By H.W. Brands
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B07
By Leo Damrosch
Farrar Straus Giroux. 277 pp. $27
The enduring appeal of Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" lies not in its insights into the working of American politics (James Bryce's "American Commonwealth" from 1888 is better on this subject), not in the comprehensiveness of its account of 1830s American life (Tocqueville acknowledged that he barely sampled the varieties of contemporary experience), not in the clarity of its organization (anyone who tries to use it experiences frustration with the author's rambles, discursions and backtracks) and not in the brilliance of its prose (which depends, for American readers, very much on the skills of the translator). Rather, the appeal of "Democracy in America" is that of any good coming-of-age story: We see the possibilities of youth struggling against the realities of adulthood, and even as we slide toward old age, we reimagine all that we might have been.
Leo Damrosch, in the best book on this subject in 70 years, deftly depicts the fateful encounter between the young Tocqueville and adolescent America. The former displayed much of the turbulence of a teenager. "I must have either moral or physical agitation, even at the risk of my life," he told a friend. In the rugged new country, things almost came to that. Tocqueville's traveling companion and collaborator, Gustave de Beaumont, gave the two of them up for dead when their Ohio steamboat struck a submerged rock in the ice-laden stream. "Our boat is shattered; it's sinking before our eyes," Beaumont desperately scribbled in his journal. "Two hundred passengers on board, and only two lifeboats that might hold ten or twelve people apiece. The water rises, rises; already it's filling the cabins. . . . Tocqueville and I look out at the Ohio, which in that place is more than a mile wide and filled with huge blocks of ice; we shake hands as a gesture of farewell." But the boat hit bottom with its upper deck still dry, and the travelers were spared.
Tocqueville couldn't decide what to make of his hosts. "The people here seem to be stinking with national conceit," he wrote his mother. "They harass you continually to force you to praise them, and if you resist all their attempts, they praise themselves." Americans rejected the idea that wealth, education or attainment might lift certain groups above others. "The entire society seems to have merged into the middle class." In contrast to the French legal system, which was based on a carefully crafted code, the American system was a hodgepodge of English precedent and local prejudice. This benefited only the lawyers, who resisted attempts at rationalization. "Since the law would become accessible to ordinary people, they would lose some of their importance," Tocqueville said. "They would no longer be like Egyptian priests, sole interpreters of occult knowledge."
Tocqueville deemed democracy a mixed blessing. "Democracy doesn't give people the most competent government, but it does what the most competent government is often powerless to do. It spreads through the entire social body a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it." On this point, his friend Beaumont -- of whom Damrosch makes effective use throughout the book -- was characteristically harsher: "To win an election, candidates have to enter into very intimate relations with the citizens (and that's everyone)," Beaumont explained. "They must drink with them in taverns and beg for their votes. These are things that a man who is at all distinguished by education and social position will never do."
Beaumont underestimated American politicians in this regard; soon the bluest bloods learned to press the flesh. Yet, like Tocqueville, he didn't consider mediocrity in governance an insuperable problem for Americans. "This society is full of life and prosperity, but the source of its strength is not its extreme democracy, as our demagogues in Europe claim," he said. "To anyone who is willing to see things as they are, it is obvious that their prosperity has material causes completely independent of this extreme democracy, in spite of which it prospers."
Tocqueville observed the ugliest aspects of American life. He and Beaumont traveled briefly with a group of Choctaw Indians forced by federal law to relocate west. "In the whole of this spectacle there was an air of ruin and destruction, something that felt like a final farewell with no returning," Tocqueville wrote of the removal. "One couldn't look on without a pang at the heart." In a mental asylum, he met a black slave driven insane by the cruelties inflicted by an especially vicious trader. "Day and night the Negro I'm speaking of sees this man dogging his steps and tearing off bits of his flesh," Tocqueville wrote. The slave shuddered at the approach of any white man. "His face expressed both terror and fury. . . . He threw off his covering, raised himself up on his hands, and cried, 'Get out! Get out!' "
Damrosch, who has written on Rousseau, Pope and other literary figures of the early modern period, follows Tocqueville back to France and traces the evolution of his masterwork. He polished his notes and letters, and in the process polished his portrait of America. The result made his reputation, selling swiftly and inspiring broad admiration for the author's analytical powers. But Tocqueville met a series of personal reverses, losing his place in the French government and dying relatively young -- in 1859, just before the contradictions of American democracy produced the cataclysm that tore the veil of innocence to tatters.
Afterward, Tocqueville appeared more important to Americans than ever: his complaints a portent of the tribulations that had in fact come, his praise a reminder of what we might have been.
H. W. Brands is the author of "Andrew Jackson" and the forthcoming "American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900."