In 1831, the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, both lawyers in their early 20s bored by their desk jobs at a courthouse in Versailles, traveled to the United States. They ostensibly came to study American prisons, but more importantly to see for themselves the great American experiment with democracy, which both intrigued and terrified them. After nine months in Jacksonian America, which saw the pair ranging from the drawing rooms of New York and Boston to the frontier outpost of Saginaw in the Michigan Territory, and from the pestilential swamps of Frenchified New Orleans to the still largely barren national capital on the banks of the Potomac, they returned home—Tocqueville to write a book that would become a classic, Democracy in America, Beaumont to publish his novel Marie, or Slavery in the United States.
“A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crisis,” Tocqueville wrote. “As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads. The citizens divide into several camps, each behind its candidate. A fever grips the entire nation. The election becomes the daily grist of the public papers, the subject of private conversations, the aim of all activity, the object of all thought, the sole interest of the moment.”
To be sure, for all his prescience, the French visitor could hardly have foreseen the unique “agitation” of the 2016 presidential election, although he was under no illusion that popular sovereignty posed any sort of bar to the election of the uncouth and uncultivated. After all, the voters of one congressional district had sent to the House of Representatives “a man with no education, who can barely read [and] lives in the woods.” (The man’s name was Davy Crockett.) Nor was Tocqueville unfamiliar with the pretensions of wealthy New Yorkers who resided in “marble palaces” that turned out, on closer inspection, to be made of “whitewashed brick” with “columns of painted wood.” Hence, neither the ersatz splendor of Trump Tower nor its principal inhabitant’s unfamiliarity with the US Constitution or the Russian occupation of Crimea would have surprised him, although Donald Trump’s nomination as the presidential candidate of a major political party would surely have shocked him even more than Crockett’s election to Congress. A democratic people might not always choose its leaders wisely, but the quality of its choices would surely improve, Tocqueville believed, as education was democratized and “enlightenment” spread. Perhaps he was too optimistic.
This summer, as the quadrennial fever gripping the United States reached a paroxysm with the Republican and Democratic national conventions, I joined my colleague Olivier Zunz, with whom I’ve collaborated in translating a number of Tocqueville’s works, in hosting a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on “American Democracy With Tocqueville as Guide.” For two weeks, we met with 16 handpicked scholars from around the country to ponder Tocqueville’s precocious masterpiece.
With remarkable concentration, we focused our efforts on parsing the author’s meaning, and the frenzied agitation of the convention week rarely intruded on our conversations. Yet it proved impossible to reread Tocqueville’s text without sharing his anxiety about the thousand natural and unnatural shocks that democracy is heir to. For who does not feel that this election represents a moment of extreme peril for the United States? And “extreme peril,” Tocqueville wrote, “does not always impel a nation to rise to meet it; it is sometimes fatal. It can arouse passions without offering guidance and cloud a nation’s intelligence rather than enlighten it.”