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The American Experiment

Who believes in American Exceptionalism? Alexis de Tocqueville, for one. Tocqueville felt that traveling to America would reveal the secret of the modern world, in which democracy and equality were destined to rule. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America, an extensively illustrated new volume from editor Olivier Zunz and translator Arthur Goldhammer, chronicles that journey through letters, notebooks, and sketches. The book was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal:

“Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a book that every American who reads should read. There’s no better book on democracy and none better on America, first home of modern democracy. Among a wave of new translations and analyses in recent years, [this volume provides] elegant decoration for Tocqueville’s masterpiece.... Olivier Zunz and Arthur Goldhammer have produced a tome fit for a generous gift. [It contains] Tocqueville’s travel notebooks, narrations of his side-trip to the frontier, later letters, other writings on America and ample selections of writings from Tocqueville’s friend and companion on the trip, Gustave de Beaumont. This book even includes pictures of American birds that Tocqueville and Beaumont shot so that Beaumont could paint them—thus illustrating Tocqueville’s uncanny appeal both to the left (lovers of nature) and the right (lovers of hunting).”–Read full Wall Street Journal review

Alexis de Tocqueville, a young aristocrat of twenty-five, worried deeply about the future of France as well as his own fate in his native country, which had just experienced its second revolution in less than fifty years. Along with Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow magistrate, Tocqueville conceived the idea that by traveling to America he could penetrate the secret of the modern world, in which democracy and equality were destined to rule.

Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America reproduces the journey of these two friends in an authoritative and elegant volume. Zunz and Goldhammer present most of the surviving letters, notebooks, and other texts that Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote during their decisive American journey of 1831–32, as well as their reflections and correspondence on America following their return to France. Also reproduced here are most of the sketches from the two sketchbooks Beaumont filled during their travels. The two young men relied on these documents in writing their individual works on America, Tocqueville’s seminal Democracy in America (1835–40) and Beaumont’s novel Marie or, Slavery in the United States (1835).

Focusing on American equality, Tocqueville made a lasting contribution to Western political thought by framing modern history as a continuous struggle between political liberty and social equality, and presented the United States as having struck a proper balance between the two ideals. Beaumont concentrated instead on the brutality of racial prejudice. These extraordinarily rich and often profound texts constitute the indispensable record of their intertwined engagement with the United States, which we see here through the unfailingly intelligent gaze of two young Frenchmen with a unique appreciation of what was novel in the American experiment.

“This compendium of letters from Zunz and Goldhammer (who previously collaborated on a 2004 volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) is not only an exceptional glimpse into 19th-century life in America, but a wonderful and accessible companion to Tocqueville’s own classic text.”–Publishers Weekly

 

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