In writing and thinking about populism in American politics, Wheaton historian Robert Tracy McKenzie got to thinking about America in the age of Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828 and served until 1837. And in considering the ramifications of the state of American politics in the age of Jackson, McKenzie directs us to one of the most important books on America ever written–Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.
It’s one of the most intriguing studies, not only of American politics in the 1830s, but of American values, habits, assumptions, and beliefs during that time. As a historical work, it is a fascinating window looking into America’s past. Much of what Tocqueville saw in Americans remains today. And much of what he saw is gone forever–good things and bad things.
McKenzie urges us to take up and read Tocqueville, because Tocqueville made a contribution to an ongoing conversation of which we can and should be a part. He cites C. S. Lewis on the value of reading old books–old books reveal our blind spots in a way that contemporary books do not, indeed cannot.
So here is a bit of McKenzie’s introduction to Tocqueville. Consider McKenzie to be a mutual friend of yours and Tocqueville’s. McKenzie knows Tocqueville very well, and wants to introduce him to you because he wants you to benefit from his wisdom as much as he has. Take up and read his book, and in doing so, be a part of an ongoing conversation that will help mold and change you as an American, but also as an individual, in beneficial ways–
As the French Revolution of 1789 gave way to the Great Terror of 1793, Tocqueville’s grandfather went to the guillotine and his parents, then young adults, went to the dungeon and barely escaped with their lives. By the time that Tocqueville was born a dozen years later, Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France. The implications of these events were clear: proclaiming liberty was not the same thing as preserving it, and the establishment of political equality guaranteed neither liberty nor justice. These lessons haunted Tocqueville his whole life long, and Democracy in America cannot be understood apart from them.
You should know that though Tocqueville was an aristocrat in temperament and lineage, he both foresaw and accepted that democracy represented the wave of the future. He hoped to refine the trend, not resist it. If he was critical of what he saw in America–and he often was–he was on the whole a sympathetic critic. He was fascinated with the United States because he believed it to be the freest nation in the world, and he always hoped that his native France could learn from the American example.
Finally, we should respect just how seriously Tocqueville approached his subject. The stakes were almost incalculably high, he believed. “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” Tocqueville wrote in the very last paragraph of volume II. “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”