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Gloomy diagnosis: Alexis de Tocqueville, 1850, portrait by Theodore Chasseriau  

Recent years have been kind to Alexis de Tocqueville. Long forgotten in his own country, with the decline of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he was rediscovered as a theorist of democratic citizenship. Next he figured as a champion of social capital. Now he looks like one of the possible intellectual forebears of the Big Society.

Tocqueville wrote two great books: Democracy in America, published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840, and The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, published in 1856. While the latter established the thesis that the French Revolution had merely continued the centralising tendencies of the Bourbon monarchy, the former was the result of a voyage he made to America in 1831-32 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. Their official mission was to produce a report on the penitentiary system but, little by little, the idea came to Tocqueville that he might write a book about the "great democratic revolution" he saw unfolding before him. Composed, in Tocqueville's phrase, "under the impression of a sort of religious terror", upon publication it was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece.

The nature of the journey undertaken by Tocqueville and Beaumont is elegantly brought back to life in Leo Damrosch's Tocqueville's Discovery of America. From their first stay in New York City until their final hurried passage by stagecoach through the slave states of the South, their days were ones of constant enquiry, mixing expeditions into the wilderness with dinner parties among the Boston Brahmin, hazardous riverboat trips with visits to Shaker and Quaker meetings. Always alive to the charms of American women, both men were fascinated by American customs and manners. Both concluded that in America the arts of cookery and of music-making were in their infancy. Complete barbarism, Tocqueville commented, was the norm.

Above all, as the delightful selection of letters edited by Frederick Brown reveals, it was the sheer novelty of America that came increasingly to press itself upon Tocqueville's mind. Translated for the first time, these letters not only provide a vivid picture of Tocqueville's daily experiences, but also show how he began to comprehend the singular country he was exploring. A letter to his close friend Ernest de Chabrol, written in June 1831, encapsulates his thought wonderfully. "I am simply dazzled," he announced, "by all I see." And what he saw was a country "lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character". This "happy land", he continued, was marked by a "restlessness of the human spirit". It was also one where people devoted themselves to making money rather than to politics. The only thing binding the diverse elements of American society together, Tocqueville observed, was individual self-interest. 

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