Tocqueville And Modern America
Wednesday - July 04, 2007
On April 2, 1831, two young French aristocrats, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Beaumont, departed the port of Le Havre for the United States. Their purpose: to study American penitentiaries.
But from the outset Tocqueville and Beaumont had a larger project in mind: a thorough-going study of the new American nation, the largest and most successful experiment in democracy the world had ever seen.
They arrived in Newport, R.I., on May 2. A day later, via steamboat, they reached New York City. Thus began their nine-month sojourn in America.
Their travels would take them to Philadelphia and Buffalo, to frontier Michigan and Wisconsin, to Pittsburgh and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, through the southern states of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
In Washington, D.C., they enjoyed a half-hour audience with the American president, Andrew Jackson. They didn’t think much of the Hero of New Orleans.
Tocqueville and Beaumont departed the United States on Feb. 20, 1832. Three years later, the
first volume of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville was published. In 1840, the second volume appeared.
Tocqueville knew instant fame - and it lived on, for Tocqueville gave the world the most prescient book ever written about the United States. Foremost he noted the “equality of conditions” in America.
“I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed.” He then proceeded to examine them, in detail, for some 700 sometimes-dense, often-quotable pages.
On June 15, I departed the airport in Honolulu for Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. My purpose: to attend a two-week institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities on the “Continuing Significance of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.”
I wish I had a larger project in mind, larger than reading and talking about Tocqueville with 21 other professors. I wish I had even
a small portion Tocqueville’s insight, intellect and youth - sufficient enough to offer something faintly as ambitious as his Democracy. The best I can offer, however, is a column - or two.
Here’s what I’ve seen, 10 days into my trip:
The legacy of Patsy Takemoto Mink. In Seattle for a couple of days, I attended a coed soccer match. All the players were in their early 20s and veterans of scholastic soccer programs at some level or another. Each team was evenly divided between men and women - and all played well.
A week later, I walked into a Sunday afternoon women’s volleyball tournament held in Bethel’s gym. It included teams from St. Paul area colleges: Hamline University, the University of St. Thomas, Northwestern College, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and several others.
None would probably start for
the Wahines, but they were good; they were working hard, and they were obviously enjoying the competition. Ah, the fruits of Title IX. Tocqueville said it best in 1840: “... if one asked me to what do I think one must principally attribute the singular prosperity and growing force of this (American people), I would answer that it is to the superiority of its women.”
Diversity there ain’t. On that Seattle soccer field, I saw one young man named Ito. Everyone else was as pale and Caucasian as I myself.
And on the Bethel gym floor a couple of Sundays ago - among perhaps 80-100 young women volleyball players, there was but one woman of color - any color other than white.
Tocqueville understood. In a long section of Democracy “on the three races that inhabit the United States,” he predicted the extermination of the American Indian and a race war between blacks and whites. We’ve done better than he predicted, but not well enough.
History matters. That’s the tag line on hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers, pens, pencils and coffee cups sold at the Minnesota Historical Society - the largest state historical society in the nation. It is the largest in terms of membership, support from the state legislature and physical plant.
The Minnesota History Center near the state Capitol in St. Paul is architecturally impressive; the exhibits inside it are equally impressive, and the society operates a dozen other exhibits around the state.
Minnesotans obviously value their history. I wish Hawaii’s citizens cared as much about theirs.
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