On Tocqueville: Democracy and America

On Tocqueville: Democracy and America

by Alan Ryan
     
 

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Tocqueville’s gifts as an observer and commentator on American life and democracy are brought to vivid life in this splendid volume.
In On Tocqueville, Alan Ryan brilliantly illuminates the observations of the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who first journeyed to the United States in 1831 and went on to catalog the unique features of the American… See more details below

Overview

Tocqueville’s gifts as an observer and commentator on American life and democracy are brought to vivid life in this splendid volume.
In On Tocqueville, Alan Ryan brilliantly illuminates the observations of the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who first journeyed to the United States in 1831 and went on to catalog the unique features of the American social contract in his two-volume masterpiece, Democracy in America. Often thought of as the father of "American Exceptionalism," Tocqueville sought to observe the social conditions of emerging political equality in America, "a river that may be channeled but cannot be stopped in its course." In choosing America, he posed a central question of how a moderate, stable, and constitutional government is to be maintained in the wake of a revolution. As a dispassionate visitor, Tocqueville wanted to discover the social, moral, and economic arrangements that made liberty and self-government possible.
In doing so, Tocqueville made a number of prescient observations about American life—whether it be the contrast between equality and liberty or Americans’ belief that they all belong to the middle class—that remain as relevant today as when they were first written. While Tocqueville is often praised by both conservatives and liberals, either for his distrust of big government and fondness for decentralized power or for his concern with association and community, both tend to overlook his contempt for the “coarse appearance” of the individual members of Congress as well as his enthusiasm for the brutal nature of our prison system. Alan Ryan examines the often complicated and elusive Democracy in America, tracing the influence of writers such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Guizot, and explaining Tocqueville’s original conceptions of equality and individualism within their historical context. In Ryan’s hands, On Tocqueville becomes the perfect introduction and guide to Democracy in America.On Tocqueville: Democracy and America features:• a chronology of Alexis de Tocqueville's life• an introduction and text by Alan Ryan that provides crucial context and cogent analysis• key excerpts from Democracy in America

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
Expanding upon his Tocqueville chapter from On Politics, Ryan provides a careful introduction to Tocqueville’s life and thought, followed by excerpts from his major work. In the two volumes of Democracy in America, Tocqueville developed “a new way of conceptualizing and understanding the political world,” a method that helped explain “how American institutions had come to be,” but was also based on the works of three previous thinkers. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws was one of the first books to explore “the political cultures of different political systems,” especially the French and British monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. Rousseau, the second influence, believed “that the general will was the voice of reason, and that a majority that asked the correct question would always be ‘in the right,’ ” which led to the French Revolution, a disaster Tocqueville would analyze in L’ancien regime et la revolution. Benjamin Constant’s lectures on ancient and modern forms of liberty demonstrated the importance of citizens holding governments accountable, an idea that found full expression in American political society. Tocqueville saw American citizens as exemplifying the virtues discussed by his sources, with a “self-governing republic” that established schools, built churches, and created hospitals and prisons. Ryan also provides a timeline of important historical and personal events during Tocqueville’s life. This deft introduction should inspire readers to return to the original work. Agent: Jennifer Weltz, JVNLA, Inc. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-17
Tocqueville's prescient analysis of American democracy, concisely and cogently explained.In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), accompanied by a traveling companion, came to America charged by the French government to study the country's penal system. During their tour, besides visiting prisons, they observed the social life and culture of the young nation. Five years later, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, two volumes that were acclaimed in his own time and remain relevant today. Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; On Politics, 2012, etc.) offers a clear, incisive introduction to Tocqueville, followed by selections from Democracy in America. Tocqueville came with an overriding question that concerned his own countrymen: How did democracy thrive? "A stable political order that was both democratic and liberal required distinctive social, moral, and economic attachments," Tocqueville believed; "their analysis was an urgent task." The French Revolution, after all, had resulted in "mob rule, the Terror, and mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic." What made America different? Influenced by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Francois Guizot, Tocqueville identified individualism as a key factor in democratic success. To him, individualism meant "a strong sense of ourselves as moral beings with duties to perform and rights to protect." Furthermore, he believed that America offered its citizens—except for Native Americans and blacks—the opportunity for equality. "Equality of condition," according to him, "was not equality of income, education, or anything in particular; it consisted in the absence of social obstacles to whatever ambitions an American entertained." Although he argued that America was not at risk of relapsing into tyranny or anarchy, he worried about the possible "tyranny of the majority" and of an insidious consequence of individualism: "a retreat from engagement" with the outside world.Ryan's excellent introduction makes Tocqueville's observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780871407047
Publisher:
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
08/11/2014
Series:
Liveright Classics Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,338,036
Product dimensions:
7.30(w) x 4.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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