February 11, 2011


To the Heart of American Exceptionalism : a review of Alexis de Tocqueville: Letters From America Edited and translated by Frederick Brown (Harvey Mansfield, Wall Street Journal)

Two questions arise from the materials of Tocqueville's trip and his preparations for his book, whose first volume appeared in 1835. First, what did he learn by coming to America instead of examining it from afar? Second, how—by what method—did he learn what he wrote so convincingly and profoundly? These questions engage the assertion known today as American Exceptionalism, a recent issue between Republicans, who trumpet it as the justification for American patriotism, and Democrats, who deprecate it and imply that America is nothing special, unless it is special to be the leader of all other unexceptional countries.

Tocqueville thought America to be singular quite apart from the favorable circumstances permitting it to grow and flourish on its own without much interference from Europe. In the introduction to his book, he said he saw in America "more than America . . . an image of democracy itself." Special to America was not only that it believed in democracy and practiced it as best it could, as if straining to fulfill the demands of a theory of democracy. Rather, the theory or the "image" was shown in the practice of democracy, because America was democracy complete and as a whole, the material and source of its image.

In speaking of democracy in America—the title of his book—Tocqueville confirmed and went beyond what Alexander Hamilton said on the first page of the Federalist by way of explaining American Exceptionalism. Hamilton wrote that America was deciding by its conduct and example the question of whether good government could be thoughtfully chosen or was just a matter of chance. America was special because it would answer a theoretical question never before answered, not by thinking up a new theory but by means of its own practice. Tocqueville agreed and then actually found the new theory in its practice. His book on America told the rest of the civilized world what to expect in its future, as America was unique in displaying a complete democracy. It was not unique in being superior to all other peoples for all time, as implied in the boastful, irritable American patriotism Tocque ville found so objectionable.

Tocqueville was not friendly to philosophers or "theoreticians," as several letters confirm. In "Democracy in America," he ignored the political philosophy in the principles of America's founding, calling the Puritans and not, say, John Locke, America's "point of departure." He emphasized the practical work of the Constitution (based on theories, to be sure) and never even mentioned Jefferson's more theoretical and Lockean Declaration of Independence. Yet Tocqueville was interested in "theoretical consequences." In a letter to a cousin written in 1834 (published only in the Zunz volume) he noted that it is "ten years since I conceived most of the ideas" of his book. "I went to America only to remove my remaining doubts." Ten years before, Tocqueville was 19 years old! He did not get his ideas from his trip to America but thought them up years before. He came to America to see "what a great republic is," knowing what it is in advance. In "Democracy in America," he noted it was only of the variety of associational activity there that he "had no idea" before he came.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2011 6:35 AM
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