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In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were commissioned by the French government to travel to America and report on innovations taking place in the American criminal justice system. They used the occasion, instead, to engage in a broad and complex study of American society.

This class will use the resulting book, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to explore some of the essential characteristics of Americans and what made America, in their eyes, both distinct from the Europe of their time, as well as a glimpse into the future of what Europe would become as democracy replaced aristocracy as a foundational principle of Western society.

In Tocqueville’s experience, several things stood out: first and foremost, America was a classless society. Consequently, Americans could experiment with democracy without contending with the social and political baggage of a hereditary aristocracy. Second, Americans felt compelled to participate in society and took ownership of it. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the workings of a New England township. And finally, America had developed a powerful civil society in which much of what was meaningful in life was coordinated through voluntary associations, churches, and civic organizations in which the state was entirely absent, creating a strange type, the proud individual who was simultaneously committed to supporting and sharing the burdens of his or her neighbors.

Not all was good in Tocqueville’s America, of course. He worried in particular about the deepening problem of race, with slavery strong and growing, despite its obvious contradiction with the fundamental American principles of equality and liberty. The course will end with a consideration of Tocqueville’s fears about how failing to solve the race problem might destroy the American experiment in liberty.


Student inmates will read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Volume One.