Tocqueville's America Revisited, Part 1

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul Kennedy prepared a series that was first broadcast back in 1986. At the time, Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. We revisit that series, which features new interviews and insights, to consider the ongoing relevance of Tocqueville's classic.
Detail from a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1855).

Nearly 200 years ago, a young French aristocrat traveled across the Atlantic to get a first-hand immersion in American democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months touring the United States, talking to hundreds of people, trying to understand the country's strengths and weaknesses. Some have called his writing prophetic, capturing the essence of the American experiment with democracy -- both back when he was visiting the U.S. in the 1830s and today. 

Paul Kennedy considers the ongoing relevance of Tocqueville's observations. Part One of the series examines the role of economics, individualism and the press. **This episode originally aired October 14, 2016.  Part 2 airs Tuesday, July 11.

Alexis de Tocqueville describes what he saw as Americans’ compulsion towards change, as narrated by former IDEAS host Lister Sinclair

"Extreme peril does not always impel a nation to rise to meet it; it is sometimes fatal. It can arouse passions without offering guidance and cloud a nation's intelligence rather than enlighten it."

"Individualism in America at first only saps the virtues of public life, but in the long run it will attack and destroy all other virtues. At length it will be absorbed in downright selfishness…. [Americans] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man. They acquire the habit of always considering themselves standing alone…. Thus democracy throws man forever back upon himself alone and threatens to confine him in the solitude of his own heart." 

Guests in the program:

  • Ryan Balot -- Professor of Political Science and Classics at the University of Toronto. He specializes in Greek and Roman political philosophy, and ancient and early modern political thought. He studied classics at the University of North Carolina, the University of Oxford and received his doctorate from Princeton University. His most recent book is Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens
  • Arthur Goldhammer -- Translator, writer, and scholar. He has translated more than 125 books from the French, including Tocqueville's Democracy in America, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, and Recollections. He is a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard, a member of the editorial board of the Tocqueville Review, and writes regularly for The American Prospect, The Nation, and other publications.
  • Jennifer Pitts -- Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; she received her PhD from Harvard University and her BA in English from Yale. She writes on modern political and international thought, particularly British and French thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; empire; the history of international law; and global justice. She is author of A Turn to Empire: the rise of imperial liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton 2005), editor and translator of Alexis de Tocqueville: writings on empire and slavery (Johns Hopkins 2001) and co-editor, with David Armitage, of the forthcoming The Law of Nations in Global History (Oxford 2017). She is currently finishing a book, Boundaries of the International, that explores European debates over legal relations with extra-European societies during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Related websites: 

**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy and Nicola Luksic.