American history Policy and Politics

A 19th Century French Observer Sheds Light On America’s Unstable Politics

Alexis De Tocqueville arrived in the United States in 1831. The French nobleman, superbly educated and with Enlightenment ideals,  came with a companion to study democracy in the young nation.  The last major  representative system, the Roman Republic, had been overthrown in 27 BC by Julius Caesar, who had himself crowned leader of a Roman Empire that would continue for nearly 500 years. After final ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1791 the United States became the the world’s first representative political system in more than 1800 years. In the early 19th Century European governments continued to be ruled by monarchs or other systems lacking full popular representation. Power sharing systems like parliaments, such as in Great Britain, existed, but appointments to these positions were mainly limited to the nobility or upper classes and hereditary monarchs retained much power.

The turbulent French experience with democracy. Three years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution the French had their own popular revolution in 1789. But its bloody and chaotic outcome  – including execution of one of France’s greatest scientists, Antoine Lavoisier, on grounds that he was an aristocrat (the judge who condemned him famously observed that “France had no need of savants”), ultimately led to restoration of the Bourbon monarchy from 1814 to 1830. The first restoration king, Louis XVIII, granted a written constitution and bicameral legislative body. However, his successor, Charles X (1824-1830), returned to a more authoritarian governing style.

At the time of De Tocqueville’s departure from France on April 2, 1831.  King Charles X had been forced by the July Revolution to abdicate in favor of a constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe.  De Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave De Beaumont, wanted an official government mission and financial support for their travel. Since democracy was too sensitive to justify their request, they initially covered up their real goal, and received approval to study the American penal system.

De Tocqueville finds national character traits different from those in nations that supplied immigrants.  The risk of reporting on democratic systems in America receded after Louis Philippe took the throne.  De Tocqueville described his observations in a famous two-volume book, Democracy in America (1)Published simultaneously in French and English in 1835 and 1840, it created a sensation. De Tocqueville’s work has been described as the most perceptive book ever written about the United States. A highlight of his observations was that descendants of European immigrants in the United States looked very much like people in France and Europe. But they showed characteristics not found in any nation from which Americans had emigrated.

 “American Exceptionalism – a double-edged sword”. The special features of American society, now often described as “American exceptionalism” (2) remain widely noted  today.  But few Americans  who have heard of De Tocqueville realize that he described not only positive qualities that continue to be associated with the United States, like strong commitment to democracy, entrepreneurial drive, willingness to take bold risks, and openness to communication and forming new associations for mutual benefit.

De Tocqueville also described less flattering national tendencies that he apologized for detailing but felt needed attention. These include characteristics like shallowness, opinionatedness,  and focus on material acquisitions and self-interest. De Tocqueville suggested that these qualities helped explain the attraction of American voters to politicians who served their immediate concerns and told them what they wanted to hear. He described his surprise at the lack of vision in political and other societal leaders. The connections between self-interest and lack of leaders with vision becomes more understandable when we consider that statesmen and other leaders with vision see issues that may be valid but unwelcome and  that people would prefer to avoid.

Polling data offer striking resemblances between national characteristics that De Tocqueville reported more than 170 years ago and those we see today. Recent Gallup polls (3)  report that public approval ratings for the performance of the U.S. Congress have declined to he lowest levels (approaching 10%) since polls on such questions have been conducted. At he same time, a representative sampling of citizens showed approval of their own Congressional representative at 62%.

We have met the enemy and he is us (Pogo). When the full implications of the above connections sank in after recently reading De Tocqueville in the original rather than in summaries and interpretations that I had seen or heard earlier,  it seemed tough medicine. If traits like the above were hard-wired in the population, improving the performance of American national politics would face steep odds. If voters don’t really want politicians who know and tell the truth and work toward realistic solutions. If they prefer instead those who serve their immediate interests and offer charisma and “magical” policies to deal with larger national needs, then it’s not  politicians who are the fundamental problem. We could throw out all the leaders who serve today – but we would elect another group just as bad in their place.

Realistic reform potentials. De Tocqueville does offer windows of hope in his observations of politics in America. He noted that at times of crisis – notably during the Revolutionary war – Americans became more willing to accept statesmanlike leaders. And Americans are flexible.  And once Americans accept the reality of major problems they are quicker than in other societies to correct them.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party show deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.  But projects like former Comptroller General of the U.S. David Walker’s Come Back America movement,  Ted Talks, based on a desire for informed action,  and other reform movements, still seem in early stages of development. We may need a bigger crisis before Americans become willing to take the need for true reform seriously.


1. Alexis De Tocqueville. Democracy in America, four-volume multilingual edition, edited by Eduardo Nolla, and translated from the French by James T. Schleifer, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis. This edition adds previously unpublished drafts, notes, and correspondence by De Tocqueville (who interviewed President Andrew Jackson as well as many other leaders, and also spent extended time with an Indian tribe)

2. Lipset, S. M. (1996). American Exceptionalism–A Double Edged Sword. NY, Norton

3.  Mendes, Elizabeth, 2013. Americans Down on Congress; Ok with their own Representative, Gallup Inc.