Tocqueville's classic study of America has become such a staple of the western canon that it is hard to believe it was written by a man in his late twenties and early thirties after only one visit of approximately nine months to the United States, from 1831-1832. The greatest part of that time was spent in three large eastern cities - on a mission that was to some extent pretextual, namely, examining American penal institutions. (Interestingly, it was also in 1831 that another youthful and well-born European, Charles Darwin, took to the sea and made of his observations from that journey the basis for a life's work, also attended by substantial renown.)
Tocqueville had a particularly useful background for such an undertaking: his father was a government official and an aristocrat. Tocqueville himself was trained as a lawyer. He also had a splendid intellect, a sensitive disposition, a knack for finding and interviewing people who would become important later on, and an aptitude for listening carefully and recording his impressions in detail. Moreover, he was - like Darwin - profoundly thoughtful when it came to analyzing and distilling the materials he collected, a process he underwent twice - once for each of the two volumes that comprise this work. It bears mention that he was highly ambitious, as befitted his lineage, and yearned for fame, which he obtained largely because of this book, as opposed to fortune, which he already had.
During a trip that led them to Ohio, Niagara Falls, Canada and New Orleans, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as the nation's capital, Tocqueville and his friend Gustav de Beaumont encountered the travails of travel by wagon, stagecoach, canoe and steamboat, sometimes with hair-raising results. The two spent a fortnight in the wilderness, were snowbound in a crude log cabin where a glass of water left for five minutes turned to ice, visited a Shaker congregation, nearly drowned when their steamboat struck ice in a river, saw some of the evils of slavery close up, and witnessed part of the relocation of Native Americans from the South to the West. Tocqueville was particularly moved by finding a volume of Shakespeare in a pioneer cabin where he felt transported while reading "Henry V." The moral and cultural impressions these circumstances made on Tocqueville led him to open a window that lets us see some of the remarkable early history of the country from the perspective of a sympathetic but still detached observer.
Some readers may think it curious that a work originally written in French should be included in the Library of America series. But in more than one way, Tocqueville straddled two worlds, to borrow from the eminent Tocqueville expert and student of political systems, Sheldon S. Wolin. Besides owing allegiance to France where he lived most of his life (though he traveled widely to other countries besides America), he felt an almost moral commitment to and honorary citizenship in America. In a letter he wrote in 1856, he referred to himself as "half Yankee." Tocqueville was also well aware that the aristocratic order from which he came was fading and that democracy and its concomitant (indeed, its precondition), equality, were on the ascent. Thus, he saw these worlds in comparative terms, and was both judicious and acute in analyzing his perceptions. His study met with instantaneous popularity: John Stuart Mill ventured to contact Tocqueville and the two became friends. He was even compared to Montesquieu. In an introduction to an American edition, John C. Spencer, a lawyer and politician who had entertained and spoken at length with Tocqueville and Beaumont, declared that Tocqueville had written a better study of America than anyone, including Americans themselves.
The other reviews deal with Tocqueville appropriately and I do not venture to add much to what has already been said. Given that there are several other translations competing for our dollars and attention, it would have been helpful, however, if some reviewers had commented on the relative merits of the respective translations instead of only raining fulsome praise on this one. Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have relied on the 2004 Winthrop-Mansfield translation. The Norton Critical Edition of this work relies on the venerable Reeve translation. Clearly there is reason for educated people to disagree.
Having four translations of "Democracy in America" myself, I am inclined to consult different ones from time to time, especially when peculiarities or passages that seem especially critical, complex or opaque come along, in order to get a sense of where the "center of gravity" is among the various versions. I think this is important. To take one small but piquant instance, the Reeve translation of the title for Vol. II, Part 2, Chapter XII, refers to Americans manifesting a "fanatical" spiritualism, while two others (Bevan, Winthrop-Mansfield) call it "exalted" and yet another (Goldhammer) uses "impassioned." The difference is fascinating and may prompt one to resort to the original French texts and a French-English dictionary to see what French word(s) Tocqueville used and how else it (they) might be translated nowadays, since most of us are not likely to have ready access to a French-English dictionary from the 1830's.
I agree with most of the other reviewers that Goldhammer's is the most mellifluous prose. It does not read like a translation at all. I am not sure I would go so far as to say "To read this is to feel that Tocqueville sits in the room with you." That seems a bit overwrought. Likewise, it sounds like thoughtless rhapsodizing to say "More importantly, the depth of his perception, his understanding of the changes wrought upon his world have never been rendered so clearly." Tocqueville's perception, understanding, and so on have indeed been rendered much more clearly - in the original French. That much should be obvious, notwithstanding the merits of this or any other translation. But that is the whole reason it is important to discover and compare translations - because Tocqueville's writing, while rendered clearly by different translators, still remains, in all its various nuances, beyond the grasp of those not fluent in French.
Certainly Tocqueville felt admiration for the American experiment, not awe. Still, his sentiments were hardly unalloyed, as this book and his other writings make abundantly clear. (See especially the letters he wrote after 1840, recently translated into English.) Toqueville saw much to admire here and also much to regret. After all, he was comparing an emerging democratic order with fading aristocracies, and, commendably, he appreciated the merits and drawbacks of each system. Thus, while he lamented the overwhelmingly mercenary inclination of Americans, he also admired their restless energy and the diverse system of government that led such individualists to come together in order to achieve common purposes. To his credit, then, Tocqueville's account is balanced and measured. Those are some of the qualities that make it great.
Among the advantages of this edition is that it includes Tocqueville's notes, a chronology, and scholarly notes by the editor (Olivier Zunz) and the translator. It is also a relatively slender, yet unabridged book, which means it is easy to hold and read, especially by contrast with the Winthrop-Mansfield version, which is larger and somewhat cumbersome. While there are certainly real advantages to each of the other translations of "Democracy in America," Goldhammer's prose is so natural and clear that it's easy to become absorbed in the book before you know it.
If you like Tocqueville, and others have commented that he is at once objective and detached while seeming to speak directly to the reader, there is a wealth of excellent literature by and about him, though only some of it is available in English. (My edition of the Reeve-Bowen-Bradley edition includes an extensive, albeit very dated, bibliography of works in English, French, Italian, and German. Most date from the 1800's.) George Wilson Pierson wrote a substantial tome in 1938, reprinted by Johns Hopkins in 1996, called "Tocqueville in America," which presents a rich and thorough discussion of the travels of Tocqueville and Beaumont during the time they were in America, and of the preparation of "Democracy in America." This is the more interesting because of the people and adventures the two travelers encountered here. For instance, they spoke with Joseph Story, Salmon P. Chase, and John McLean, all of whom were or became justices of the United States Supreme Court and all of whom provided substantial expertise concerning the American legal system and government. They also met for about half an hour with President Jackson; neither side seems to have been much impressed with the other. Sam Houston at first shocked them as very rustic for a former governor, though ultimately they came to admire his intelligence and his sensitivity to the plight of the Indians - a sensitivity Tocqueville shared. The most impressive American they met, however, was John Quincy Adams, who had ended his one term as President and was on his way to representing Massachusetts in Congress. Adams was one of the most perspicacious observers of the American situation and foresaw that slavery would indeed end but only after a major war had intervened. Tocqueville even contributed a short but passionate comment to an abolitionist publication after he returned to France.
Once back in France, Tocqueville carried on correspondence with a number of prominent Americans, including Edward Everett, Charles Sumner, Theodore Sedgwick III, Richard Rush, Henry D. Gilpin, George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, and William Alexander Duer. His correspondence after 1840 has been collected and translated by Jeremy Jennings and Aurelian Craiutu in a volume published by Oxford in 2009. This period reflects a time leading up to his death when Tocqueville was growing disillusioned with America, France, and his own life. His letters from those years have been suggested as the basis for a possible "third volume" of "Democracy in America."
Besides Pierson's book, there is a newer and much shorter volume by Leo Damrosch (FSG 2010)called "Tocqueville's Discovery of America," that covers much of the same ground as Pierson's, though in far less depth. Sheldon S. Wolin's analysis, "Tocqueville Between Two Worlds," (Princeton 2001) is justly regarded as penetrating and well-written - probably the best analysis of Tocqueville in the last two or three score years. Tocqueville went on to write a classic history about France, "The Old Regime and the Revolution," which he could not complete before his death at 53. It will be of interest to people who want to know more about Tocqeuville's perspective on his own country and his evolution as a political theorist. There is a comprehensive biography of Tocqueville in French by Andre Jardin (FSG 1988), which has been translated into English. Hugh Brogan also wrote a biography in English (Yale 2006) that is thorough and well-done (and not as dry as Jardin's).
Tocqueville immersed himself in the life of this country when he and America were both young, confident, and energetic. Many of his observations will strike the reader as acute, even strikingly prophetic. His wide-ranging insights will abundantly reward reading and re-reading, on his own terms. I say that to make clear that there is a school of polemicists who yank passages from Tocqueville for their own tendentious purposes. This is unfair to the man and his work. Tocqueville deserves the same kind of thoughtful and balanced consideration from us that he gave to our nation at a time when it was still young.