Book Review: Leo Damrosch, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America

By June 23, 2010

To get a better understanding of the cultural milieu of early Mormonism, one might need to make an extra trip to Yale?s Beinecke Library. And read French.

Damrosch, Leo. Tocqueville?s Discovery of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. xxi + 227 pp. Illustrations, maps, endnotes, index. Hardback: $27.00; ISBN 978-0-374-27817-5.

While in Boston doing research a couple weeks ago, I just so happened to notice a flyer advertising a lecture by literature professor and intellectual historian Leo Damrosch. Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard university, wrote the brilliant intellectual biography of Rousseau (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005]), to which I owe just about all of my understanding of the French philosopher. I became even more excited when I saw that Damrosch?s most recent book came even closer to my interests: the famous American voyage of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. Intrigued, I attended what ended up being a fascinating presentation.

We are all familiar with Tocqueville?s Democracy in America. It is a unique glimpse at American political theory during the antebellum era from the eyes of an educated foreigner?most poignantly, the eyes of a sympathetic educated foreigner. Many translations of the work exist,[1] numerous scholars have dissected the text itself, and multiple volumes have been dedicated to examining Tocqueville?s political theory. However, as Damrosch explains, Democracy in America is not the only important offering Tocqueville left for students of early America. Specifically, Tocqueville?s papers from the 1831 trip itself are a treasure-trove for historians of early American thought and culture.

What made Tocqueville different from other foreign visitors of the period who documented their journeys?like Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope?was his openness to appreciating the new culture, his willingness to understand how this new breed of democracy worked, and, most importantly, his insatiable appetite of observing and recording every element of America he could find. A member of an aristocratic family at a time when such connections were not desirable in France, Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont convinced the French government to allow them to the United States in 1831 and study the American penitentiary system?a hot topic of the day, and a formidable excuse to leave the country when the walls were closing in on higher-class families.

While they did study and eventually write on American prisons, their real goal for the trip was to observe the developing American culture, with hopes to publish a major volume on American democracy. Thus, they treated their ten months in America as an extended research examination, recording everything they could about what they saw, heard, and discussed with local citizens. The result was multiple volumes of journals, notebooks, and letters that include anecdotes, conversations, and general reflections from their experiences. They talk about religion, marriage, politics, economy, literature, dinner groups, shaker meetings, the ?wild west? of Ohio, the revivals of upstate New York, and even the faux gentry of the South, just to name a few. Indeed, it would be tough to name something they didn?t record. Unfortunately, almost all of it didn?t make it into Democracy in America, and a majority of it has never been translated into English. Fortunately, almost all the documents are housed in the Tocqueville collection at Yale?s Beinecke Library. Damrosch?s book introduces us to these documents, guides us through Tocqueville?s stay in America, and provides numerous anecdotes of what Tocqueville observed.

This book, and these documents, should be of extra importance to Mormon historians, not only because Tocqueville?s trip take place just as the LDS Church was founded, but he covers some of the most relevant geographic areas of the young movement, almost tracing Joseph Smith?s journey from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio only months after the prophet did it himself. He spent a week in upstate New York, constantly commenting on its spiritual ferment, and then spends a few days in the northern and eastern areas of Ohio, recording what life was like on the frontier fringes of American society. Tocqueville apparently did a great job recording conversations with people from all facets of life in these areas, from the well-to-do upper class people who throw lavish dinner parties to the poorest individuals he bumped into on the streets; from the secular humanists who swore by Thomas Paine to the religious enthusiasts embracing the many upstart movements of the period. Damrosch gives a great overview of Tocqueville?s general impressions of the area, and of the excerpts he shares from Tocqueville?s papers are as humorous as they are revealing.

The book certainly does have some limits, at least for our purposes. Most importantly, Damrosch is not very interested in Tocqueville?s perceptions of American religion and theology. Though intriguing glances are found here and there, religion just isn?t within Damrosch?s scope. This isn?t a knock on the book, just a reflection of the author?s framework and interests. Further, because Tocqueville?s Discovery of America was designed for a broad audience, it contains many of the common limitations that accompany a text written for both academic and lay audiences: simplified endnotes, minimal scholarly engagement, very little theory, and an overabundance of fun anecdotes rather than a healthy dose of interpretation. While this makes the book a quick and smooth read (I was able to make it through almost all of it on my flight from Boston to London), it often left me wanting more?but that is only because readers like me are not the only primary audience.

Most importantly, this book introduced me to a bulk of new primary sources I was heretofore unaware of.[2] I think someone could dedicate an entire article to examining what Tocqueville?s letters and notebooks tell us about the environment that early Mormonism was developed in, perhaps titled something like ?Joseph Smith in Tocqueville?s America? (or ?Tocqueville in Joseph Smith?s America,? whichever angle is desired). At the least, here?s hoping that more historians utilize these documents in our quest to enrich our understanding of the dynamic culture that was antebellum America, and we have scholars like Leo Damrosch for leading the way.


[1] I asked Damrosch what the best translation of Democracy in America was, and he said it was an important, yet simple, question. Tocqueville?s language was a mixture of florid prose and seventeenth century aristocratic French dialect, while still remaining quite lively. Unfortunately, because of his old-fashioned vocabulary, most English translations end up being too dull or dead to really capture the text?s beauty. To Damrosch, the translation that comes the closest to recreate Tocqueville?s playful prose is Arthur Goldhammer?s edition in the Library of America series. (I found this disappointing news, since had I recently purchased the University of Chicago Press edition, which he said was especially dull in its translation.)

[2] In fact, I wish I had known about these documents a week earlier, for I was researching at the Beinecke the day before I was at his lecture. Drats.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Current Events


  1. Having recently picked up Damrosch’s bio of Rousseau, I’ll have to check this out.

    Comment by Dallas Robbins — June 23, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  2. Nice analysis and insights.

    When I read DIA I compared the UPC edition to another, I don’t recall which. UPC read much more clearly. All is not lost.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 23, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  3. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Jared T. — June 23, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

  4. I see from an online itinerary that the two young noblemen came by here (Syracuse) on their way to the Auburn prison in July of 1831. In 1969, a missionary companion and I were privileged to visit the Tocqueville chateau (a private residence), introduced through the kindness of mutual acquaintances, to Rene Clerel, Vicompte de Tocqueville (I saw him on French national television the next evening). We stood at the desk where Alexis (pronounced A-lex-SEE) wrote Democracy in America, and had a pleasant and respectful political discussion with his descendant in that office (nineteenth-century double-glass windows installed to keep out the noise of the children playing outdoors while Alexis worked). I wonder if M. de Tocqueville kept the white buckram Book of Mormon we gave him . . .

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 23, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

  5. Okay, so the LoA edition best reflects dT’s style. Anything on which translation provides the most accurate translation of content?

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 24, 2010 @ 12:58 am

  6. Mark: the Chicago translation prides itself on being the most accurate, whether it’s true or not. Damrosch said that in trying to be so literal, however, it lost much of the overall accuracy. It’s obvious that he’s biased, but he felt the LoA’s flowing style in turn made it the most accurate in capturing the overall meaning since style, to Tocqueville, was part and parcel to the message since the content relied on the overall composition.

    Comment by Ben — June 24, 2010 @ 1:12 am

  7. Thanks for this post, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — June 24, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  8. What of the additional material looks particularly useful, and how is your French?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 24, 2010 @ 11:01 am

  9. Steve: French is passable, but there is, unfortunately, an ocean between me and Yale now.

    Re: useful additional material. All of his notebooks look to be a treasure trove for cultural history of the period. He recorded long passages about New York religious revivals he attended, doctrinal debates he witnessed, and common discussions between townspeople in eastern Ohio, just to give a few examples. It’s really as if he were an ethnographer doing a year-long observation study, taking copious notes, and then depositing them all into an archive.

    Comment by Ben — June 24, 2010 @ 11:13 am


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