Thursday, April 16, 2009

Perfect order that prevails

Alexis de Tocqueville died 150 years ago today. Alexis de who? A Frenchman of noble birth, he travelled to the United States while still a young man to investigate the penal system there, and on his return to France wrote a seminal two volume text on democracy in America. While on his travels, though, he also kept a diary which was published in English 50 years ago.

The internet has plenty of biographical information about Tocqueville. Wikipedia’s article is detailed and well referenced but awkwardly written; the entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia is shorter, but notes a reference to him as ‘only half Catholic’; and a French culture department website, fully accessible in English, dedicated to the man with articles and photographs is very informative. But simplest to read is the Gradesaver website (though I’m not sure if the text originates on that site or elsewhere).

Tocqueville was born in 1805 in Paris to descendants of a noble Norman family, and was tutored privately before attending college in Metz, and studying law in Paris. His family secured him a position as an apprentice judge in Versailles, where he stayed for several years learning about the law, but also becoming increasing liberal and developing a belief in the inevitable decline of the aristocracy. Then came the July Revolution of 1830 in which Charles X abdicated and Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne, which resulted in Tocqueville’s family losing position and influence. Tocqueville himself, though, saw France moving towards more democracy, and was keen to learn how such a system was working in the United States.

In 1831, have secured an official commission from the French government to investigate the American penal system, Tocqueville (then aged only 25) and his friend Gustave de Beaumont (28) sailed for the New World. They travelled for nine months touring, going west to Michigan and south to New Orleans, but spending most of their time in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. As they travelled, they interviewed influential and prominent people, and recorded their thoughts and observations on the social and political institutions they found, not only the prisons. On returning to France, they wrote their report on the US penitentiary system which received wide acclaim.

More importantly, Tocqueville also wrote De la démocratie en Amérique which was published in two volumes (1835 and 1840). This was translated into English, with the title Democracy in America, and soon became very popular in Europe and America. It is still studied and referred to today - see Wikipedia - as ‘a classic work of political science, social science, and history’. (The full text is widely available on the internet, see Googlebooks for example.) The book helped establish Tocqueville’s reputation as a political thinker, and earned him admission to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and the French Academy. Until his death, 150 years ago today on 16 April 1859, he played a significant part in French politics, and travelled to collect more information for his ideas and books.

During their fact-finding journey to the United States, both Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote many letters and kept diaries, but only Tocqueville’s diary survives. This was printed as part of his Œuvres Complètes, by Gallimard in Paris, and then translated into English in 1959 (perhaps to mark the 100th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death) and published as Journey to America by Faber and Faber and Yale University Press. Second hand copies are available through Abebooks. However, much of the text is also available online thanks to a website hosted by C-SPAN (a non-profit company created by the US cable television industry as a public service).

Here is one entry from Tocqueville’s diary about Independence Day in 1831.

4 July 1831
Ceremony of 4th July. Mixture of impressions, some funny, some very serious. Militia on foot and on horse, speeches swollen with rhetoric, jug of water on platform, hymn to liberty in church. Something of the French spirit.

Perfect order that prevails. Silence. No police. Authority nowhere. Festival of the people. Marshal of the day without restrictive power, and obeyed, free classification of industries, public prayer, presence of the flag and of old soldiers. Real emotion.

Departure from Albany in the night of 4th July. Valley of the Mohawk. Hills not high. Wooded the whole way up. A part of the valley wooded too. In general the whole country has the look of a wood in which clearings have been made. Much resemblance to Lower Normandy. Every sign of a new country. Man still making clearly ineffective efforts to master the forest. Tilled fields covered with shoots of trees; trunks in the middle of the corn.

Nature vigorous and savage. Mixture in the same field of bushes and trees of a thousand different species, plants sown by man and various self-sown weeds. Brooks on all sides. New country peopled by an old people. Nothing untamed but the ground; dwellings clean and well cared for; shops in the middle of the forest; newspapers in isolated cabins. The women well turned out.

Not a trace of the Indians, the Mohawks, the most admired and the bravest of the confederate tribes of the Iroquois.

Road infernal. Carriage without springs and with curtains.

Calmness of the Americans about all these annoyances; they seem to put up with them as necessary and passing ills.

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