main menu - summary - content - site map - accessibility



Journey down the Mississippi: The return
« Here I see successful institutions that would surely turn France upside down, while other institutions, which suit us, would obviously be destructive in America, yet unless I am seriously mistaken, man here is no different or better than in France. But he is differently situated. »
(Letter to his father, June 3, 1831)

Back in New York in the month of February 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont were anxious to return to their loved ones in France - especially as they were extremely worried about the cholera epidemic that was sweeping Europe at the time. They boarded a ship, the Henri IV, on February 20th. Due to the loss of the Le Havre maritime registries for the spring of 1832, we do not know the exact date of their arrival, but we know tha the two men who landed on the French coast had been deeply marked by their American experience. Their journey had only lasted ten months, during which time the pair knew they could only glimpse the reality of American society and institutions, but it had a powerful effect on the development of the two friends' thought and on their respective careers. Initially, their mission for the Ministry of the Interior made them the authors of the report entitled The Penal System in America and its application in France, which was awarded the Monthyon Prize in 1833. In addition, the "universe's number one prisoners" (as Beaumont) put it) returned with their bags filled with documentation and their minds nourished by enough observations and reflections for dreaming up more ambitious literary projects, after both of them had quit the legal profession. Beaumont's trip to America gave him the material for a novel, Marie, or slavery in the United States, which was an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1835. As for Tocqueville, he gave his trip its full meaning by publishing his masterpiece, Democracy in America.

Le Soleil couronné, Gustave Le Gray

Le Soleil couronné, Gustave Le Gray
© RMN/Patrice Schmidt

Continually nourished by his experience in the New World, the work was founded on the various observations that he made during the trip: according to him, the American people owed as much, if not more, of their prosperity to the country's extremely favorable conditions than to any particular government or its particular set of virtues. This prohibited one from thinking that the development of the United States could in any way constitute a "model" to follow. On the other hand, the American example should serve as a warning to France that equality of conditions - towards which all modern societies historically moved - have a "prodigious influence" not only on "the progress of society", but also on political customs and the government.
In fact, it seemed as though American had made a modern politician out of Tocqueville, by uprooting him from an outmoded way of thinking and projecting him into the future

see the map

Map of the United States

Map of the United States and the Declaration of Independence on July 17, 1776 (title page), anonymous © BNF


Note accompanying the submission of the report on the 'American penal system'

Note accompanying the submission of the report on the American penal system © CHAN

resignation of Tocqueville from his post of apprentice magistrate

Administrative document acknowledging the resignation of Tocqueville from his post of apprentice magistrate at the court of Versailles © CHAN

Travel notebookaccess to Travel Notebook with Flash

Down the Mississipi

Top of page