On the 11th of May, 1831, two French travelers, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont stepped off the 500-ton brig Le Havre in New York and proceeded to conduct an interesting journey across America. They were in pursuit of something elusive, and that was the set of fundamental principles which allowed the American republic to survive.
Republicanism and Romanticism
Republicanism might have been the darling political theory of the Enlightenment, but after the American founding, republicanism had enjoyed a rocky and disappointing career as an idea of government. The republic created by the French revolutionaries in 1789 in imitation of the American one declined swiftly into a Reign of Terror, then into disarray, and then into the hands of a dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.
And when Bonaparte’s empire itself collapsed under the blows of Europe’s remaining kings and emperors, the victorious allies insisted on turning the clock of French politics back to 1789 and placing a king, Louis XVIII, on a restored French throne in 1815.
Meanwhile, the political ideals of the Enlightenment were challenged and succeeded by a violent gust of reaction known as the Romantic Revolt. Not reason, insisted the Romantics, but passion formed nations; not logic, but race and blood gave identity to peoples.
So, as Europeans planted themselves all over the world, they did so at the behest of aristocratic governments, gathering new strength from the practical failures of republicanism and the stormy winds of Romanticism; only the United States remained as the one large-scale and successful example of a republic in the world.
Learn more about how and when the “age of the Founders” ended.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Yet, the Republican dream lived on, and Alexis de Tocqueville was one example of its persistence.
Tocqueville’s forebears were local aristocrats from Normandy. However, his father’s loyalty to the monarchy met only meager rewards from the restored king of France in 1815, and so Tocqueville grew up with few starry-eyed illusions about aristocrats.
Tocqueville married an Englishwoman, Mary Mottley, and the language spoken in their home was English; moreover, as a student at the Sorbonne in 1929–1930, he came under the spell of the French liberal republican, François Guizot, from whom he learned that history was a record of the movement of progress, and that progress had equality as its goal.
Tocqueville caught a fleeting glimpse of that future for France in 1830, when the king was overthrown.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tocqueville’s Visit to the United States
However, it was only a fleeting glimpse; a new monarch was installed, and Tocqueville reluctantly took an oath of allegiance to him. No one seemed to believe anymore that a republic was a viable alternative, and so Tocqueville began casting around for an example that would convince people otherwise. And that, in 1832, was what brought him to the United States.
Officially, he was making the journey with his long-time friend Beaumont as a commission from the minister of the interior to study the American prison system; personally, Tocqueville had “a strong desire to visit North America and see what a great republic is”.
Tocqueville and Beaumont stayed in America for only slightly more than nine months. They dutifully visited prisons and homes for juvenile delinquents, but their real task was to spend as much time as they could researching statistics on the conditions of the population, on public institutions, and on all the political questions that concerned them.
Places Visited by Tocqueville and Beaumont
Tocqueville and Beaumont journeyed upriver to Albany, west to Niagara Falls, across the Great Lakes to Detroit, Quebec, and Montreal, then doubled back to Boston in September, and Philadelphia, and then Baltimore. By January 1832, they had visited Cincinnati, Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans as visitors and made one last turn through Washington and New York before departing for France in February.
Along the way, they had met almost as many interesting personalities as they had cities: John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams and the single-term sixth president; Andrew Jackson, now the seventh president; Albert Gallatin; John Marshall; Henry Clay; and even the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, the 94-year-old Charles Carroll of Carrollton.
Common Questions about Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey across America
When a new French monarch came to power, Alexis de Tocqueville reluctantly swore allegiance to him. No one seemed to believe that a republic was a viable alternative, and so Tocqueville began casting around for an example that would convince people otherwise. And that, in 1832, was what brought him to the United States.
As a student at the Sorbonne in 1929–1930, Alexis de Tocqueville came under the spell of the French liberal republican, François Guizot, from whom he learned that history was a record of the movement of progress, and that progress had equality as its goal.
Alexis de Tocqueville, with his longtime friend Gustave de Beaumont, formally traveled To the United States as a commission from the Minister of the Interior to study the American prison system. However, Tocqueville personally had “a strong desire to visit North America and see what a great republic is”.