The other day, I finally finished reading Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville. This one took me a while. Some passages were stirring and others were a slog. Alexis has a lot to say. I took the book in small bites and knocked out a couple chapters a day until the beast was slain.
Here's the Reader's Digest synopsis: Alexis De Tocqueville was a French researcher sent to the United States in 1831 to study the American prison system, but he would end up using his visit as a pretext, for his real aim was in conducting an in-depth examination of American society as a whole. The result of his effort was a grand tour of the new nation (with particular emphasis on New England) and a two volume work entitled Democracy in America - it remains one of the great political and social critiques of all time.
Cutting right to heart of the matter, Alexis is a fan of the United States and there is much he feels the world can learn from this young, boisterous, republican democracy recently birthed on the North American continent. As both a historian and political philosopher, he dissects our government at the federal, state and local level carefully weighing its merits and faults. He examines the role of women, the issue of slavery, the tensions between North and South - nothing escapes his lens. He's particularly struck by the level of civic engagement he witnesses amongst the average citizen, and by the uniform pride Americans take in simply being citizens of a free republic.
The best (and most prescient) segment of the book came towards the end, when De Tocqueville waxes philosophic and discusses how despotism might manage to take hold within a democratic nation - even amongst a population as ruggedly independent as that of the United States. The truth of his writing speaks for itself and it's worth quoting at length. What follows are three unequaled paragraphs of political analysis that ring even truer today then they did almost 200 years ago (I realize I'm letting my slip show a bit here, but that's alright - we're all respectfully opinionated citizens in this great American town hall!)
He continues on,
Bring it home Alexis,
Democracy in America is an important book to read, but it's also a book you must really want to read if you intend on making your way fully through it. It's passages like those above that make you glad you undertook the journey.