By JOHN MARTIN
I saw in America more than America. It was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, character, prejudices and passions. I wanted to understand it so as at least to know what we have to fear and hope therefrom.
— Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America
According to historian and educator Michael Kammen, Alexis de Tocqueville's celebrated survey of American government and society, Democracy in America, deserves attention as much for what it is not as for what it is.
The book, explained Mr. Kammen, contains prophetic judgments as well as indefensible generalizations. The richness and scope of de Tocqueville's commentary provide both profound insight and an inexhaustible mine for inapt and selective quotation. As the best of its kind, the work is relevant to modern readers and yet remains the product of a specific time and place.
Mr. Kammen delivered his address at the Library on Oct. 30, as this year's Bradley Lecture, a series that features prominent scholars reexamining classic texts about citizenship, statecraft and public policy supported by a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Mr. Kammen has written prolifically on constitutional government and American political culture. His works include A Machine That Would Go of Its Self (1986) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning People of Paradox (1972). Mr. Kammen is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University.
Prosser Gifford, director of Scholarly Programs, introduced Mr. Kammen as a "chief interpreter of American history and our constitutional past" and reminded the audience of the Library's past association with de Tocqueville's legacy. This includes "A Passion for Liberty: Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Revolution," an exhibition mounted in 1989 during the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The connection between the two revolutions is important because, as Mr. Kammen observed, de Tocqueville's study of American democracy was influenced by the horror of political and social instability that he witnessed in early 19th century France.
Born in 1805, during the peak of the Napoleonic wars, de Tocqueville came from an aristocratic Cherbourg family with a long tradition of public service. His maternal great-grandfather was a lawyer and philosophe who hated royal despotism, but nevertheless defended Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a matter of civic obligation. He lost the case in the courts of revolutionary justice and, along with his clients, his head to the guillotine. During the Terror, de Tocqueville's parents were imprisoned.
These experiences, Mr. Kammen said, caused de Tocqueville to make favorable comparisons about American democracy that account for the book's initial popularity in the United States. Volume I of Democracy in America was published in February 1835; the first American edition appeared in 1838. While it enjoyed immediate acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, the book appealed to Americans precisely because it fit their own perceptions about themselves and their history. The American Revolution, wrote de Tocqueville, "was caused by a mature and thoughtful taste for freedom. No disorderly passions drove it. On the contrary, it proceeded hand in hand with a love of order and legality."
That, said Mr. Kammen, "is exactly how most Americans had come to perceive their own revolution by 1835."
Beginning in the late 1880s, the popularity of Democracy began to decline and, by the 1920s, the book had gone out of print. The reason, ventured Mr. Kammen, can be found in changed politics. "The politics of the Progressive Era emphasized conflict, especially conflict between interest groups." The clash of interest groups and the resultant rise in political organizations find no place in Democracy in America, which portrayed a largely consensual society based on equality of condition. De Tocqueville tended to ignore American politics, which he found dull in comparison with that of the French, focusing instead on American society and civic institutions. This emphasis, noted Mr. Kammen, caused him to depict a more homogeneous populace than actually existed, and to miss political and social divergences, such as Jacksonian populism, that were well under way by the mid-1800s. De Tocqueville, said Mr. Kammen, "never envisioned cultural pluralism."
In the aftermath of World War II, Democracy in America found renewed enthusiasm because of the common spirit of the country during the war. This period emphasized shared values, rather than class conflict, and Americans were drawn again to the consensual society de Tocqueville described. The advent of the Cold War, moreover, highlighted the differences between America and its rivals. The book's dominant themes -- individuality, equality and civil society -- helped Americans define themselves in opposition to the Soviet model, Mr. Kammen said.
The Cold War also illustrates de Tocqueville's uncanny foresight, given his prediction, made at the end of Volume 1, that someday Russia and the United States would compete for global mastery.
In other areas, however, Mr. Kammen said, de Tocqueville is "too often misleading because of naive or ill-advised generalizations." Because of this, he cautioned against the too frequent quoting from Democracy out of context to defend positions de Tocqueville never took or to explain issues he would not have recognized. Mr. Kammen made his point vividly by conducting a mock interview with de Tocqueville, using an overhead projection of the author and excerpts from his text.
When asked about recent controversy surrounding the excessive power and intrusiveness of the federal government, "de Tocqueville" replied, "I find such fears utterly incomprehensible ... as I wrote in 1835, 'the Union is a great republic in extent, but can in some fashion be likened to a small one, because there are so few matters with which it is concerned. Its acts are important, but rare.'"
In the debate over high taxes, de Tocqueville's words defended their necessity as the price of civilization, but suggested the United States should be able to afford low tax rates, since, given its geographic isolation, "military expenditures would be a pittance."
De Tocqueville, Mr. Kammen said, "is not our contemporary, and we err grievously when we treat him that way."
Nevertheless, he concluded, Democracy in America stands unmatched in its field. Alluding to the famous essay by the late Isaiah Berlin, in which Berlin distinguishes between the fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing, Mr. Kammen told his audience that de Tocqueville managed to combine the best traits of both, mastering the broad currents of American social and civic life, while targeting particular issues with remarkable incisiveness, such as the threat to participatory democracy posed by comfort and indifference, the byproducts of bourgeois capitalism.
"Although de Tocqueville was wide of the mark or naive in some of his judgments, in retrospect he was wiser, shrewder and more provocative than a predecessor or successor who has attempted to assess the present stake or future prospects of civil society in America."