America Through the Eyes of the Past
My favorite time to go backpacking is in the middle of winter. The biting wind makes it impossible to get completely warm. I don’t do this to torture myself, but because I know that I’ll probably be the only one on the mountain. I can look around and imagine what everything must have looked like two hundred years ago, before it was touched by cigarette butts and old tires. I get this same feeling when I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s like traveling back in time to the beginning of our country.
I had recently heard Democracy in America mentioned in three different places, so I decided to look for it at the library. This is the heavy book I promised that could double as a doorstop.
According to the Editor’s Introduction, Tocqueville served as a magistrate in Versailles (he was like a judge). He lived shortly after the French Revolution. If you’re unfamiliar with the French Revolution, the French peasants were starving and fed up with the government. Anyone associated with the ruling monarchy was villainized and sent to the “national razor” (the guillotine). Many aristocratic families lost their lives. Tocqueville’s father was spared. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, Alexis de Tocqueville was a supporter of democracy, which helps explain his interest in America.
In 1831, he traveled to America with his friend. Their goal was to see “what a great republic is” (page xxxix), and he planned on writing a book about his trip from the outset. For a reference in time, George Washington died in December 1799.
Tocqueville begins Democracy in America with vivid descriptions of the pristine wilderness in North America. He writes, “a mix of the largest trees that grow in the two hemispheres [were] found… plantain, catalpa, sugar maple, and Virginia poplar interlace their branches with those of oak, beech, and linden… The fall of a tree overturned by age, the cataract of a river, the bellowing of buffalo, and the whistling of the winds alone troubled the silence of nature” (page 23). Tocqueville is describing a backpacker’s dream come true.
I have heard a lot about early America from my various school teachers and textbooks. What’s special about Tocqueville’s account, is that he was there. He toured from New England, to the Great Plains, then down to the South. He talked to prominent Americans on his trip, like John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson (the former and current president at that time). Modern scholars and teachers certainly have valuable insight about early America, but it’s not the same to me as reading Tocqueville’s clearly written first hand experiences.
I’m looking forward to digging deeper into this book. I want to hear what a newborn United States was like from someone who was there, and not just rely on the incomplete picture I have had in my head since childhood.
Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Translated, edited, and with introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.