May 9, 1831: A Frenchman Named de Tocquiville Arrives In America And Records His Insights On The Strengths And Challenges Of The New Nation.

You are there: On May 9, 1831, two young men involved with the French judicial system arrive in Newport, Rhode Island, after a 37 day long Atlantic crossing. One is Gustave de Beaumont, a 29 year old “King’s Prosecutor” in Paris. The other is his 25 year old friend, Alexis de Tocqueville, currently serving as a court appointed judge. Their intent is to study North America’s prison system in hopes of finding reform ideas they can apply in France.

To do so, they set off on a nine month journey, utilizing ships and steamboats, stagecoaches and footpaths, to cut a wide swath across the eastern half of the continent.  Along the way, de Tocqueville records his detailed observations about America in a diary, which he analyzes upon his return home.

This results in a book titled Democracy In America, with the first volume published in August 1834, and the second in 1840.  It captures de Tocqueville’s conclusions about a broad range of topics.

Table of Contents: Democracy in America- Part 1

The Author’s Preface
The Exterior Form of North America
Origins of the Anglo-Americans
Social Conditions of the Anglo-Americans
The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People
The Necessity of Examining the States Before The Union At Large
Judicial Power In the U.S. and its Influence on Political Society
The Federal Constitution
How it can be Strictly Said That the People Govern in the US
Liberty of the Press in the US
Political Associations in the US
Government of the Democracy in the US
What Advantages American Society Derives from Democracy
Unlimited Power of the Majority and Its Consequences
Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority
Principle Causes Which Serve To Maintain a Democratic Republic
The Present and Probably Future Condition of the Three Races                   That Inhabit the Territory of the United States

His comments are consistently profound and prescient. Coming from the old world he is struck by the

“philosophical approach” adopted by America’s citizens to whatever topics or issues they encounter. Gone are answers to all things imposed from above by kings or clergymen – replaced by every man using his own common sense and experience to arrive at his own beliefs. 

To evade the bondage of system and habit…class opinions…of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance–such are the principal characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans

Tocqueville sums this up in capital letters as the essence of what he sees in the new nation:


At the same time, he envisions challenges ahead to its sustainability – the most obvious being the regional tensions between the North and South related to slavery.  

In his view slavery has “benumbed” the South and left it diminished by “ignorance and pride.”

Slavery, as I shall afterwards show, dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery…explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern states.

By contrast, de Tocqueville praises the North for its roots in the Puritanism of the New England states and its values shining “like a beacon lit upon a hill.” The future of the experiment in democracy will rest on the triumph of these Northern virtues.

The Frenchman also notes the complexities associated with three distinct races attempting to live in proximity to each other on the continent.

Three races are discoverable among them at the first glance although they are mixed, they do not amalgamate, and each race fulfills its destiny apart.

Among these widely differing families of men, the first that attracts attention, the superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment, is the white …below him appear the Negro and the Indian…Both of them occupy an equally inferior position in the country they inhabit; both suffer from tyranny; and if their wrongs are not the same, they originate from the same authors.

De Tocqueville is more sanguine about the treatment and possible future of the Indians than he is about the Africans. While he regards the Natives as intellectually inferior, and even “savage” in their natural inclinations, he clearly senses something noble in their presence and concludes that they “are capable of civilization.” 

Nevertheless, the Europeans have not been able to change the character of the Indians; and though they have had power to destroy, they have never been able to subdue and civilize them.

The success of the Cherokees proves that the Indians are capable of civilization, but it does not prove that they will succeed in it.

Meanwhile the African suffer most in the racial hierarchy:

Oppression has, at one stroke, deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. (He) has lost even the remembrance of his country; the language which his forefathers spoke is never heard around him; he abjured their religion and forgot their customs when he ceased to belong to Africa, without acquiring any claim to European privileges.

He has no family…enters upon slavery as soon as he is born…Equally devoid of wants and of enjoyment…he learns, with his first notions of existence, that he is the property of another..

Tocqueville predicts that the destiny of America will be determined in large part by how it deals with slavery. He casts this in moral terms in a phrase that jumps from the pages of his book:

 America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good,

 she will cease to be great.

If the slavery question cannot be resolved he presciently predicts a moment where…

The inhabitants of the Southern states… break the tie of confederation.