Why did Alexis de Tocqueville go to America?

Why did Alexis de Tocqueville go to America in 1831?

On the evening of 29 March 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville stepped onto the deck of a French named American ship, Le Havre, and felt the wind at his back as he sailed through the Channel en route to the United States.[i]

This essay shall broach the question which many Tocqueville biographers, such as George Pierson, André Jardin, and Hugh Brogan, have asked before; why was he on board that vessel in the first place?; why did Alexis de Tocqueville go to America?

This essay will be divided into three parts. The first two parts will analyse the enigma of why did Tocqueville go to America. Why did a Frenchman in the early 1830s, with poor English, go to such lengths and expense to go to the United States ahead of all other nations? The initial third of the essay will track the, at times, fractious history of Franco-American relations and analyse in detail the events which would have had the most bearing upon the relationship between the two nations at the time Tocqueville made his voyage. The centre of the essay will focus on previous interpretations of the United States by Frenchmen and consider how these writers influenced both the overall idea of America in France and postulate how these texts may have influenced Tocqueville’s own idea of America. The concluding third of this essay will focus in turn on each of the three reasons George Pierson suggests, in his seminal 1938 study on Tocqueville’s journey to America, as to why Tocqueville went to America. Both Tocqueville’s personal malaise and ambition shall be discussed, as will his wider purpose; a desire to guide his beloved nation towards harmony and equality.

The republics of France and the United States have been intrinsically linked since the conflagration of revolution broke out in Britain’s American colonies. The genesis of Franco-American relations can be traced back to the Second Continental Congress in November 1775. The colonial delegates covertly established a Committee of Secret Correspondence whose main aim was to secure an alliance with France above all other nations, as their ‘friendship … would be fittest … to obtain and cultivate’.[ii] However, long before the outbreak of hostilities, France was eager to seek revenge upon their British enemies following their defeat in the Seven Years War in 1763. The two men most influential in French foreign policy, Etienne François and Charles Gravier, had already made advanced plans to aid the Americans in the event of a rebellion against British rule breaking out. Convinced as they were that Britain’s trade with her North American colonies was a decisive factor in her maintenance of power, François and Gravier had even went as far as sending agents to America to foment rebellion amongst the settlers.

Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his son, wisely surmised that France ‘would like very well to meddle on occasion, and blow up the coals between Britain and her colonies; but I hope we shall give them no opportunity.’[iii] Of course an opportunity did present itself and the Committee of Secret Correspondence found that France were only too willing to provide support. On 6 February 1778 the United States and France signed a tripartite agreement which brought about the Franco-American alliance; the only alliance the United States would enter into until 1949 when the North Atlantic Treaty established NATO.[iv] The agreement recognised the United States as an independent nation and France promised ‘as her prime purpose, to wage war until American independence was assured’.[v] But it would not be long after the ink had dried upon the 1783 Treaty of Paris that French opinions hardened toward their allies.

After much cost to French lives and to the already beleaguered French economy, the prospect that the United States might fall back under the yoke of Great Britain through either the influence of empire loyalists in Congress or crippling wartime debt was a commonly held fear in France.[vi] The French also held reservations regarding the realities of post-war trade with America. They had fought alongside the United States in her War of Independence and had opened up French ports to American trade. Therefore, French merchants would be forgiven for expecting the United States to grant a special status to trade with France. However, as Peter P. Hill puts it, ‘wherever [the French] looked they saw Americans ungrateful, indifferent, and seemingly unaware of their sins of omission’.[vii] Despite the fact that the United States continued to adhere to the schedule of debt repayments during France’s Reign of Terror, a huge shift in American policy towards France occurred in 1793 when George Washington declared that his nation would remain neutral in France’s war with Britain.

Negotiations aimed at easing trans-Atlantic tensions ended in disaster following the demands of three French agents for major concessions and bribes in order to maintain diplomatic relations between the countries. The scandal, which became known as the XYZ affair, led to a situation whereby, as William Stinchcombe says, ‘very few Americans viewed France as a possible ally and fewer yet believed France to have many common interests with the United States’.[viii] The French foreign minister Talleyrand said ‘we had provided American ingratitude with the means of justifying itself’.[ix] The breakdown in talks led to the nadir of Franco-American relations before Tocqueville’s day; the so called Quasi-War.

During this undeclared war at sea French vessels increased their predation of American trans-Atlantic trade by means of ‘privateers who operated out of the French West Indies and swarmed along the United States coast line’.[x] When France, now under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, declared war on Britain in May 1803, the Americans, in keeping with their idealistic neutrality, stood firmly outside of the conflict.

Tensions eased somewhat with the signing of the Convention of Môrtefontaine in October 1800 which ended the Quasi-War. Concerns then shifted from the open sea back to the American continent and the Louisiana colony. Napoleon had decided to reacquire the vast colony in 1800 partly in order to establish a bulwark against American expansion towards the Pacific. In an attempt to negotiate the ceding of New Orleans to the United States, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe as plenipotentiary to Paris. However, Monroe’s arrival coincided with a most remarkable change of French policy.

Napoleon declared that ‘I renounce Louisiana...it is not only New Orleans that I will cede; it is the whole colony without any reservation.’[xi] Buoyed by this most unexpected turn of events Monroe agreed to the purchase of the Louisiana colony for a fee of 80 million francs.[xii] The purchase was nearly universally applauded in the United States and President Jefferson announced that ‘nothing...need ever interrupt the friendship between France and this country’.[xiii] The reality of the situation was very different; the actions of Napoleonic France had reached the stage where, as Clifford Egan puts it, ‘some Americans concluded that war alone would end the confiscation of American property in French ports, stop the discriminatory treatment accorded to American goods in France, and curtail the generally capricious conduct of Napoleon’s empire’.[xiv]

Despite increasing tensions over trade restrictions, such a war never came about, but the events of this tumultuous time would have a long lasting effect on relations between the nations right up until literally the eve of Tocqueville’s departure for America in 1831.

There were two important developments in Franco-American relations in the years preceding Tocqueville’s journey; one which strengthened trans-Atlantic bonds and another that served to weaken them. The Marquis de Lafayette’s trip to America in 1824, alongside his son, George Washington Lafayette, had revived the memory of the two nation’s greatest moment of cooperation. Lafayette’s decision to travel to America was borne out of a desire to focus French attention upon the United States and to, as Sylvia Neely puts it, ‘breathe new life into the almost moribund cause of liberty and constitutional government’.[xv] By 1824 Lafayette’s political career was in severe decline with the cause of French Liberals having been dealt a double blow. Public sympathy for the royalists increased following the assassination in 1820 of the third in line to the throne, the Duc de Berry.[xvi] Furthermore, following French victories in Spain to restore the absolute power of the Bourbon king Ferdinand VII, the reputation of the ultra-royalist government of Jean Baptiste Vilélle was enhanced to the detriment of Lafayette and his Liberal cohorts.

The young Lafayette had risen to the rank of Major General in the American War of Independence and had even been granted citizenship of the United States in honour of his gallantry.[xvii] Therefore, it was to be expected that he would be received with unprecedented adulation. As one Baltimore newspaper put it, ‘no one like Lafayette has ever re-appeared in any country...To us he is like a venerated father, returned from the grave, to bless and receive the blessings of a mightily increased and joyous prosperity.’[xviii] For twelve months Lafayette travelled through each of the twenty-four American states where he met with many old comrades and made new acquaintances such as James Fenimore Cooper, whose Leather Stocking Tales were widely read in restoration France and were significant in developing Tocqueville’s idea of America.[xix] At the end of his trip Lafayette addressed a crowd in Washington and expressed his gratitude to the American people and his desire that the freedoms of America be one day experienced by all men across the world;

To have been, in the infant and critical days of these states, adopted by them as a favourite son, to have participated in the toils and perils of our unspotted struggle for independence, freedom and equal rights, and in the foundation of the American era of a new social order, which has already pervaded this, and must for the dignity and happiness of mankind, successively pervade every part of the other hemisphere… has been the pride, the encouragement, the support, of a long and eventful life.[xx]

Lafayette’s lauding of the ‘American era of a new social order’ certainly has similarities to elements of Tocquevillian writings. Lafayette’s opinions regarding America were certainly well known to Tocqueville’s companion in America, Gustave de Beaumont.

Beaumont was a cousin of Lafayette and, as André Jardin assumes, he was a visitor to his salon.[xxi] It is safe to assume that these two highly intellectual friends would have discussed Lafayette’s opinions and these discussions may have served to cement the idea that America could be of example to France in Tocqueville’s mind. Initially news of Lafayette’s trip to America was censored by the government but following the accession to the throne of Charles X, censorship was lifted.[xxii] The publicising of the great reception Lafayette was being received with invariably served to warm relations between France and the United States. However, the trip could also be viewed as merely papering over the cracks of a longstanding issue between the two nations which came to a head just as Tocqueville left for America.

Since 1815 the American government had demanded reparations from France for the destruction of property during the Napoleonic wars. Successive American administrations were aggrieved by the fact that similar claims lodged by European nations had been paid in full. President Andrew Jackson outlined his hope to finally settle the matter in his first annual address to congress in 1829;

From France, our ancient ally, we have a right to expect that justice which becomes the sovereign of a powerful, intelligent, and magnanimous people. … The claims of our citizens for depredations upon their property… remain unsatisfied, and must therefore continue to furnish a subject of unpleasant discussion and possible collision between the two Governments. … I cherish, however, a lively hope … that the injurious delays of the past will find redress in the equity of the future.[xxiii]

Jackson sent a minister to France to negotiate the terms of payment in late 1829. The French government once again frustrated the Americans by suggesting that they could not afford to pay America’s spoliation claims and that Napoleon himself would not have paid them.[xxiv] Following the July Revolution a new foreign ministry established a commission to investigate the claims. The commission concluded their deliberations days before Tocqueville set sail for America. They rejected the American claims but were willing to pay 10 million francs to the Americans. French foreign minister François Sebastiani added to that figure a further 5 million francs and offered the payment to the American minister, W.C Rives. Rives was furious with the offer and said ‘it was a mockery to talk of that sum and if the offer was definitive the negotiation was at an end’.[xxv]

Despite the matter being resolved to American satisfaction some months later, in the beginning of April 1831 negotiations had reached a seemingly insurmountable impasse. Memories of Lafayette’s glorious year long trip reinforced the popular bonds between the French and American peoples. However, at official level, Franco-American negotiations resembled the situation that led to the Quasi-War.

As Tocqueville stood aboard the Le Havre, the long term friendship between France and America was far from assured. In asking the question of how did America hold such a reverence in Tocqueville’s mind as an exemplar of liberty and equality, it is salient to consider the development of the literary idea of America in France. Whilst this essay will concentrate on three French interpreters of America, one English publication must be mentioned. Basil Hall’s Travels in North America in the years 1827 and 1828 came from a hostile British literary tradition which had been stoked up by a renewed British bitterness towards America in the wake of the War of 1812.[xxvi] Tocqueville and Beaumont certainly read at least some of this book, specifically the sections dealing with the penitentiary system in Auburn prison.[xxvii]

However, it is feasible to suggest that in order to gain a wider appreciation of America; they may have read some of the rest of the book. Certainly a conversation toward the end of the book in which Hall describes a conversation with an American about the differences between their two countries has Tocquevillian elements of comparison seen throughout Democracy in America.[xxviii] The French literary tradition was far amiable towards the Americans that the British. One of the first interpretations of America for a European audience was by a French man. Michel Jean de Crévecoeur was born in 1735 to a small Norman noble family. At the age of twenty he emigrated to Canada where he enlisted in the Canadian militia at the outset of the French and Indian War.[xxix] Following an injury sustained in Quebec, Crévecoeur then reinvented himself as J. Hector St. John, small farmer from New York.[xxx] He never saw himself as much of an intellectual; he would often sigh that he ‘was no author, but a plain scribler [sic], who has, he hardly knows how, compiled great many sheets’.[xxxi] These ‘great many sheets’ of daily thoughts were the nucleus of his 1782 book, Letters from an American Farmer. The book, originally published in London, takes the form of a series of letters from an American farmer to a minister in Oxford. The Farmer’s musings were the first expressions by a French man that poverty bred equality among American immigrants and that they would affect great changes upon the world;

What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a county where he had nothing? The knowledge of the language, the love of a kindred few as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his country is now which gives him land, bread, protection… Ubi panis ibi patria, is the motto of all emigrants…an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the modes of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.[xxxii]

A French translation of Letters was published in 1784 and it established Crevecouer as ‘the authoritative interpreter of the New World to the Old’. As Norman Grabo put it, ‘The once American farmer was now a French knight…introduced to the leading French intellectuals of his time as the foremost authority on American life lived as Rousseau might have imagined it’.[xxxiii]

One of Crevecoeur’s most eminent admirers and emulators was Jacques Pierres Brissot. Indeed, the future Girondist leader, established, with Crévecoeur and a growing number of Americaphiles in Paris, the short lived Gallic-American Society which sought to foster the ideas of the universal happiness of man.[xxxiv] Brissot, who was actively involved in the anti-slavery movement in Paris, travelled to the United States to witness first-hand the treatment of slaves. Whilst in America he met several of the Founding Fathers including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin but his stay was cut short due to the outbreak of the French revolution. In 1792 Brissot published Nouveau voyage dans les Etats-Unis de l'Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788 which was one of the first books that held America up as an example to the French on how to ‘vindicate republicanism’.[xxxv] In the preface he speaks of the importance of morals in upholding American liberty;

We have now, likewise, acquired our liberty. It is no longer necessary to learn of the Americans the manner of acquiring it, but we must be taught by them the secret of preserving it. The secret consists in the morals of the people; the Americans have it; and I feel with grief, not only that we do not yet possess it, but that we are not even thoroughly persuaded of its absolute necessity in the preservation of liberty.[xxxvi]

Although not specified in referred to in any biography of Tocqueville, it is not unreasonable to assume that such a well read man as Tocqueville was aware of Brissot’s work on America.

From the quoted passage above we can see the importance that Brissot invested in American morals. Similarly, Tocqueville invested much importance in mœurs which he believed were more important than America’s laws and physical circumstances in maintaining democracy.[xxxvii] Furthermore, Chapter thirty of Brissot’s book, ‘The Prisons of Philadelphia and prisons generally’, was the first French analysis of the American penitentiary system and one would assume that Tocqueville would have made himself familiar with the chapter, if not before his journey then perhaps upon his return.[xxxviii] If conjecture surrounds Tocqueville’s familiarity with Crévecoeur and Brissot, then certainty confirms his familiarity with his greatest contemporary interpreter of America, François-René de Chateaubriand.

On paper Tocqueville and Chateaubriand seem far removed from each other in their family tree; Chateaubriand was Tocqueville’s uncle-in-law’s youngest brother. But the trauma of the Reign of Terror which left much of the extended family guillotined brought the distant relatives into a close family unit. In 1791, at the tender age of twenty-three, Chateaubriand decided to leave France in search of the elusive North-West Passage. He left behind him the French Revolution, which in his own words, was ‘marching in grand pace’ and although he agreed with the revolutionaries’ principles, he ‘detested the violence which had dishonoured them’.[xxxix] His mission was outlandish from the beginning but his journey was not to be a geographic expedition; it was a journey of self-discovery for a young writer who wanted ‘authentic experience of unknown lands and noble savages to give power to his work’.[xl]

Chateaubriand only spent five months in the United States; once he heard of the execution of Louis XVI he immediately returned to France to join the Army of Condé, largely made up of French émigré, to avenge the death of the monarch.[xli] Considering the short time he was in America, the scale of his journey seems unbelievable in a pre-steam engine era. Indeed several critics of Chateaubriand have cast doubt upon the authenticity of his American accounts and have proven that much of what Chateaubriand said he saw himself was actually plagiarised from other authors.[xlii] Nevertheless, Chateaubriand established himself as one of the most influential writers of his generation and as René Rémond affirms he was by far the most influential French interpreters of the United States.[xliii]

Chateaubriand’s first major work set in America was Atala, initially published in 1801, and subsequently republished in his larger 1802 work, Génie du Christianisme. Atala merely served as a preliminary extract to the larger Génie, a ‘full-scale apology for the Christian religion’ which Chateaubriand hoped would establish himself as a leading Catholic apologist at a time when Napoleonic France was conciliating church-state relations in the wake of the Revolution.[xliv] However, the novella, a love story between two Native American savages, earned him unexpected success; between 1801 and 1805 no less than eleven editions were published.[xlv] It had a huge impact on the popular perception of America in France. As David Wakefield points out ‘A whole generation of European artists succumbed to the spell of this little book…to judge by the author’s own testimony, Atala became something of a popular cult image in his own lifetime’.[xlvi]

It is certain that Tocqueville engaged with the works of his illustrious relation; the first recorded example of Tocqueville considering the idea of American democracy was his response in late 1825 to Chateaubriand’s praise of America and her example to France.[xlvii] One may be surprised at the nature of the response from the future author of Democracy in America. He denounced Chateaubriand’s praise, saying that France had nothing to learn from America and that his opinions were ‘those of a genius who had lost his way and was devoting his heaven-sent talent to the ruin of his fellow citizens and his country’.[xlviii] Indeed, it would be some time before Tocqueville would completely shake off the opinions he held as a young law student; in his first few weeks in America he ‘insisted repeatedly that conditions in America were so different from those in France as to make its political example worthless’.[xlix]

The book which had the most influential effect upon the changing of Tocqueville’s opinions toward America was probably Chateaubriand’s Voyage en Amérique published in 1827. As Hugh Brogan points out regarding the conclusion of Chateaubriand’s book, readers of Democracy in America ‘may well see in Chateaubriand’s brief musings the germ of Tocqueville’s masterpiece’.[l] Chateaubriand writes about American liberty, destined to exist forever, borne out of permanent enlightened ideals of society and not from temporary mœurs;

Whatever happens in the future, liberty will never fully disappear from America and it is here that we should signal one of the great advantages of liberty, daughter of light, over liberty, daughter of mœurs...Liberty, daughter of mœurs, will die when its principle is changed. It is of the nature of mœurs to deteriorate with time. Liberty, daughter of light, begins before the days of despotism and the darkness of poverty and it is lost in that despotism and the decadence of luxury. Liberty, daughter of light, shines after the ages of oppression and corruption, it walks with the principle that conserves it and renews it. The light that she is borne out of, far from weakening with time, like the mœurs, it will on the contrary, fortify with time.[li]

Just as Brissot had done with his consideration of morals, Chateaubriand regarded mœurs as most important. Unlike Brissot, Chateaubriand denounces the mœurs of a society as fleeting trends, doomed to degenerate over time. A glance at Democracy in America would suggest that perhaps Tocqueville may not have been as harsh on ‘liberty, daughter of mœurs’ as Chateaubriand was. But one can certainly see the engendering nature of Voyage en Amérique in the treatise of Democracy in America. The works of Crévecoeur, Brissot and especially Chateaubriand all contributed hugely to the French idea of America. But Tocqueville did not go to America to emulate these exiles; as Sheldon Wolin stresses ‘theirs was a literature of observation, of curiosity and comment’.[lii] So then the question must be asked; why did Tocqueville go to America?

In his book Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, which analyses in huge detail the Frenchmen’s journey, George Pierson contends that Tocqueville’s reasoning behind going to the United States was threefold; he was ‘exceedingly uncomfortable’ in Louis-Philippe’s France; he was ambitious to make a name for himself; and ‘he wanted to qualify himself to be of service to his country’.[liii] It would be wise not to contradict the man who is recognised as rescuing Democracy in America from literary limbo for a twentieth century audience.[liv] Therefore this essay will conclude by looking at each of Pierson’s contentions in turn. The spark that threw Tocqueville toward America was the July Revolution.

The Three Glorious Days from 27 July to 29 July 1830 led to the abdication of the restored Bourbon king, Charles X and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under the Orleanist, Louis-Philippe. The tumult left Tocqueville with a feeling of being most uncomfortable in his own country. He was horrified at the actions of the Parisians during the revolution and the sight of ‘Frenchmen cutting each other’s throats for fun’ and the sound of ‘cries of fury and despair all in the same language’ deeply affected him.[lv] Pierson describes Tocqueville’s emotions as he watched Charles X’s final exit from Versailles; ‘So it happened on the thirtieth of July, at dawn...he met the slow mournful carriages of the departing Charles X on the outer boulevards of Versailles and [he] was unable to restrain his tears.’[lvi] As modern biographers of Tocqueville contend, these tears were hardly out of a deep seated love for Charles X but were borne out of the passing of the French throne to the House of Orléans and a fear that Europe would once more go up in flames.[lvii] Pierson poetically describes Tocqueville’s reaction to the fall of the Bourbons and rise of the Orléans;

For one fearful instant he had glimpsed the great Bourbon edifice still standing. Then it had crumbled, to pitch headlong past his very feet. And in the August morning strangers were already building a new house, where only ruins stared at him accusingly...the thunder of revolution, the muttering of the still unsatisfied masses disturbed the air...the future was on the way, an unhappy future for all France[lviii]

Despite his personal conflicting opinions regarding democracy and aristocracy, Tocqueville knew that the July monarchy, described as a government of the people by the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie, was a better reality than the prospect of revolution.[lix] Tocqueville wrote that ‘if Louis-Philippe were overthrown, it would certainly not be in favour of Henry V, but of the republic and anarchy...Those who love their country ought therefore to rally frankly to the new power, since it alone can now save France from herself’.[lx]

As a magistrate in Versailles, Tocqueville was forced to take an oath of allegiance to the new monarchy and he did so, only after much internal turmoil.[lxi] But despite taking the oath, his professional prospects remained bleak; he had long since lost what little passion he had for law and the fact that he was humiliatingly forced to take the oath a second time indicated a permanency to the suspicion the Orléanist regime would always hold for him.[lxii] In addition to Tocqueville’s uneasiness, he still maintained a desire to make a name for himself. As André Jardin points out, Tocqueville realised the only way he could advance in his career would be by ‘showing an eagerness to serve that he did not feel’.[lxiii] He also recognised that his family connections which he could previously use as a ladder to power were now serving to cast him down the professional scale. In a letter to his friend, Charles Stoffels, he outlines his idea that if he were to go to America for a while he may be able, upon his return, to take advantage of a more advantageous political climate;

‘Suppose I go to America now...Fifteen months pass. In France the various parties take shape. It will be possible to see clearly which is incompatible with France’s greatness and with continuing peace...The knowledge you have gained in such a celebrated nation [as the United States] has separated you from the crowd. You know exactly what a vast republic is, why it is practicable in one place, impracticable in another.’[lxiv]

He also hints at the possibility of writing a book to heighten his profile; ‘When you return to France you certainly feel a strength that you didn’t have when you left. If the time is favourable, some sort of publication on your part can alert the public to your existence and turn the attention of the parties to you.’[lxv] Pierson’s final assertion was that Tocqueville went to America in order to be of service to his country. It is clear that Tocqueville did not go to America in the mould of an adventurer, like Chateaubriand, but as a theorist who set about ‘using the method of comparison...to compare and/or contrast America with France while drawing political lessons from the similarities and differences’.[lxvi] Tocqueville infers that France needs political lessons in the introduction to Democracy in America as he describes the lamentable development of democracy in France;

Democracy has…been abandoned to its wild instincts, and it has grown up like those children who have no parental guidance, who receive their education in the public streets, and who are acquainted only with the vices and wretchedness of society. Its existence was seemingly unknown when suddenly it acquired supreme power…when afterwards it was enfeebled by its own excesses, the legislator conceived the rash project of destroying it, instead of instructing it and correcting its vices.[lxvii]

The angst and disappointment at the course of the French Revolution, which he described, in a later publication, as being continuous from 1789 to 1830, is palpable in these introductory words to Democracy.[lxviii] One of Tocqueville’s aims in Democracy in America was to produce a work that could instruct and correct the vices of the Revolution. What Tocqueville believed to be a true republic was the example of America, for he believed what the French called a republic during the Revolution was ‘nothing but a monster covered in blood and filth’.[lxix] The path to a true democratic society was laid out in front of the Old World and by looking to the New World Tocqueville hoped to guide France toward the advantages of this new society without plummeting into the pitfalls of democracy’s vices.

Perhaps the consideration which weighed most heavily on Tocqueville’s mind was that, in his own words, the United States was a nation that ‘ha[d] attained the consequences of the democratic revolution which [France was] undergoing without having experienced the revolution itself’.[lxx] The genetic memories of the great Revolution forty years previously had been reawakened in Tocqueville during the Three Glorious Days. The violence on the streets of Paris reminded him that in the French experience, republican fervour was usually accompanied by anarchy and the guillotine. It is no coincidence that just days after the maelstrom of July, Tocqueville began to toy with the idea of travelling to the United States and ‘see what a great republic is’.[lxxi] Surely there was a better way; in Tocqueville’s mind the better way was the American way, and he was determined to investigate it.

Having convinced the French Minister of the Interior, the Comte de Montalivet, that the American penitentiary system would prove to be a fine example for French penitentiary reform, Beaumont and Tocqueville found themselves with eighteen months leave and an excuse to go to the United States. On May 9 the Le Havre’s lookout shouted ‘Land ho!’ as the Rhode Island coast came into view.[lxxii] Alexis de Tocqueville was about to set foot in the nation that would make his name.

A multitude of questions must have crowded his mind as he prepared to disembark. Would he experience similar hospitality that Lafayette had felt six years previously? Or would the recent tensions over spoliation claims impair their welcome? He was following in the footsteps of other Frenchmen in crossing the Atlantic to experience the American way of life. But his task was greater than that of Crévecoeur, Brissot or Chateaubriand; Tocqueville endured thirty-six days at sea to be of service to his country. He determined that his personal ambition would never be nurtured in a France under Louis-Philippe and he was traumatised by the violence of the Three Glorious Days. Therefore, he resolved to construct a blueprint of a workable, decentralised democracy, free from the threat of bloodshed every generation and imbued with the ideals of the true realisation, the American realisation, of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

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Levasseur, Auguste. Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825 of Journal of a Voyage to the United States, Vol. 2, First English ed. (Philadelphia, 1829).

Neely, Sylvia. ‘The Politics of Liberty in the Old World and the New: Lafayette's Return to America in 1824’ in Journal of the Early Republic, 6:2 (Summer 1986), pp 151-171.

Panagoulos, E.P ‘Chateaubriand’s Florida and his Journey to America’ in The Florida Historical Quarterly, 49:2 (Oct. 1970), pp 140-152.

Pierson, George. Tocqueville in America, John Hopkins University Press edition (Baltimore, 1996).

Philbrick, Thomas. St. John De Crévecoeur (New York, 1970).

Sahlins, Peter. Unnaturally French, Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and after (New York, 2004).

Stinchcombe, William C. ‘Americans celebrate the birth of the Dauphin’ in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (eds), Diplomacy and Revolution, pp 39-71.

Stinchcombe, William C. ‘Talleyrand and the American Negotiations of 1797-1798’ in The Journal of American History, 62:3 (Dec. 1975), pp 575-590.

Stinchcombe, William C. ‘A Neglected Memoir by Talleyrand on French-American Relations, 1793-1797’ in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 121:3 (June 1977), pp 195-208.

Wakefield, David. ‘Chateaubriand’s Atala as a source of Inspiration in Nineteenth Century art’ in The Burlington Magazine, 120:898 (Jan. 1978) pp 13-24.

Wolin, Sheldon S. Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The making of a Political and Theoretical life (Oxford, 2001).



[i] Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, a biography (London, 2006) p. 147.

[ii] Alexander Deconde, ‘The French Alliance in Historical Speculation’ in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (eds), Diplomacy and Revolution, The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 (Charlottesville, 1981), pp 1-37.

[iii] Benjamin Franklin to William Franklin, 28 Aug. 1767, quoted in Deconde, ‘The French Alliance in Historical Speculation’, p. 3.

[iv] William C. Stinchcombe, ‘Americans celebrate the birth of the Dauphin’ in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (eds), Diplomacy and Revolution, pp 39-71.

[v] Deconde, ‘The French Alliance’, p. 7.

[vi] Peter P. Hill, French Perceptions of the Early American Republic, 1783-1793 (Philadelphia, 1988), pp 22-23.

[vii] Hill, French Perceptions, p. 105.

[viii] William C. Stinchcombe, ‘Talleyrand and the American Negotiations of 1797-1798’ in The Journal of American History, 62:3 (Dec. 1975), pp 575-590.

[ix] Quoted in William C. Stinchcombe, ‘A Neglected Memoir by Talleyrand on French-American Relations, 1793-1797’ in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 121:3 (June 1977), pp 195-208.

[x] Mlada Bukovansky, ‘American identity and neutral rights from independence to the war of 1812’ in International Organisation, 51:2 (Spring 1997), pp 209-243.

[xi] Quoted in Colin Elman, ‘Extending Offensive Realism, The Louisiana Purchase and America’s rise to Regional Hegemony’ in The American Political Science Review, 98:4 (Nov. 2004), pp 263-576.

[xii] France would receive only 60 million francs for the colony as it was agreed that she would renege upon 20 million francs as compensation for the seizure of American vessels during the Quasi-War and broker’s fees regarding United States government bonds. Elman, ‘Extending Offensive Realism’, p. 572.

[xiii] The only exception to the support for the Louisiana Purchase was from New England Federalists who wisely foresaw that new states would be created from the vast colony, thus diluting the existing power of the New England states. Egan, Neither Peace nor War, pp 10-18.

[xiv] Clifford L. Egan, Neither Peace nor War, Franco-American Relations, 1803-1812 (Baton Rouge, 1983), p. 24.

[xv] Sylvia Neely, ‘The Politics of Liberty in the Old World and the New: Lafayette's Return to America in 1824’ in Journal of the Early Republic, 6:2 (Summer 1986), pp 151-171.

[xvi] Neely, ‘Lafayette's Return’, p. 156.

[xvii] Peter Sahlins, Unnaturally French, Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and after (New York, 2004), p. 244.

[xviii] Quoted in Neely, ‘Lafayette’s Return’, pp 151-152.

[xix] When Cooper moved to Paris in 1826 he became good friends with Lafayette, a man who Cooper believed ‘was the living embodiment of republican ideals’. James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Vol. 1, James Franklin Beard (ed.) (Cambridge, 1960), p. 154 and Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 137.

[xx] Quoted in Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825 of Journal of a Voyage to the United States, Vol. 2, First English ed. (Philadelphia, 1829), p. 252.

[xxi] Jardin, Tocqueville, a biography (London, 1988), p. 94.

[xxii] Neely, ‘Lafayette’s Return’, p. 156.

[xxiii] President Andrew Jackson’s first annual message, 8 Dec. 1829. Available online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29471#axzz1qzhgn86D (accessed at 17:15, 3 Apr. 2012)

[xxiv] John S. Basset, The life of Andrew Jackson, (Hamden, 1967), p. 665.

[xxv] Basset, The life of Andrew Jackson, p. 666.

[xxvi] Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 102.

[xxvii] Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 103.

[xxviii] At one stage the topic of this conversation moves to the question of monarchy and feudalism;

AMERICAN: ‘And how does your having a king contribute to their establishment in the first instance or to their stability afterwards?’

HALL: ‘Very naturally I think, By allowing the chief station in the country to be filled by the hereditary nomination of Nature…all the rest of the community are left to attend to their own substantial affairs, instead of being distracted, as so very large a proportion of your population are, about matters of moonshine’

AMERICAN: ‘Ay Ay! You gentlemen from Europe see all things here through monarchical spectacles, and that is the reason our country and institutions never get justice done them’.

Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the years 1827 and 1828, Volume Three (Edinburgh, 1830), pp 396-397.

[xxix] Thomas Philbrick, St. John De Crévecoeur (New York, 1970), pp 16-17.

[xxx] Philbrick, St. John, p. 17.

[xxxi] Bernard Chevignard, ‘St. John de Crèvecoeur in the Looking Glass: "Letters from an American Farmer" and the Making of a Man of Letters’ in Early American Literature, 19:2 (Fall 1984), pp 173-190.

[xxxii] Latin quotation means ‘Where there is bread, there is my country’. St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, reprinted from original edition, (New York, 1904), pp 54-55.

[xxxiii] Norman B. Grabo, ‘Crèvecoeur's American: Beginning the World Anew’ in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 48:2 (Apr 1991), pp 159-172.

[xxxiv] Frederick A. de Luna, ‘The Dean Street Style of Revolution: J.-P. Brissot, Jeune Philosophe’ in French Historical Studies, 17:1 (Spring 1991), pp 159-190.

[xxxv] De Luna, ‘The Dean Street Style of Revolution’, pp 176-177.

[xxxvi] Jacques Pierre Brissot, New travels in the United States of America, performed in M.DCC.LXXXVIII. Containing the latest and most accurate observations, second English ed., (London, 1794), p. 1.

[xxxvii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume One, Alfred A. Knopf (ed.) (New York, 1985), p. 319.

[xxxviii] Brissot, ‘The Prisons of Philadelphia and Prisons generally’ in Brissot, New travels in the United States of America, pp 369-374.

[xxxix] E.P Panagoulos, ‘Chateaubriand’s Florida and his Journey to America’ in The Florida Historical Quarterly, 49:2 (Oct. 1970), pp 140-152.

[xl] Chateaubriand wanted to cross the American continent solo and by foot to California and then to follow the coast north and eventually all the way round ‘re-entering the United States by Hudson’s Bay, Labrador and Canada’. Emma Kate Armstrong, ‘Chateaubriand’s America’ in PMLA, 22:2 (1907), pp 345-370 and Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, pp 11-12.

[xli] W.P Cresson, ‘Chateaubriand and the Monroe Doctrine’ in The North American Review, 217:809 (Apr. 1923), pp 475-487.

[xlii] Joseph Bédier contends that ‘in the time spent in the United States, five months, and under the conditions of travel then existing, the journey Chateaubriand declares took would have been impossible’. Bédier also points to five eighteenth century works whose ‘incidents and descriptions…tally strangely with many which Chateaubriand offers as his own’. Quoted in Armstrong, ‘Chateaubriand’s America’, p. 346.

[xliii] René Rémond’s Les Étas-Unis devant l’opinion français 1815-1852 describes how interest in the American republic increased in France during the Bourbon restoration. However, much to my disappointment, there is no English translation of Rémond’s book. Therefore, I am required to rely upon the interpretations of Rémond’s work by other authors. Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 136.

[xliv] David Wakefield, ‘Chateaubriand’s Atala as a source of Inspiration in Nineteenth Century art’ in The Burlington Magazine, 120:898 (Jan. 1978) pp 13-24.

[xlv] Wakefield, ‘Chateaubriand’s Atala’, p. 13.

[xlvi] Wakefield, ‘Chateaubriand’s Atala’ p. 14.

[xlvii] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 137.

[xlviii] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 137.

[xlix] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 137. Further evidence of Tocqueville’s melancholic assertion that America could hold nothing for the French can be seen in a note he wrote merely a month into his American journey; ‘Up to now, I haven’t been roused to enthusiasm by anything I’ve seen because I know it’s due more to the nature of things than to the will of man’. Quoted in André Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 117.

[l] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 139.

[li] Due to the lack of an available translation of Voyage en Amérique, I enlisted the help of a French speaking friend, Conor Delaney, to translate the conclusion. François de Chateaubriand, Oeuvres completes, Tome XII, Voyage en Amérique (Paris, 1836), p. 290.

[lii] Sheldon S. Wolin, Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The making of a Political and Theoretical life (Oxford, 2001), p. 115.

[liii] Pierson, p. 28.

[liv] Cheryl B. Welch contends that the publication of Tocqueville and Beaumont in America aroused a new wave of academic interest in Democracy in America. Cheryl B. Welch, ‘Introduction: Tocqueville in the Twenty-First Century’ in, The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, Cheryl B. Welch (ed.) (Cambridge, 2006), pp 1-20.

[lv] Quoted in Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 130.

[lvi] Pierson, Tocqueville in America, John Hopkins University Press edition (Baltimore, 1996), p. 26.

[lvii] Jardin, Tocqueville, pp 88-89 and Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, pp 128-129.

[lviii] Pierson, Tocqueville in America, p. 27.

[lix] John Stone and Stephen Mennell, ‘Introduction’ in Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy, Revolution and Society, John Stone and Stephen Mennell (eds) (London, 1980), p. 4.

[lx] Quoted in Pierson, pp 28-29.

[lxi] Just after taking the oath Tocqueville wrote to his future wife; ‘I have at last sworn the oath. My conscience does not reproach me, but I am still deeply wounded and I will count this day amongst the most unhappy of my life...I am at war with myself, this is a new state for me, and it horrifies me.’ Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 89.

[lxii] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 135.

[lxiii] Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 90.

[lxiv] Quoted in Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 90.

[lxv] Quoted in Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 90.

[lxvi] Wolin, Tocqueville, p. 116.

[lxvii] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, pp 7-8.

[lxviii] Tocqueville, On Democracy, Revolution, and Society, p. 250.

[lxix] Quoted in Wolin, Tocqueville, p. 64.

[lxx] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, p. 13.

[lxxi] Quoted in Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 90.

[lxxii] Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, pp 148-150.