"On the Road with Alexis," Hoover Digest, 13 July 2011.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a book that every American who reads should read. There’s no better book on democracy and none better on America, first home of modern democracy.
Among a wave of new translations and analyses in recent years, two books provide elegant decoration for Tocqueville’s masterpiece.
In Letters from America (Yale University Press, 2010), Frederick Brown has edited and translated a handy collection of the letters Tocqueville wrote while traveling through America in 1831–32, speaking with Americans and gathering documents in preparation for his book. Olivier Zunz and Arthur Goldhammer have produced a tome fit for a generous gift, containing the same letters as in Brown’s collection plus Tocqueville’s travel notebooks, narrations of his side trip to the frontier, later letters, other writings on America, and ample selections of writings from Tocqueville’s friend and companion on the trip, Gustave de Beaumont. This book, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and Their Travels (University of Virginia Press, 2010), even includes pictures of American birds that Tocqueville and Beaumont shot so that Beaumont could paint them—thus illustrating Tocqueville’s uncanny appeal to both the left (lovers of nature) and the right (lovers of hunting).
Two questions arise from the materials of Tocqueville’s trip and his preparations for his book, whose first volume appeared in 1835. First, what did he learn by coming to America instead of examining it from afar? Second, how—by what method—did he learn what he wrote so convincingly and profoundly? These questions engage the assertion known today as American exceptionalism, a recent issue between Republicans, who trumpet it as the justification for American patriotism, and Democrats, who deprecate it and imply that America is nothing special, unless it is special to be the leader of all other unexceptional countries.