Democracy in America
by Alexis De Tocqueville
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I put off reading this classic until just this year, largely because I didnít think an 822-page book focusing on political science would be my cup of tea. And letís be honest: most people in France donít have the proper perspective on America todayóso why should I expect a 19th century Frenchman to get it right?
Wrong on both counts. Democracy in America is about much more than political science, and for the most part de Tocqueville gets it exactly right. While de Tocqueville is certainly sympathetic to aristocracies and suspicious of democracy, he doesnít spend hundreds of pages nit-picking our political system. In fact, he begins with the premise that almost every characteristic of America can be explained by the character of her colonizers, and then scrutinizes almost every facet of the American experience.
What emerges is a fascinating exploration of the American psyche, on par even with Thomas Paineís landmark Common Sense. These two works do more to explain what it means to think like an American than anything Iíve encountered, with the possible exception of Paul Johnsonís excellent A History of the American People (Iím only half-way through that work right now). And yes, Iím aware of the irony: none of these authors are Americans.
But we all know it takes some distance to get an accurate picture of ourselves, and thatís exactly what de Tocqueville provides. He doesnít pretend to be a fan of democracy, or even of the bluff American prototype. But he canít stop marveling at what America is: how moral, how free and how equal. Much of de Tocquevilleís life suggests that he didnít have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but he understood how crucial the Christian faith was to preserving liberty: ďAmerica is still the country in the world where the Christian religion has retained the greatest real power over peopleís souls and nothing shows better how useful and natural religion is to man, since the country where it exerts the greatest sway is also the most enlightened and free.Ē
Note: to see what parts of this massive two-volume work your students should read, view the Modernity reading list.
-by Jeff Baldwin