What would Tocqueville say if he visited America today?
This essay contest is funded by a generous grant from the Apgar Foundation and invites submission from undergraduates at IU Bloomington and students enrolled at the Lilly School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis. It is a creative assignment that asks students to imagine what Tocqueville might have to say if he visited the US today. To answer this question, students should have some familiarity with Tocqueville’s work and contemporary social, political, and cultural events in contemporary America.
Who was Tocqueville?
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was a French aristocrat who came to America with his traveling companion Beaumont. They arrived in the United States on May 11, 1831 and departed about nine months later on Feb. 20, 1832. Formally, they were French officials sent to study the American prison system. They spent substantial time in American towns, and met extensively with officials and economic and social elites at all levels, including the then sitting President, Andrew Jackson, and one former president, John Quincy Adams.
Tocqueville’s voyage to the US. The towns Tocqueville and Beaumont stayed in included New York City (May 11-June 30, 1831), Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore (Sept. 9 – Nov. 22), Washington, D.C. and New York City again (Jan. 18 – Feb. 20). From June 30 to Sept. 9, they went by boat and coach through upstate New York, Michigan, the Great Lakes, Canada, and back east to Boston. From Nov. 22, 1831 to Jan. 18, 1832 they went, again by coach and boat, across Pennsylvania, encountering bitter winter conditions in the Allegheny Mountains. These conditions scuttled their original plans, which were to head south, ending up in Charleston, S.C. Instead, they headed down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, with the idea of getting to the Mississippi and heading south. With the Ohio frozen over, they continued a very difficult transit by coach until they finally got to Memphis. Tocqueville eventually caught an illness and had to change his plans a little. They embarked on a boat that took them to New Orleans. From there they made their way slowly back to Washington, D.C through the Carolinas. Tocqueville and Beaumont had extended discussions in a number of towns about slavery and race and witnessed racism and racial inequalities in both free and slave states. They met Native Americans at several points and noticed how different reality was from European fantasies of “noble savages.” Tocqueville remarked on the “general air of ruin and destruction” surrounding the fate of the Native Indians.
Democracy in America, originally published in two volumes in the 1830s, is one of Tocqueville's two great works, the other being The Old Regime and the French Revolution. The America that Tocqueville visited was a society in flux. By 1848, American was a continent-wide power, made possible by innovations in communications and transportation (railroads, canals, telegraph, the steamboat, steam-operated print press and innovations in papermaking). In addition, the mechanization of agriculture and mass production had begun. These innovations made possible the proliferation of newspapers and magazines and hence civic associations and political parties.
After Democracy in America
After leaving the US, Tocqueville maintained a lively correspondence with a number of friends he made during his visit. In his letters, Tocqueville expressed increasing concern about where the US was heading. He worried about political corruption, the growing nastiness of American party politics, America’s imperial ambitions and their corrosive impact on democracy, increasing immigration, and above all, slavery. These issues are highlighted in Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings eds and trans, Tocqueville on America After 1840: Letters and Other Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Instructions for the paper
Please make sure your paper complies with the following standards:
1. The paper must be typed using 12 point font.
2. The paper should be max 3,000 words (that is, approx.. 10 double-spaced pages).
3. Include proper citations (preferably Chicago Manual of Style) for your textual evidence.
4. Please focus on two or three relevant topics from the list below. Here are a few main topics recommended to you. Make specific references to contemporary facts that confirm or challenge Tocqueville’s theses.
Civil society (voluntary associations etc.)
Self-interest rightly understood
The role of government
Soft despotism and welfare state
5. Deadline for submission: Monday April 3, 2017.
6. Submit your entry to both Professors Aurelian Craiutu (Political Science), firstname.lastname@example.org and Les Lenkowsky (SPEA, Emeritus), email@example.com. When sending your message, please enter for reference: “submission for the Tocqueville essay contest”.
7. The results of the contest will be announced by April 18. We will award three cash prizes ($300, $200, and $100) and possibly a few honorable mentions. They will be presented at a special ceremony co-hosted by the Tocqueville Program and the Center on Representative Government at IU in the last week of April.
Here are a few materials that might be helpful to you. There are many editions of Democracy in America, some better than others. For this assignment, we would ask that you use the Liberty Fund critical edition produced by Eduardo Nolla and translated by James T. Schleifer. The pdf version of the critical edition can be found here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2286&Itemid=99999999 then select: LF printer pdf option. Please note that you can do this for every one of the four volumes of the Liberty Fund edition from this page: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2284&Itemid=99999999
On Tocqueville’s philosophy:
Auelian Craiutu’s lecture on Tocqueville at Emory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y216lMy26KQ
Steven Smith (Yale): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMXpYEqn-0w
Tocqueville’s voyage to America is discussed by Leo Damrosch (Harvard): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8h-fmUlr5w
Applications of Tocqueville’s ideas:
For your paper, you might want to check out a few relevant sources. They are many and include, among others, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eB5kQ2XDbAg
Also useful might be Peter Lawler’s lecture on individualism today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDxS69eTTYU
And this essay on religion in America by Richard Samuelson: http://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2016/08/as-america-grows-less-religious-can-the-tocqueville-model-still-work/