Considering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Historical Context

Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_The_Arcadian_or_Pastoral_State_1836.jpg

Thomas Cole [Public domain], “The Arcadian, or Pastoral State,” via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for a new abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? Then look no further. You will have to wait until early November for the release from Lexham Press, but my Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students will (hopefully) fill a need. Tocqueville’s Democracy is two volumes–the first volume was published in 1835 and the second followed in 1840. The entire work is about 305,000 words–my abridgment consists of 150,000 words. Many abridgments of Democracy are far too short, so my contribution is designed to offer an accessible abridgment that isn’t cut to the quick.

This September, I will be giving a lecture at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan entitled “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.” Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is one of the most recognized names among readers of American political science, philosophy, and history. Most people who are familiar with his name also know that he wrote one of the most important books of modern times dealing with American social ideas and institutions—Democracy in America (1835/1840). While Tocqueville’s name is well known, and his book is frequently referenced and quoted, many who attempt to read the two-volume work find themselves disoriented in what seems to them a howling wilderness of minutiae and esotericism. Still others labor within the work as though it were a diamond mine, hacking away at it in search of usable quotes to deploy for narrow ideological purposes, or to cast Tocqueville as a prophet with warnings for present-day Americans to heed his clairvoyant wisdom. Finally, there are others who simply rely on experts to break it down into bite-sized pieces, in order that they may understand the gist of Tocqueville’s classic before moving on to more recent (and comprehensible) books.

Like any book, we should read Tocqueville’s Democracy with its historical context in mind. Tocqueville wrote his work as an outside observer, not as an American. He wrote as a critical bystander, not as an admirer. And he wrote as one who saw first hand the effects of revolution on his family and his country. Furthermore, he was describing a snapshot of an America that is long gone—Jacksonian America, to be precise. And also, Tocqueville thought of New England as the frame of reference for America. New England left a deep impression on Tocqueville, and so he saw most things outside of New England in relative terms.

Tocqueville’s Democracy is a classic for good reasons. It is an historical artifact, but it is not valuable only as such. But to fully appreciate, grasp, and utilize the work, we must understand how to receive it in our own times. When we join historical with philosophical thinking in our chewing of Democracy, then we may find ourselves most ready to digest and absorb it.

If you’re in Grand Rapids on September 29, drop by the Acton Institute for a noon lecture and Q&A. Would love to see you!

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