by Jack Larkin, Chief Historian and Museum Scholar, Old Sturbridge Village

De Tocqueville’s America

Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 to understand a country whose politics and society were radically different from those of his native France, of Great Britain, or any of the nations of Europe. He saw the new nation as an experiment in equality – an experiment whose results would have major consequences for human progress.

De Tocqueville collected a great deal of information – he and his partner Gustave de Beaumont originally intended to study the American prison system – about American politics and institutions. In many respects he was a keen observer, but he was not interested, as most travelers were, in details, anecdotes and impressions. He wished to understand the structure and institutions of the United States, and to contrast them tellingly with those of Europe. He did this in a manner which American historians find both somewhat abstract and typically French – he generalized boldly from his observations, and looked for a few fundamental features of the social order that would explain American political and social life. Equality of opportunity, equality of economic condition, and equality of political participation were the principles he hit on – all of course, in stark contrast to the rigid class boundaries, enormous economic inequalities, and limited access to political power that he found in Europe. De Tocqueville tended to write as if America was “born free” and was exempt from the complex and painful processes of historical change (which he reserved for Europe) but in reality he came to a nation in the midst of transformation.

Town meetings and participatory government. No American institution impressed De Tocqueville more than the New England town meeting. By 1831, over 1000 local communities in the region governed themselves through the direct participation of all men entitled to vote – in most cases, the great majority of adult males. The contrast with local government in most of Europe was enormous and very real. The concept that so large a fraction of the community could share in political decision-making was so radical, he thought, that he wondered whether his European readers would believe him.

However, the town meeting had its own complicated history. It had emerged in the 17th century out of forms of village government in England, the congregational practice of the Puritan churches, and the relative equality of property holding in rural New England, and the right to vote had changed and broadened significantly over the years. The town meeting did not mean that communities were governed on a basis of complete equality, of course; there were still rich and poor, leaders and followers, powerful and powerless by New England standards. For generations, patterns of social and political deference led the town meeting to follow, in most cases to local leaders of higher status and greater wealth. But such deference was very clearly in decline in the years after 1770. Arriving in 1831, DeTocqueville would have seen the town meeting at its most “democratic.”

The New England town meeting made De Tocqueville’s strongest case for a distinctive, radical American democracy. Elsewhere, the forms of American local government were representative than directly participatory, although certainly democratic compared to European ones.

Voluntary Associations

One of DeT most important insights was the observation that voluntary associations, from political parties to musical societies - were the characteristic institutions of American life. There was little in Europe. he thought, to compare them with.

In the United States, they occupied the social space between family and community on the small scale, and the institutions of state and national government on the large. He saw that, coming together without coercion, Americans were creating institutions to accomplish a vast variety of purposes that elsewhere would be left to the established authorities or not done at all. They provided a sense of vast energy in American society.

De Tocqueville arrived at precisely the right point in time to see this, at the high tide of America’s first organizational revolution. In the 18th century, voluntary associations in America had been few, and confined to the seaport cities. Between 1790 and 1830 thousands of associations appeared in cities and rural communities across the Northern states, transforming the fabric of social life. Virtually every New England town of over 1000 population had at least one, and most communities had several.

The most visible voluntary associations of all were America’s political parties. They were not specified in the Constitution or defined by statute law; they had been created after 1789 by the concerted action of citizens to nominate candidates and contest elections. Americans created temperance societies, lyceums and debating clubs, women’s missionary and charitable societies, associations to promote concerts, found Sunday schools, plant trees, and advocate for Christian child rearing. To coordinate the action of local groups, religious and reform organizations began to form on the state national level as well.

North and South

De Tocqueville made it clear that his description of America applied only to the non-slaveholding states of the North. He could not measure equality, opportunity, and democracy within the context of plantation slavery. He saw two very different societies emerging within the same nation – and feared that they would not be able to bridge their differences peacefully.

Expansion of electoral suffrage

De Tocqueville sometimes makes it sound as if American electoral democracy was universal in the 1830s, that all male citizens could vote. For the purposes of constructing his great generalizations about America’s distinctive status in the world, he reckoned it accurately enough; compared to anywhere else, an enormous proportion of the population did have access to the ballot in the United States.

Again, De Tocqueville had come to the United States at just the right time. In the years after 1800, state after state had abandoned the traditional property-owning restrictions on the franchise (even in the colonial period, a sizeable proportion of men could vote in most communities) and enacted “manhood suffrage” or at the most required a small yearly head or “poll” tax.

There were major exceptions. Free black men could vote only in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont; everywhere else they were barred from the polls. In Rhode Island, the franchise was still confined to men with some significant property and their oldest sons. In South Carolina, the legislature still cast the state’s ballots for President, not the voters. Women, it almost goes without saying, could not vote – and would not until nearly 100 years had passed. And slaves were not citizens and were barely regarded as persons.

Still, the number of men who could vote, as well as the number who did vote was expanding steadily in the United States of the 1820s and 1830s. Large majorities of men in most states had the vote by the 1830s and voter turnout was trending toward 70-80%. DeTocqueville was witnessing an absolutely unprecedented level of popular participation in politics.

Equality of manners

By European standards, Americans in the 1830s were remarkably informal and egalitarian in how they treated one another in public. De Tocqueville saw this as sign and symbol of American freedom. And to a considerable extent this was so.

Shaking hands was the universal greeting among men, and aristocratic visitors often complained that in the US they were expected to shake hands with everyone they met, including obvious social inferiors. But this had not always been the case. The historically minded observed that traditional forms of address – the bow and the curtsy – had been far more common in American life before the Revolution. The deeper the bow or the curtsy, the higher the status of the individual to be greeted. But in the early nineteenth-century United States the old manners, which could also be read as signals of subordination, were rapidly disappearing. De Tocqueville saw the flourishing of this new democratic ritual of greeting.

American Society

When De Tocqueville moved away from politics, about which he was richly informed, he had to generalize from what he directly observed – largely the lives of upper and upper-middling families in American cities. It was a limited sample, so that his remarks on American families and the status of women and children, have only limited validity. His American women are essentially the well-to-do wives and daughters of Boston and Philadelphia. His view of American economic life is also a very specific one; he describes the city merchant’s world – one of constant competition, wariness, vigilance, and economic uncertainty. In stressing the oppressive power of conformity and public opinion in America, he was again projecting the mores of the urban elite onto the nation as a whole.

De Tocqueville’s Achievement

Better than any other observer, De Tocqueville understood two of America’s greatest contributions to the world in the nineteenth century – a degree of political participation never before seen and the creation of voluntary organizations on an unprecedented scale.