IT WAS Richard Reeves, imaginative notion three springs ago to retrace the American journey made in 1831 by Alexis de Tocquiville, the French aristocrat whose Democracy in America is "probably the best book ever written about my country, my people." Reeves decided to "travel the same roads, see the same things or what had replaced them, talk to the modern counterparts of the men and women he questioned." This, as Reeves describes it is the America through which Tocqueville traveled:

"There were 24 state united then; there were 13 million Americans. They were moving in a new field of extraordinary energy, not all of it controlled. It was an exciting time, the time of a triple frontier--of geography, of industry, of democracy itself. Americans were settling and also moving on from new places, building homes, towns, roads, and canals west of the Appalachians, in the Great Lakes. A man who was not from the original 13 colonies, a werterner, Andrew Jackson, was President; mass democracy was beginning to triumph. And the talk was always of improvement and of reform -what to do about slavery, about the rich, about women, about alcohol, about prisons."

The America through which Richard Reeves traveled is at once markedly similar, as that passage implies, and markedly different. The aspects of national character that Tocqueville so perceptively identified--optimism, acquisitiveness, violence, stubbornness, pragmatism, ingenuity, tenacity, tolerance--were equally evident to Reeves; as a people, his observations suggest, we have not changed as much as we may think. A black man whom Reeves met in Philadelphia talked in terms that Tocqueville would readily have recognized: "George Childs, the cab driver who grew up in hard poverty but whose grandchildren were the children of a college professor and a lawyer . . . believed that America had kept its promise to him, that if he worked Puritan hard, he would be 'better off' than his parents, and his children coule be better offf than he was." But Reeves found that as a country and a government, America has changed profoundly in two broad respects: the ever-growing federal presence in American life, annd the intensifying pressures toward a genuinely egalitarian, democratic social structure.

Reeves' analyses of both of these phenomena are acute; though he cannot hope to match Tocqueville as an interpreter of the American psyche--but then, who can?--he is a skillful reporter and a sophisticated sstudent of political and social processes. He understands, therefore, that growth in the reach of the federal government is a vastly more complex phenomenon than a malign grab for power by "big government." Government is big and intrusive, he finds, because we have come to expect so much of it. With states and localities competing against each other for commerce and industry, and therefore undertaxing their residents, the demand for services has shifted to Washington. We have dug ourselves into a hopeless contradiction: we dislike and even fear governmental regulation of our lives, and with near unanimity we regard the bureaucracy as a whipping boy, yet we invariably turn to Washington to solve our problems--to provide funds for schools and roads annd pensions, to define and protect our rights as free, equal citizens.

In particular, Reeves found, we look to the courts, as part of "an irresistable American movement: individual citizens or groups of citizens had turned to the courts to demand that their own concept of fairness be enforced." We moan and groan about "judicial activism" and "judicial legislation," yet we expect the judges to do things for us that legislatures and executives cannot or will not do: " 'Democracy defined as political equality was not enough for many Americans. They inevitably moved on to grander frontiers--toward social equality was not enough for many Americans. They went to court! We expect the courts to fill the vacuum created by "the failure of elected public officals to equally distribute the benefits, real or desired, of democracy to all the citizens of the democracy." Reeves quotes from a speech by a vice chancellor of the University of Alabama:

". . . It is not so much that Americans have made extreme demands of the legal system, as it is that they have raised their expectations of society in general, and government in particular. As a result, governmental and legal remedies are now deemed appropriate for all varieties of social problems which were formerly dealt with privately, within the context of families, schools and churches. And policymakers, both in and out of government, have added new rights and expanded the range of available remedies fater than they have been able to develop the capacity to enforce or protect them."

This, though it takes many and varied forms, is the central theme of American Journey : the democratization of America. As a judge remarked to Reeves: "Americans are exercising rights they never had before. Americans are freer. America is more democratic." Though Reeves is no Pollyanna, he came to the end of his journey with a fundamentally optimistic view of the country. Not merely for most Americans, but for a steadily increasing number of Americans, life really has gotten better. We really do believe in "the ideas and words of American democracy" and we really do want to make them a reality, even if our progress in that direction is halting and at times reluctant. The contrast between the 1830s and the 1980s is stark:

"The Republic and federalism--the deliberate, 'orderly' compact of sovereign states--that Tocqueville saw and wrote about no longer existed when I traveled along the same American roads. The structures were there, and so were multitudes of attitudes, misunderstandings, laws, departments, officials, lists an forms in the style of the Republic. But much of what had been reality in 1831 was only living legend in 1981. Democratic governing and American rhetoric had created more durable myths than 'The Republic' and 'The Union'--Americans responded to 'Democracy' and 'Equality.' "

Along the way to this conclusion, Reeves touches on a striking variety of related but secondary themes: the increasing emphasis on "self" and its far-reaching effects on government and society; the suspicion with which many successful blacks view white America, the sense they have that the "most talented, and most dangerous, blacks" have been accepted and therefore co-opted; the development, hastened by television, of a national culture and the attendant decline of local and regional identities; the conflict between our desire for "fairness" and our belief that excellance should be rewarded; the persistene of the American creed, "a set of beliefs shared by almost all of thee people almost all of the time."

One subject gets less attention from Reeves than it should: the conflict between our desire to reduce or escape taxes and our desire for vast, expensive services from government. As much as anything else, perhaps, the election of 1980 was a tax revolt; now, with governmental services declinig sharply in order to accomodate the reduced taxes we asked for, we are being directly and painfully confronted with the consequences of our contradictory urges. In the elections of 1982 and 1984 we almost certainly will be asked, even if indirectly, to make a choice; it's a pity that Reeves, who in most other respects is so comprehensive, offers only casual comments--asides, really--on this crucial question.

But Reeves has taken on a very large subject; it is too much to expect that every aspect of it will be covered with absolute authority. I readAmerican Journey with steadily increasing admiration for the care with which Reeves has brought together an enormous amount of seemingly discrete information, and for the intelligence with which he analyzes it. American Journey is not Democracy in America, but that is not the point; it is an exceptional book in its own right.