Tocqueville on American Character: Why Tocqueville's Brilliant Exploration of the Amican Spirit / Edition 1

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In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville, a twenty-six-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months travelling across the United States. From the East Coast to the frontier, from the Canadian border to New Orleans, Tocqueville observed the American people and the revolutionary country they'd created. His celebrated Democracy in America, the most quoted work on America ever written, presented the new Americans with a degree of understanding no one had accomplished before or has since. Astonished at the pace of daily life and stimulated by people at all levels of society, Tocqueville recognized that Americans were driven by a series of internal conflicts: simultaneously religious and materialistic; individualistic and yet deeply involved in community affairs; isolationist and interventionist; pragmatic and ideological.

Noted author Michael Ledeen takes a fresh look at Tocqueville's insights into our national psyche and asks whether Americans' national character, which Tocqueville believed to be wholly admirable, has fallen into moral decay and religious indifference.

Michael Ledeen's sparkling new exploration has some surprising answers and provides a lively new look at a time when character is at the center of our national debate.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is a rare pleasure. Like Machiavelli himself, it is both profound and witty, full of down-to-earth wisdom for leaders in all walks of life, and an absolute must for those who care about our future." —Rush Limbaugh

"Machiavelli on Modern Leadership slaps modern society across the face with ancient truths about human nature and power. Its honesty takes your breath away and its many stories ring true." —Philip K. Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense

"To illustrate his ideas, Machiavelli made it a practice to give two examples, one ancient and one 'fresh.' With a firm grasp on American contemporary domestic and foreign policy, Michael Ledeen has provided what readers of Machiavelli need today-modern or 'fresh' examples. Machiavelli on Modern Leadership goes beyond the Medicis and the Borgias, reaching for intelligent and courageous examples in the corrupt worlds of modern government, business, the armed forces, and religion, to reveal that Machiavelli's warnings are hammering on the door of the twenty-first century." —Sebastian de Grazia, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Machiavelli in Hell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ledeen (Machiavelli on Modern Leadership), a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, turns his attention to the French aristocrat who visited America in the 1830s and produced the wildly popular and classic travelogue-cum-philosophical essay Democracy in America. Ledeen argues that Tocqueville's observations about America are just as valid and relevant today as they were 160 years ago. Principal among these observations, according to Ledeen, is that, although materialistic, Americans are also extremely religious; further, he argues that American democracy feeds American religiosity and vice versa. Ledeen cautions that in the last few decades, Americans have embraced a rigid distinction between religious and public life, one that would have been unrecognizable in Tocqueville's day. Tocqueville, he asserts, saw the dangers inherent in individualism and applauded Americans for balancing their atomizing tendencies by joining voluntary associations. Ledeen simply echoes this, failing to address the declining role of such associations in American life. This volume ultimately disappoints--there is far more summary of Tocqueville than analysis of contemporary America, and what analysis Ledeen does offer isn't compelling (such as his garbled claim that Americans' participation in voluntary associations has something to do with a love of the emotional and therapeutic). His argument is further marred by a faint jingoism ("Americans love big challenges"; "It's dangerous, even fatal, to underestimate us"). Readers would do well to skip this unconvincing survey and read Tocqueville's original text. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Ledeen (Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, 1999, etc.) relates assorted selections from de Tocqueville's writings from the 1830s to current American politics. De Tocqueville was a wry and perceptive observer of the US in a tumultuous era, and his critique of Jacksonian democracy had a fresh, outsider's perspective. A French aristocrat, he was simultaneously intrigued by egalitarian ideals in action and keenly aware of the ironies and paradoxes they engendered. The seemingly boundless opportunities that America promised, he argued, could not allow every citizen to realize his goals solely through individual effort. "When men are nearly alike, and all follow the same track," he warned in Democracy in America, "it is very difficult for any one individual to walk quick and cleave a way through the same throng which surrounds and presses him." However, the subtleties of de Tocqueville's analysis get short shrift here. Instead, Ledeen links arbitrary snippets to long, vacuous rants on a range of topical issues, from the role of religion in public life (unfairly constrained by rampant atheism, he charges) to moral corruption (rampant, especially among liberals and intellectuals). In Ledeen's reading, de Tocqueville unequivocally endorsed geographic and social mobility, rugged individualism, voluntary associations, religious faith, and, above all, the Horatio Alger narrative of upward mobility. This interpretation is made possible by his stout refusal to consider the selected passages in the context of the subtle and often ironic essay in which they originally appeared, let alone take into account the particular historical settinginwhich de Tocqueville wrote. Sometimes the flimsy premise breaks down altogether: when de Tocqueville voices his pessimism or reveals paradoxes too unequivocally to ignore (stating, for example, that "freedom of opinion does not exist in America"), Ledeen simply disregards the philosopher's judgment, concluding that "de Tocqueville underestimated the stubbornly anticonformist individualism embedded in the American character." A simplistic polemic that reduces de Tocqueville to jingoistic sloganeering.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312252311
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael A. Ledeen, a noted political analyst, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He lives and works in Washington D.C.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Restless People Inspired by Ideas, Forever Headed for New Frontiers 1
1 Dynamic People Driven by Internal Conflicts 27
2 Religious Faith Anchored by Secular Institutions 68
3 Rugged Individualists with a Genius for Cooperation 103
4 Isolationists Called to International Leadership 135
5 Apostles of Freedom Tempted by Luxurious Tyranny 164
Conclusion: More Tocquevillian Than Ever Before 201
Acknowledgments 211
Notes 213
Index 221
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2001

    Sloppy Implementation of a Brilliant Book Concept

    Many people in America have not read Alexis de Tocqueville's brilliant analysis of the American character, as he experienced on his trip to the United States in 1826. That's too bad, because his work brilliantly defines what is different about American society from any other one on Earth. As an aristocratic Frenchman, perhaps it was easier for him to see us as we are, by seeing how different we are from Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans. The concept of the book is to summarize de Tocqueville, and then to test his observations against what has happened since. I have not seen that done before, and looked forward to seeing the results. When Michael Ledeen is describing de Tocqueville, or political thinking of that time, the book is superb. If the book had stopped there, it would have been a five star book. So if you want to read it for that background, you will be well rewarded. Alternatively, you can read de Tocqueville directly. I would prefer the original, but either would serve. In his contemporary commentary on America, Mr. Ledeen is basically giving us a political sociology analysis. For such work, it is helpful to have facts that look from various perspectives and dimensions. The first problem with this book is that Mr. Ledeen prefers to give just one anecdote or one fact, and build his observations from that. That approach works well for stimulating debate, but falls short of being convincing about our unique character. I found this approach very suspect. Second, Mr. Ledeen prefers to always come at the problem from the perspective of being paranoid about losing our ideal character. I think his point of view is a valid one, but there are others. For example, one can also talk optimistically about how we routinely avoid certain traps (like having the best people decide to become politicians, or failing to use private institutions to serve important social needs). Those other perspectives are missing. The result is a book that seems like an anti-Democrat (as in the political party) rant in many places. The third problem is that the book seems to have been weakly researched. Facts and details seem just a little out of focus, as though drawn from long-remembered impressions, rather than real knowledge or research. For example, I rarely see Jack Welch's (the famous CEO of General Electric) name misspelled in any publication or book. But in this book, he was 'Welsh' all the way through. Now, I believe Mr. Welch is an Irishman by background, so I don't think it's an accurate description of his familial history, either. Then, the book goes on to describe his Mr. Welch's pronouncements of 1980 as creative destruction. The ideas that Mr. Welch advocated in that year were well established and broadly in application throughout American business when he pursued them. He primarily was advocating that the company stay in businesses in which it could be the leader or have the second place in market share. He solved the company's deficiencies by simply selling the lower market share operations, not by destroying them. For example, Utah International (a mining operation) was sold within months of his taking the helm. It was only later that Mr. Welch began to downsize the remaining General Electric operations to get rid of excess layers of bureaucatic fat. The ideas Mr. Welch advocated later in his career were actually more important to General Electric's success, such as freeing General Electric Capital to be very entrepreneurial, focusing on leadership training, and implementing Six Sigma. So at best, Mr. Welch is misdescribed due to misfocus in Mr. Ledeen's example. At worst, Mr. Ledeen simply doesn't seem to grasp the example. There are several other sections of the book that display these kinds of fundamental flaws about contemporary observations. As a result, I have to grade the analysis of current society somewhere in the two to three star range, creating an average of three and a half or four stars

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