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Democracy in America

The "First Democracy" (1835):
Origins and Reception
« I confess that in America I saw more than America: I looked for an image of democracy itself, its penchants, its character, its prejudices, and its passions. I wanted to know it, if only to know what we ought to hope or fear from it. »
(Democracy in America, I, Introduction)

To write a book about the institutions and social organization of the United States as a way of garnering his first public recognition was an idea that inspired Alexis de Tocqueville even before he left for America. and remained with him throughout his stay. While ostensibly on a tour of American prisons, he therefore set out to investigate American democracy in all its detail, analyzing, discussing, and reflecting on what he learned from a select group of informants about the operation of the courts, the role of associations, the decentralization of institutions, the place of religion, and so on-all of this was supposed to provide him with the material needed to write his book. Tocqueville thus returned from his travels with trunks filled with documents and a mind filled with observations and reflections, and he immediately set to work on his book, leaving it to Beaumont to draft most of the report on the American penitentiary system by himself. Nevertheless, he took time out for a first visit to England in order to gauge what part the British legacy played in American institutions before finally throwing himself fully into the drafting of the first volume of his work in September 1833. He started by working his way through the many notes he had taken during his trip. These would form the basis of the first volume of Democracy in America, although Tocqueville eventually supplemented his notes with such an abundance of documents as to constitute what he himself described as almost "a second voyage to America."

« I am working as much as I can on my America, and it has put me in a good frame of mind. . From morning until dinner I lead a purely cerebral existence, and at night I go to Marie's. . The next day I begin again, and so on day after day, with surprising regularity. »
(Letter to Louis de Kergorlay, November 11, 1833)

The manuscript was finished on August 14, 1834, after eleven months of intensive work in an attic room on the rue de Verneuil, where Tocqueville toiled alone with his "American obsession." Gustave de Beaumont then agreed to read and correct the text carefully prior to its publication on January 23, 1835, by Gosselin, who also published the great poet Lamartine. Gosselin had little hope for the success of the book, which he had not read, and cautiously ordered a print run of only about five hundred copies. Success was immediate, however, and no fewer than four editions of the text appeared in 1835 alone. Beyond any doubt, Democracy in America was that year's publishing sensation, and it earned its author not only invitations to all the literary salons and political gatherings of the capital, along with the admiration of Royer-Collard, Chateaubriand, Lamartine and Lamennais, but also election to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques on January 6, 1838.

The Print Shop, Jean-Charles Develly

The Print Shop, Jean-Charles Develly, preliminary sketch


Letter from Louis de Lamennais to Alexis de Tocqueville

Letter from Louis de Lamennais to Alexis de Tocqueville, private collection
© AD Manche

Preliminary report by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Preliminary report by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Tocqueville's academician's sword

Tocqueville's academician's sword, private collection
© AD Manche/A. Poirier

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