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The Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of Americans
Alexis de Tocqueville was just short of twenty-six years old when he arrived in America in May 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont, his traveling companion. These two young, liberal-minded French noblemen had come on an official mission—to study the American prison system for the new French government of Louis Philippe, successor to the Bourbon dynasty which had fallen in the 1830 revolution. De Tocqueville, though, had larger aims in mind. He had in recent years turned from the study of law to a broader interest in politics and a fascination with democracy. Might it, he wondered, be employed to create a more stable political order in France? To be able to observe a democratic system in action in America became his obsession. When the Minister of Justice agreed to a commission for the prison study and an eighteen months’ leave of absence for de Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont , the two men sailed for the United States. Once they completed their prison survey, having visited all the country’s major institutions, they set out to accomplish their real purpose: to try to understand the essence of democracy, to see how it actually worked in America’s government and how it influenced the structure and daily life of American society. De Tocqueville took careful notes on his many expeditions and experiences; Beaumont’s interests seemed to be more concerned with America’s Indians and Negroes. When the two men returned to France and completed their prison report, they each wrote separately about their experience in America. Tocqueville’s observations include a good many generalizations, even prophecies, about Americans’ behavior; not all of them have proved accurate, but so many are incisive and illuminating that Democracy in America has been called by Harold Laski “perhaps the greatest work ever written on one country by the citizen of another.” The book remains a classic analysis of American political life. This excerpt from volume two is the complete second section, “The Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of Americans,” from the Henry Reeve translation. In twenty separate essays, Tocqueville seeks to understand why democracy causes Americans to feel the way they do about equality, freedom, individualism, associations, religion, physical pleasure, and other matters, and how these feelings influence their social, economic, and political relationships.
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