Review of “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

This book is still considered one of the classics in political science, despite being written 190 years ago by a man who spent only six months in the newly formed republic. He put his time to good use, however, traveling the entire country and speaking to everyone, from congressmen and presidential advisors (he comments that it was very easy to speak to powerful people), to families living in log cabins on the frontier. Tocqueville was a very-well educated man from an aristocratic family that survived the French Revolution with their estate intact because his grandfather had supported the purpose of the revolution if not its methods (he survived the counter-revolution as well).

This book is filled with quotable thoughts which Tocqueville develops carefully using long sentences, but short paragraphs. It was translated from French (even though Tocqueville was fluent in English) using his original notes to assure an accurate translation. There are copious footnotes, both by the author and the translator, and it is as complete a treatise on the American psyche as you will find, even to this day.  I haven’t read anything in the recent books I’ve read that adds substantially to his basic conclusion, which is encapsulated in the last sentence of the book:

“Nations of our day cannot have it that conditions within them are not equal; but it depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”

This quote is representative of his writing style, which I enjoy for the way it flows. The entire book presents very complex ideas about the relationship between freedom and equality in what he considered to be the most unique nation in the world. He frankly discusses the strengths and weaknesses of what he found in America and the picture is not necessarily pleasant for an American to read, but it is brutally honest and most of his conclusions are still true today. Of course, as with any book written almost two-hundred years ago, it cannot predict many of the changes that have occurred, but he doesn’t really try to make predictions. In fact, I’d say that more than 75% of his analysis is still applicable.

Well worth reading, but don’t expect a quick read because it’s 676 pages in length. One last word: the table of contents is very detailed and the chapter titles explanatory, so topics of interest can be readily located. It’s almost as if he wanted it to be browsed randomly rather than read cover to cover.

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