I wanted to start this review with a joke about this being a review for the book Democracy in America, by Tocqueville, and not a review for democracy in America, but I couldn’t figure out a clever framing for it. That might be because I’m far from adept at humor, or it might be because Democracy in America was far from inspirational. That’s a shame, because I am inspired every time I read the Constitution.
Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s nineteenth century commentary inspired by his travels in America and written for his primarily French audience in an attempt to salvage that nation’s struggles with revolution and democracy, is one of those classic works that is referenced over and over in everything from newspaper editorials, to historical essays, to modern, scholarly books. Unlike some classics I’ve read, this one earned the moniker. It clearly explicated the American system of governance, explores unique features of its founding and cultures, and provides insights on the nature of democracy and the American people that remain relevant today.
My problem with it was therefore nothing to do with the content, or anything about the book, and everything to do with me. Despite its interesting observations, excellent diction, and historical significance, I grew bored with for a very simple reason: it wasn’t telling me anything new. Tocqueville’s observations and insights have become so integrated into biographies, histories, and studies that actually reading the book from which these references are produced added little to my understanding. I’ve studied the Constitution, the founding, the Revolution, and the other topics it explores in depth already.
It’s a shame, because I really wanted to garner insight from this book, the writing is genuinely excellent, there are many parts worth quoting (hence why it’s quoted so frequently), and I’d been meaning to finally sit down and read it for a long while. Instead, I found myself skimming after, in a few chapters, I realized that Tocqueville had little to teach about the Constitution to someone who has read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. Progressing to the portions studying the contexts of the American people, I still found that there was little I had not read in other materials.
Despite that, I’m still going to recommend this book. It really is worthy of being a classic, and I acknowledge that I might study the Constitution and early American history a little more thoroughly than most people. Maybe if the editor in chief of Science had read Democracy in America, he would not have embarrassed himself with his ill-informed editorial exposing his ignorance of the Constitution and American democracy, but that’s a rant for another time. If what you’re looking for is an outside perspective on, and introduction to, America, Democracy in America is still a great place to start. Think of it like an eight-hundred-page political travel guide to early nineteenth century America.
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