A Question of Character

From The Boston Review:

Kennedy_35_6_america On May 11, 1831, a diminutive 25-year-old Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, stepped onto a New York City wharf and began his fateful encounter with America. Over the subsequent nine months, Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission about American prisons, ranged from the cities of the eastern seaboard to the unaxed wilderness west of Detroit. They were, Tocqueville rhapsodized, “overcome with joy,” to see “a place that the torrent of European civilization had not yet reached.” Through crippling cold they descended the great valley of the Mississippi to New Orleans, crossing paths with Choctaw Indians shivering westward on the Trail of Tears. They sipped Madeira in the White House with President Andrew Jackson (“not a man of genius,” Beaumont drolly noted). Everywhere they keenly observed the American scene.

Four years later, Tocqueville published the first volume of his monumental work, Democracy in America. Together with its companion volume, released in 1840, it remains the most astute analysis of American society ever penned, a touchstone and inspiration for all subsequent efforts to grasp the elusive essence of America’s national character.

More here.