"To the Heart of American Exceptionalism," Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2011.
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, these two volumes provide elegant decoration for Tocqueville’s masterpiece. Frederick Brown has edited and translated a handy collection of the letters Tocque ville 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 Mr. 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 even includes pictures of American birds that Tocqueville and Beaumont shot so that Beaumont could paint them—thus illustrating Tocqueville’s uncanny appeal both to 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.
Tocqueville thought America to be singular quite apart from the favorable circumstances permitting it to grow and flourish on its own without much interference from Europe. In the introduction to his book, he said he saw in America “more than America . . . an image of democracy itself.” Special to America was not only that it believed in democracy and practiced it as best it could, as if straining to fulfill the demands of a theory of democracy. Rather, the theory or the “image” was shown in the practice of democracy, because America was democracy complete and as a whole, the material and source of its image.