an immense field whose smallest part only has yet been traversed, is here open to industry.... 18
Thus, in this happy country nothing draws the restless human spirit toward political passions; everything, on the contrary, draws it toward an activity that has nothing dangerous for the state....
This last reason I have just given you, in my estimation fundamental, explains equally the only salient characteristics which distinguish this people here: the industrial turn of mind, and the instability of character. [So the physical environment decisively, if indirectly, shaped the American physiognomy.]
Nothing is easier than to enrich oneself in America. Naturally the human spirit, which needs a dominating passion, ends by turning all its thoughts toward gain. It results from this that at first appearance this people seems to be a company of merchants gathered together for trade; and as one digs further into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of all things in this world only in the answer to this one question: how much money will it bring in?19 [Obviously here was one result of the republic’s physical situation which Tocqueville did not find attractive.]
As for the instability of character, that crops up in a thousand places. An American takes up, leaves, goes back to ten occupations in this life; he is constantly changing his domicile and is continually forming new enterprises. Less than any other man in the world does he fear to compromise an acquired fortune, because he knows with what facility he can gain a new one.
Besides, change seems to him the natural state of man; and how would it be otherwise? Everything about him is in constant movement: laws, opinions, public officials, fortunes, the very land here changes in appearance from day to day. In the midst of this universal movement which surrounds him, the American couldn’t keep still.”20
Here, while again pursuing his consideration of the social, political, and psychological implications of the Union’s environment, Tocqueville had also introduced another significant physical feature: America’s isolation from Europe. His travel diaries would record few conversations directly connecting the republic’s distance from Europe and the possible advantages of that separation.21 But such links were apparently obvious, for he clearly understood that the absence of an active, centralized government, a powerful executive,22 a large army or high taxes, the freedom from constant fears of war, and the ability to prosper despite the inefficiency and vacillation of democratic government, were all due in some degree to the lack of close and hostile rivals.23 [Cf. “... there is such and such a country which, by its solitary geographic position is called almost inevitably ... to have such and such a destiny.”]
He also recognized that isolation from Europe and the strong attraction of America’s natural wealth had some serious disadvantages, the foremost of which concerned the republic’s political life. As he had written: “We are told that it is hard to get men to take public offices that would take them out of private business.... The art of government seems to me to be in its infancy here.”24
And in a letter of 10 October 1831, Tocqueville would cite some additional dark areas in the American scene: “In the United States, people have neither wars, nor plagues, nor literature, nor eloquence, nor fine arts, few great crimes, nothing of what rouses Europe’s attention; here people enjoy the most pallid happiness that one can imagine.”25 The ressources and the position géographique of the continent unfortunately turned Americans from higher pursuits of mind and spirit toward the goals of private success and a pleasant but colorless comfort.
“The whole world here seems a malleable substance ... the very land ... changes in appearance from day to day.”26 With these words, Tocqueville returned to a theme which he had first announced on 7 June. The American people were so rapidly reshaping their continent that the transformation itself seemed an essential part of the environment.
“[Here] through a singular inversion of the usual order of things, it’s nature that appears to change, while man stays immobile.” In America, Tocqueville wrote, the same man has witnessed a wilderness penetrated, then tamed, has seen a thick woods turned into a farm, a small village, and finally a great city. Rivers have been harnessed. To the American, even the climate seemed different from what it used to be.
The effects on the American mind and imagination were immense.
There is not a country in the world where man more confidently seizes the future, where he so proudly feels his intelligence makes him master of the universe, that he can fashion it to his liking. It’s an intellectual movement which can only be compared to that which led to the discovery of the new world three centuries ago....
Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more, he loves it; for the instability, instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him. (The idea of perfection, of a continuous and endless amelioration of social conditions, this idea is presented to him unceasingly, in all its aspects.)27
Tocqueville knew that the westward movement constituted a crucial part of the continent’s subjugation, so he began to accumulate information about the settlers who actually tamed the wilderness. New York, his investigation revealed, was the gateway to the interior. “Each year thousands of foreigners who are going to populate the wilderness in the West, arrive through here.”28 Like most visitors, he still assumed that the players in the great drama were Europeans newly arrived in North America.
Before leaving Manhattan, the Frenchman also indicated his awareness of the possibly far-reaching effects of another physical feature: climate. “In general the seasons in America are much more marked than in Europe. At New York, for example, people have a summer like Italy and a winter like Holland.” Lest maman worry about his always delicate health, Alexis hastened to add: “The human body apparently finds these transitions marvelous; at least, doctors attribute the longevity of the inhabitants largely to this cause.”29 More profound reflection about the influence of climate would follow later.
On the last day of June, Tocqueville and Beaumont boarded the steamboat North American, literally raced another ship to Albany, and then proceeded by stagecoach to Auburn and Buffalo. “This voyage which seems immense on the map is made with an unmatched rapidity; it’s the fashionable way to travel in this country.”30
The arrival at Albany came even more quickly than the two friends desired,31 but travel westward by stage—over “roads as detestable as the roads of lower Brittany”32 —jolted them back to reality. Their ride assuaged one early disappointment, however: the two shaken commissioners finally beheld the American forest. Or at least, until reaching Michigan, they thought they had. “I believe,” Tocqueville confessed on 17 July, “that in one of my letters I complained that one hardly ever found any forests in America; here I must make due apology. Not only does one find woods and trees in America; but the entire country is still only one vast forest, in the middle of which people have cut some clearings.”33
Two days later, the companions left Buffalo on the steamboat Ohio bound for Detroit—and beyond. They couldn’t resist the opportunity to see the American wilderness for themselves.
On the frontier, Tocqueville, still persuaded of the importance of “particular circumstances,” expected to see a conclusive demonstration of the environment’s influence on American society. But by the end of his “Fortnight in the Wilderness,”34 he drastically revised his thinking.
The nineteenth of July, at ten in the morning, we go on board the steamboat Ohio, heading for Detroit.... we hugged the southern shores of the lake, often within shouting distance. These shores were perfectly flat.... Immense forests shadowed them and made about the lake a thick and rarely broken belt. From time to time, however, the aspect of the country suddenly changes. On turning a wood one sights the elegant spire of a steeple, some houses shining white and neat, some shops. Two paces further on, the forest, primitive and impenetrable, resumes its sway and once more reflects its foliage in the waters of the lake.35
Those who have travelled through the United States will find in this tableau a striking emblem of American society.... Everywhere extreme civilization and nature abandoned to herself find themselves together and as it were face to face.... As for me, with my traveller’s illusions,... I anticipated something quite different. I had noticed that in Europe the situation more or less remote in which a province or a city lay, its wealth or poverty, its smallness or extent, exercised an immense influence on the ideas, the customs, the entire civilization of its inhabitants, and placed often the difference of several centuries between the diverse parts of the same territory.
I imagined it was thus, and with all the more reason, in the new world, and that a country like America, peopled in an incomplete and partial way, ought to offer all the conditions of culture and present the image of society in all its ages.... 36
Nothing in this tableau is true.... [In America] those who inhabit these isolated places have arrived there since yesterday; they have come with the customs, the ideas, the needs of civilization. They only yield to savagery that which the imperious necessity of things exacts from them; thence the most bizarre contrasts.37
Frontier towns unexpectedly failed to reflect either the primitive conditions of their wilderness surroundings or their distance from eastern centers of civilization. Instead, each town, even each cabin was an “ark of civilization lost in the midst of an ocean of leaves.”38 The institutions, ideas, customs, and efforts of the settlers appeared to overcome the effects of the environment.
Tocqueville had indeed anticipated something different, so having temporarily championed an environmental or frontier theory of America, he herewith abandoned it. After the wilderness experience he would never again claim predominant importance for physiographic causes.
But he remained, nonetheless, sensitive to the profound effects of situation physique on the United States. And the 1835 Democracy, with insights remarkably similar to those of Frederick Jackson Turner and other advocates of the frontier hypothesis, would brilliantly pinpoint some of the specific links between natural circumstances and American society.
“At the end of the last century a few bold adventurers began to penetrate into the Mississippi valley. It was like a new discovery of America;... previously unheard of communities suddenly sprang up in the wilderness.... It is in the West that one can see democracy in its most extreme form. [frontier democracy] ... [In these states the inhabitants] hardly know one another, and each man is ignorant of his nearest neighbor’s history. [frontier individualism and self-reliance] So in that part of the American continent the population escapes the influence not only of great names and great wealth but also of the natural aristocracy of education and probity. [frontier equality] ... There are inhabitants already in the new states of the West, but not as yet a society. [the frontier’s repeated reconstruction of social institutions].”39
A letter written in December 1831 had expressed the last idea more forcefully. The Americans were “A people ... cutting their institutions like their roads in the midst of the forests where they have just settled.”40
The fortnight in the wilderness also drew several familiar themes back into Tocqueville’s writings. “We are assured,” he had declared in May, “that the wildernesses of the Mississippi are being populated still more rapidly. Every one tells us that the most fertile soil in America is to be found there, and that it stretches almost indefinitely.” This glimpse of the possibilities waiting in the great interior valley would eventually become one of Tocqueville’s favorite symbols of America’s future. But for now, after his exciting trek with Beaumont to the farthest fringe of European civilization, he concentrated his attention on the incredible potential wealth of the lands surrounding Lake Huron. “These places which form only an immense wilderness will become one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. One can assert it without being a prophet. Nature has done everything here. A fertile land, possibilities like no others in the world. Nothing is lacking except civilized man and he is at the door.”41
This spectacle of America’s subjugation of the West struck Tocqueville as at once magnificent and terrible to behold. Yet the American, “a daily witness of all these marvels,... sees nothing astonishing in them.”42 “Add that ... he only esteems the works of man. He will willingly send you to visit a road, a bridge, a fine village; but that one has a high regard for great trees and a beautiful solitude, that’s entirely incomprehensible to him.”43
“It’s this idea of destruction,” Tocqueville reflected, “this conception of near and inevitable change which gives ... so original a character and so touching a beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees them with melancholy pleasure. One hastens in a way to admire them. The idea of this natural and wild grandeur which is to end mingles with the superb images to which the march of civilization gives rise. One feels proud to be a man, and at the same time one experiences I know not what bitter regret at the power God has given us over nature.”44
But who actually undertook this struggle with the wilderness? Something unexpected was troubling the travelers.
“ ‘One last question,’ ” Tocqueville promised his host at Pontiac. “ ‘It is generally believed in Europe that the wilds of America are being peopled with the help of emigration from Europe. How then does it happen that since we have been in the forest we have not met a single European?’
“A smile of condescension and satisfied pride spread over our host’s face as he heard this question. [He had just completed a long description of the capital, skills, and good fortune required to carve a farm out of the wilderness.] ‘It is only Americans,’ he answered emphatically, ‘who could have the courage to submit to such trials and who know how to purchase comfort at such a price. The emigrant from Europe stops at the great cities of the coast or in their neighborhood. There he becomes a craftsman, a farm labourer or a valet. He leads an easier life than in Europe and feels satisfied to leave the same heritage to his children. The American, on the other hand, gets hold of some land and seeks by that means to carve himself a fortune.’ ”45
This news was worthy of repetition. Another long letter to Chabrol, dated 17 August 1831, revealed that during May and June over five thousand new settlers had come to Michigan. “As you can imagine, the size of this number surprised me; even more so because it is the common opinion among us, I believed, that all these new settlers were Europeans. The land agent informed me that out of 5000 persons there were not 200 emigrants from Europe. Yet the proportion is greater than usual.”46 So the Americans were themselves the agents of civilization. One more preconception fell before Tocqueville’s journey experiences.
Later this discovery would be placed in a broader framework of Tocqueville’s own making and would appear in the pages of the Democracy.47
In the same letter of August to Chabrol, Tocqueville also returned briefly to the political implications of the abundance and activity which he had just witnessed: “How can anyone imagine a Revolution in a country where such a career is open to the needs and passions of man ...?”48 Social and political stability—at least on certain levels—was another of nature’s gifts.
So by July 1831, Tocqueville had already discovered many of the nation’s physical characteristics and had begun a perceptive analysis of how those features influenced the Union and its inhabitants. Most important, his experiences in the wilderness had by then persuaded him to abandon his early thesis that géographie in its broader sense was the primary force in the shaping of American society.
Further Considerations of Environment
After their frontier adventures, the two friends briefly visited Canada and then headed toward Boston. Experiences in that city during September and October 1831 gave special prominence to (some familiar and some new) nonphysical features of the United States, especially the moral and religious attitudes, the education, the practical political experience, and the origins and history of the Americans.1 Yet there Tocqueville also learned several important lessons about the physical environment.
He had once mentioned the presumably invigorating effect of America’s climate, but since that early letter the topic had been totally neglected. All suddenly changed, however, when a Mr. Clay, a planter from Georgia who was also visiting Boston, implied to the inquisitive foreigner that a major reason for the extensive use of slaves in much of the South was that “white people cannot get acclimatised.”2
The possible import of this remark left Tocqueville troubled—and skeptical. So on 1 October, he asked John Quincy Adams for his opinion. “[Q.] Do you think that actually it is impossible to do without Negroes in the South? [A.] I am convinced to the contrary, Europeans cultivate the land in Greece and Sicily; why should they not do so in Virginia or the Carolinas? It is not hotter there.”3 Yet the ex-President’s prompt and firm denial did not end the debate that had started in the visitor’s mind, and the issue would be repeatedly raised in later interviews.
Something else of interest concerning the natural environment also came out of his talk with Adams. The honorable gentleman “appeared to think that one of the greatest guarantees of order and internal security in the United States was found in the movement of the population toward the West. ‘Many more generations yet will pass,’ he added, ‘before we feel that we are overcrowded.’ ”4
So not only did the almost inevitable material rewards for private effort deflect men from political careers and dangerous ambitions—Tocqueville had long ago realized that—but also the very existence of open areas, of available land in the West, scattered the population and aided the Americans in avoiding the concentrated powers and agonies of great cities.5 In the New World, space served as a safety valve for republican institutions.6
In November, the aged Charles Carroll would add a special twist to this idea: “A mere Democracy is but a mob.... if we tolerate [our form of government], that is because every year we can push our innovators out West.”7
Combining these and previous comments, Tocqueville would declare in a section of the 1835 Democracy entitled “Accidental or Providential Causes Helping to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States”: “In Europe we habitually regard a restless spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers. But precisely those things assure a long and peaceful future for the American republics. Without such restless passions the populations would be concentrated around a few places and would soon experience, as we do, needs which are hard to satisfy. What a happy land the New World is, where man’s vices are almost as useful to society as his virtues!”8
Several Bostonians also urged the crucial importance of history on their guests. Alexander Everett stressed the American “point of departure,” and Jared Sparks reminded Tocqueville that the root cause of American government and manners was “our origins.” The United States was unique. “Those who would like to imitate us should remember that there are no precedents for our history.”9
On 20 September, in the course of some additional remarks about history, Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard, reminded Tocqueville of a use of the term circumstances which would later prove to be immensely valuable. Previously, the observer had not been especially precise about the ingredients which went into his “particular,” “accidental,” or “original circumstances.” Sometimes when he had employed these terms, he had been thinking mainly of America’s physical situation. But often he had also at least hinted at the inclusion of certain social and economic conditions (such as relative equality) or even some moral or intellectual attitudes (such as respect for religion, education, and law).10 Thus circonstances had served as a cumbersome catchall.
Quincy attempted a less ambiguous usage. After urging Tocqueville to consider history, he remarked: “I think our present happy state is even more due to circumstances beyond our control than to our constitution. Here all a man’s material needs are satisfied and furthermore we are born in freedom, knowing no other state.”11 If the listener chose to follow the Brahmin’s lead, he would henceforth include under the concept circumstances both the physical and the historical situations, or preconditions, of the United States—neither more nor less. But Tocqueville would proceed only slowly along the path that Quincy had indicated.
The Boston experience had so broadened his thinking that Tocqueville decided, probably in early October, to list the most important of the many possible explanations that he had noted for the happy condition of the United States. After heading his summary “Reasons for the social state and present government in America,” he itemized:
1st. Their origin: excellent point of departure. Intimate mixture of the spirit of religion and liberty. Cold and rational race.
2nd. Their geographical position: no neighbors.
3rd. Their commercial and industrial activity: Everything, even their vices, is now favourable to them.
4th. The material prosperity which they enjoy.
5th. The spirit of religion that prevails: Republican and democratic religion.
6th. The diffusion of useful knowledge.
7th. Morals very chaste.
8th. Their division into little states. They prove nothing for a large one.
9th. The absence of a great capital where everything is concentrated. Care to avoid it.
10th. Commercial and provincial activity which means that everyone has something to do at home.12
As yet Tocqueville seemed reluctant to weigh the relative significance of these various physical and nonphysical causes. But the nation’s ressources (fourth) and its position géographique (second) were specifically mentioned among these ten points, and he also cited several other reasons known to be closely related to the republic’s physical situation (third, ninth, tenth). So although the astute visitor had already abandoned the theory that America was shaped primarily by its environment, he saw quite clearly that géographie, in its broadest sense, nonetheless enormously influenced the United States. More difficult judgments would have to wait.
After Massachusetts the commissioners headed back to New York via Connecticut and then continued on to Philadelphia and Baltimore. In Baltimore, Tocqueville once again faced the puzzle of a possible link between climate and slavery.
“Do you think you could do without slaves in Maryland?” he asked Mr. Latrobe on 30 October.13
“Yes, I am convinced of it. Slavery is in general an expensive way of farming, and it is more so with certain crops. Thus wheat-farming requires many labourers, but only twice in the year, at sowing time and at harvest. Slaves are useful at those two seasons. For the rest of the year they must be fed and kept without, one may say, employing them.... So generally speaking slavery is worth nothing in wheat growing country. And that applies to the greater part of Maryland.”
Not satisfied, Tocqueville persisted: “But if sugar and coffee are more profitable crops than [wheat], and if slave labour for agriculture is more expensive than free, it surely follows that the Southerners can keep their slaves, but it also follows that they would get a better return from their lands if they cultivated them themselves or employed free labour?”
“No doubt,” Latrobe responded, “but in the South the white man cannot, without getting ill or dying, do what the black does easily. Besides there are certain crops that are raised much more economically by slaves than by free workers. Tobacco for example. Tobacco needs continual attention; one can employ women and children in cultivating it.... it is a crop admirably suited for slave labour.”
So for most of the South, the type of agriculture gave the crucial impetus to slavery. Apparently climate’s influence on the peculiar institution, through the encouragement of certain crops, was primarily indirect. Tocqueville was almost convinced.
After a thorough study of the prisons of Philadelphia, Tocqueville and Beaumont turned westward once again, crossed Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, and there bought passage on another of America’s dangerous steamers. The two investigators intended to follow the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans where they could begin an intensive examination of the South (a project never realized).14
While going down the Ohio, Tocqueville resolved to inquire once more about the identity of the American pioneer. As if to make certain that the settling of Michigan was not a special case, he asked “a great landowner from the State of Illinois”: “Do many Europeans go there?” “No,” the westerner answered, “the greatest number of immigrants come from Ohio.”15
Here was another strange feature of the westward movement. Not only were settlers almost always Americans, but they were frequently men or the sons of men who had moved before. In 1835 Tocqueville would not forget this astonishing lesson. After presenting his notion of the double migration, from Europe across the Atlantic and from the coastal areas toward the Mississippi,16 he would continue: “I have spoken about emigration from the older states, but what should one say about that from the new? Ohio was only founded fifty years ago, most of its inhabitants were not born there, its capital is not thirty years old, and an immense stretch of unclaimed wilderness still covers its territory; nevertheless, the population of Ohio has already started to move west; most of those who come down to the fertile prairies of Illinois were inhabitants of Ohio. These men had left their first fatherland to better themselves; they leave the second to do better still.”17
At the beginning of December, the two Frenchmen arrived at Cincinnati, where the city’s rapid, practically visible growth amazed them. Yet even more surprising than the enthusiastic activity in Ohio was the striking contrast between that state and its neighbor, Kentucky. Compared to the pace immediately north of the river, growth to the south seemed to occur slowly or not at all. Tocqueville was again perplexed.
“The State of Ohio is separated from Kentucky just by one river; on either side of it the soil is equally fertile, and the situation equally favourable, and yet everything is different.”18 But what made the two states different if their physical setting was the same? Tocqueville heard and saw for himself that the contrast resulted from a peculiar institution. “These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery.... So nothing shows more clearly than the comparison I have just made, that human prosperity depends much more on the institutions and the will of man than on the external circumstances that surround him.”19
The distinction between Ohio and Kentucky strongly reaffirmed Tocqueville’s earlier decision about the physical environment: it was important, but not, in itself, decisive.
One citizen of Cincinnati, Timothy Walker, convinced of a glorious future for the entire region, repeated a now familiar incantation. “There are already 5,000,000 inhabitants in the Mississippi valley. I do not doubt that in twenty years time the majority of the population of the United States will be to the west of the Ohio; the greatest wealth and the greatest power will be found in the basin of the Mississippi and Missouri.”20
By New Year’s Day, 1832, the companions reached New Orleans, and here too they heard the myth of the interior valley. Mr. Guillemin, the French consul in that city, had grand visions. “New Orleans has a very great future. If we succeed in conquering, or only in greatly diminishing, the scourge of yellow fever, New Orleans is certainly destined to become the largest city in the New World. In fifty years the Mississippi Valley will hold the mass of the American population, and here we hold the gate to the river.”21
Even later in Paris Tocqueville would not escape the legend, for his printed sources would offer no contradictions. Justice Joseph Story, while discussing the acquisition of western territories in his Commentaries, had turned expectation into fact: “And it scarcely requires the spirit of prophecy to foretell, that in a few years the predominance of numbers, of population, and of power, will be unequivocally transferred from the old to the new states.”22
If Tocqueville still harbored any trace of doubt, William Darby’s View of the United States would surely dispel it. After analyzing the sparse distribution and the scarcely believable growth rate of the American population, Darby had announced “the certain change of the seat of power ... from the Atlantic slope into the central basin.”23
“The general population,” Tocqueville would summarize in an early draft, “doubles in twenty-two years. That of the Mississippi Valley in ten years. Three and one-quarter percent for the whole. Five percent for the Valley. Darby p. 446 calculates that by 1865 the preponderance will be in the Mississippi Valley.”24
Such an apparently universal message would not escape retelling in the Democracy and would eventually find its way into several parts of the work. The opening chapter, entitled “Physical Configurations of North America,” would rhapsodize: “All things considered, the valley of the Mississippi is the most magnificent habitation ever prepared by God for man.” Beyond the Appalachian Mountains “are assembling, almost in secret, the real elements of the great people to whom the future of the continent doubtless belongs.”25
And in another section, while weighing the probable chances for the survival of the Union, Tocqueville would once again tell of the Mississippi Basin’s destiny. “The western states ... offer an unlimited free field to enterprise.... the Mississippi basin is infinitely more fertile than the Atlantic coast. This reason, added to all the others, is a powerful incentive driving the Europeans toward the West. Statistics emphatically prove this.... If the Union lasts, the extent and fertility of the Mississippi basin make it inevitable that it will become the permanent center of federal power. Within thirty or forty years [Darby: by 1865], the Mississippi basin will have assumed its natural rank.... So in a few years’ time ... the population of the Mississippi valley will dominate federal councils.”26
In addition to the repetition of a legend, New Orleans also offered the opportunity once again to resume the long inquiry concerning the relationship of climate to slavery. Tocqueville returned to the problem on 1 January 1832.
“Do you think that in Louisiana the whites could cultivate the land without slaves?” “I do not think so,” replied Mr. Mazureau. “But I was born in Europe and arrived here with the ideas you seem to have on that point. But experience has seemed to me to contradict the theory. I do not think that Europeans can work the land, exposed to this tropical sun. Our sun is always unhealthy, often deadly.” Mazureau ended by offering the example of whites from various districts of Louisiana who, unable to labor diligently in the local climate, eked out only marginal existences. “But might not their poverty be attributed to their laziness rather than to the climate?” Tocqueville countered. The southerner’s response was blunt: “In my view the climate is the chief reason.”27
Within two weeks, as Tocqueville and Beaumont rode toward Washington, another chance to probe the issue presented itself in the person of Joel Poinsett. “What are the reasons for [the differences between the social state of the South and that of the North?]” “The first,” Poinsett said, “is slavery; the second, the climate.”28
But how were these two reasons linked? An essential part of the debate was still unresolved. The accumulated weight of Tocqueville’s conversations made it clear that climate wielded an important if indirect power. Any lingering doubts of that fact were dissolved by the acute differences which he detected between the French of New Orleans and the French of Canada.
On 16 January 1832, he wrote to Chabrol: “When you see men who tell you that the climate has no influence on the constitution of peoples, assure them that they are mistaken.” Fifteen degrees of latitude separated the French Canadians from the French of Louisiana. “Truly it is the best reason that I can give for the difference.”29
Largely because of his talk with Latrobe, Tocqueville had earlier inclined toward the view that the climate’s most significant influence on slavery was indirect: it encouraged certain crops which in turn invited the use of slave labor. Despite the assertions of Mazureau, the direct effects of climate, through sun, heat, and humidity, remained highly suspect in Tocqueville’s mind. The 1835 Democracy would therefore reflect Latrobe’s viewpoint.30 But in his text Tocqueville would also pointedly echo several of his other conversations on the topic:
The farther south one goes, the [more difficult] it becomes to abolish slavery. There are several physical reasons for this which need to be explained.
The first is the climate: certainly the closer they get to the tropics, the harder Europeans find it to work; many Americans maintain that below a certain latitude it is fatal for them, whereas Negroes can work there without danger [Clay and others]; but I do not think that this idea, with its welcome support for the southerner’s laziness, is based on experience. [A long delayed rejoinder to Mazureau] The south of the Union is not hotter than the south of Spain or of Italy. Why cannot the European do the same work there? [Adams]31
In January 1832, only a few weeks before his departure from America, Tocqueville finally attempted to judge the relative weight of the ten reasons which he had set forth in October:
There are a thousand reasons which concur to support republican liberty in the United States, but a few are enough to explain the problem.
In the United States, it is said, society has been built from a clean slate....
But the whole of South America is in this position, and a republic only succeeds in the United States.
The territory of the Union offers an immense field to human activity....
But in what part of the world could one find more fertile lands,... more inexhaustible or more untouched riches than in South America? But yet South America cannot maintain a republic.
The division of the Union into little States reconciles internal prosperity and national strength;... but Mexico forms a federal republic; it has adopted the constitution of the United States almost without alteration, and yet Mexico is still far from prospering. Lower Canada is surrounded, as is New England, by fertile and limitless lands. Yet, up to our day, the French population of Canada, unstirred by enlightenment, remains cupped in a space much too narrow for it....
There is one great reason which dominates all the others and which, when one has weighed every consideration, by itself sways the balance: the American people, taken in mass, is not only the most enlightened in the world, but, what I rank as much more important than that advantage, it is the people whose practical political education is the most advanced.32
Tocqueville had finally singled out a few major causes of American success and had even selected the most significant from among his choices. But his statement, merely reaffirming what he had decided months before, said nothing significantly new about the role of the environment. Further developments in the traveler’s thinking about the importance of physical setting had to wait until his return to France.
During his nine months in the New World, Tocqueville had recognized many significant features of America’s environment, particularly its beauty, variety, size, fertility, (relative) virginity, and isolation. Another less obvious characteristic—the continent’s transformation at the hands of an energetic and civilized people—had also struck his imagination, and one misconception about the Union’s physical situation had been discovered and discarded when he had learned to his surprise that the Americans themselves settled the West.
But, while in the United States, the visitor had gone beyond the mere recognition of physical features and had also undertaken a careful consideration of the various social, political, intellectual, and even psychological effects of the republic’s natural setting. More important, after at first adopting an environmental hypothesis, he had rejected such a doctrine in favor of a pluralistic explanation.
Finally, despite his notice of several important disadvantages or regrettable results of the country’s physiography, Tocqueville had concluded that, by and large, America’s environment contributed enormously to the nation’s success.33 In 1835 and 1840, the Democracy would faithfully reflect that basic outlook.
Cloistered in his attic room on the rue de Verneuil, Tocqueville continued to consider the haunting riddle of causes. “It is not due to idle curiosity that I seek the predominance of the causes which allow peoples to be free.”34
While compiling the index to his own papers, the author included the heading “Causes which maintain the present form of government in America” and several other closely related entries.35 So he clearly recognized that such influences were many and that any monistic interpretation of American success was inadequate.
An early effort to clarify his thinking ended when he drew up the following list of major influences: “(1) The geographic position, the nature of the country, (2) the laws, (3) the moeurs.”36 Apparently America’s origins and history were subsumed under moeurs.
But soon, as drafts of the Democracy proceeded, Tocqueville began to use and even elaborate upon Josiah Quincy’s concept of circumstances. “Circumstances, without number. Theory to make: Point of departure. The most important of all in my eyes.... Equality, Democracy introduced in germ. [Had Alexander Everett, Sparks, Quincy, and others persuaded the Frenchman that origins and history were the key circumstances?] Ease. result of the small population and the immense resources of the country. emigration, new resources equal to new needs. The absence of neighbors, no wars, no permanent army. New country, no large cities, no manufacturing districts. Men are not pressed one against the other.... It is a land which presents itself with all the strength and the fertility of youth.”37
Here again, in what seemed in part a recapitulation of the major lessons learned in America about the republic’s physical situation, a multiple rather than a single explanation was advanced. The term circonstances still remained too inclusive and cumbersome, but at least Tocqueville had restricted its use to historical and environmental features and their effects.
Yet despite his best efforts, his theory remained somewhat unsettled. Was the historical or the physical setting more important? Tocqueville was never able finally to decide. In the draft quoted above, in a deleted comment found in the working manuscript,38 and once in the 1835 Democracy itself, he indicated that le point de départ or l’origine was the crucial circumstance. “I have said before that I regarded the origin of the Americans, what I have called their point of departure, as the first and most effective of all the [accidental or providential] elements leading to their present prosperity.”39
But elsewhere in his published text he would more than once label le choix du pays, la position géographique, or les causes physiques the most significant single circumstance. “Among the lucky circumstances that favored the establishment and assured the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States, the most important was the choice of the land itself in which the Americans live.”40
In any case, the somewhat unwieldy concept did allow the writer to reach the classification of fundamental causes (both physical and nonphysical) which would appear in the 1835 Democracy:
I thought that the maintenance of political institutions among all peoples depends on three great causes. The first, entirely accidental, results from the circumstances in which Providence has placed different men. The second comes from laws. The third is derived from their habits and their moeurs.41
The “thousand causes” of January 1832 were finally reduced to three. The first, les circonstances, included both America’s origin and its environment, both its historical and its physical situations. In the 1835 Democracy, Tocqueville would occasionally use the phrase “la nature du pays et les faits antécédents” rather than circonstances.
Les lois invoked for Tocqueville the republic’s legal, political, and institutional framework. The phrase called to mind everything from the balance of powers written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers to American press laws and voting rights. In particular, the phrase reminded Tocqueville of America’s federal structure, local institutions, and independent judiciary.42
The third major cause, les moeurs, embraced even more than the other two. Les moeurs signified the morality, intelligence, political experience, and ceaseless activity of the Americans, as well as a long list of other characteristics. The phrase meant nothing less than the sum of American values, ideas, attitudes, and customs.43
From among these three major causes, Tocqueville had also now chosen the most important. Throughout the drafts of the 1835 volumes, as in the published text, his position was clear and unchanging: les moeurs constituted the most important single explanation for the stunning success of the American republic.44
But what part did circonstances play? Was the influence exerted by history and the physical environment greater than that of laws? In an unpublished draft of the chapter entitled “The Main Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States,”45 Tocqueville sketched a tentative conclusion: “Of the three causes the least influential is that of laws.”46
Pursuing this thought to its logical conclusion, he wrote: “Of these three causes the first [circumstances] is the most permanent.47 The circumstances in which a people find themselves change less easily, in general, than its laws and its moeurs....
“Of the three causes the least influential is that of laws and it is, so to speak, the only one which depends on man.... people cannot change their position and the original conditions of their existence. A nation can, in the long run, modify its habits and its moeurs, but one generation cannot succeed in doing it. It [a single generation] can only change the laws. But, of the three causes about which we are talking, the least influential is precisely that which results from the laws. Not only48 does man exercise no49 power over his surroundings, but he possesses, so to speak,50 none over himself and remains almost completely a stranger to his own fate.”51
In the margin of this passage, he added: “Of these three causes there is, so to speak, only one that depends on man to bring forth.”52
Something in this argument disturbed Tocqueville, however. Upon rereading he realized that his thesis seriously undermined the dignity of man. If laws were the only major influence subject to human will and, at the same time, the least important of fundamental causes, what control did man have over his own destiny? If man believed that he was essentially impotent, what would become of his sense of moral responsibility and his efforts? “One must not disdain man,” Alexis would later warn Gustave, “if one wants to obtain great efforts from others and from oneself.”53 Tocqueville the moralist could not accept his own argument; so he denied his original reasoning and struck out the offending section.
Soon, with similar words, but a strikingly different conclusion, he tried again to settle the dilemma: “So of the three causes which work together to maintain institutions the least essential is the only one that man can not create at will [i.e. circumstances], and God, by making their happiness depend particularly on laws and moeurs, has in a way placed it in their hands.”54
In an added parenthesis, Tocqueville summed up his position. “So physical causes contribute less to the maintenance of institutions than laws; laws, less than moeurs.”55 Finally, after many false starts and hesitations, he had reached the conclusion which would appear in the published text of the 1835 Democracy. Much of the durability of Tocqueville’s reputation for genius and originality may be attributed to his brilliant recognition that moeurs weighed most in the destinies of human societies.
But in resolving this moral dilemma, Tocqueville had shrunk the meaning of circonstances to include only physical causes. History’s momentary disappearance had undoubtedly made it easier to downgrade the significance of circumstances. Thus he had in part satisfied himself by shifting definitions, by taking advantage of the indefinite meaning of one of his fundamental concepts. Circonstances, as we shall see, would not be the only word in the Democracy with such a valuable and convenient plastic nature.
Was Race a Sufficient Explanation of the American Character?
Tocqueville’s fortnight in the wilderness, while transforming his ideas about the effects of the natural environment, had also alerted him to another possible physical explanation of American society: Americans were what they were because of their biological inheritance.
“The village of Saginaw,” Tocqueville wrote in August, “is the last point inhabited by the Europeans, toward the northwest of the vast peninsula of Michigan. It can be considered an advance post, a sort of refuge that the whites have come to place among the Indian nations....
“... Thirty persons, men, women, old men, and children, at the time of our passage composed the whole of this little society, scarce formed, germ confided to the wilderness that the wilderness is to make fruitful.
“Chance, interest, or passions had gathered these thirty persons in this narrow space. Between them were no ties; they differed profoundly from each other. One noted among them Canadians, Americans, Indians, and half-breeds.”1 Even the Canadians and the Americans, both Europeans by heritage, were basically dissimilar. The first remained essentially French; the second, thoroughly English.
Such profound contrasts among the few inhabitants of one isolated village baffled Tocqueville and pushed him toward some rather radical reflections.
Philosophers have believed that human nature, everywhere the same, varied only following the institutions and laws of the different societies. That’s one of those opinions that seems to be disproved at every page of the history of the world. Nations like individuals all show themselves with a face that is their own. The characteristic features of their visage are reproduced through all the transformations they undergo. Laws, customs, religions change, empire and wealth come and go, external appearance varies, clothes differ, prejudices replace each other. Under all these changes you recognize always the same people. It’s always the same people which is growing up. Something inflexible appears in human flexibility. [But what was this indelible “something” which, more than other causes, determined the features of a society?]
... Thus, in this unknown corner of the world, the hand of God had already thrown the seeds of diverse nations. Already several different races ... found themselves face to face.
A few exiled members of the great human family have met in the immensity of the woods. Their needs are common;... and they throw at each other only looks of hatred and suspicion. The colour of their skin, poverty or wealth, ignorance or knowledge, have already established indestructible classifications among them: national prejudices, the prejudices of education and birth divide and isolate them.
... The profound lines which birth and opinion have traced between the destinies of these men do not end with life but stretch beyond the tomb. Six religions or sects share the faith of this embryo society.
In this long passage, Tocqueville returned to an idea which he had already briefly introduced several times in his travel diaries and letters: the concept of national character (which he sometimes loosely called “race”).2 As early as April 1831, while still on shipboard, he and Mr. Peter Schermerhorn had discussed the “National Character of the Americans.”3 And among first impressions at Newport, Rhode Island, in May, had been the following description: “The inhabitants differ but little superficially from the French. They wear the same clothes, and their physiognomies are so varied that it would be hard to say from what races they have derived their features. I think it must be thus in all the United States.”4
Additional observations, more developed but otherwise similar to those elicited by Schermerhorn and Newport, had appeared in one of Tocqueville’s alphabetic notebooks on 29 May: “When one reflects on the nature of the society here, one sees [that] ... American society is composed of a thousand different elements recently assembled. The men who live under its laws are still English, French, German, and Dutch. They have neither religion, morals nor ideas in common; up to the present one cannot say that there is an American character, at least unless it is the very fact of not having any. There is no common memory, no national attachments here. What then can be the only bond that unites the different parts of this huge body? Interest.”5
So, though surprised and puzzled by certain peculiarities, Tocqueville clearly assumed from the very first that some identifiable American character existed. His initial task was to isolate the essential qualities. But how profoundly did national traits from Europe influence society in the New World? And what forces (of blood or inheritance, of education or social custom) shaped and fostered the dominant American characteristics?
In his account of the Saginaw experience he first attempted some preliminary answers to these questions. From the viewpoint of Michigan, the peculiar physiognomy displayed by each nation—fashioned primarily by “birth,” “opinion,” and religion—seemed more durable an influence on society than even “laws, customs, religions [which] change; empire and wealth [which] come and go; external appearance [which] varies;... [and] prejudices [which] replace each other. Under all these changes you recognize always the same people.... Something inflexible appears in human flexibility.”6
When, a month later, the traveling companions visited Montreal and Quebec, the lessons of Saginaw were repeated and reinforced. “We have seen in Canada,” Tocqueville later recalled, “Frenchmen who have been living for seventy years under English rule, and remain exactly like their compatriots in France. In the midst of them lives an English population which has lost nothing of its national character.”7
The amazing durability of recognizable French and English traits led Tocqueville, on 7 September, immediately after returning to the United States from Canada, to ask his friend and teacher, the Abbé Lesueur: “Wouldn’t one be truly tempted to believe that the national character of a people depends more on the blood from which it came than on the political institutions or the nature of the country?”8 Clearly, he was close to advancing a biological explanation of national differences.
Yet Tocqueville never made the necessary last step toward an hypothesis based solely on biological inheritance. Instead he continued to advance a pluralistic viewpoint and to explore a variety of possible causes. “American morals are, I think,” he ventured in a diary note of 21 September 1831, “the most chaste that exist in any nation, a fact which can, it seems to me, be attributed to five chief causes.” His first choice was: “Physical constitution. They belong to a Northern race.” But he also emphasized religion, preoccupation with business, special attitudes toward marriage, and the education and character of American women.9 No single answer would do.
The October list of “Reasons for the social state and present government in America” also included under point one, their origin; “Cold and rationalist race.” But again, Tocqueville carefully acknowledged many additional factors as well.10
In November 1831, after learning about the tenacious habits of the Pennsylvania Germans, he continued his speculations:
If nature has not given each people an indelible national character one must at least admit that physical or political causes have made a people’s spirit adopt habits which are very difficult to eradicate, even though it is no longer subject to the influence of any of those causes....
Not less than fifty years ago, colonies of Germans came to settle in Pennsylvania. They have kept intact the spirit and ways of their fatherland.... Immobile in the midst of ... general movement, the German limits his desire to bettering his position and that of his family little by little. He works unendingly, but leaves nothing to chance. He gets rich slowly; he sticks to his domestic hearth, encloses his happiness within his horizon and shows no curiosity to know what there is beyond his last furrow.11
This statement was more cautious than either his account of Saginaw or his query to the old priest had been. Tocqueville here seemed inclined to substitute durable but slowly changing habits or moeurs for the concept of a constant and ineradicable national character. And he hedged on whether physical or political causes most affected these national habits.
About the same time, Joel Poinsett forewarned Tocqueville about the contrast which he would find between Ohio and Kentucky as he continued westward and suggested that the differences could be explained by the moeurs of the settlers: Ohio had been peopled largely by New Englanders, and Kentucky, largely by Virginians.12
By December, however, when the commissioners found themselves in the Ohio Valley, Tocqueville, with the help of comments by John Quincy Adams and Timothy Walker, had pushed beyond Poinsett’s overly facile explanation to ask what had produced the dissimilar sectional characters in the first place. Just as the people of Ohio and Kentucky shared the same favorable environment, they also—except for the Negroes—sprang from the same race. So biology did not supply an answer to account for the sharp contrast any more than physiography had.13 As we have seen, Tocqueville was now forced to look toward social causes, rather than natural or physical causes. Specifically, he decided that slavery best explained the differences he observed, and he theorized that the South’s “peculiar institution” wrought its effects by the gradual transformation of moeurs.14
Henceforth Tocqueville would never again consider bloodlines as the primary or even a possible primary explanation, but would instead devote ever greater attention to national traits or moeurs and the human forces which shaped them.15 A few weeks later he was writing: “I imagine that often what one calls the character of a people is nothing but the character inherent in its social state. So the English character might well be nothing but the aristocratic character. What tends to make me think that is the immense difference between the English and their descendants in America.”16
When on 14 January the Frenchman undertook a further analysis of “What maintains the Republic in the United States,” he significantly made no specific mention of race and clearly implied that moeurs were the “one great reason which dominates all the others.”17 So Tocqueville left the United States, having briefly considered and then rejected a predominantly biological explanation of national differences.
In the years after, Tocqueville never totally discarded the idea that race played some role in the shaping of human societies. Race, for example, became one element of l’origine.18 But what precisely did he mean by race? By the end of his American journey, he thought usually in terms of tenacious but slowly evolving national characteristics or moeurs rather than inherited biological traits. Yet what was the exact nature of the connection between bloodlines and national character or moeurs? Unfortunately he failed to pinpoint the meanings of these words.19 Once again vaguely defined terms permitted Tocqueville to avoid the painful task of mastering some troubling complexities.
Between 1832 and 1835, while drafting the first part of the Democracy, Tocqueville thought and wrote little about either doctrines of race in the abstract or the cloudy relationships between race, national character, and moeurs. Apparently Beaumont, more forcibly struck while in America by the plight of the Negro and the Indian, claimed these topics as his portion. His Marie, or Slavery in the United States was presented not only as a discussion of race in the United States, but also as a broad picture of American moeurs.20
Insofar as Tocqueville concerned himself with these issues in his first two volumes, he concentrated primarily on the contrasting futures of the three races in America.21 (Distinguishing between Indians, Negroes, and Anglo-Americans did not present quite the same possibilities for confusion as had his earlier comparisons between “French” and “English” inhabitants of Saginaw or the Americans of Ohio and Kentucky.) Even here, however, he refused to explain the divergent destinies of these two minorities and the white majority by referring solely to innate biological differences. “The men scattered over it [the territory occupied or claimed by the United States] are not, as in Europe, shoots of the same stock. It is obvious that there are three naturally distinct, one might almost say hostile, races. Education, law, origin, and external features too have raised almost insurmountable barriers between them; chance has brought them together on the same soil, but they have mixed without combining, and each follows a separate destiny.”22 His lengthy discussion expanded upon this introductory paragraph and repeatedly emphasized the radically dissimilar social, legal, and historical circumstances of the three races. Nowhere would he defend biological determinism.23
After 1835, Tocqueville, increasingly aware of the growing interest in deterministic theories,24 began once again to ponder the significance of biological inheritance for national destinies. During a visit to Switzerland in 1836, for example, he informed Claude-François de Corcelle of his reservations about the Swiss constitution and republic and made the following revealing judgment on racial hypotheses: “I am also already struck with how little political life prevails among the population. The kingdom of England is one hundred times more republican than this republic. Others would say that this is due to the difference of race. But it is an argument that I will never admit except in the last extremity and when absolutely nothing else remains for me to say.”25
In addition, while composing his last two volumes, he penned at least three fragments on racial theories that would unfortunately largely disappear from the 1840 text. His sentiments on race, therefore, have not usually been connected with the writing of his masterpiece on America.
In a draft of the chapter entitled “How Democracy Leads to Ease and Simplicity in the Ordinary Relations between Americans,”26 he described the basic attraction of biological explanations:
Nowadays people talk constantly of the influence exercised by race on the conduct of men.... Race explains all in a word. It seems to me that I can easily discover why we so often have recourse to this argument that our predecessors did not employ. It is incontestable that the race to which men belong exercises some power or other over their acts, but then again it is absolutely impossible to pinpoint what this power is. So we can at will either infinitely restrict its action or extend it to all things according to the needs of the discourse; valuable advantage in a time when we require reasoning with little cost, just as we want to grow rich without trouble.27
Upon rereading, however, he realized: “All this is decidedly out of place. To put somewhere else.... But take the idea for the transition from there. People believe that this reserve of the English comes from the blood. The example of America proves the contrary.”28 So he deleted his digression and relegated it to the “Rubish.” Tocqueville had not yet concluded his musings about race, however.
To say in the preface if not in the book. Idea of races. I do not believe that there are races destined to freedom and others to servitude; the ones to happiness and enlightenment, the others to misfortunes and ignorance.29 These are cowardly doctrines. Doctrines however. Why? That results, during democratic times, from a natural vice of the human mind and heart which causes these people to tend toward materialism. This idea of the invisible influence of race is an essentially materialistic idea. The idée-mère of this book is directly the contrary, since I start invincibly from this point: whatever the tendencies of the social condition (état social), men can always modify them and avert the bad while adapting to the good.30
Yet another fragment, dated 12 March 1838, expressed similar thoughts: “Beware, during democratic centuries, of all soft and cowardly opinions which lull men and paralyze their efforts, such as the system of the physical and moral inferiorities of races.”31
So familiar demands for human freedom, responsibility, and dignity formed the background for these remarks, and Tocqueville’s own moral convictions once again significantly shaped his grande affaire. The text of 1840 would read: “I am aware that many of my contemporaries think that nations on earth are never their own masters and that they are bound to obey some insuperable and unthinking power, the product of pre-existing facts, of race, or soil, or climate. These are false and cowardly doctrines which can only produce feeble men and pusillanimous nations. Providence did not make mankind entirely free or completely enslaved. Providence has, in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong and free, and so are peoples.”32
But gone was Tocqueville’s earlier explicit and personal disavowal: “I do not believe that there are races destined to freedom and others to servitude; the ones to happiness and enlightenment, the others to misfortunes and ignorance.”
Some fifteen years later, in October 1853, Tocqueville would receive copies of the first two volumes of Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines.33 And his initial reactions to his protégé’s doctrines, expressed in three magnificent letters of 11 October, 17 November, and 20 December 1853, have justly become famous.
In the first epistle, he warned the younger man: “If I am a reader very much led, by the lively friendship that I bear toward you, to see your book through rose-colored spectacles, I am, on the other hand, drawn by my pre-existent ideas on the subject to pick a quarrel with you. So I am in no sense an impartial judge, that is to say a good judge. But still, I will do my best.”34
Tocqueville proceeded to offer his basic criticism of the work: “I have never hidden from you ... that I had a great prejudice against what appears to me to be your idée-mère, which seems to me, I confess, to belong to the family of materialistic theories and to be one of its most dangerous members.” [Cf. “This idea of the invisible influence of race is an essentially materialistic idea.”]
By November, after receiving an initial reply from Gobineau, he boldly announced: “I will confess to you frankly that you have not convinced me. All my objections remain.35 Nevertheless, you are quite right to deny being a materialist. Your doctrine is, in effect, rather a sort of fatalism, of predestination if you wish;... [Your system ends] in a very great restriction if not in a complete abolition of human freedom. But I confess to you [that] ... I remain placed at the opposing extreme of these doctrines.36 I believe them very likely false and very surely pernicious.”37 [Cf. “I am aware that many of my contemporaries think that nations on earth are never their own masters and that they are bound to obey some insuperable and unthinking power, the product of pre-existing facts, of race, or soil, or climate.”; also “The idée-mère of this book is directly the contrary.... ”]
He continued: “One can believe that there are, among each of the different families which compose the human race, certain tendencies, certain peculiar aptitudes born from a thousand different causes. But that these tendencies, that these aptitudes are unconquerable, not only is this what has never been proved, but it cannot, in itself, be proved, for it would be necessary to have at one’s disposition not only the past but even the future. [Cf. “It is incontestable that the race to which men belong exercises some power or other over their acts, but then again it is absolutely impossible to pinpoint what this power is.”]
“Still, if your doctrine ... were more useful to humanity! But it is obviously the contrary. What interest can there be in persuading some faint-hearted people who live in barbarism, in indolence, or in servitude, that, since they are so by the nature of their race, nothing can be done to ameliorate their condition, to change their moeurs or modify their government?”
Tocqueville concluded his second letter on a pessimistic note: “We are separated by too wide a distance for the discussion to be fruitful. There is an intellectual world between your doctrine and mine.”
The third letter elaborated on the charge that Gobineau’s theory, since it discouraged effort, was even worse than useless. “You have taken precisely the thesis that has always appeared to me the most dangerous that one could uphold in our time.... The last century had an exaggerated and a bit childish confidence in the power which man exercises over himself and which people exercise over their destiny.... After having believed ourselves capable of self-transformation, we believe ourselves incapable even of self-reformation; after having had an excessive pride, we have fallen into a humility which is not less excessive; we believed ourselves able to do everything, today we believe ourselves able to do nothing; and we like to believe that struggle and effort are henceforth useless, and that our blood, our muscles, and our nerves will always be stronger than our will and our virtue. It is properly the great sickness of our time; sickness completely opposite to that of our fathers. Your book, no matter how you would put it, favors rather than combats it: despite you, it pushes the soul of your contemporaries, already too soft, toward weakness.”38 [Cf. “Beware, during democratic centuries, of all soft and cowardly opinions which lull men and paralyze their efforts, such as the system of the physical and moral inferiorities of races.”; also “These are false and cowardly doctrines which can only produce feeble men and pusillanimous nations.”]
In short, Tocqueville’s initial response to Gobineau’s thesis in 1853 would strikingly parallel, in both argument and word, previous manuscript reflections hidden in the drafts of the second part of the Democracy or the 1840 text itself. So it is a mistake to think that Tocqueville’s fully developed condemnation of racial doctrines first emerged in the 1850s during his epistolary debate with his protégé. An explicit and deeply personal repudiation of such ideas had its roots in his American experience and dated from the late 1830s, when he wrote the last two volumes of his great work.39
Tocqueville’s thoughts about physical causes thus underwent some fascinating developments. He came to America with a special interest in géographie, and during the early weeks of his journey, he, like many others, became persuaded that national destiny depended primarily on the natural environment. His first months in the New World also tempted him toward a racial explanation of national characteristics. In both instances, however, despite a tendency to seize upon a single answer which had momentarily captured his attention, Tocqueville ultimately rejected any monistic thesis.
Moreover, a permanent conversion to pluralistic explanations was greatly speeded by his penchant for what might be called the comparative method. Again and again, Tocqueville’s ideas evolved in response to parallel but sharply contrasting American experiences: the differences between the two “races” of Saginaw, and then between the English and the French Canadians; the juxtaposition of Ohio and Kentucky; the distinctions between the North and South, and even between the two American continents; the comparison of the men of New Orleans with those of Montreal. The cumulative lessons of these succeeding pairs of experiences amply demonstrated the wisdom of one of Tocqueville’s basic methodological principles: “It is only by comparison that one can judge things.”40
Personal convictions also helped to drive him toward certain of his conclusions. Whether deciding the final significance of circonstances or the ultimate influence of race, he often fell back on firmly held beliefs about man’s dignity, freedom, and responsibility. In addition, his strong and persistent distaste for any materialistic doctrine repeatedly led him to stress nonphysical causes, ones which were at least somewhat under human control. So his own moral judgments and leanings joined with his experiences, conversations, and readings in shaping the Democracy.
Finally, key terms involved in his discussions of physical causes, like circonstances or race, remained annoyingly ambiguous. At various times in the development of his thinking, Tocqueville found this vagueness a convenient way to avoid difficult decisions. But, on the other hand, the depth and variety of his insights were often well served by the rich if somewhat imprecise connotations which he sometimes gave a word. Such untamed but valuable complexities were part of what Tocqueville meant when, in 1836, he exclaimed: “I would never have imagined that a subject that I had already revolved in so many ways could present itself to me under so many new faces.”41
The Transformation of a Continent
Commentators have often remarked that Tocqueville failed to detect what Michel Chevalier and other foreign observers noticed.1 Somehow the author of the Democracy overlooked the astonishing developments in transportation and communication that signaled an American technological revolution. He had traveled on steamboats, talked of railroads, and inspected canals, but had inexplicably missed the transformation being wrought on both the shape of the continent and the nature of the republic by America’s fascination with machines.
Restudy of his manuscripts shows that Tocqueville did indeed neglect many of these developments. His enthusiasm in the presence of the railroads, for example, was restrained at best, and his interest in manufacturing was not great enough to push him from the salons of Boston to the factories of Lowell.2 Yet his travel diaries and letters reveal a greater interest in technology and its impact than some critics have implied.
Although technology never became one of Tocqueville’s primary concerns, his sense of wonder and pride at the spectacle of the continent’s subjugation did stimulate his interest in the specific instruments of the American assault, and he sought from his hosts in almost every corner of the United States facts and opinions about the “improvements” being imposed upon the land.
During the early 1830s, the steamboat and the railroad ranked as the two most striking and significant advancements in American transportation; the application of steam had revolutionized travel in the New World. “Floating palaces” had already appeared on rivers and lakes everywhere in the nation, but the railroad, by contrast, was in its infancy when the investigators arrived in the United States.3 Even so, Tocqueville’s failure to recognize the full importance of the railroad was certainly one of his most serious oversights. His enthusiasm focused instead on that older use of steam, and although on more than one occasion during the journey the steamboat nearly cost the two friends their lives,4 Tocqueville never recovered from an early fascination with the superbe maison which had carried him from Newport to New York.5
A more general subject, the republic’s expanding network of internal improvements, also demanded probing, and in Baltimore he had a profitable discussion about American canal projects with William Howard, “a very distinguished engineer of this country.”6 While talking with Salmon P. Chase of Cincinnati, Tocqueville also learned that as of 1831 the state of Ohio had already spent the enormous sum of six million dollars on canal construction.7
The commissioners were often annoyed by the deplorable condition of American roads, but even so, the size and thoroughness of the web seemed impressive. So before leaving Boston at the beginning of October, they left a long series of questions with Jared Sparks. Although designed primarily to uncover the mysteries of the New England town, these queries concerned several other significant matters as well, including the “System of Roads.” “1. In Massachusetts what is the system of roads? Are certain roads, bridges, or canals made by the state? 2. If roads are made by the towns, are they good? What is the means of maintaining them so? ... Is there an inspection done by the state? 3. Can the state form a general plan of a road or a canal?”8
Beaumont presented similar questions to B. W. Richards of Philadelphia, who answered: “Our turnpike roads throughout the state have for the most part been made by private individuals and corporate companies.” The Pennsylvanian noted, however, that “the state in many cases subscribes to the stock.”9
In January 1832, Tocqueville interrogated Joel Poinsett: “How are the roads in America made and repaired?” Poinsett remarked that this involved “a great constitutional question,” but attempted nonetheless to answer, and his questioner later summarized the diplomat’s comments. “Doubt whether central government has the right.10 Sometimes by the state. More often by the counties. Badly kept up. Substantial loans in the localities. Turnpikes better system. Difficulty of getting a people used to them. Ineffectiveness of the law which allows help to counties.”11
Evidently no single agent shouldered the responsibility for American internal improvements, and no single method of financing, building, or maintaining these works existed. Despite Poinsett’s warnings, the danger of such confusion about powers and responsibilities did not preoccupy Tocqueville until later. For the moment he was more fascinated than troubled by the various forms of American transportation activity. The private corporation, in particular, became a frequent subject of conversation.
The perceptive Frenchman studied American private associations for many reasons, but one undoubtedly involved the role which the corporation played in the creation of American internal improvements. Whenever he committed his early thoughts about associations to paper, he connected the private groups with America’s ambitious projects. “The spirit of association ... is one of the distinctive characteristics of America; it is by this means that a country where capital is scarce and where absolutely democratic laws and habits hinder the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few individuals, has already succeeded in carrying out undertakings and accomplishing works which the most absolute kings and the most opulent aristocracies would certainly not have been able to undertake and finish in the same time.”12 Tocqueville had stumbled on one of the most significant economic developments of Jacksonian America: the rise of corporations.
When, in December 1831, he began studying James Kent’s four volumes of Commentaries, he carefully noted the jurist’s statements about corporate institutions, especially any comments about the new ease in obtaining charters and the expanded privileges and numbers of corporations. He also discerned the worry behind Kent’s words. “The number of charters of incorporation increases in the United States with a rapidity that appears to alarm Kent. I do not know why.”13
During his journeys into the interior, Tocqueville also discovered several implications of American transportation and communication beyond the constitutional and the institutional. His frontier experiences, in particular, demonstrated additional advantages of the republic’s road system. In Michigan, for example, he first realized that in the United States paths and roads preceded settlement and were an essential step in the movement westward.
While in Kentucky and Tennessee, during December 1831, he and Beaumont also “traveled with the mail.” “There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods.... I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France, there is intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness.”14 Later, thinking back to Michigan, Tocqueville asserted that “in America one of the first things done in a new state is to make the post go there; in the forests of Michigan there is no cabin so isolated, no valley so wild but that letters and newspapers arrive at least once a week; we have seen that.”15 The significance of such rapid transit of information and ideas did not long elude the companions.
By January 1832, Tocqueville had gathered a considerable amount of information about America’s projects and felt ready to speculate about their importance for the future of the American republic.
I only know of one means of increasing the prosperity of a people, whose application is infallible and on which I think one can count in all countries and in all places.
That means is none other than increasing the facility of communication between men.
On this point what can be seen in America is both strange and instructive.
The roads, the canals, and the post play a prodigious part in the prosperity of the Union. It is good to examine their effects, the value attached to them, and the way they are obtained.
... America has undertaken and finished the construction of some immense canals. It already has more railways than France; no one fails to see that the discovery of steam has incredibly increased the power and prosperity of the Union; and that is because it facilitates speedy communications between the different parts of that immense land....
Of all the countries in the world America is that in which the spread of ideas and of human industry is most continual and most rapid.
... As to the means employed to open up communications in America, this is what I have noticed about the matter.
It is generally believed in Europe that the great maxim of government in America is that of laisser-faire, of standing by as a simple spectator of the progress of society, of which individual interest is the prime mover; that is a mistake.
The American government does not interfere in everything, it is true, as ours does. It makes no claim to foresee everything and carry everything out; it gives no subsidies, does not encourage trade, and does not patronize literature or the arts. But where great works of public utility are concerned, it but seldom leaves them to the care of private persons; it is the State itself that carries them out;...
But it is important to observe that there is no rule about the matter. The activity of companies, of [towns], and of private people is in a thousand ways in competition with that of the State. All undertakings of moderate extent or limited interest are the work of [towns] or companies. Turnpikes or toll-roads often run parallel to those of the State. In some parts of the country, railways built by companies fulfill the functions of the canals as main thoroughfares. The local roads are maintained by the districts through which they pass. So then no exclusive system is followed; in nothing does America exemplify a system of that uniformity that delights the superficial and metaphysical minds of our age.16
So even before he began to draft the 1835 Democracy, Tocqueville had recognized several general results of the American technological revolution. What he had seen demonstrated the benefits of a flexible approach to public improvements, in general, and of a reliance on private action, in particular. (Somewhat paradoxically, the task of transformation also threatened a dangerous debate over the proper division of powers and responsibilities.) Improvements and the application of steam unfortunately stimulated the materialism and commercialism that were the blights of the republic, but America’s instruments of progress also made possible a rapid exchange of ideas, encouraged the creation of a well-informed and self-aware citizenry, and helped to unite a huge and diverse nation.17 In sum, the changes in technology and transportation seemed to promise a prosperous and powerful future for the American republic.
While drafting the first part of his book, Tocqueville pursued his quest for information about America’s internal improvements. At various times, he had collected six major works on the republic’s situation physique: Malte-Brun’s Annales de voyages; C. F. Volney’s Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis; accounts of two of Major Stephen H. Long’s expeditions, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains and Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River; Timothy Pitkin’s Statistical View of the Commerce of the United States; D. B. Warden’s Description ... des Etats-Unis; and William Darby’s View of the United States.
The works by Malte-Brun, Volney, and Long, because of age or intention, provided no information whatsoever on American technology. Tocqueville used them primarily for facts about natural features, flora and fauna, and Indians. Pitkin’s Statistical View of Commerce, almost twenty years old when Tocqueville read it, was only marginally useful.18 Only Warden, almost fifteen years old, and Darby, published in 1828, included discussions of developments in American transportation and communication. Warden’s small chapter on canals, railroads, and manufacturing in the United States appeared in the last of his five volumes. And, since Tocqueville cited Warden only when describing America’s physical features, it is possible that he had failed to study Warden’s final volume.19 If so, then his major single printed source on American internal improvements was William Darby’s View of the United States.
For anyone interested during the early 1830s in American transportation and communication, Darby’s volume was among the best available sources. Additional and more recent information could be gleaned from official documents, newspapers, and almanacs—all of which Tocqueville also used20 —but Darby’s work was one of few single-volume treatments.
Only the works of Mathew Carey and Guillaume-Tell Poussin’s Les Travaux d’améliorations intérieures ..., published in Paris in 1834,21 ranked in importance with Darby’s View. Unfortunately, the author of the Democracy apparently did not know of Carey’s writings on American economics and technology.22 Poussin’s analysis of 1834 was neglected for quite another reason, however. As is well known, Tocqueville insisted on insulating his own ideas and reactions from the influence of other recent European, and especially French, travelers to the United States. Poussin’s status as a fellow foreign visitor necessarily condemned the work to inattention.
So Tocqueville, though fully aware of the weaknesses of Darby’s book, made do. In his own list of statistical and general sources, he noted that “this work is highly regarded but already old; it dates from 1828,”23 and in 1834 he even wrote to James Gore King to request as a substitute, or at least as an addition, “some work of general statistics like Darby.”24 Either the American did not suggest a replacement or Tocqueville failed to pursue his recommendation.
In this matter, he committed another serious oversight, for in 1833 a new work had been published by Darby and Theodore Dwight, Jr., entitled A New Gazetteer of the United States, which offered valuable information about American manufacturing and even devoted a few paragraphs to Lowell, Massachusetts, which the authors called “the American Manchester ... destined to be a manufacturing city.”25
Despite its age, Darby’s View provided Tocqueville with a treasure trove of information about American improvements. Throughout the volume Darby urged the improvement of rivers, bays, and lakes, and the construction of canals or any other project that would benefit American commerce. In short, the work introduced Tocqueville to a vigorous nationalistic outlook typical of what he would have discovered in the works of Mathew Carey. Darby, like Mathew Carey, Hezekiah Niles, or Henry Clay, was one of those Americans of the 1820s and 1830s eager for any undertaking that would increase American wealth and link Americans with one another. Darby, like the others, envisioned a continent crisscrossed by improvements and a nation united by commerce and prosperity. He almost certainly encouraged Tocqueville’s personal inclination to concentrate on commercial developments and to foresee a mercantile, rather than an industrial, future for the United States.26
Possibly in response to Darby’s enthusiasm, Tocqueville sent off requests for additional materials. While thinking of the American road and postal systems, for example, he wondered how French and American efforts compared, and reminded himself to ask “d’Aunay”27 and “N. (?) Roger of the Académie française”28 for information about the number of letters carried, distances covered, and revenues raised by the French system.
Poinsett’s “great constitutional question” also still disturbed him, so he badgered Edward Livingston and finally received the following note in March 1834: “Mr. Livingston agreeably to his promise sends to M. de Tocqueville the volume containing the President’s message in relation to the bill for internal improvements and will add to it some other documents on the same subject.”29
Still pursuing his curiosity about corporations and canals, Tocqueville wrote again to James Gore King for one report on New York City corporations, another on state corporations, and a third by the commissioners of the canal fund. Reports, statistics, and other information about America’s technological revolution continued to accumulate among the Frenchman’s papers.30
Despite his documentary searches, the drafts of the 1835 Democracy broke little new ground. They merely restated earlier insights about possible future influences of the startling transformation taking place in the United States. Of greatest importance, perhaps, was Tocqueville’s refusal to collect, organize, and devote to his ideas on this subject a separate chapter in his advancing work. Here was a possible significant addition to the Democracy that never materialized.
One striking and related idea did, however, appear for the first time in the early drafts of Tocqueville’s initial volumes: his fears about the influence of manufacturing on democratic liberty. Among some fragments labeled “Various and important notes.... Two or three new chapters which I do not know where to place,” Tocqueville listed “... 31 on the influence of manufacturing on democratic liberty.”32 And after discussing various kinds of égalité in another draft, he concluded: “Thus greater equality not only among all the peoples of European races, but also among all peoples, in all times.” Just one more statement underlining the march of equality? It would seem so, until he added a cautionary note: “however manufacturing.”33 In other words, equality moves irresistibly forward; however, manufacturing may affect it.
The idea survived even into the working manuscript of the 1835 Democracy, where in the margin of one page of the chapter entitled “Social State of the Anglo-Americans” the author wrote: “Here, I believe, put the inequality born out of the accumulation of personal wealth from industry.”34 Then, for some unknown reason, Tocqueville decided against developing and including this concept in the first part of his work; and only these tantalizing hints of what-might-have-been can be found in his drafts and his working manuscript. Not until 1840 would he finally complete his phrase “however manufacturing ...” by theorizing that manufacturing would accumulate wealth in the hands of a few and might, therefore, result in a new inequality more terrible in some ways than the former one.35
Tocqueville’s travel diaries noted no comment or experience from his American journey which hinted at such a danger. The only recorded conversation in the United States concerning the perils of manufacturing occurred on 27 October 1831, when Tocqueville spoke with Roberts Vaux of Philadelphia. The American voiced the familiar fear that industrialization might undermine democratic institutions by debasing the populace and warned of the poverty and public disorder which might result from the rise of manufacturing. But he did not suggest that manufacturing would result in a new and dangerous aristocracy of wealth.36 Nor did any of Tocqueville’s major sources on American internal improvements warn of a new manufacturing elite.
Those who recognize the brilliance of Tocqueville’s insight on manufacturing usually assume that the young Frenchman’s voyages to England in 1833 and 1835 provided the germs of this thought. In 1833, however, he had stayed in England only a few weeks and had visited no industrial centers, and the 1835 visit occurred after his forebodings were written into the early drafts of the 1835 Democracy.
Perhaps the key source, for Tocqueville, was a three-volume work of political economy, published in Paris in 1834, written by Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont, and read by Tocqueville when, in 1834, he prepared a memoir on pauperism.37 In the first volume of the study, Villeneuve-Bargemont included a chapter entitled “Concerning a New Feudalism” and wrote “a new feudalism formed, a thousand times harder than the feudalism of the Middle Ages. This feudalism was the aristocracy of money and of industry.”38 The economist was not offering a new idea. The concept of a possible new industrial aristocracy was fairly common in works of political economy written during the late 1820s and early 1830s.39 But a reading of Villeneuve-Bargemont’s treatise may have first sparked Tocqueville’s thoughts and engendered his hints about a manufacturing aristocracy.
The drafts of the Democracy offer a second surprise of a somewhat different sort. The part played by private associations in the American effort to transform the continent had long intrigued Tocqueville, but he refrained from devoting much space in his first two volumes to either civil associations or corporations. Instead, he dealt with political associations and promised to treat civil ones in the second part of his work.40 The 1840 text would make good his pledge, but the complex relationship between private associations and government would still receive very little attention.
Tocqueville did explore this relationship, however, in the drafts of the 1840 Democracy where a small as yet unpublished chapter entitled “On the Manner in Which the American Governments Act toward Associations” is to be found.41 In this chapter he compared the ways in which the English and American governments reacted to private groups wanting to undertake public works, and he suggested what he considered to be the most effective way to encourage private activity within a nation.
Even while writing this brief section, Tocqueville debated whether or not to include it. The title page recorded his doubts: “This chapter contains some good ideas and some good sentences. All the same I believe that it is useful to delete it.” Several reasons were given for his decision to delete. He feared it would be repetitious, “because it gets back into the order of ideas of the large political chapters at the end”; he noted that “it is obvious in any case that this chapter is too thin to stand alone. It must be either deleted or joined to another”; and he reminded himself to consult “L. et B.” So perhaps his two friends vetoed the chapter.
But the most intriguing reason was the one listed first. He thought he should eliminate the short essay “because it very briefly and very incompletely treats a very interesting42 subject which has been treated at length by others, among them Chevalier.”43
Tocqueville valued—perhaps wrongly—his lack of exposure to other recent writings on the United States and insisted that this isolation enabled him to know his own mind and to maintain his intellectual integrity and originality. But if the author made it a rule to avoid the reports of other travelers, how did he know what the writings of Michel Chevalier, Guillaume-Tell Poussin, and others contained?
On 3 December 1836 he wrote to Beaumont. “Blosseville44 sent me word the other day that Chevalier’s book had appeared.... You know that I am always on the alert where America is concerned. However I do not want to read Chevalier’s work; you know that that is a principle with me. Have you cast your eyes over it, and, in that case, what is your opinion of it? What is the spirit of it; where does it go? Finally what impact does it make in the world and how could it be prejudicial to the ouvrage philosophico-politique that I am preparing? If, without sidetracking yourself, you can answer these questions, I will be pleased.”45
Unfortunately, Beaumont’s response is lost. Possibly he told his former traveling companion about the content and purpose of Chevalier’s Lettres d’Amérique.46 But, in any case, as evidenced by the manuscript comments, the works of Chevalier and others apparently at least helped to discourage Tocqueville from including, in the 1840 Democracy, this short chapter on the relationship of governments to private associations.
Tocqueville’s letters, notebooks, and drafts thus demonstrate a surprising awareness of most facets of America’s technological metamorphosis. He failed to foresee the industrial future of the United States and projected instead a commercial destiny for the young nation. Yet he did devote considerable time and thought to the changes in communication and transportation which were taking place in the United States. Why, then, his failure adequately to discuss these transformations in the Democracy?
One possibility is that the appearance of works by Chevalier, Poussin, and others dissuaded him from developing and publishing certain of his ideas: since the republic’s technological revolution had been examined so competently by others, perhaps he decided that he had better turn his mental energies toward other problems.
The more basic explanation, however, almost certainly concerns Tocqueville’s intention to write an “ouvrage philosophico-politique.” For him certain issues seemed more intriguing and more important than any technical or economic ones. But Tocqueville had searched out and digested much of the available information on the American effort to transform the continent. One can dispute his choices, but not his knowledge.
From these studies of Tocqueville’s thinking about physical causes and changes in America, we see that the majority of his ideas on these topics developed in uncomplicated ways from the accumulated lessons of his journey experiences or from his readings. Many of his most perceptive insights about the effects of the republic’s situation physique, for instance, even occurred during the very first weeks in the New World.
Some ideas, however, had more tangled histories. A few, the concept of géographie’s role in determining a nation’s destiny, for example, seemed at first destined to key places in Tocqueville’s thought, but ultimately filled more humble positions. The surprising revelation that the Americans themselves were the pioneers of civilization in the New World exemplified those ideas that were late but necessary corrections of erroneous European presuppositions. A few, like the de-emphasis of circonstances or the rejection of racial doctrines, arose in part out of Tocqueville’s own moral convictions. Some, the theory of a manufacturing aristocracy for instance, were at first buried in discarded early drafts, only to reappear mysteriously in 1840. Still others, because of the author’s personal preferences and his apparent concern to avoid twice-told tales, were cast permanently into oblivion. Tocqueville’s ideas on American technology, in particular, were more extensive and profound than has been recognized. But they, like the others, suffered strange fates.
[1. ]C. F. Volney, Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis, 2 vols.; hereafter cited as Volney, Tableau. Tocqueville read Volney’s volumes, but only after returning to France in 1832.
[2. ]North American Review 36 (January 1833): 273.
[3. ]Toc. to Chabrol, New York, 18 May 1831; Toc. letters, Yale BIa2.
[4. ]Toc. to Beaumont, Gray, 25 October 1829, O.C. (Mayer), Jardin, 8:1, pp. 93–94. This letter was written before the idea of going to the United States occurred to the two friends; thus no speculation about America and its position géographique was hidden behind Tocqueville’s words.
[5. ]Toc. to his mother, aboard the Havre, 26 April 1831, from the section dated “9 May”; Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[6. ]Ibid., from the section dated “14 May.”
[7. ]Toc. to E. Stoffels, New York, 28 June 1831; Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[8. ]“Physical Configuration of North America,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 25–26. Of course, Tocqueville’s readings also strongly reinforced this early impression. See his footnotes and appendices to the first chapter of the Democracy. Also consult his major printed sources on the situation physique (see chapter 6 below).
[9. ]Toc. to his mother, aboard the Havre, 26 April 1831, from the section dated “Sunday 15 [May]”; Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[10. ]Ibid., from the section dated “14 May.”
[11. ]For further information about the stay in New York, consult Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 67–92.
[12. ]Consult Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 76.
[13. ]“Public Education,” Sing Sing, 1 June 1831, Alphabetic Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, p. 196. Here Tocqueville implied that the republic’s situation physique actually stimulated mental efforts. But compare a somewhat contrary comment made to Mr. Livingston on 7 June 1831, ibid., p. 19: “It seems to me that American society suffers from taking too little account of intellectual questions.” Also note a related statement to Tocqueville’s father: “Nature here offers a sustenance so immense to human industry that the class of theoretical speculators is absolutely unknown”; from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 115–16. The latter idea would briefly appear in the 1835 work, Democracy (Mayer), pp. 301–5, especially p. 301, and would have a more important place in the first part of the 1840 text, ibid., pp. 437–41, 459–65. For elaboration, see chapter 16 below.
[14. ]Quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 115–16. A copy of the letter, from Toc. to M. le Comte de Tocqueville (father), Sing Sing, 3 June 1831, is included in Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1, Paquet 5, pp. 5–6.
[15. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 3, p. 96. Compare the following comment: “That governments have relative value. When Montesquieu [says that (?)] I admire him. But when he describes the English constitution as the model of perfection, it seems to me that for the first time I see the limits of his genius”; ibid., cahier 4, p. 91.
[16. ]Compare comments under the heading “General questions,” Sing Sing, 29 May 1831, Alphabetic Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, p. 211.
[17. ]Compare the 1835 Democracy: “The Americans have no neighbors and consequently no great wars, financial crises, invasions, or conquests to fear; they need neither heavy taxes nor a numerous army nor great generals; they have also hardly anything to fear from something else which is a greater scourge for democratic republics than all these others put together, namely, military glory”; Democracy (Mayer), p. 278.
[18. ]Emphasis added. The 1835 Democracy would remark: “The physical state of the country offers such an immense scope to industry that man has only to be left to himself to work marvels”; Democracy (Mayer), p. 177.
[19. ]The 1835 Democracy would note: “The present-day American republics are like companies of merchants formed to exploit the empty lands of the New World, and prosperous commerce is their occupation. The passions that stir the Americans most deeply are commercial”; Democracy (Mayer), p. 285. Also see p. 283.
[20. ]Emphasis added; quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 129–30. A copy of the letter from Toc. to Chabrol, New York, 9 June 1831, may be found in Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[21. ]As one example, see Tocqueville’s conversation with Mr. Latrobe, Baltimore, 3 November 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 85.
[22. ]One of the Frenchman’s most penetrating insights was his recognition that the weakness of the American presidency resulted more from circumstances than from law. From this awareness came a remarkable prophecy: “If executive power is weaker in America than in France, the reason for this lies perhaps more in circumstances than in the laws. It is generally in its relations with foreign powers that the executive power of a nation has the chance to display skill and strength. If the Union’s existence were constantly menaced, and if its great interests were continually interwoven with those of other powerful nations, one would see the prestige of the executive growing, because of what was expected from it and of what it did”; Democracy (Mayer), pp. 125–26.
[23. ]For Tocqueville’s own discussions of these matters, see the following pages from Democracy (Mayer): on decentralization and the federal principle, pp. 167–70; on the presidency, pp. 125–26, 131–32; on the armed forces, pp. 219, 278; on America’s unusual privilege to make mistakes, pp. 223–24, 224–25, 232–33. Note also the following striking passages from the 1835 work: pp. 169–70, 232.
[24. ]Quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 76. Compare Edward Livingston’s remarks of 7 June, Mayer, Journey, p. 20.
[25. ]Toc. to Madame la Comtesse de Grancey, New York, 10 October 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1, Paquet 15, p. 35.
[26. ]Compare these phrases from the letter of 9 June 1831 to Chabrol (quoted above) to the following sentence from the 1840 text: “[In the United States] Immutable Nature herself seems on the move, so greatly is she daily transformed by the works of man”; Democracy (Mayer), p. 614.
[27. ]Quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 119. For further commentary on this and the other long excerpts quoted above, consult Pierson’s book, pp. 120–31. Compare the above fragment to one from the chapter entitled “Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity” (1840 text), Democracy (Mayer), p. 536.
[28. ]Toc. to E. Stoffels, New York, 28 June [July] 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2. Tocqueville was more specific in a letter to his mother, written aboard the Havre, 26 April 1831, in the section dated “Sunday 15 [May],” Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2: “Each year brings nearly 15 to 20 thousand European Catholics who spread over the western wilderness.”
[29. ]Toc. to his mother, New York, 19 June 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[31. ]For the story of how Gustave and Alexis missed their chance to see West Point, consult Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 171–73.
[32. ]Toc. to his mother, Auburn, 17 July 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1, Paquet 15, pp. 14–15.
[34. ]Tocqueville’s own title for his narrative, written in August 1831, of the travelers’ frontier experiences. Two translations have been made, Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 229–89, and Mayer, Journey, pp. 328–76. I have followed Pierson’s version below.
[35. ]There is another striking description in Pocket Notebook Number 2, 21 July, Mayer, Journey, pp. 133–34.
[36. ]George W. Pierson has pointed out that these ideas about “stages of history” were drawn from an old European tradition, one which came into American historiography with the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, who was in turn influenced by Achille Loria. On the background for these ideas and the connection between Turner and Loria, see the first section of Lee Benson, Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered.
[37. ]Quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 235–37.
[38. ]Tocqueville’s own phrase. Quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 287. For further discussion of this idea, consult Pierson.
[39. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 55.
[40. ]Toc. to his mother, Louisville, 6 December 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1.
[41. ]Remarks about the Mississippi are quoted from Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 76; compare a letter from Toc. to Kergolay, 18 May 1831, O.C. (Mayer), Jardin and Lesourd, 13:1, p. 224. Remarks about Lake Huron are from Toc. to M. le Comte de Tocqueville, on Lake Huron, 14 August 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1, Paquet 15, p. 19.
[42. ]From a “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 232.
[43. ]Quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 239. This recognition of what inspired an American would disappear from Tocqueville’s writings until 1840; compare a passage from a chapter of the second part of the Democracy entitled “On Some Sources of Poetic Inspiration in Democracies,” Democracy (Mayer), p. 485. Also see Beaumont’s comments of 1835, Marie (Chapman), pp. 115–16.
[44. ]From a “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 278–79.
[45. ]From a “Fortnight in the Wilds,” Mayer, Journey, p. 345. See also pp. 343–45 and comments under “Virgin lands,” 22 and 25 July 1831, Alphabetic Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, pp. 209–10.
[46. ]Toc. to Chabrol, Buffalo, 17 August 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[47. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 281.
[48. ]Toc. to Chabrol, Buffalo, 17 August 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[1. ]For elaboration, consult Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 349–425, and Mayer, Journey, especially Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, pp. 49–66.
[2. ]Conversation with Mr. Clay, 18 September 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 49.
[3. ]Interview with Mr. Adams, 1 October 1831, ibid., p. 61. Tocqueville also knew of the southern Italian climate firsthand; he had visited Sicily in 1827.
[4. ]Ibid., p. 62.
[5. ]Several diary comments illustrated Tocqueville’s awareness of the American fear of metropolitan centers. See, for example, “Reasons for the social state and present government in America,” Alphabetic Notebook 1, and “Centralization,” 25 October 1831, Alph. Notebook 2, Mayer, Journey, p. 181, 216.
[6. ]Again, Tocqueville anticipated Frederick Jackson Turner.
[7. ]Visit with Charles Carroll, 5 November 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 86.
[8. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 284. Also related to this idea would be Tocqueville’s remarks concerning the lack of great issues in America and the resulting difficulties involved in the building of political parties; see ibid., p. 177.
[9. ]Conversations with Mr. Everett and Mr. Sparks, 29 September 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 57–59. The term point de départ assumed an important place in Tocqueville’s thinking.
[10. ]For further illustrations and commentary, see Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 120–25.
[11. ]Conversation with Mr. Quincy, 20 September 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 51.
[12. ]“Reasons for the social state and present government in America,” undated, Alph. Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, p. 181. Another somewhat different translation by Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 453, departs once or twice from the original as found in Voyages, O.C. (Mayer), 5:207. Pierson did, however, place the composition of this list in early October 1831. See Toc. and Bt., pp. 450–54.
[13. ]Conversation with Mr. Latrobe, Baltimore, 30 October 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 76–77. For a detailed discussion of the ideas of both Tocqueville and Beaumont on slavery, in general, and the connection between that institution and climate, in particular, consult the pertinent sections of Songy, “Toc. and Slavery.”
[14. ]For detailed accounts of their adventures, see Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 543–616.
[15. ]Undated conversation, Pocket Notebook Number 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 161.
[16. ]Tocqueville’s first two volumes would identify four separate migrations important to the United States: (1) Europeans, across the Atlantic Ocean; (2) White or Anglo-Americans, toward the interior; (3) Negroes, toward the South as the zone of slavery retreated—see Democracy (Mayer), pp. 350–51, 353, 354–55; and (4) Indians, westward always ahead of the American line of march.
[17. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 283.
[18. ]“Ohio,” 2 December 1831, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 263. Also consult “Second conversation with Mr. Walker,” 3 December 1831, and “Conversation with Mr. MacIlvaine,” 9 December 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 97–99.
[19. ]Ibid., p. 264. Note the contrast between this remark and Tocqueville’s position in May: “Up to now all I have seen doesn’t enchant me, because I attribute it more to accidental circumstance than to the will of man.” (See chapter 3 above.)
[20. ]“Second conversation with Mr. Walker,” 3 December 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 95–96.
[21. ]“Conversation with Mr. Guillemin,” 1 January 1832, ibid., p. 104.
[22. ]Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, one volume abridgment, pp. 474–75. For further discussion of Tocqueville’s use of this work, see chapter 7 below.
[23. ]William Darby, View of the United States, pp. 443–44. For additional information about Darby’s volume, see chapter 6 below.
[24. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 1, p. 63. Also see Democracy (Mayer), p. 380.
[25. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 25, 26. Other similar comments would be found on pp. 24–25, 30.
[26. ]Ibid., p. 380.
[27. ]Conversation with Mr. Mazureau, New Orleans, 1 January 1832, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 102.
[28. ]Conversations with Mr. Poinsett, 12–17 January 1832, ibid., p. 115.
[29. ]Toc. to Chabrol, From Chesapeake Bay, 16 January 1832, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2.
[30. ]Ibid., pp. 352–53. Compare Beaumont’s opinion with his friend’s treatment; see Bt. Marie (Chapman), pp. 204–6.
[31. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 352. Note Tocqueville’s qualifications of these statements; see his footnotes, ibid., p. 352.
[32. ](Note the resemblance between this passage and the North American Review article quoted in chapter 3 above.) Reflections dated “14 January 1832,” Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, pp. 234–35. Also see a somewhat different version, Pocket Notebooks Number 4 and 5, ibid., p. 179. These remarks would serve as the skeleton for a section of the 1835 Democracy; compare “The Laws Contribute More to the Maintenance of the Democratic Republic Than Do the Physical Circumstances of the Country, and Mores (moeurs) Do More Than the Laws,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 305–8. See especially page 306, where Tocqueville would declare: “Therefore physical causes do not influence the destiny of nations as much as is supposed.”
[33. ]The only possible general exception to this sanguine view involved the life of the mind, which benefited only insofar as activity encouraged by the continent’s gifts spilled over into intellectual and cultural efforts. Concerning this matter, see chapter 16 below.
[34. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, p. 48.
[35. ]“Sources manuscrites,” Yale, CIIc. Other relevant titles were “What permits the republic in the United States” and those referring to some of the specific possible causes: moeurs, point de départ, federal organization, etc.
[36. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, p. 46.
[37. ]Drafts, Yale, CVj, Paquet 2, cahier 2, pp. 20–21.
[38. ]“The origin of the Americans is the first [accidental] cause of their prosperity and their grandeur. The second is the place that they inhabit.” “Accidental or Providential Causes ...,” Original Working Manuscript, CVIa, tome 2.
[39. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 279.
[40. ]Ibid. See also pp. 279–80, 305–8, and especially 308.
[41. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, p. 18. Also see Drafts, Yale, CVj, Paquet 2, cahier 2, p. 19. Compare the fragment quoted above with the 1835 text, Democracy (Mayer), p. 277.
[42. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 286–87.
[43. ]Consult Tocqueville’s own definitions, Democracy (Mayer), p. 287 and p. 305 note. Also compare the following attempt found in a draft of the 1835 Democracy: “By moeurs I understand all of the dispositions which man brings to the government of society. Moeurs, strictly speaking, enlightenment, habits, sciences”; Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 3, p. 58.
[44. ]Compare Tocqueville’s remarks of January 1832 (quoted above). Also consult the following drafts of the 1835 Democracy: Drafts, Yale, CVe, Paquet 17, p. 52; CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, pp. 46–47; and CVj, Paquet 2, cahier 2, p. 19. See in addition the section from the 1835 work entitled “The Laws Contribute More to the Maintenance of the Democratic Republic in the United States Than Do the Physical Circumstances of the Country, and Mores (moeurs) Do More Than the Laws,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 305–8, especially page 308. Note that in his emphasis on moeurs, Tocqueville anticipated the interpretation of human societies later offered by William Graham Sumner, who stressed the role of mores. See particularly Sumner’s Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals.
[45. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 277–315.
[46. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, p. 19.
[47. ]Written above “permanent” is the word “durable.” Neither is crossed out.
[48. ]“So therefore” written above “Not only.” Neither crossed out.
[49. ]Originally written “exercise little,” but “little” is crossed out and “no” substituted.
[50. ]Originally written “possesses nearly none,” but “nearly” is deleted and “so to speak” substituted.
[51. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, pp. 19–20.
[52. ]Ibid., p. 19.
[53. ]Toc. to Beaumont, Baugy, “22 April 1838,” O.C. (Mayer), Jardin, 8:1, p. 292.
[54. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 4, p. 49.
[55. ]Ibid.; compare this assertion with the Democracy (Mayer), p. 308.
[1. ]This and passages below from a “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 270–75. Another translation may be found in Mayer, Journey, pp. 364–69.
[2. ]For a brief but suggestive discussion of the problems and possibilities surrounding the much-abused term national character, consult “The Study of National Character,” David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character, pp. 3–72.
[3. ]See Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 49.
[4. ]Ibid., p. 54. Also note Beaumont’s impressions of the town and its people, pp. 54–55.
[5. ]“General Questions,” Sing Sing, 29 May 1831, Alphabetic Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, p. 211. (Compare these comments with the letter of 9 June 1831 to Chabrol, quoted above, chapter 3.)
[6. ]From the passage on Saginaw, “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 270–75.
[7. ]21–25 November 1831, Pocket Notebook 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 161–62.
[8. ]Toc. to M. l’Abbé Lesueur, Albany, 7 September 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa1, Paquet 15, p. 28.
[9. ]“Morals,” undated, Alphabetic Notebook 2, Mayer, Journey, pp. 222–23. Pierson has dated this note 21 September 1831.
[10. ]“Reasons for the social state and present government in America,” Alphabetic Notebook 1, Mayer, Journey, p. 181.
[11. ]21–25 November 1831, Pocket Notebook 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 161–62.
[12. ]Conversation with Mr. Poinsett, Philadelphia, 20 November 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 89.
[13. ]See conversation with J. Q. Adams, Boston, 1 October 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 60–61; second conversation with Mr. Walker, Cincinnati, 3 December 1831, ibid., pp. 97–98; and comments about “Ohio,” 2 December 1831, Notebook E, ibid., p. 263.
[14. ]A general comparison of North and South also apparently helped to focus Tocqueville’s mind on moeurs: “Influence of moeurs proved by the very differences which exist between the North and the South of the Union.... It is not blood which makes the difference; it is not the laws, nor the social position”; Drafts, Yale, CVj, Paquet 2, cahier 2, p. 19.
[15. ]A final—but by now unnecessary—blow to any possible racial theory came on New Year’s Day 1832, when Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived in New Orleans and once again found large numbers of fellow Frenchmen. But how these citizens of Louisiana differed from the inhabitants of Montreal and Quebec! Biology obviously did not overcome the effects of dissimilar environmental and institutional settings. (See chapter 4 above.)
[16. ]26 December 1831, Pocket Notebook 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 163. Note the striking change since the Saginaw experience. No longer were the Americans simply transplanted Englishmen.
[17. ]Reflections of 14 January 1832, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, pp. 234–35. Also see Pocket Notebooks 4 and 5, ibid., p. 179.
[18. ]In a draft fragment dated January 1838, Tocqueville wrote: “Many particular causes like climate, race, religion influence the ideas and the feelings of men independently of the social state. The principal aim of this book is not to deny these influences, but to put in relief the particular cause of the social state (l’état social)”; Drafts, Yale, CVk, Paquet 7, cahier 1, pp. 47–48. But by 1840 his list would change, and origin would apparently subsume race; see Democracy (Mayer), p. 417.
[19. ]Vagueness about the relation between race and national character was typical of European thought in the early nineteenth century. As an illustration of Tocqueville’s overlapping definitions, compare the various meanings of moeurs (cited above, chapter 4) with the following explanation of national character: “The cast (tournure) of the ideas and the tastes of a people. A hidden force which struggles against time and revolutions. This intellectual physiognomy of nations that is called the character is apparent across the centuries of their history and in the midst of the innumerable changes which take place in the social state, the beliefs, and the laws”; Drafts, Yale, CVj, Paquet 2, cahier 2, p. 22.
[20. ]See the “Foreword,” Bt. Marie (Chapman), pp. 4–5. Also consult Tocqueville’s note, Democracy (Mayer), p. 340.
[21. ]See the long chapter entitled “Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races That Inhabit the Territory of the United States,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 316–407, especially pp. 316–63.
[22. ]Ibid., pp. 316–17.
[23. ]Consult the chapter from the 1835 Democracy cited above. Also see Songy, “Tocqueville and Slavery,” pp. 17–73, especially pp. 28, 88–110. For a contrary analysis in which Tocqueville’s views are labeled “neoracist,” see Richard W. Resh, “Alexis de Tocqueville and the Negro: Democracy in America Reconsidered.”
[24. ]See, for instance, the 1840 volumes of the Democracy (Mayer), pp. 417, 493–96, “Some Characteristics Peculiar to Historians in Democratic Centuries.”
[25. ]Tocqueville to Corcelle, Berne, 27 July 1836, O.C. (Bt.), 6:62–63.
[26. ]See Democracy (Mayer), pp. 565–67.
[27. ]“How Democracy Leads to Ease and Simplicity....,” Drafts, Yale, CVh, “Rubish,” tome 4. Also see Bonnel’s copy, CVg, Paquet 9, cahier 1, pp. 98–99. Cf. Tocqueville’s remarks about historians in democratic times, Democracy (Mayer), pp. 493–96.
[28. ]Cf. the 1840 text, Democracy (Mayer), pp. 566–67.
[29. ]Tocqueville’s “Report on Abolition” of July 1839 would read: “It has sometimes been assumed that Negro slavery had its foundation and justification in nature itself. It has been declared that the slave trade was beneficial to its unfortunate victims, and that the slave was happier in the tranquillity of bondage than in the agitation and the struggles that accompany independence. Thank God, the Commission has no such false and odious doctrines to refute. Europe has long since discarded them.” Quoted from Drescher, Social Reform, p. 99. Cf. Beaumont’s opinions as found in Bt. Marie (Chapman), pp. 202–4, 214–16.
[30. ]Undated, Drafts, Yale, CVk, Paquet 7, cahier 1, p. 37.
[31. ]“12 March 1838,” Drafts, Yale, CVg, “Rubish,” tome 3. Also see Bonnel’s copy, CVg, Paquet 9, cahier 1, pp. 143–44.
[32. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 705. For an interesting discussion of the complexities and paradoxes of Tocqueville’s thoughts on determinism, consult Richard Herr, Tocqueville and the Old Regime, pp. 91–95, especially p. 92.
[33. ]Arthur de Gobineau, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, 4 vols. (Paris 1853 and 1855). Tocqueville and Gobineau had been closely associated since at least 1843, when they first began to correspond with each other. For further discussion of their personal and official relationships, see Jean-Jacques Chevallier’s introduction to O.C. (Mayer), vol. 9, Correspondance d’Alexis de Tocqueville et d’Arthur de Gobineau, edited by Maurice Degros; hereafter cited as O.C. (Mayer), 9. Also consult John Lukacs, editor and translator, Alexis de Tocqueville: The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau; hereafter cited as Lukacs, Toc.: Gobineau.
[34. ]This and following excerpts from Toc. to Gobineau, Saint-Cyr, 11 October 1853, O.C. (Mayer), 9:199–201.
[35. ]Tocqueville was even more blunt in a letter written to Beaumont shortly after receiving Gobineau’s treatise: “He endeavors to prove that everything that takes place in the world may be explained by differences of race. I do not believe a word of it, and yet I think that there is in every nation, whether in consequence of race or of an education which has lasted for centuries, some peculiarity, tenacious if not permanent, which combines with all the events that befall it, and is seen both in good and in bad fortune, in every period of its history.” Quoted from Lukacs, Toc.: Gobineau, p. 16. For the original, consult Toc. to Beaumont, 3 November 1853, O.C. (Mayer), Jardin, 8:3, pp. 163–65.
[36. ]Cf. the following undated fragment: “Idea of necessity, of fatality. Explain how my system differs essentially from that of Mignet and company.... Explain how my system is perfectly compatible with human freedom. Apply these general ideas to Democracy. That is a very beautiful piece to put either at the head or the tail of the work.” Drafts, Yale, CVa, Paquet 8, cahier unique, pp. 58–59. François-Auguste Mignet (1796–1884), historian, close associate of Guizot and Thiers, perpetual secretary of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques after 1837, was not infrequently a valuable aid to Tocqueville’s career.
[37. ]This and following excerpts from Toc. to Gobineau, Saint-Cyr, 17 November 1853, O.C. (Mayer), 9:201–4.
[38. ]Toc. to Gobineau, Saint-Cyr, 20 December 1853, ibid., pp. 205–6.
[39. ]For a perceptive account of some of the contradictions in Tocqueville’s thinking on the matters of race and biological determinism, see Seymour Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization, pp. 274–76.
[40. ]Original Working Manuscript, Yale, CVIa, tome 1.
[41. ]Toc. to Reeve, Baugy, 21 November 1836, O.C. (Mayer), 6:1, pp. 35–36; quoted above in chapter 2.
[1. ]Chevalier and Guillaume-Tell Poussin, among others, are frequently mentioned as travelers who recognized the American technological revolution and understood its implications for the republic. Among those commentators who have chastised Tocqueville for his oversight are René Rémond, Etats-Unis, 1:384–85, and John William Ward, who edited Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, pp. viii–xi. Pierson also conceded, perhaps too easily, to the arguments of Tocqueville’s critics on this point; consult Toc. and Bt., pp. 762–63, 764–65. (But also see pp. 174–75.)
[2. ]Only Beaumont described the Albany-Schenectady Railroad; Tocqueville, who presumably inspected the railroad with his companion, failed even to mention it in his letters home. References to railroads in Tocqueville’s travel diaries, letters and drafts are relatively few. I have found only one in his letters home, Toc. to Le Peletier d’Aunay (?), Philadelphia, 8 November 1831, Toc. letters, Yale, BIa2. Concerning Lowell, see Pierson, Toc. and Bt., p. 393. Again it was Beaumont who referred in his letters to the manufacturing city.
[3. ]In 1831 the first true American railroad was scarcely a year old, and the second was still under construction. For a fuller discussion, see George R. Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860, pp. 77–78.
[4. ]For details of these accidents, consult Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 545–48, 574–77, 599–601, 619–20.
[5. ]In December 1831, as he headed down the Mississippi aboard the Louisville, Tocqueville questioned the captain about the expenses for building and maintaining such a steamboat; Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 257. This conversation also introduced him to an American concept that he would mention in his 1840 text: planned obsolescence; Democracy (Mayer), pp. 453–54. In 1840 Tocqueville would also note several other significant features of American industry, including mass production (pp. 465–68), division of labor (pp. 555–56), periodic business cycles (p. 554), and a possible industrial aristocracy (pp. 555–58).
[6. ]Conversation with Mr. Howard, Baltimore, 4 November 1831, Pocket Notebook Number 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 158–59. From Mr. Howard he learned about American efforts to join the Great Lakes to the Mississippi by canal.
[7. ]Conversation with Mr. Chase, Cincinnati, 2 December 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 92. See also “Ohio—canals,” 2 December 1831, Notebook E, ibid., p. 265; also Tocqueville’s comments about the projected canal linking Pittsburgh with Erie, Pennsylvania, 20 July 1831, Pocket Notebook 2, and “A Fortnight in the Wilds,” ibid., pp. 133, 334.
[8. ]“Questions left by MM. Beaumont and Tocqueville,” 1 October 1831, from Correspondence and Relations with Americans, 1831–32, Yale Toc. Mss., BIc; hereafter cited as Relations with Americans, 1831–32, Yale, BIc.
[9. ]Letter from B. W. Richards to Beaumont, Philadelphia, 2 February 1832, Relations with Americans, 1831–32, Yale, BIc.
[10. ]See Tocqueville’s treatment of this question in the 1835 Democracy (Mayer), p. 387.
[11. ]Conversation with Mr. Poinsett, 13–15 January 1832, Pocket Notebooks 4 and 5, Mayer, Journey, p. 178.
[12. ]“Associations,” Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 252.
[13. ]Notes on Kent and “Associations,” Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, pp. 232–33, 253. For further discussion of Kent, his work, and his influence on Tocqueville, see chapters 7 and 8 below.
[14. ]Kentucky-Tennessee, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 268.
[15. ]Means of Increasing Public Prosperity, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 270. Also consult Pierson’s discussion of Tocqueville, the post, and prosperity, Toc. and Bt., pp. 588–92.
[16. ]Means of Increasing Public Prosperity, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, pp. 270–73. This long passage is also quoted in Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 588–92.
[17. ]See several pages from the section entitled “What Are the Chances That the American Union Will Last? What Dangers Threaten It?” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 384–86.
[18. ]The 1816 edition of Pitkin contained no information on internal improvements and almost nothing on manufacturing. By the early 1830s, Pitkin realized the inadequacies of his work, and in 1835, when the first two volumes of the Democracy appeared, he published an enlarged and updated edition. This 1835 version, which was too late for Tocqueville to use, did include extensive information on internal improvements, manufacturing, and even the factories at Lowell.
[19. ]All of Tocqueville’s citations of Warden are from the first volume of Warden’s five.
[20. ]A partial list of Tocqueville’s sources on American transportation and communication, other than the volumes cited above, would include: various legislative and executive documents (see Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 1, pp. 6–13); the American Almanac, 1831, 1832, 1834; the National Calendar, 1833; and Niles Weekly Register. Also consult Pierson’s extensive list of sources, Toc. and Bt., pp. 727–30 note.
[21. ]In 1836 Poussin also wrote Chemins de fer américains....
[22. ]Mathew Carey (1760–1839), author, publisher, nationalist, economist, and champion of industry and internal improvements, produced many articles and essays. Perhaps The Crisis (Philadelphia 1823) and a Brief View of the System of Internal Improvements of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia 1831) would have been of special interest to Tocqueville. Note that he did know and would cite Carey’s Letters on the Colonization Society (Philadelphia 1832); see Democracy (Mayer), pp. 353–54 note, 359 note.
[23. ]“Statistiques et généralités,” Reading Lists, Yale, CIIa.
[24. ]“Livres à demander à M. King,” Reading Lists, Yale, CIIa. James Gore King, prominent New York financier, had entertained the companions several times while they were in America.
[25. ]Darby and Dwight, A New Gazetteer, p. 257. (A second edition of the volume appeared in 1835.)
[26. ]Consult the next-to-last section of the 1835 Democracy, entitled “Some Considerations Concerning the Causes of the Commercial Greatness of the United States,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 400–407.
[27. ]Le Peletier d’Aunay, a cousin to Tocqueville, was an influential political figure during the July Monarchy.
[28. ]M. le Comte [Edouard] Roger [du Nord] (1802–1881), political figure and close associate of Thiers, was a deputy (or representative) under the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, and even the Third Republic.
[29. ]Livingston to Toc., Paris, 24 March 1834, Relations with Americans, 1832–40, Yale, CId. (Edward Livingston, Senator, Jackson’s Secretary of State, and Minister to Paris, 1833–35, was of great aid to Tocqueville both in America and in France.) In the margin of the working manuscript, next to his discussion of the constitutional dispute over internal improvements (see Democracy [Mayer], p. 387), Tocqueville wrote: “Examine here the series of Messages of the various Presidents who have successively held office during the past forty years”; Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 2.
[30. ]“Livres à demander à M. King,” Reading Lists, Yale, CIIa. On the subject of corporations, Tocqueville also read various collections of state laws. He copied, in particular, from Revised Statutes of New York; see Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 1, p. 103. Even after the publication of the 1835 Democracy, Tocqueville watched for information about internal improvements in the New World. See, for example, Drafts, Yale, CVa, Paquet 8, pp. 15–22.
[31. ]One word is illegible; comment by the copyist, Bonnel.
[32. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 1, p. 1.
[33. ]Emphasis added. Ibid., pp. 7–8.
[34. ]In the manuscript, this sentence is crossed out. Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 1. “Here” refers to Democracy (Mayer), pp. 54–55.
[35. ]“How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 555–58. Beaumont advanced this thesis, in brief form, in his Marie (1835); see Marie (Chapman), p. 106.
[36. ]Consult the discussion with Vaux, 27 October 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 68–69.
[37. ]Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont, Economie politique chrétienne. Seymour Drescher first demonstrated Tocqueville’s use of this multivolume work, but apparently did not realize the full possible importance of Villeneuve-Bargemont’s influence. Drescher also did not know that Tocqueville’s ideas about a manufacturing aristocracy had originally appeared in pre-1835 drafts. Consequently he overemphasized the effect of the English voyages on this matter. Consult Drescher, Toc. and England, pp. 66 and 136; and Drescher, Social Reform, p. 3.
[38. ]Villeneuve-Bargemont, Economie politique chrétienne, 1:389.
[39. ]Consult Albert Schatz, L’Individualisme économique et social: ses origines—son évolution—ses formes contemporaines, pp. 304–5.
[40. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 189–90.
[41. ]Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 3. Another copy appears in the Drafts, Yale, CVg, “Rubish,” tome 4. It should be noted that this small chapter is not one of those concerning associations which do appear in the 1840 volumes; Democracy (Mayer), pp. 513–24.
[42. ]The reading of “interesting” is uncertain.
[43. ]Title page of the deleted chapter on civil associations; Drafts, Yale, CVg, “Rubish,” tome 4.
[44. ]Ernest de Blosseville, friend of both Tocqueville and Beaumont.
[45. ]Toc. to Bt., Baugy, 4 November [3 December] 1836, O.C. (Mayer), Jardin, 8:1, p. 176. Another letter also implied that Beaumont kept his friend informed about recent writings by travelers to America; see Bt. to Toc., Dublin, 2 July 1836, wherein he described Harriet Martineau’s book; ibid., pp. 202–3.
[46. ]In the summer of 1838, Beaumont even met Michel Chevalier. See Bt. to Toc., Paris, 10 June 1838, ibid., pp. 301–2.