Democracy in America
University of Virginia
Mary H. Halavais
Sonoma State University
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a classic work, one of the first in which an “Old World” author wrote seriously and at length about the American experiment in popular government. This site wisely recommends that users not venerate Tocqueville as a timeless classic. Instead, the site suggests, his work is a product of its time, and so, in addition to delivering the full text of Democracy in America—with 28 appendices—the site also provides a series of views of America at the time Tocqueville visited. This approach is a model for reading a primary document; the student will generally be lost unless we provide some context. In this case, topics both integral and tangential to an understanding of Tocqueville are available. The argument of the site, a solid one, is that the more we know of the America Tocqueville visited and wrote about, the better we will understand his writing.
There are 13 supplementary topics at the moment, including units on religion, women, race, and even one on the Hudson River School of painting. Each unit is designed and edited by a different scholar, so the site itself has the feeling of an online seminar. These topic units are worth exploring in their own right. Each offers a bibliography or list of recommended works; some offer other primary documents. In “American Women,” for example, we’re able to read the words of the men (and a few women) of the time. So we have Frances Trollope commenting on New Orleans society and Margaret Hall describing a formal event in New York City.
The site offers brief biographies of each author and a good introduction to the topic. “Religion in America“ looks at two key individuals, Charles Grandison Finney and William Ellery Channing. Finney, a revivalist, is represented here by a firsthand account of his conversion and by the text of one of his sermons; Channing, by an oration he delivered and by Tocqueville’s account of their meeting. This unit includes Tocqueville’s essay on religion and his memories of other religious leaders in America, as well as citations on religion from Democracy in America.
Some of the units offer links to other sites. “European Perspectives on American Democracy,” compares Tocqueville’s work to that of a German traveler, Francis Lieber, and links to a series of teaching modules with detailed lesson plans and assignments provided by C-SPAN as part of their Tocqueville education project. Other units, while intriguing, relate only tangentially to the work under consideration. It is true that the idea of nature we see in the work of the Hudson River School relates to Tocqueville’s image of America, but we may not need to understand the European antecedents of this school to appreciate this. (I suspect that this topic unit is still under construction, since the paintings included in the gallery do not yet have titles.)
Apart from these segments, the site includes an introduction, and a series of 11 maps incorporating information from the 1840 census. The maps showing the distribution of slaves and of free persons of color are particularly interesting as a pair. For a younger class, it might be good to ask what inferences can be drawn from material presented in this format.
The entire site is visually appealing and very easy to navigate, although, depending upon the browser you are using, some text may be muddled by ornamental borders. The search function offered on the main page is not limited to the site, unfortunately, but links directly to Google. But students, always more comfortable with technology than those older and presumably wiser, should have no difficulties at all.
Recreating America in the early 19th century for Democracy readers is an excellent idea, but, as a European historian, I can’t help thinking that, to understand Tocqueville, one must also understand France at this time, with its own turbulent history. In fact, for more advanced students, reading Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution1 will provide a clearer understanding of what Tocqueville was doing in Democracy in America. For an introduction to Old Europe’s view of the American experiment, though, this site is a very good place to begin.
1 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955).