Saturday, May 2, 2015

Travels with Tocqueville

I saw Richard Reeves latest title, Infamy, and thought it an odd subject for a historian who made himself famous by his profiles of Presidents.  I decided to peruse his other titles and landed on American Journey, in which he traces the path of Tocqueville around the country from 1831-32 looking for the essence of our Democracy.  Reviews were mixed, but for a pence from who can resist.

As Robert Nisbet notes in his review that Tocqueville is also an odd choice for Reeves, as Alexis was "a profoundly conservative young aristocrat interested in the United States as a sociobiologist is interested in a community of birds or animals."  Reeves is every bit the American liberal but he has tackled conservative figures like Nixon and Reagan in his biographies, so it seems that his reading of Tocqueville had an influence on him.

I had read Democracy in America after being goaded by Goliard in the old NY Times book forum, as he saw this as a seminal book in American politics.  Tocqueville assessed the fallout from the Andrew Jackson landslide electoral victory and came to the conclusion that the young country was run by a "tyranny of the majority."  He offers some profound insights into the nature of the US Constitution and how it differs from the state constitutions in terms of the individual vs. the community, but throughout we sense the young aristocrat's distaste for Jackson, who he sees as nothing more than a populist figure who managed to hoodwink the country with the false illusion of democracy.  I could see how a book like this would appeal to conservatives like Goliard, but wondered why it was continually cited by liberals as well.  It will be interesting to read Reeves' take on Tocqueville.

For others, especially a young Walt Whitman, Jackson represented a seismic shift in American politics.  His election in 1828 brought to an end the last remnants of the Federalist era in John Quincy Adams, who had scored a narrow electoral victory over Jackson in 1824.  Jackson refused to renew the charter on the National Bank, and wanted to decentralize the national government, which the Federalists had worked so hard to achieve.  Jackson cited Jefferson as his inspiration, but Jefferson had upheld much of the Federalist structure, as had Madison and Monroe and J.Q. Adams.

By contrast, Tocqueville saw the Founding Fathers as iconic figures and couldn't understand why Americans would turn their backs on them.  Americans hadn't.  They just saw them in a completely different light than did Tocqueville, Jefferson especially.

From today's stand point, Jackson would be seen as a Teabagger, but in the 1940s he was seen as the founding inspiration of the Democratic Party, and revered by historians like Arthur Schlesinger, who praised him in The Age of Jackson.   It's odd considering that Jackson was the very antithesis of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Schlesinger also praised, but the young historian made a very convincing case for Jacksonian Democracy just the same.

I don't know how much of these dichotomies Reeves pursued in his 1982 travels with Tocqueville, but there is no doubting the influence Tocqueville has had on historians and politicians over the last two centuries.  Goliard was right about that.

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