Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Democracy in America - by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America - Volume 1 by Alexis de Tocqueville, what a dry name for such an interesting book! (US Edition)  (UK Edition) Written as a disquisition by this Frenchman on America’s great experiment with Democracy- it is read now for his observations of American life as he traveled to the Midwest at a time when few foreign visitors journeyed away from the East Coast..  He made his trip in 1831 and published the book in 1835.  

A caveat, the Table of Contents (TOC) is missing.  Now I don't care, because Kindle keeps my bookmark and I never read the TOC, because I want to be surprised, but some people want that enough to pay for it.  You should be able to find a copy with a linked TOC by downloading free samples from the various editions. The footnotes are interspersed with the text, which I prefer when reading an e-book.

de Tocqueville starts off by looking at French history:

In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. The Crusades and the wars of the English decimated the nobles and divided their possessions; the erection of communities introduced an element of democratic liberty into the bosom of feudal monarchy; the invention of fire-arms equalized the villein and the noble on the field of battle; printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post was organized so as to bring the same information to the door of the poor man's cottage and to the gate of the palace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are alike able to find the road to heaven.

Of course this could also be said of English history!

Then he turns to America.  It is precisely his travels through the backwoods of our country that make the book unusual.  Even today, people take his book as a guide and try to follow it in part and I believe someone recently wrote a travel memoir about trying to recreate his entire journey! (Help me with the title of that recent book, dear readers.)

Upon this inhospitable coast the first united efforts of human industry were made. The tongue of arid land was the cradle of those English colonies which were destined one day to become the United States of America. The centre of power still remains here; whilst in the backwoods the true elements of the great people to whom the future control of the continent belongs are gathering almost in secrecy together.

When he sees the great burial mounds of prehistoric Indians in the Midwest, of which little is known even now, he muses:

How strange does it appear that nations have existed, and afterwards so completely disappeared from the earth that the remembrance of their very names is effaced; their languages are lost; their glory is vanished like a sound without an echo; though perhaps there is not one which has not left behind it some tomb in memory of its passage! The most durable monument of human labor is that which recalls the wretchedness and nothingness of man.

A good travel book not only takes you on an armchair journey, but opens you up to introspection.  He could never have known that almost 200 years later, we would travel with him back in time.

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