Saturday, February 26, 2011

Explaining 19th Century America

DeTocquevilleThe 19th century was pivotal for America.  The country progressed from a fledgling experiment to the threshold of becoming a world power.  Numerous foreign visitors came to observe this rambunctious and expanding country.  Among these, two men stand out for their perceptions.

Indeed, these eyewitnesses, Alexis de Tocqueville and James Bryce, wrote works which explained the United States to Europeans—and to Americans.  Writing 50 years apart, they may very well be the best expositors of the political and social culture of the nation during the 19th century.  Their books are still insightful.

De Tocqueville is better known.  He was a French political activist and social reformer who traveled to the United States to study prisons in 1831.  He spent nine months touring eastern seaboard cities and growing frontier towns.  He visited important personages, including former president John Quincy Adams.

The result of his research, much broader than his original intent, was Democracy in America.  The first of two volumes, published in 1835, focused on government.  The second, released five years later, discussed the American psyche and institutions.

The background of his time clearly influenced de Tocqueville’s work.  France was experiencing its greatest political upheaval since the French Revolution and liberalism was on the march.  In this country, political institutions were still taking hold.  There also was a revolution of sorts, Jacksonian democracy.

The Frenchman developed mixed feelings about the United States.  He was impressed by the sense of equality and how this translated into the “sovereignty of the people.”  He appreciated the decentralized government, especially the myriad of municipal jurisdictions.

Although acknowledging various strengths of democracy as practiced in this country, he also expressed concerns.  Foremost of these was the potentially pervasive and dangerous “tyranny of the majority.”  Although he saw the federalist system and its laws as providing an ameliorating influence, he reflected his European bias that power can be manipulated by a majority.

Among his many other observations were the religiosity of the American people; the enthusiasm for associations; and how self-interest promotes “regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command.”

Later in the century, in 1888, James Bryce (Viscount Bryce) published The American Commonwealth.    A British lawyer, historian and political figure, Bryce twice revised the work when he was British ambassador to the United States between 1907 and 1913.

Bryce was clearly aware of de Tocqueville’s work and, in fact, had some reservations about it.  For one thing, the world had changed in a half-century—though hardly a fault of de Tocqueville’s.  More importantly, Bryce favored a more empirical, less impressionistic portrayal of the United States.

Bryce’s lengthy work is essentially a compendium, a narrative discussion of all aspects of American government, ranging from congressional committees to state constitutions and from political bosses to public opinion.  His later editions covered new developments such as the impact of European immigration.

Although many books published in recent years purport to explain modern America, none better explain the United States in the 19th century than the books of de Tocqueville and Bryce.  Coupled with an explanation of the framer’s intent in The Federalist, these works comprise a trilogy with unparalleled insights into American government and society.

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