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Richard Ellis

The Language of Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville in America

“Ideas come in, as it were, through our pores, and we learn as much in drawing rooms or taking walks as when we’re shut up in our study.” So wrote a twenty-five year old French aristocrat, Alexis Tocqueville, shortly after his arrival in New York City in May 1831. Four years later, based largely on his nine month sojourn through the United States, Tocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in America, a book that has been hailed as “the greatest book ever written by anyone about America.”

How is it that a twenty-five year old who spent only nine months in the United States could write a book that warrants inclusion among the greatest books ever written about American politics and culture? We may never be able to satisfactorily answer that question, but we can try to watch the “ideas come in” to Tocqueville’s fertile brain. What did Tocqueville see when he took those walks? Who did he talk with in the drawing rooms, and what did they tell him? How reliable were those informants? What were their biases? What did Tocqueville not see because he was so busy talking with those people in drawing rooms? Where did Tocqueville not walk, and how did that shape the book he wrote? What was going on during those particular nine months, from May 1831 to February 1832, in which Tocqueville journeyed through the United States? How would his great book have looked different had he taken his trip in 1833 or in 1837?

I would welcome any student project that helps to answer any of these questions as I try to think through my own possible book project tentatively titled “Tocqueville’s Informants.” Student projects might include (a) a close study of any of the cities (including Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.) or regions (e.g., the “burned-over district in upstate New York or the “wilderness” in the Michigan Territory, ) that Tocqueville visited, (b) the people Tocqueville met and talked with (a cast of hundreds that includes Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Sam Houston) or even those he didn’t (such as Charles Finney, William Lloyd Garrison, and James Madison), or (c) political events and social movements during 1831-1832 (e.g., anti-Masonry, the Second Great Awakening, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the colonization movement—that is, sending blacks “back” to Africa—the birth of abolitionism, Indian removal, the Eaton Affair, the origins of the second party system—Whigs v. Jacksonian Democrats—and even prison reform, the putative purpose of Tocqueville’s visit to the U.S.). In short, I welcome collaboration with anyone interested in exploring American politics, society, and culture in the time of Tocqueville.