Exploring American Democracy

with Alexis de Tocqueville as Guide


July 17

Opening dinner at O. Zunz's house

After a day of introduction (July 18, below), we will read and discuss the two volumes of Democracy in America (1835, 1840) in seven seminar meetings. We will prepare specialized bibliographies for each of the seven topics below as well as a list of accessible sources. In each session, seminar directors will guide the discussion of our common reading.  Then each day we will ask two (in a couple of instances three) participants informally to report on a theme indicated below in italics. Thus each of our colleagues in the seminar will have an opportunity to guide the group while exploring a topic of interest and highlighting a disciplinary perspective.

All seminar meeting times: 2p-5p
(except Fri, July 22, and Fri, July 29: 1p-4p)

Seminar meeting location: New Cabell 594

July 18

1- The seminar directors will begin with the question of how a twenty-five-year-old French traveler, after spending only nine months in the United States in 1831-32, was able to conceive the brilliant idea of framing modern history as a continuous, still ongoing, struggle between political liberty and social equality.

July 19

2- Citizen Participation in Democracy (Volume I, introduction and part 1, chapters 1-5, pp. 3-110.) 

With the first reading, we will focus on the importance of the local community in Tocqueville’s thought and the key role of active citizen participation in achieving compatibility of liberty with equality. Tocqueville underscores the liberty American citizens derive from an ingrained and resilient habit of local self-government, not threatened by a subsequently created federation of states. 


Jean, Constance, and Patrick will lead a discussion on Tocqueville and Beaumont’s American itinerary.

July 20

3- The New Political Science (Volume I, part 1 (cont.), chapters 6-8, and part 2, chapters 1-3, pp. 111-214.)

We focus here on key passages on the habit of liberty, the genius of the Founding Fathers in knowing when and how to restrict liberty in order to preserve it, and the mutual reinforcement of liberty and equality as an axiom of Tocqueville’s new political science. Tocqueville analyzes how constitutional ingenuity can limit some of the dangers to liberty in a large republic.


Raymond and Sean will then lead a discussion based on Tocqueville’s readings of American legal and constitutional texts, especially some of the Federalist papers and key writings of Judge Story and Chancellor Kent. They will also discuss Tocqueville and Beaumont's meeting with their first major informant John Spencer, a lawyer active in New York politics. Tocqueville, Beaumont, and Spencer discussed the American judiciary, bicameralism, freedom of speech and of the press, and the relationship between religion and government.

July 21

4- The Tyranny of the Majority (Volume I, part 2, chapters 4-9, pp. 215-364.) 

This discussion takes participants to the most contentious part of the first volume, the theory that a tyranny of the majority—an alternative despotism if you will—muzzled dissent and killed freedom of opinion in America.  How great is the danger of tyranny of the majority (then and now)? Did Tocqueville exaggerate it, and did he overlook the equal and opposite danger of a tyranny of the minority?


Zach and Jean will lead a discussion on Jared Sparks (Unitarian minister, former editor of the North American Review and later Harvard’s first history professor), who gave Tocqueville the idea that in America the majority was always right.

July 22 (1p-4p)

5- Race as a Crucial Problem that America Had Yet to Solve (Volume I, part 2, chapter 10, pp. 365-476.)

Tocqueville was wise in devoting a totally separate chapter to race and stating bluntly that the topic required a distinct treatment, for there was no way he could think of the lives of nonwhites on American soil as democratic. Treating race relations independently was thus an effective way of challenging Americans to extend democracy beyond the white race.


Trevor and Jennie will lead a discussion on Tocqueville’s interview with John Quincy Adams in Boston, who instructed him on slavery and the American south, and his interview with Sam Houston on a steam boat down the Mississippi; Houston related his life among Native Americans.

July 25

6- The Myriad Implications of “Equality of Conditions” for the Nature of the Social Bond  (Volume II, part 1, pp. 3-102.) 

We now turn to the “second Democracy” Tocqueville wrote as he was launching his political career by representing his Norman district in the French Chamber. By then Tocqueville had taken his distance from America and aimed at a more formal treatment of the differences between aristocratic and democratic societies. The second Democracy has since become the volume most often referred to in debates on democracy. Volume two opens with civil society and ponders the meaning of equality for such key topics as the place of religion in a democracy and the practice of science, literature, and the arts. 


Pat and Chris will lead a discussion on Francis Lieber, a German immigrant who became an important political philosopher and befriended Tocqueville and Beaumont in Boston. He translated their report on the American penitentiary system—an important statement on reform and rehabilitation in a democracy.

July 26

7- Self-Interest Properly Understood (Volume II, part 2, & part 3, chapters 1-12, pp. 105-176, 179-232.) 

This section encapsulates the essence of Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy with passages on individualism, equality, associations, and self-interest properly understood. We review Tocqueville’s profound reflections on the influence of equality on the development of individual character. We will also consider Tocqueville’s analysis of the place of women in American society, at once admiring, critical, and bewildered.


Rachel and Robin will lead a discussion based on Beaumont’s novel Marie; or, Slavery in the United Sates: A Novel of Jacksonian America (1835), which captured the drama surrounding the forbidden love of a French traveler for an American woman who is marked forever by the stigma of her distant black ancestry.

July 27

8- A Modern Society of Free Choice and Social Mobility (Volume II, part 3, chapters 13-26, & part 4, chapters 1-8, pp. 233-358.)

This last part is a critical restatement of Tocqueville’s essential idea that liberty requires constant effort on the part of citizens. Tocqueville ended his great work on a positive and hopeful note in favor of democracy against any of the alternatives observing that “equality is less lofty, perhaps,” than inequality, “but more just, and its justice is the source of its grandeur and beauty.”


Alec and Leslie will lead a discussion of Tocqueville and his British friends, John Stuart Mill and Nassau Senior. This is important because in volume two of Democracy in America, Tocqueville included England as the “tertium quid” in contrasting his ideal types of aristocratic and democratic societies. Tocqueville at his most theoretical in the 1840 volume did not attract a large readership at the time but John Stuart Mill loved every line and accurately predicted a bright future for the work in the annals of politics and letters.

July 28

10:30a-12p (seminar room next to Olivier's office/Nau 497)
French reading group focusing on AT’s intro to DA in the French text.

2p-5p (seminar room)

First half: Eric will present on AT and education, Constance on AT and the arts, and Greg on AT in Canada.

Second half: Art will present a Tocquevillian reading of Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century.

July 29

1p-4p (seminar room)

First half: Olivier will present some of his ideas on Tocqueville and socialism and lead a discussion on the subject, with special emphasis on 1848.

Second half: 16 seminar participants and 2 seminar directors briefly present their research plans for the coming year!


Closing potluck picnic at the Farmhouse (121 Mimosa Drive)