Saturday, October 27, 2007

Seeing is Believing?: Alexis de Tocqueville

Many foreign travelers visited the United States during the early 19th century, and apropos of class discussion, countless visitors attended the revivals of the Second Great Awakening and met some of the reformers we've been talking about. These visitors often published their observations and many of these make for interesting reading.

I've read a few of these books and essays over the years, and always learn something new. And I'm particularly interested in what the observers said about religion.

Achille Murat, for example, the son of one of Napoleon’s political appointees in Naples, Italy, traveled to the United States from Vienna in 1823, settling in Florida and acquiring a plantation. A lawyer by training, Murat kept a correspondence with European colleagues and published his observations about life in America in A Moral and Political Sketch of the United States of North America (1833). No doubt familiar with established churches in Europe, religious pluralism (this relates to disestablishment we talked about in class) in America made an impression on Murat: "From the pure doctrines of Unitarianism to the gross absurdities of Methodism all shades may be found here, and every opinion has its partisans, who live in perfect harmony together. Among the variety of religions, everybody may indulge his inclination, change it whenever he pleases, or remain neuter, and follow none. Yet, with all this liberty, there is no country in which people are so religious as in the United States" (from Milton B. Powell, The Voluntary Church: Religious Life, 1740-1860, Seen through the Eyes of European Visitors [New York: Macmillan, 1967], 50).

Murat was not the only visitor to note the religious vitality of the United States' spiritual marketplace. French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most famous visitors during the early 1830s, offered interesting observations about religious life in nineteenth-century America and published his reflections in a must-read book: Democracy in America.

C-SPAN did a very interesting special on Tocqueville some years ago, and there is a ton of information available. Recently, French thinker Bernard-Henri Levy retraced Tocqueville's steps and wrote a kind of 21st-century version of Democracy in America. It is titled American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, and it is a fascinating read. Read a review of the book here and here. You can take a virtual tour of Tocqueville's trip here. Read about Tocqueville's life here, get the context of his visit by reading this, and view his itinerary. Now you are ready to complete the assignment (type your answers and turn in a hard copy in class; do not simply copy and paste Tocqueville's words; summarize in your own words, analyze, and discuss).

Question #1: Pick 2 cities on this map and discuss Tocqueville's observations about each place. What do we learn about 19th-century America from Tocqueville's observations? How does it compare and/or contrast with what we've discussed in class relative to early 19th-century America?

Question #2: What did Tocqueville see and witness about ordinary American life? Read about it here. (Pick 1 topic and discuss it in your answer. You have 5 choices: work, fashion, domestic life, housing, and recreation.)

Question #3: What did Tocqueville think about religion in America? Check it out here, then click "Tocqueville and Religion." Read the two interviews (Interview #1, Interview #2) from Tocqueville that discuss the separation of church and state; one is with a Protestant, the other a Roman Catholic priest. What is one important thing you learn about American religion from each interview? Why?

**Want extra credit on this assignment? Read Tocqueville's observations about the relationship between religion and democracy here and answer these two question in a 2-3 paragraph essay (300-500 words; include word count at the end of the document; 12-point font; Times New Roman; 1" margins). Remember to back up your argument with evidence (i.e., quotes). This essay is worth a quiz grade. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers here. You will be graded on meeting the assignment's specifications, argument, and use of evidence.

1. According to Tocqueville, is religion a necessary part of democratic society? Why or why not?

2. Do you think Tocqueville agreed or disagreed with the First Amendment? Why or why not?

The 3 questions are due WEDNESDAY 10/31, and the essay is due FRIDAY 11/2

[Photo credit here.]


david l said...

This is interesting to hear about the experiences of foriegn people in America. It proposes a question about what other societies also saw in America

Anonymous said...

i didnt think how much of an impact Toqueville had on modern society and in politics. It gives a different perspective on other countries and communities view America as a whole.
connor w.

Anonymous said...

I agree David. This was a great assignment for me because I learned alot about what the views of the country were from foreigners back the. It also came to mind what foreign visitors think in terms of impressions when they travel our country! I'm looking forward to discussion on this in class soon!
-Jason S.

Anonymous said...

i think it was cool to read about Tocquevilles first impressions on the cities he visited... and to see what life was like in the rural cities with unpaved roads, its neat to see what others thought of america when they visited, especially during the great awakening- J.Graves

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to see how much he affected politics. It is also cool how he came to America to observe. It's nice to see how people react.

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