In 1831, a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to understand its culture. The resulting portrait, Democracy in America, is one of the all-time great works of political philosophy—not to mention probably the most famous book about America ever written.
Democracy in America offers both glowing praise and withering criticism. It’s cited by both the right and the left. It’s been publicly quoted by every American president since Eisenhower.
Here are three reasons you should read de Tocqueville:
1. To get a new perspective on America
De Tocqueville was one of the greatest political philosophers ever, and his arguments about American culture are fascinating. A few tidbits:
- He argues that the two greatest building blocks of American liberty are (unsurprisingly) a free press and (surprisingly) the absence of primogeniture—the aristocratic practice, widespread in de Tocqueville’s time, of leaving the entire family inheritance to the firstborn. “Grant me thirty years of equal division of inheritances and a free press,” he writes, “and I will provide you with a republic.”
- Though John Adams introduced the phrase tyranny of the majority, it was de Tocqueville who popularized it. “In America,” he argues, “the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” (He elaborates, scathingly, that “the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.”)
- He identifies American liberty’s greatest asset as social mobility: though there exist vast class differences, those differences aren’t set in stone, as they are in an aristocracy. In de Tocqueville’s America, anyone can, through merit, ascend to any rank. (He goes on to link this social mobility with America’s reputation for materialism: because we—they, if you’re outside the US—are on a level playing field, we’re all competing; because we’re all competing, we assess things in terms of personal gain.)
Democracy in America is full of arguments like these, usually couched in memorable, highly quotable language. It’s not just a book about American history—it’s a book about how the world sees America, and how America sees itself.
2. To be an informed voice in the public discourse
When a work is cited by every American president since Eisenhower, you know it’s not only insightful, but also compelling. That’s because de Tocqueville is given to universal statements, delivered with aphoristic force. On their own, claims like these can imply all sorts of other ideological biases. But de Tocqueville, of course, was writing outside and before America’s current understanding of left and right—it’s a big mistake to interpret him as supporting the entirety of any one political platform. (The editors of the most recent translation, in 2001, almost omitted the subject index, given that “such an index may give a false sense of security” by encouraging quote-by-quote reading.) When you know Democracy in America, you’ll know the context next time you hear de Tocqueville quoted in a stump speech. You’ll be equipped to check the facts and make up your own mind.
3. To get a window into the Second Great Awakening
Many of de Tocqueville’s insights are timeless (his confident, meticulous style would have you believe that all of them are), but Democracy in America stands as a work of pure history, too. De Tocqueville, remember, was in America in the early 1800s: Andrew Jackson had recently been elected president; tensions were mounting over slavery; war with Mexico was just around the corner. Given the book’s status as a historical snapshot, one of the most interesting things about de Tocqueville’s America is how Christian it is: de Tocqueville writes that “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.” There are innumerable similar claims.
It’s no surprise, though. After all, the Second Great Awakening was in full force—Charles Finney, Lyman Beecher, and other preachers were drawing huge crowds across the country. Democracy in America isn’t just a study of America’s general identity; it’s a detailed look at American Christianity. Pair it with IVP’s Dictionary of Christianity in America and the Charles Finney Collection or Lyman Beecher Collection and you’ll be set up to understand this important chapter in American faith.
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Get Democracy in America today, and then pick up more resources to study the Second Great Awakening: pair it with IVP’s Dictionary of Christianity in America, and add the Charles Finney Collection and the Lyman Beecher Collection for even more context.
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