Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, to research why America’s prison system worked better than the French system, in terms of rehabilitating prisoners. French theorists believed that education actually made it harder to reform criminals.
Tocqueville visited penitentiaries from Sing-Sing to Michigan to New Orleans; and in the course of this research made, observed the individualism, equality, responsibility, women, and community governance, throughout America.
His book, Democracy in America, became a best seller throughout Europe, and until today is considered a premier
treatise on America, with predictions that proved true 150 years later.
But, Tocqueville wrote most powerfully on the character of the American people. From his book:
On why people emigrate
“The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.”
That immigrants, having escaped authoritarian regimes, did not seek another
“What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life;
if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything around it must also languish; when it sleeps, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish?
On the character of some inhabitants in Europe who did not emigrate.
There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.
When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.”
On Americans tendency to create and innovate
What most astonishes me in the United States, is not so much the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings, as the innumerable multitude of small ones.