Letters from America (trans. by Frederick Brown)

Alexis de Tocqueville was twenty-five years old in May 1831 when he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont landed at Newport, Rhode Island, after thirty-seven days at sea. Tocqueville was a deputy royal prosecutor, Beaumont his immediate superior. The two had been granted leaves of absence from their duties in the French judicial system to study American prisons, and a book-length report they co-authored upon their return, Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France, testifies to the earnestness with which they undertook their mission. But the letters they wrote from America show them avidly observing everything around them. Prison reform was their passport to the New World; it legitimated what proved to be a cultural enquiry of seminal importance.

The aristocratic family into which Tocqueville had been born shaped him more for caution than adventure. Having barely survived the Terror of 1793–94—unlike many of their close kin—his parents lived the life of cultivated Norman gentry. Count Hervé de Tocqueville was elected mayor of the town of Verneuil during Napoleon’s reign, but otherwise remained aloof from politics, concerning himself mainly with the welfare of a family that came to include three sons: Hippolyte (1797), Édouard (1800), and Alexis (1805). It also included a priest named Christian Lesueur, his own childhood tutor, who now tutored his children. At Verneuil, and wherever Hervé subsequently established himself, books mattered. The household Alexis de Tocqueville evoked years later was as hospitable to serious literature as it was fortified against current events. “Literature was one of the standing subjects of conversation. Every new book of any merit was read aloud, and canvassed and criticized with an attention and a detail which we should now think a deplorable waste of time.” Hospitality extended beyond books to writers. Literature incarnate visited Verneuil now and again in the person of François de Chateaubriand, whose journey across America had inspired novels that would, when finally published in 1826, excite the imagination of young romantics.

With Napoleon’s fall, history called old-line aristocrats out of the shadows. The restored Bourbon monarchy, mindful of sacrifices made to the throne during the ancien régime (above all, by Mme de Tocqueville’s grandfather, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, who defended Louis XVI at his trial and followed him to the scaffold), appointed Hervé de Tocqueville to prefectships first in Burgundy, then in Lorraine. What this meant for Alexis was a life divided between his mother, who set up house in Paris, refusing to leave the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and his father, who took him under his wing when he turned fifteen. The division cut deep. In turn disciplined by a model of competent public authority in Hervé, and subjected to violent mood swings by the melancholic, irritable Louise—whose nerves may have been unstrung even before the trauma of her imprisonment during the Terror—Alexis did not live easily within himself. His intellectual brilliance, which led him in adolescence to challenge the pieties of his class, was nonetheless hostage to self-doubt, and never fought free of it. All this made for intense restlessness.

Left to his own devices, Alexis might have become a traveler the instant he was graduated from the collegiate school at Metz in Lorraine. But there was no question of travel until he finished law school, which he entered à contre coeur, lacking a better alternative. Back to Paris he shuttled in 1823, at age eighteen, for three years of drudgery at the École de Droit. In 1826, he defended theses in Latin and French, obtained his degree, and was rewarded by the family with a voyage to Italy and Sicily. His brother Édouard accompanied him. The young men spent four months abroad, taking notes, climbing volcanoes, and breathing free in what proved to be excellent preparation for Alexis’s journey to America. When the voyage ended, professional life began. Hervé, now prefect of a region administered from Versailles, arranged to secure Alexis a niche at the court of general jurisdiction in his bailiwick. The council responsible for confirming such appointments included three members of the Tocqueville clan; council meetings were, to all intents and purposes, family reunions.


In 1830 history made the family reunion at Versailles a thing of the past. Dethroned during the July Revolution, Charles X was replaced by a constitutional monarch, Louis Philippe d’Orléans, whose father—dubbed Philippe Égalité—had joined the Jacobins advocating Louis XVI’s execution in 1793. Hervé, honored with a peerage under Charles, had had to resign his prefecture for a seat in the upper chamber of the legislature; now, under the Orléanist dispensation, he lost that as well. Nothing remained of a distinguished public career.

Alexis, in turn, sat on the horns of a dilemma, for the July Monarchy required Bourbon functionaries to take an oath of loyalty. It didn’t matter that he held Charles X in low regard: pledging loyalty to Louis Philippe, a monarch whom his father couldn’t abide, felt like an act of betrayal. But not to take the oath would cost him his job, and the specter of unemployment loomed even larger than the prospect of laboring without honor at chores that did not invigorate the better part of his intellect. How might he arrange to serve the new regime and not enforce its laws? The study of American prisons seemed a way out. But Alexis felt ambivalent about face-saving expedients. The turmoil of 1830 had not yet ended in 1831. Would this revolution follow the same course as that of 1789, he wondered? Would Tocquevilles who had escaped death almost four decades earlier survive this time around? Would he, who carried royal credentials to America, soon find himself in the vanguard of a new generation of émigrés? Was he a researcher or a fugitive? His letters from America, for all their exuberance, wit and keen observation, would reflect those anxieties. Translator’s Note


To his mother[1]                                On board the vessel Le Havre, bound for

New York, April 26, 1831


It is you, my dear Mama, to whom I wish to write first. I had intended to do so upon my arrival in New York, but I lack the courage to wait until then. Moreover, circumstances are favorable: since the wind speeding us forward is scarcely rocking the boat, my script may be no more illegible than usual. I should like to offer you a substantial letter, but I don’t quite know where to begin. Not that anything of great moment has occurred since our separation, only that I feel I have millions of things to tell you. I shall therefore take the easy path and ramble.

Papa will have told you how and at what time he bid us farewell at Le Havre. What he couldn’t have reported was our sadness after his departure. Never have I felt such heartache. When he and my brothers left, the bond that tied me to all of you and to France went slack; and I doubt that any American city will ever seem as foreign and deserted to me as Le Havre appeared at that moment. After painfully killing three long hours, we boarded our vessel. Rumor had it that we would likely remain in Le Havre for six days. You can imagine how this news thrilled us. We threw ourselves onto our bunks and fell fast asleep, lacking a better alternative. At half past midnight, awoken by some noise overhead, I climbed through the companion hatch and realized that we were under full sail. A jetty lantern was still glowing on the horizon; otherwise no land was visible in the night, and I have seen no sign of it since. I hope, however, that it exists somewhere; for I am ill disposed to live this long on water. The threat of seasickness regularly sends me below deck. While Beaumont[2] has been his usual hale and hearty self, I spent two days in bed queasy and dejected. Only on the third did I take some interest in things of this world and on the fourth I recovered. Most other passengers fared less well than I. We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. Let me assure you, we made a fine assemblage of pale, yellow, green faces—every color of the rainbow. I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew. I shall limit myself to a description of several cabin passengers—the vessel’s aristocracy, as it were. In the cabin adjacent to our own is an important English landowner, M. Palmer, who has served in the House of Commons.[3] A very kind, knowledgeable old man, he has taken a liking to us and furnished us with useful information and excellent advice. He’s the best of the lot. His roommate—a traveling salesman, to put it more bluntly than he himself might—is the buffoon. Not that he means to make one laugh. On the contrary, he amuses us despite himself, being a very serious personage, whose entire conversation is wine and politics. And good Lord, what politics! Everything a fool would claim to know after reading Le Constitutionnel.[4] His pomposity has us in stitches. He always calls France “My fatherland,” as in, “I’m visiting America to sell the wines of my fatherland.” People give him a wide berth. He avenges himself by opening one of his bottles every day and hoarding it. Our other neighbor is M. Schérer, a man whose countenance is such that we couldn’t face the prospect of conversing with him for three days; now we cleave together like three toes . . .[5] Except for his looks, which would be regarded as deplorable anywhere in the world, he is an excellent fellow. To be sure, he resembles in every way a thousand wastrels loitering about the streets of Paris, but we’re glad of his company. He is fluent in French, neither dim nor bright, and happy-go-lucky. I must stop drawing these portraits or the letter will never end; suffice it to say that we are as diverse a conglomeration of animals as boarded Noah’s ark: a Spaniard, a whole French family, two Americans, a Swiss lady and her children. Relations are, by and large, easy and considerate, if not intensely amiable. We get along with everyone, and it is well that we do, for at sea one either befriends one’s companions or fights. There is no middle ground. You’d be amazed, dear Mama, at the peculiar life one leads on this large oceangoing diligence! Being crammed together, constantly exposed, breeds an informality and freedom unimaginable on land. One lives in the midst of the crowd as if one were alone; some people read aloud, others play games or sing. While I write, my neighbor sups. If one feels impelled to do something—be it eating, drinking, or sobbing—one simply does it. Rooms are so narrow that one must step outside to dress, and, apart from putting on my breeches, I perform my daily toilette for all to see.[6] In short, we live, like the Ancients, on the public square. This is the true land of freedom. Its one drawback is that freedom can be exercised here only within the confines of a wooden box. Most of our companions therefore while away their time in the most trivial pursuits, distilling boredom drop by drop, as far as I can tell.

We haven’t been contaminated and busy ourselves much as we normally would ashore, weather permitting. We rise before dawn, work until breakfast at 9 o’clock; we resume work at noon and continue until dinnertime. After dinner, we speak English with whoever will tolerate our chatter, and retire at 9 p.m. This is not to say that we lack all external distractions. Everything in this world is relative. Think of the nuns [in the play Ver-Vert] all atwitter over the foul language of their pet parrot. That’s precisely how matters stand with us. We watch a cloud on the horizon or the trimming of the sails with absolutely rapt attention. The other day we spotted a barrel in the sea. It caused a general stir; pistols were produced; and we used it for target practice, making an infernal racket. Mine was the shot that pierced it. This has entered our annals as “The Day of the Barrel.” Another sensation was Schérer’s vizored cap being carried off by a wave. But unquestionably the most memorable event took place this morning when a gust of wind blew a charming little sky-blue bird, half dead, into our rigging. It’s a species we don’t have in Europe, and the Americans aboard immediately recognized it as one of their own. You have no idea how delighted we were with the little creature, which seemed to have been sent for the express purpose of announcing imminent landfall. We caught it and put it in a cage.

One week ago, on a delicious spring evening, our ship was plowing ahead, I’m not sure how, on a windless day in calm seas. Someone proposed that we dance. So Beaumont went off to fetch his flute and a merry time was had by all, romping on the deck. If you want to know where this occurred, consult a map for the convergence of 42 degrees latitude and 34 degrees longitude! There, or thereabouts, was the dance hall. Man must be an animal heedless of all that may befall him to caper as we did over a bottomless abyss, under the vault of heaven, with death on all sides. But after all, is the same not true of the best furnished salon in the Faubourg Saint-Germain?[7] And then, one accustoms oneself to everything. I assure you that I no longer scan the horizon for land as I did our first day out; I am already quite used to seeing nothing around me but a more or less closed circle, with billowy clouds floating overhead. More than once, however, we have witnessed spectacles that deserve an artist’s eye. One moonless night, for example, water began to sparkle like an electrifying machine. It was pitch black outside, and the ship’s prow slicing through the sea spewed fiery foam twenty feet in either direction. To get a better view, I shimmied onto the bowsprit. From that vantage point, the prow looked as if it were leaping at me with a forward wall of glittering waves; it was sublime and admirable beyond my ability to evoke it. The solitude that reigns in the middle of the ocean is something formidable. During the first ten days of our journey, we regularly spied other sails; large birds tracked us and often perched on our spars; the sea abounded in fish. Beginning at around 30 degrees longitude, the vessels, birds, and fish disappeared. The ocean acquired a somber cast, but its monotony impresses one as vast rather than dull.

At the approach of the Banks of Newfoundland, we were buffeted by two gales, one lasting thirty-six hours. It was a repeat performance of what we experienced on the sea of Sicily [four years ago], with this notable difference that we were never in any danger of capsizing, as our sturdy vessel cleaved the tallest waves.[8]

The real danger in those circumstances is of falling and breaking an arm or a leg. You can’t imagine, dear Mama, what a toll is taken of one’s energy by the continual effort to keep one’s balance. I needed a sea voyage to acquaint myself with all the perils of distraction. If you daydream for a minute, you’re liable to wake up on your backside, in which case you slide straight ahead until you meet a wall. At table, the diner opposite may receive a glass of wine in his face. Servants spill sauce down your collar.

Eventually, one grows used to all that. The thirty people at table end up regulating their movements and we greet one another with the most agreeable decorum. Moreover, one endures these tribulations only in very heavy weather.

But to return to the Banks of Newfoundland, that is where birds and fish reappear, in particular one called the Portuguese man-of-war. It’s a little fish with floating transparent membranes that catch the wind like sails. Then there are fish no bigger than a pinhead; they have the same properties as glowworms and in their millions produce an electric show of the kind I mentioned earlier. After fish and birds came kelp. It is said that this sea grass played its part in the discovery of America by announcing the approach of land to the mariners who first crossed the Ocean.

Today, May 4, the day on which I resume my letter, we are situated at 66 degrees longitude. New York is only 130 leagues away.[9] It will be a negligible distance if we strike a leading breeze, otherwise possibly a week’s voyage. Meanwhile, we’ve already been 32 days at sea! Our fresh provisions are largely gone, and sugar is already rationed. Despite it all, you will believe me, I hope, when I say that my chief satisfaction upon docking at New York will not be stepping foot on American soil but receiving news from Europe. The packet that left Le Havre on May 15 will undoubtedly not have arrived, but other vessels that set sail eight or ten days after we did may have passed us. Only seeing you again, my dear Mama, could exceed the pleasure of reading letters from all of you.


To his mother                                                           From shipboard, May 9, 1831


Yesterday evening the first shouts of “Land Ahoy!” were heard, but one needed a spyglass to sight the shoreline. Today, at dawn, Long Island came into view. We are fast approaching the coast and can already make out greensward and leafy trees. It’s a delicious spectacle. I must cut this letter short to join the celebration on deck. For once, the sea is not inconveniencing anyone.


To his mother                                                                       New York, May 14, 1831


When we first caught sight of Long Island, dear Mama, I hardly expected what would soon befall us. Once on deck, I realized that the wind, blowing from the east since morning, had shifted to the west. An hour later, it became violent and contrary. We were forced to tack, that is, to zigzag, but made no progress. As the morning wore on, our crew noted that the wind had settled “in a quarter,” meaning that it would likely continue westerly for several days, to our dismay, for we had sick people among us, and had almost exhausted our fresh provisions; even wood and grain were in alarmingly short supply. Passengers therefore petitioned the captain to veer north and make for Newport. He agreed. So it came to pass that at nine in the evening of May 9 we dropped anchor in the outer harbor of that town, sixty leagues from New York. A fishing boat soon drew up and hailed us. Our delight at having reached land was such that all the younger folk and the captain himself crowded aboard the dory. Half-an-hour later, in damp breeches and on shaky legs, we were dancing jigs at Newport’s dock, as happy as could be just to find ourselves back in the world. We then made our way to an inn, where the captain treated us to supper. What I personally relished most—you may not appreciate this—was the water we drank; the water on board had become undrinkable (à propos of which I must tell you that the captain, excellent man and fine sailor though he is, had horribly mismanaged everything to do with the vessel’s stores and comfort). As for my companions, they ate with two feet in the trough. Then, remembering “French gallantry,” they and I bought a large quantity of fresh provisions, re-embarked, and reached our vessel at midnight. No one had yet gone to bed. In triumph we hauled our booty down to the ladies’ saloon, and proceeded to sup all over again. When I say “supped,” please understand that I refer, in my case, only to the conversational aspect of the meal.

The following day we visited Newport. To our indulgent eyes, the town seemed quite pretty. It is a cluster of houses no larger than chicken coops but very trim. Except that such neatness would be unimaginable in France, the inhabitants are not conspicuously different from Frenchmen. They dress like us and their physiognomies are so various that one would be hard pressed to identify their national origin. I believe that this must be true throughout the United States.

After delighting for three hours in the sensation of walking on solid ground, we boarded the steamer that plies between Providence and New York. You would marvel at the interior of this immense machine. One detail will suffice: it contains three large saloons, two for men, one for women, where as many as eight hundred people eat and sleep comfortably. It completed the run of 60 leagues to New York in just 18 hours, despite choppy seas and contrary winds.[10]

This entire coastline of America is low lying and nondescript. Hardly a tree remains standing in a region densely wooded two centuries ago. We sailed between Long Island and Connecticut, and approached New York at sunrise, entering the port from behind. I don’t know whether our view was colored by the experience of 35 days at sea and our recent passage down a drab coast, but I assure you that cries of admiration went up when we beheld the city’s surroundings. Picture a sea dotted with sails, a lovely sweep of notched shoreline, blossoming trees on greensward sloping down to the water, a multitude of small, artfully embellished candy-box houses in the background—and you have the entrance to New York by way of the Sound.

I was so struck by what I presume to be the commodiousness of these little houses and their excellent situation in the landscape that I shall try to obtain the design of several especially pretty ones; Émilie may perhaps find them useful for Nacqueville.[11] I have already been informed that they are not expensive; we have nothing comparable in France.

I must try to describe things more succinctly lest my letters swell into quarto volumes.

Here we are in New York. From a Frenchman’s perspective, it looks disarmingly weird. There isn’t a dome, a steeple or a large edifice in sight, which leaves one with the impression that one has landed in a suburb, not the city itself. At its very core, where everything is built of brick, monotony rules. The houses lack cornices, balustrades, carriage entrances. Streets are ill paved, but pedestrians have sidewalks.

Lodging was a problem at first because foreigners abound at this time of year and because we sought a pension, not an inn. At last we found one that suits us perfectly, on the most fashionable street in town, called Broadway. As luck would have it, M. Palmer, the Englishman I mentioned earlier, had already found accommodations in this boarding house.[12] Our shipboard friendship and especially the interest he is taking in our mission have led him to oblige us whenever and however possible. Best of all are the amenities offered by Americans. They beggar description. Men of every class seem to compete for the honor of being most cordial and useful. The newspapers, which report everything, announced our arrival and expressed the hope that people would come forward to assist us. They have outdone themselves. All doors are open and welcoming hands extended at every turn. I, for whom diligences and inns have always been the tiresome appanage of travel, find these new conditions most agreeable.

One difficulty that has hampered us ever since we left France, and which we have begun to overcome, is language. In Paris, we fancied we knew English, not unlike collegiate school graduates who think that their baccalaureate is a certificate of learning. We were soon disabused of that notion. All we had was a basic vehicle for making rapid progress. We truly drove ourselves during the ocean crossing; I remember days on a windswept deck translating English when it was difficult to hold a pen. Unfortunately, with so many French speakers aboard we could always fall back on our native language. Here the situation is different. As no one speaks French, we have had to give it up. Our conversation is entirely in English. It may sound pitiful, but at least we make ourselves understood and understand everything. Interlocutors even tell us that we show great promise. If we do end up mastering the language, it will be an excellent acquisition. The benefits we’ve already reaped illustrate for me the foolishness of a Monsieur de Belisle, who travels to lands where he cannot converse.[13] One might as well take strolls in one’s room with the windows shuttered.

No doubt you would like to know, my dear Mama, how we spend our days. We rise between 5 and 6 and work until 8. At 8 o’clock the breakfast bell rings. Everyone convenes punctually. Afterward we visit several establishments to interview men with knowledge of matters that concern us. We return for dinner at 3 o’clock. Between 5 and 7 we put our notes in order. At 7 we go out and socialize over tea. This way of life is most agreeable, and I believe eminently sane. But it flouts all our assumptions. Thus, we were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day. We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper.

At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far, this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride. It seeps through their politeness.


 Sunday, New York, May 15


I take up my letter again, dear Mama, after returning from high mass at a Catholic church five minutes from our residence. I carried the little book that Bébé[14] gave me and assure you that I was thinking about all of you during mass, of him and of you, dear Mama. I can’t tell you how singularly one is affected, when far from home, by all the religious ceremonies one has attended since childhood. At one point, with none but Americans around me, I fancied myself in France and was so persuaded of it that I spoke French to my uncomprehending neighbors. The church, a large one, was filled to overflowing, and the congregation more meditative than an assembly of French worshippers. We heard a good sermon on the subject of grace and were pleased to discover that we could follow it. Our intention had been to visit the bishop after mass, but he is in Europe right now.[15] We were told that his grand vicar, a good-natured, amiable priest named Power, would receive us splendidly, but Father Power was not at home when we called; we shall return tomorrow.

Catholics are firmly established in New York. They have five churches and more than 20,000 members. I have heard Americans say that converts are numerous. Their numbers are increasing in various parts of the Union and I should not be surprised if a religion so beleaguered in Europe made great strides in this country. Every year another fifteen or twenty thousand Catholics arrive from Europe. They spread throughout the wildernesses of the West, where the need for religion is most keenly felt. They become fervent, if they aren’t already, or their children do. So indispensable is a religious doctrine seen to be on this side of the Atlantic that Protestants themselves hold lapsed Catholics in low regard.

I thought these details would interest you.

I beg you, dear Mama, not only to transmit this letter to Édouard’s household, but to ask Hippolyte how the arrangement sits with them. I prefer addressing only one person at a time and pouring out all my news. The thicker a letter, the less liable it is to go astray. Clearly, Beaumont and I have had nothing to complain about thus far. Launched on the most marvelous voyage imaginable, we enjoy privileges that travelers are seldom vouchsafed. Our brains are at work, we exercise our bodies, and time flies. But even the most beautiful things of this world have their dark side, and we cannot withdraw into ourselves without feeling pangs of anxiety. Almost two months and 1500 leagues of sea separate us. What has become of you? What are you doing right now, as I calmly write this letter and gloat over my good fortune? What are my father’s political circumstances? How is your health, dear Mama? How is good Bébé carrying his eighty years? Is Alexandrine feeling better or worse? What are my brothers doing, and Émilie? What, finally, is the state of France? I ask myself these questions during the day; they return at night and prey upon my mind. We are dying to hear from you, but when we do, our happiness will be cheated by the realization that your news is five weeks old or more. How many changes, how many revolutions can take place during that interval! Last year, between July 26 and August 8, less than a fortnight, was there anyone in France whose life had not been turned upside down?[16]

I’m sure you want to know what we plan to do next, but we haven’t made any definite decisions. We think we’ll remain here for another three weeks or so. We would like to visit Boston, then, after coming back, to set out for a little town 100 leagues northwest of New York called Auburn, which is the site of a very famous penitentiary.[17] In this land, there is incredible contempt for distances. The immense rivers, some of which we’ve seen meeting the sea, and the canals built to connect them make it possible to travel day and night at 4 leagues an hour, on boats as commodious as houses, with no bumps or relays. Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.

My first letter went to father on the Liverpool packet, which I was sure would be the quickest, most reliable carrier. I hate to think of you anguished by our long silence and hope that M. Hottinguer has reassured you.[18] May this be a lesson to you: whatever is said about the ease with which one now crosses the ocean, it is still an enterprise fraught with imponderables. One cannot fix its duration. And besides, if a letter should miss the packet, there will be a further delay of two or three weeks, or sometimes a month.

Here I am at the end of this immense letter. I could relate many other things, for we are all eyes and ears. Eventually I shall relate them, little by little. Tell Papa, Bébé, my brothers and sisters that although the letter is not addressed to them, I had them in mind when writing it, that I think of them incessantly, that nothing in life will make me happier than clasping all of you to my bosom.

Good-bye, my good mother. I have not yet forgotten your parting recommendation, and never shall, I hope. Beaumont almost cried when he read what Bébé wrote in the book he gave me and has asked me to tell him that he will never forget the sentence at the end, which refers to both of us.

Please keep this letter. It contains details I haven’t had time to note and with which I shall take pleasure revisiting at a later date.

I’ve folded it peculiarly in order to include one to Louis de Kergorlay; I don’t know his whereabouts and am afraid my letter might go astray. Be so kind as to have it handed to him in Paris or posted out of town, if you know his address.


To his brother Édouard                                                  New York, May 28, 1831


I thank you, my dear friend, for the letter that crossed on the April 15 packet. You know how precious your communications are to me, and especially one that comes from so far away. You are, as I said to Alexandrine, more present in our mind than what we see every day. Do not fail, therefore, to write us long, very detailed letters whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s the surest way of making us happy. Moreover, you can well believe that in our present state, we want to know more about French politics than we extract from newspapers. The latest reports bode well for the preservation of peace. I hope to God that they are right. Our last French paper dates to April 15, when government securities were rising, the Austrians were evacuating the Papal territories, and the ministry seemed to be growing stronger, although the language of the press was quite violent and there is still mayhem in the streets. Yesterday we received the April 24 issue of English papers; we learned, to our utter astonishment, that the Chamber of Deputies was suspended and not dissolved. This measure took us completely by surprise and, insofar as one can judge such matters from abroad, I do not consider it wise. It seems clear to me that the present Chamber does not sway public opinion in the least, and that newspapers, by exploiting the legitimate case to be made against it, will lose no time casting discredit on the very moderation that this Chamber represents. The radical press will step backward the better to spring forward. I believe that there has never been a more propitious time for elections than now: everything points to the disadvantages of anarchy and the lower classes are more fearful of disorder than of the privileges enjoyed by the upper crust.

But I recur to what I said above, that it is impossible to judge from afar. I am anxious to know the language of French papers; they must be gushing over the top. Apparently, England hasn’t fared brilliantly either. The whole nation is embroiled in a terrific struggle and there’s no telling where the movement will stop.[19]

Here we are truly in another world. Political passions are only superficial. The one passion that runs deep, the only one that stirs the human heart day in and day out, is the acquisition of wealth, and there are a thousand ways of acquiring it without importuning the State. To draw comparisons between this country and Europe and to entertain the idea of adapting to one what works for the other is blindness, in my opinion. I thought so before leaving France; I am confirmed in that belief the more I examine the society in the midst of which I now find myself. This is a world of merchants who give some thought to public affairs only when their work affords them the leisure to do so. By the time we return to Europe, we will, I hope, have acquired all we need to address this subject knowledgeably: no one is better set up for the study of the American people than we are. Our mission and our letters open all doors; we rub shoulders with all classes; all possible documents are furnished on demand; we have come for only one reason, to accomplish a serious goal. Our minds are constantly straining for the acquisition of useful knowledge; it is an immense labor, but not at all painful because ideas are entering us through every pore and as many of them in a salon or on a walk as in the privacy of our study.

But will we have enough time to bring this enterprise to fruition? One need not be clairvoyant to foresee events that may call us home. We ponder that every day and the thought often leaves us momentarily disgruntled with our labors.

My dear friend, I must ask a favor of you and beg you to do it as soon as possible, though it will put you to some inconvenience. Among other things that are exorbitantly expensive in this country are gloves and articles of silk. Ballroom gloves that cost 45 sous in Paris cost six francs here and are shoddy. Since we are forever attending social functions and will be even more sociable this winter, you can imagine that we would be ruining ourselves if we had to purchase new gloves every two or three days. We shall be saving money by having them sent from Paris, despite the postage and custom duties. What I need are two dozen yellow kid gloves, the best possible, and half-a-dozen brown wool gloves. Please include a pair of silk openwork stockings for evening wear and one or two black silk neck cloths. Here, black neck cloths are worn at soirées.

Beaumont will enlarge upon what he would like, and monsieur Hagdé will give you money for his purchases. You would pack everything in a tight little case and send it to me in New York—I’m not entirely sure how, but it should be easy. As for my hand measurement, you will certainly find some old gloves in my room, and in any event, our hands are almost identical. As for Beaumont, he claims that if you go to his haberdasher in the Palais Royal, Chez Irlande, the demoiselle on duty knows his hand perfectly well. Of course, you would send this package only if the state of affairs in Europe should lead you to believe that our sojourn in America will not be cut short.

Adieu, my good friend; I embrace you lovingly and swear that not a day passes without my thinking about you, your wife, or your daughter. I am handing my pen over to B.


To his father                                                                           Sing Sing, June 3, 1831


You will never guess, my dear father, where on earth I have ensconced myself to write this letter. I sit at the top of a rather steep hill. In the foreground, one hundred paces below me, is a country house, where we lodge. Beyond it, the hill slopes down to the Hudson. More than a league wide[20] and covered with sails, the great river runs north into a range of high blue mountains and disappears. Its banks are a scene of bustle and prosperity delightful to observe. And overhead is an admirable sun whose rays, filtering through the humid atmosphere of the region, bathe everything they touch in soft, transparent light. You may infer from this lengthy description that its author has a panoramic perspective. Indeed he does, for an enormous sycamore shades the summit of my hill, which rises higher than others round about, and I am perched in its branches to avoid the heat. That is where I am writing to you. You see how well I mesh with the landscape.

Now I must tell you where we are, and why we have come. Sing Sing, thus named after an Indian chief who lived here sixty years ago but whose tribe has since retreated further inland, lies on the Hudson 11 leagues north of New York. The town has 1000 or 1200 inhabitants. Its famous prison, the largest in the land, houses 900 inmates, and abides by the American penal system, which it is our mission to study in depth. We have been here a week already and feel an extraordinary sense of well-being. The hectic life we were obliged to live in New York, the number of visits we made and received every day began to tire us. Here our days are at once blissfully serene and well employed. We live with a respectable American family, who show us every possible courtesy. We have made the acquaintance of several villagers whom we shall see again when we are free to do so. The rest of our time is spent in visiting the prison, in taking notes and collecting all the practical ideas that the penal system can provide. The alacrity with which government agents supply every kind of document we may require makes our task much easier. Unfortunately not everything has been documented. Broadly speaking, I would say that, where administration is concerned, this country and France have gone off the edge, but in opposite directions. While among us, government meddles in everything, here there is not, or appears not to be, any government at all. Alike the virtues and defects of centralization are seemingly unknown; there is no mainspring regulating the machine’s moving parts, with the result that in many specific ways overall performance cannot be judged. One issue of paramount importance is recidivism. There are no records that would help us determine satisfactorily the number of convicts reformed by prison life. You will appreciate that for us such information is vital.

Our impression of the prisons we have visited makes a very long story. I’d rather not launch into it with you, lest you conclude that our eyes are fastened to the penal system and to nothing else in America. That is not the case, I assure you; on the contrary, our time here is employed in many different occupations, which may be why it seems to be slipping away so terribly fast. I believe that even if we don’t produce something acceptable about the United States, we shall not have wasted our time by devoting ourselves to the study we have undertaken. Our one aim since we’ve come here has been to comprehend the land we are exploring. We cannot accomplish that goal unless we disassemble society a priori and identify the elements that constitute it in France so as to pose questions useful for an understanding of America. The enterprise is difficult but alluring: it has enabled us to discern a great many details that go unseen when one doesn’t analyze the mass and suggests any number of practical ideas that would not otherwise have crossed our minds. Knowing as we do exactly what we want to ask, the most humble conversation is instructive, and I daresay no man, whatever his social rank, is incapable of teaching us something.

This life, which is a boil of physical and intellectual activity, would make us quite happy were it not for the chasm that separates us from France. The thought of your remoteness spoils everything. I have said it already, dear father, but I feel compelled to repeat myself—living so far from those one loves is being only half alive. Given our cerebral existence, in which the heart counts for little, I despair of conceiving anything but arid impressions.

Since we are now little more than “probing machines,” you will perhaps ask me, dear father, what we find most noteworthy in this land. I would need a volume to tell you everything. Or to tell you what I think today. Tomorrow I may no longer agree with myself, for we are definitely not systematizers. Among ideas that preoccupy me, two bulk large, the first being that this population is one of the happiest in the world, the second that it owes its immense prosperity less to its characteristic virtues, and even less to a form of government intrinsically superior to all others, than to its peculiar conditions, which result in perfect accord between its political constitution and its needs and social state. This may sound a bit metaphysical, but you will understand better what I mean when I observe, for example, that nature provides so well for human industry that there is no class of theoretical speculators. Everyone works, and the vein is still so rich that all who work it succeed rapidly in gaining the wherewithal to achieve contentment. Here, the most active minds, like the most tranquil characters, have no void in their lives to fill by troubling the State. Restlessness, which harrows our European societies, seems to abet the prosperity of this one. Wealth is the common lure, and a thousand roads lead to it. Politics therefore occupies only a small corner of the canvas. I have no doubt that it does more stirring up in the most ostensibly peaceful European state than in the entire American confederation. No newspaper, among those we read every day, devotes as much space to matters of general import affecting government as to the price of cotton. What space remains is monopolized by discussions of local interest, which feed public curiosity without in any way causing social turmoil.

To resume, the more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth, that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied. I see certain institutions work here that would predictably work havoc in France; while others that suit us would have evil effects in America. And yet, unless I’m sadly mistaken, man is not different or better on one side of the Atlantic than on the other. He is just differently placed. At some later date I shall tell you what strikes me in the American character.

Right now, I bear a strong resemblance to “Master crow, perched in a tree,” don’t you think?[21] On that note I shall finish my oration. I am so snug on my branch that I run the risk of falling asleep—in which case I might, like my friend Robinson Crusoe, shout “My dear parents!” and wake up on the ground. I have therefore decided to climb down. I shall finish the letter tomorrow.


To his mother                                                   Auburn, New York, July 17, 1831


Here I am almost 80 leagues farther from you than a fortnight ago, my dear Mama; I detest the thought that letters take three days more to reach us. Letters being an integral part of our existence now, we are highly sensitive to the least delay. Would you believe that we have not yet received mail sent on June 1? It’s been more than three weeks since we’ve seen anything in your hand; I assure you that we are very far from inuring ourselves to this silence.

We left New York on June 28. Our voyage began on a distinctly sour note. The steamboat we boarded that evening was to sail up the North River and stop at West Point. West Point, which figured importantly in the American war, is not only an historical landmark of note but one of the country’s most picturesque sites. We counted on arriving at night and spending a day there. Well, in mid-voyage we learned that our boat would go straight to Albany. We were thus in the position of a man who, having taken the wrong diligence, travels to Rouen rather than Compiègne, except of course that one can get off a diligence en route. We could only resign ourselves to our fate. And West Point was not the only omission. As the boat sailed at night and reached the city of Albany at 5 in the morning, all the spectacular scenery of the river passed us by.

There our misfortunes ended, and the trip became most agreeable. We remained three or four days in Albany, to cull the statistical documents we needed from the central government of the state of New York. I think we’ll need a crate for all the notes, books and pamphlets swamping us. We attended the July 4 ceremony in Albany. July 4 is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Americans hold a parade and religious ceremony to commemorate the event. Shall I describe this parade, which we followed for two hours under a splendid sun? I’d rather describe our visit with the Quaking Shakers.

The Shakers are a kind of religious community of men and women who farm in common, take a vow of celibacy, and have no private property. One of their establishments lies in the middle of the woods three leagues from Albany. We arrived there on Sunday, at around 10, and immediately went to the temple, which is just a large room, very neat, with no altar or anything to suggest the idea of religious observance. After half-an-hour, two groups of Shakers, male and female, entered the room by different doors. Men formed up at one end, women at the other. The men wore what looked rather like the stock costume of our playhouse peasants: white shirts with flowing sleeves; grey, wide-brimmed felt hats; loose-fitting vests with pockets. Their attire was all purple, but for the shirts, and almost new. The women wore white. They ranged from very old to very young, from ugly to comely. The very old sat up front, the young behind them; and men arrayed themselves likewise. These groups faced each other wordlessly, waiting for inspiration; when, after five minutes of total silence, one man felt the spirit rise in him, he stood and gave a long, rambling talk about the religious and moral obligations of Shakers. The groups then launched into an ear-splitting rendition of the shrillest song I’ve ever heard. Especially fervent members nodded the beat, which gave them somewhat the appearance of those porcelain Chinese figures with tilted heads on our grandmothers’ mantelpieces. Until then the ceremony was no more exotic than a Jewish Sabbath. But once the singing was over, the two groups merged into one line. Five men and as many woman backed up against the wall and began to sing something in a lively, impetuous rhythm. At this, men and women, young and old began to caper breathlessly. The sight of old folks with white hair keeping up with the others despite the heat and their exhaustion might have been droll if it weren’t pitiful. From time to time, the dancers clapped their hands. Picture Frenchmen romping in the Dunkirk Carillon and you will get a good idea of this event.[22] When the dance stopped momentarily, one member of the congregation improvised as best he could a short religious speech; the dancing then resumed, only to stop time and again for more sermonizing. Among Shakers, there is no priesthood: anyone can say what he or she thinks appropriate. After almost two hours of this frightful exercise, they placed themselves two by two in a circle, men and women together. They then pressed their elbows to their sides, extended their forearms and let their hands dangle, like the front paws of trained dogs forced to walk on their hind legs. In this posture they intoned an air more lugubrious than all the others, began to walk all around the room, and continued thus for a good quarter-hour. One of them made a little speech explaining that the Shaker sect was the only path to salvation and admonishing us to convert, whereupon the community withdrew in perfect order and silence. I suppose the poor devils had to rest. But just imagine, dear Mama, what queer byways the human mind can take when left to its own compass! There was a young American Protestant with us, who said afterward: “Two more spectacles like that one and I’ll become a Catholic.”

We quit Albany on one of this country’s diligences, which are called Stages. They are carriages suspended on nothing but leather straps and driven at a fast trot on roads as deplorable as those in Lower Brittany. One feels quite rattled after a few miles. But the new scenery took our minds off our physical discomfort. It was our first venture into America’s hinterland; until then we had seen only the seacoast and the banks of the Hudson. Everything here was quite different. I believe that in one of my letters I complained of finding almost no more woodland in America; I must now make honorable amends. Not only does one find wood and woods in America, but the whole country is still a vast forest with man-made clearings here and there. From atop a church steeple, one sees trees as far as the eye can reach swaying in the wind like waves of the sea: everything bespeaks newness. Settlers establish farms by cutting down trees to within three feet of the ground. Soil is tilled between the stumps and eventually crops grow up around them. They pock the fields of grain. What is more, wild plants continue to germinate in soil cultivated this way, with the result that every plot is a confusion of wheat stalks, saplings, tall grass, and creepers. Men forever struggle against the forest in a contest from which they don’t always emerge the victor.

But if the country is new, one observes at every turn that those who have come to inhabit it are of old stock. When, after traveling on a rough road and crossing a kind of wilderness, one reaches a farmhouse, one is amazed at encountering more evidence of civilization than one would find in any French village. The farmer is neatly dressed; his dwelling is perfectly clean; there is usually a newspaper near to hand; and his first subject of conversation is politics. I can’t remember where it was—in which obscure, unknown corner of the universe—that one such farmer asked us in what condition we had left France; how we viewed the relative strength of parties; and so forth. A thousand questions, to which I replied as best I could while laughing to myself over the incongruity of the questioner and the place of our interview. The territory we have just crossed was formerly inhabited by the Confederation of Iroquois, about which so much has been heard in the world. We met the last of them during our passage; they go begging and are as inoffensive as their forefathers were fearsome.

We occupy rooms in a magnificent hotel at Auburn, a town of 2000 souls, all of whose houses are well-stocked shops. Auburn, where, twenty years ago, people were frequently off hunting bear and deer, is now the hub of intense commercial traffic. I’m almost accustomed to this phenomenon of society growing like rank vegetation. I surprise myself speaking as Americans do and calling some establishment very old when it’s been in existence for thirty years.

Adieu, dear mother, and all my love. Embrace my father for me and the good abbé. Pass this letter on to Édouard’s household and tell them that I shall write soon. Give my news to Hippolyte. We are leading a life so fraught, so ridden with tasks, that I can’t really produce more than one letter at a time.


To his mother                                                   On Lake Ontario, August 21, 1831


When I was on LakeOntario, dear mother, I wrote a letter to my father, who must have told you about the voyage we improvised during the first fortnight of this month. At Buffalo, your letters of last May 27 awaited us and, despite their date, gave us indescribable pleasure. I had gone so long without seeing anything of my family’s script. I can tell you how touched I am, dear mother, at receiving mail from you in each delivery. I am aware that writing tires you, which makes your letters all the more precious to me. Also, thank the entire household on my behalf.

After an hour in Buffalo, we headed for Niagara. We could already hear the falls two leagues before reaching them. They sounded like distant thunder, and in fact Niagara is an Indian word that means “thunder of the waters.” I find the expression wonderfully apt. (Indian languages are full of images far more poetic than our own.) We advanced toward the noise, unable to imagine how close we were to its source.

Indeed, nothing prepares one for the spectacle. A large river (which is only Lake Erie brimming over) slowly flows across flatland. The terrain remains featureless right up to the cataract itself. We arrived toward dusk and postponed our first visit until morning. August 18 dawned a splendid day, and we set out early. I will unavoidably wax pathetic in describing what we witnessed. I believe that the falls surpass everything said and written about them at home; they surpass anything one’s imagination conjures up beforehand. The river divides as it nears the abyss and forms two falls separated by a small island. The broader is shaped like a horseshoe a quarter of a league in width, which is to say more than two times wider than the Seine. When the river arrives, it spills over the edge to a depth of 149 feet. Vapor rises from the bottom like a cloud, with an enormous rainbow framed against it. One can clamber quite easily to the tip of a rocky spur that juts toward the falls. Nothing equals the sublimity of the view one has out there, especially at night, when the bottom of the abyss disappears and the rainbow is moonlit. I had never seen a nocturnal rainbow. It is much the same as the diurnal, but perfectly white. It arched from one bank to the other. About the cataract: walking behind that curtain of water strikes one at first as a dangerous maneuver, but it turns out not to be. We took perhaps one hundred steps before the cliff wall bellied in front of us. Now and again a sun- or moonbeam penetrates the deep, dreadful darkness of the place, everything suddenly becomes visible, and one feels that that the whole river is crashing down on one’s head. It’s hard to convey the exact impression produced by this shaft of light; after allowing you to glimpse the vast chaos all around, it delivers you again to the shadows and din of the waterfall. We remained at Niagara for a full day. Yesterday we set sail on LakeOntario.

This account of the wonder that filled us at Niagara may lead you to a false conclusion about our state of mind. Far from being tranquil and happy, I have fallen prey to deeper melancholy. At Buffalo, I found news of Europe and France in various newspapers. From the many small circumstances they report, I form the picture of a country in crisis and of civil war itself looming near, with all the danger that that presents for those I hold dearest. . . . These images interpose themselves between me and everything I set eyes upon, and I cannot, without a profound sense of something very like shame stand in awe of these American falls, knowing that the fate of so many people hangs in the balance.


To his brother Édouard                                            Aboard The Fourth of July,

November 26, 1831


I begin this letter, dear brother, aboard the steamer taking us from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. I shan’t finish and date it until I arrive at the latter city in a few days. Right now we are on the Ohio River, which is already as wide as the Seine at Paris, though still quite some distance from its juncture with the Mississippi.

What I see are the world’s most beautiful mountains. Unfortunately, they are covered in snow, for winter has finally reached us. We encountered it in the middle of the Alleghenies and it has stayed with us ever since. But we are fleeing it, and a week from now it will no longer present a threat. Pittsburgh is the former FortDuquesne. There was real genius in the way Frenchmen situated their military outposts here, before the war of 1754. When the interior of the North American continent was still terra incognita to Europeans, the French established bases in the middle of the wilderness, from Canada to Louisiana—a string of small forts which, now that the country has been mapped to a fare-thee-well, are recognized as ideal sites for cities whose fortunes depend upon their ability to attract commerce and command the navigation of rivers. Here, as in many other circumstances, we worked for the English, who profited from a vast scheme of our devising. If we had succeeded, the English colonies would have been hemmed in by an immense arc, with Québec and New Orleans its two extremities. The French and their Indian allies would have been at their back, and Americans of the United States would not have rebelled against the mother country. They all recognize this. There would not have been an American revolution, and perhaps not a French one, or not the revolution that played out as it did.

The French of America possessed within themselves all the resources to be a great people. They are still the finest offspring of the European family in the New World. But, overwhelmed by numbers, they were bound to succumb. Their abandonment is one of the most dishonorable episodes of Louis XV’s inglorious reign.

I have just seen in Canada a million brave, intelligent French, made to constitute one day a great French nation in America, who live rather like strangers in their own land. The conquerors control commerce, employment, wealth, power. They populate the upper classes and dominate all of society. The vanquished, wherever they don’t enjoy decisive numerical superiority, are day by day losing their customs, their language, their national character. There you have the effects of conquest, or rather, of desertion.

Today the die is cast: all of North America will speak English. But aren’t you struck by men’s inability to foresee the ripples of a present-day event, to sense the eternal danger of regretting or rejoicing without discernment? When the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the death of Montcalm and the shameful treaty of 1763 placed England in possession of Canada and of a country bigger than all of Europe, which formerly belonged to France, the English exulted almost fulsomely. Neither the nation nor its greatest men suspected then that, by reason of this conquest, the colonies, no longer dependent upon the mother country’s support, would aspire to independence, that independence would be a fait accompli twenty years later, with England in economic tatters after a disastrous war and facing an immense new nation on the American continent, English-speaking but her natural enemy, almost certainly destined to usurp her lordship of the seas.


To his sister-in-law Émilie                                                          On the Ohio River,

November 28, 1831


I would like to write to your husband, dear sister, but I don’t know where my letter would find him. The last news from France suggests to me that he has undertaken a long voyage of necessarily indeterminate length. You know that I have never approved of such capers; they seem to me useless at best; but at a distance of 2000 leagues from one’s friends, one is not well placed to offer advice—it would arrive after the event. I can therefore only confine myself, limply, to hoping that all turns out for the best.[23]

You know, dear sister, that we have revised our travel plans and will probably be back in France sometime during the month of April. I trust that you will understand all the considerations that have led us to shorten our sojourn in America and that you will not greet us with a sour face. The truth is, it would be unfair, in the first place because we have acted for the best, and secondly because we shall be so happy to see you again that a less than joyful response from you would be sheer ingratitude. The day I set foot on French soil again will be a beautiful day indeed. You who live in the country have no idea what it’s worth; on the contrary, speaking poorly of it is one of your favorite occupations—I can attest to that, having heard you deliver long tirades against it. Well, I believe that a voyage abroad would change your opinion. I’ve already knocked around this world quite a lot. I’ve encountered people in different positions, but nothing of what I’ve seen proves to me that any other nation is fundamentally better off than we. Here, for example, I observe a marginal display of all the nasty political passions that come so glaringly to light during our revolutions. But I shall stop there, for fear of falling into lofty political, philosophical, metaphysical, economic, and moral considerations from which I could not extract myself before putting you to sleep. I was saying that America is not worthier than France. The example I shall adduce is the fair sex, to use the language of madrigals. I confess that from a certain point of view, this land is the El Dorado of husbands; one can almost certainly find perfect happiness in it, provided one totally lacks romantic imagination and asks of one’s wife only that she prepare tea and raise one’s children—the sovereign duties of conjugal life, as we know. In these matters, American women excel. They are reasonable people, eminently reliable, as they say, who confine themselves to their teapots and stay indoors once they’ve pronounced the famous “yes.” I grant that this is an undeniable advantage. Despite it, however, I often find myself wondering whether, at bottom—note well the “at bottom”—there isn’t a prodigiously close resemblance to European women. Don’t regard me as a peevish philosopher disappointed in love, I beg of you, but listen to my reasons. I shall enumerate them. My first and principal reason is that they are all, before they become wives, consummate flirts. Properly speaking, love plays no part in this, which makes for a tranquil society. I have not heard about a single drowning or hanging in the entire Union since the Declaration of Independence: people don’t fight or throw fits. Young women are perfectly free to choose and their choice is always the swain whom the family notary would have recommended, if consulted. You see that I am impartial; if they are outrageously flirtatious, I note that they are reasonably so, as they never fail to set their cap at men who, quite apart from their social rank (an advantage often much exaggerated in Europe), are in easy circumstances. This reflects honorably upon their rectitude. But it remains to be understood how such perfect domesticity is accomplished, how these women cease to be coquettes from one day to the next. How does one explain a change so sudden and punctual? If it occurred once, by chance, I would believe in a miracle, but when it repeats itself every day, I am confounded. Might one suspect, might it not be possible to imagine, might we not have some reason to think—you see how circumspect and suitably dubitative I am—that the cure is only apparent and that the coquetry still exists, though unable to display itself? The fact is, and this has been remarked by all travelers, that married women in America are almost all weak and languishing. For myself, I am tempted to believe that they are ill of repressed coquetry. Why not? Isn’t it commonplace to see men green around the gills with repressed ambition? Let it be said that this is pure conjecture and I don’t attach great value to it. But even so, it’s already enough to prove that, all things considered, one is better off living in France than in America.

I don’t know how I can have the courage to talk such silliness with you, dear sister. One should refrain from writing frivolous letters when one is 2000 leagues from home; by the time my chuckles reach Europe, you may be in tears over something. This thought haunts me. I never laugh whole-heartedly here, always fearing that at that very moment a terrible misfortune has struck me on the other side of the world. It is also true that the world has never seen a family like ours: a collection of old crocks worse than any found in a hospital. I have yet to receive, in the past eight months, a single letter that contains this one little phrase: “Everyone is faring well.” Yet I don’t think they were laying it on too thick in portraying their decrepitude.

When I arrived here, dear sister, I found one of those letters from you only you can write, testifying so lavishly to your affection for me. Although our friendship already goes back quite some time, that testimony gives me as much pleasure now as when I first received it. One of the things I most regret about not being in France is being unable, at difficult moments, to offer your husband my advice, and to offer all of you the services that warm friendship can render. But patience! I shall soon be home, and we must hope that we are not yet done with revolutions, so that, in another one, we may regain what we’ve lost. I am going to address this letter to Nacqueville once again and hope that it succeeds better than the last in reaching you. How wise of you to love Nacqueville! At the present time, one cannot do better, I believe, than to stay put there quietly and await one’s day.

Adieu, dear sister, I embrace you with both arms and all my heart.


To his father                                                             Memphis, December 20, 1831


The place from which I write, my dear father, may not be on your map. Memphis is a very small town on the banks of the Mississippi, at the far southwestern edge of the state of Tennessee. We’ve been here for several days. By what chance, you ask, are we in Memphis rather than in New Orleans? Therein lies a long, pitiful tale, which I shall attempt to relate as succinctly as possible. I wrote my last letter to you when I was sailing down the Ohio and about to arrive at Louisville. There I expected to find a steamboat ready to make the six- or seven-day voyage to New Orleans. But during the night of December 4–5, the temperature, which was already low, fell so precipitously that the Ohio, despite its strong currents and its width, froze, trapping us in ice. You should know that Louisville is in the same latitude as Sicily. It doesn’t often freeze there, to say the least, and no one could remember ever experiencing such cold before the end of January. That’s what I call good luck! In any event, we managed to get ashore, where we learned that Louisville was 9 leagues distant. A local frontiersman, a big bruiser, offered to transport our trunks to the port in his cart. Our traveling companions, who numbered ten, did the same as we, and off we went, on foot, across mountains and woods that had never, since the beginning of time, been visited by a loaded wagon. It rolled, thanks to the audacity of our driver and to some strong shoulders occasionally put to the task. But we were marching in snow knee high. The journey became so strenuous that our companions began to drift off, one after another. We, on the other hand, persevered and finally arrived at Louisville toward nine in the evening. The following day we learned that the Ohio was frozen solid, that we would have to establish winter quarters in Louisville or turn back. But there was another alternative. At a small town called Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi in the state of Tennessee, all steamboats plying the river replenish their store of wood. We were told that if we found our way there, we could surely resume our journey waterborne, since the Mississippi never freezes. Because this information was conveyed by eminently credible people, we acted on it straightaway and left Louisville for Memphis. These two cities lie about 150 leagues apart; we had to travel that distance on the most abominable roads, in the most infernal carriages and, above all, the most dreadful cold imaginable—the natural order seemed to have been upset for our particular discomfort. Tennessee is in about the same latitude as the Sahara Desert. Cotton is raised there, as well as other exotic plants, and when we crossed the state, it was 15 degrees below freezing; no one had ever seen anything like it.[24] Finally arriving at Memphis, we learned that several miles upriver, the Mississippi itself was unnavigable; one could see icebound steamboats sitting as motionless as rocks. We must now plan ahead. If, after several days, this freakish cold doesn’t let up, we shall forego our voyage to the South and make for Washington by the shortest route possible. I will say this: apart from the frustration of having our projects more or less thwarted (through no fault of our own), we do not regret our trip through the forests of Kentucky and Tennessee. We acquainted ourselves there with a breed of humanity and a way of life completely unknown to us. The only inhabitants of that region are men called Virginians. They have preserved a moral and physical identity all their own; they are a people apart, with national prejudices and a distinctive character. There, for the first time, we had the opportunity to observe the social consequences of slavery. The right [north] bank of the Ohio is a scene of animation and industry; work is honored, no one owns slaves. But cross the river and you suddenly find yourself in another universe. Gone is the spirit of enterprise. Work is considered not only onerous but shameful: whoever engages in it degrades himself. The White Man is meant to ride horseback, to hunt, to smoke all day long; using one’s hands is what a slave does. South of the Ohio, Whites form a veritable aristocracy which, like every other, marries low prejudices to lofty instincts. It is said—and I am much inclined to believe it—that these men are incomparably more sensitive to issues of honor than their counterparts up North. They are straightforward, hospitable and value many things higher than money. They will end up being dominated by the North, however. The latter grows richer and more populous by the day, while the South, if it grows at all, grows poorer. Inhabitants of Kentucky and Tennessee live scattered in vast forests and deep valleys. It was there, one evening after a long day, that we happened upon a log cabin with chinks on every side through which a big fire could be seen crackling. We knocked. Two mongrels, as tall as donkeys, rushed to the door. Their master followed, roughly shook hands with us, and invited us to enter. Picture a fireplace half the width of the room, in which a whole tree was burning; a bed; a few chairs; a six-foot-long carbine; a hunter’s accoutrements hanging on the log wall and dancing in the draught. The mistress of the house sat near the hearth, with that quiet, modest air so characteristic of American women, while four or five robust children were frolicking on the floor, in light summer clothes. Sitting on their haunches under the mantelpiece of the chimney were two or three Negroes who looked as if they had been shivering ever since Africa. Our gentleman played the host nonetheless easily and courteously for his house being a hovel. He hardly stirred, mind you, but the poor Blacks served us at his behest: one presented us glasses of whisky, and another corncakes and a plate of venison. The third was sent off to fetch more wood. The first time I heard this order given, I assumed that he was going to the cellar or a woodpile; no, the blows of an ax echoing in the woods soon informed me that a tree was being felled for our benefit. That is how things are normally done here. While the slaves were thus occupied, the master, quietly seated in front of a fire that could have roasted an ox down to its bones, majestically wrapped himself in a cloud of smoke and between each puff entertained his guests with an account of his most memorable feats as a hunter.

I must recount one more little anecdote, which will tell you at what price a man’s life is held here when he is unlucky enough to have black skin. About a week ago we faced the Tennessee River. The only means of crossing was a paddle steamer operated by two slaves with a horse. We ourselves made it over, but since the river was full of drift-ice the master hesitated to transport the carriage. “Rest assured,” one of our traveling companions said, “that should the boat sink, we will compensate you for your horse and slaves.” This argument seemed irresistible: the carriage was loaded, and sailed across.


To his mother                                         On the Mississippi, December 25, 1831


At last, at last, my dear Mama, the signal is given and here we are cruising down the Mississippi, as rapidly as possible under the combined influence of steam and a strong current. We were beginning to despair of ever escaping the wilderness. If you take the trouble to examine your map, you will see that we had reached a pretty pass. In front of us, the Mississippi half frozen and no boats launching; overhead, a Russian sky, pure and frozen. We could have retraced our steps, you say. But that option was fast disappearing. During our sojourn in Memphis, the Tennessee had frozen, and carriages could no longer cross. So there we were, in the middle of a triangle formed by the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and impenetrable backwoods to the south. We might as well have been marooned on a rock in mid-ocean, inhabiting a world made expressly for us, without papers, without news of the rest of mankind, and facing the prospect of a long winter. That is how we spent a week. I must say, however, that except for our anxiety, those days were not disagreeable. We were staying with good people, who did their utmost to ingratiate themselves. Only twenty paces from our house was the edge of the world’s most beautiful forest, a sublime place, picturesque even under snow. We had rifles and plenty of powder and lead. A few miles from the village lived an Indian nation, the Chikasaws; once on their land, we always found a few natives happy to join us in the hunt. Hunting and warring are the sole occupations of the Indian, his pleasures as well. For large game we would have had to go too far afield. Instead, we killed a great many pretty birds of a species unknown in France. We found this highly diverting, though it didn’t do us much credit in the eyes of our allies. I killed red, blue, yellow birds, including parrots with plumage more brilliant than any I had ever seen. That’s how time passed, lightly at any given moment, but with the future weighing upon us. At last, one fine day, we noticed a wisp of smoke on the horizon, over the Mississippi; the wisp soon became a cloud, out of which loomed not the giant or the dwarf of fairy tales, but a large steamboat chugging up from New Orleans. It dilly-dallied in front of us for a quarter hour, as if wanting to keep its intentions secret. Would it stop, or continue on its way? Suddenly, it blew like a whale, made straight for us, smashed the ice with its heavy hull, and docked. The whole population gathered at the riverbank, which, as you know, once formed the edge of our empire. All of Memphis was astir; the bells weren’t rung because there aren’t any, but the assembly shouted hurrahs! and the new arrivals knelt down on the shore after the fashion of Christopher Columbus. We weren’t yet saved, however, for the captain had Louisville, north of us, as his ultimate destination, while we had our sights set on New Orleans to the south. Fortunately, there were about fifteen other derelicts not wanting to make Memphis their winter quarters. We exerted collective pressure on the captain. What did he think he could accomplish up the Mississippi? He would unavoidably be halted by ice. The Tennessee, the Missouri, the Ohio were frozen. We all swore we had witnessed the situation for ourselves. The ice would not only stop his vessel but almost certainly damage it, or worse. We had only his interest in mind—his rather than ours, of course . . . The spirit of altruism lent so much color to our argument that the man began to waver. Even so, I am convinced that he would still have gone forward, but for a felicitous event, thanks to which we have not become citizens of Memphis. As we were parleying on the riverbank, we heard an infernal racket in the nearby forest: drumbeats, the neighing of horses, the barking of dogs. At length, a large group of Indians emerged—old people, women, children, with baggage—all led by a European, and came toward us. These Indians were Chactas (or Tchactaws), to pronounce it as Indians do.[25] À propos, I shall tell you that Monsieur de Chateaubriand behaved a little like La Fontaine’s ape; he didn’t mistake the name of a port for that of a man, but he gave a man the name of a powerful nation of the American South. You would like to know, no doubt, what these Indians were doing there and how they could serve us. Patience, I beg of you; since I have time and paper today, I don’t want to hurry.

You will learn that the Americans of the United States, a rational people without prejudices, known for their great philanthropy, conceived the idea, like the Spanish before them, that God had bestowed upon them, as an unrestricted gift, the New World and its inhabitants.

And listen to this: it having been demonstrated that one square mile could nourish ten times more civilized men than savages, it followed logically that wherever civilized men settled, savages had to make way for them. What a splendid thing is logic. When the Indians found themselves a little too near their white brethren, the president of the United States sent them a message explaining that, in their own interest naturally, they would do well to retreat slightly westward.[26] The region they’ve inhabited for centuries belongs to them, no doubt: no one denies them this incontestable right. But it is, after all, uncultivated wilderness—woods, swamps, very poor land really. Beyond the Mississippi there is, on the contrary, splendid terrain which the European will never reach, where game have never been alarmed by the sound of a woodman’s ax. Pioneers are separated from it by a hundred leagues. Throw in various gifts of inestimable value, calculated to buy the Indian’s compliance: casks of whisky, glass-bead necklaces, earrings and mirrors. What clinches the argument is the insinuation that if Americans meet with a refusal, force may be applied.

What to do? The poor Indians carry their old parents in their arms; mothers hoist their children onto their shoulders; the whole nation begins to march, taking their most cherished possessions with them. It abandons forever the soil on which its forefathers lived for a millennium perhaps and settles in a wilderness where the Whites will be harassing it ten years from now. Can you see what becomes of a high civilization? The Spanish are real brutes, unleashing their dogs on Indians as they would on ferocious beasts; they kill, burn, massacre, pillage the New World like an army storming a city, pitilessly and indiscriminately. But one cannot destroy everything; fury spends itself. Indian populations that survive end up mingling with their conquerors, adopting their customs, their religion; there are several provinces today in which they hold sway over those who subdued them in the past. Americans of the United States, being more humane, more moderate, more respectful of law and legality, never bloodthirsty, are more profoundly destructive of the Indian people than Spaniards. And one cannot doubt that within a century there will no longer remain on the North American continent a single Indian nation, nor even a single man belonging to the most remarkable of Indian races. . . .

But I’ve left my story behind. I was writing about the Chactas, I believe. The Chactas form a powerful nation occupying the border country of Alabama and Georgia. This year, after protracted negotiations, they were persuaded to leave their homeland and emigrate to the west bank of the Mississippi. Six or seven thousand Indians have already crossed the great river; those appearing in Memphis came there with the intention of following their compatriots. The government agent who accompanied them, with authority to pay their passage, hurried to the riverbank upon hearing that a steamboat had arrived. The fee he offered for their transportation sixty leagues downriver fixed the wavering mind of the captain. He gave the signal to depart. The bow was turned south and we cheerfully climbed aboard, passing passengers on their way down the gangway who, instead of going to Louisville, found themselves, poor souls, obliged to await the spring thaw in Memphis. So goes the world.

But we hadn’t yet left; we had to board our exiled tribe, its horses and dogs. Here a truly lamentable scene unfolded. The Indians advanced mournfully toward the riverbank; first came the horses, several of which, unaccustomed as they were to the forms of civilized life, took fright and leaped into the Mississippi, from which they were rescued with difficulty. Then came the men, who, in the customary fashion, bore nothing but their weapons. The women followed, carrying children tied to their backs or swaddled in blankets; they were also loaded with bundles containing all their wealth. Last of all, the old people limped along, with help. Among the latter was a woman 110 years old. I have never seen such a horrifying figure. She was naked, except for a threadbare blanket revealing, here and there, the scrawniest body imaginable. She was escorted by two or three generations of grandchildren. Having to leave one’s land at that age and seek one’s fortune in a foreign country—what an abomination! Amidst the old people was a young woman who had broken her arm a week earlier; for lack of care, the arm had frozen beneath the fracture She was obliged nonetheless to join the march. When everyone had passed, the dogs approached the bank but refused to go further and protested with hair-raising yelps. Their masters dragged them aboard.

This whole spectacle had an air of ruin and destruction; it spoke of final farewells and of no turning back. One felt heartsick watching it. The Indians were calm, but somber and taciturn. One of them knew English, and I asked him why the Chactas were leaving their land. “To be free,” he replied. I couldn’t get anything else out of him. We shall deposit them tomorrow in the backcountry of Arkansas. One must admit, it was a singular chance that placed us in Memphis as witnesses to the expulsion, one might say the dissolution, of the remnants of one of the most celebrated and oldest American nations.

But enough about the savages. It is high time I returned to civilized folk. Just one more word about the Mississippi, which, in truth, hardly deserves more than that. It is a large, yellow river, gently rolling through the emptiest of unpeopled countrysides amidst the forests it floods in the spring and fertilizes with its muck. There is not a hill to be seen, only woods, more woods, yet more woods: reeds, vines; profound silence, no vestige of man, not even the smoke of an Indian camp.


To his father                                                             Washington, January 24, 1832


This letter, dear father, will perhaps be the last I write to you from America. Praise the Lord! We plan to sail on the 10th or 20th of February from New York; and thirty days being the average length of crossings, we shall arrive in France toward the 10th or 20th of March.

At this moment I am revolving many ideas about America. A fair number still reside in my head; I’ve scattered the seed of many more onto notepaper; others crop up in summaries of conversations I’ve had. All these raw scraps will be served up to you. You will not find them interesting in themselves but will judge whether something of value can be drawn from them. During the past six weeks of our journey, when my body was more tired and my mind more serene than it has been for a very long time, I have given much thought to what might be written about America. Drawing a complete picture of the Union would be an utterly impractical venture for someone who has spent only one year in this immense country. I believe, moreover, that the boredom of such a book would match its instructiveness. One might, on the contrary, by being selective, present only that which is pertinent to our own political and social state. The work would thus be both of permanent interest and of moment. There you have the general idea, but will I have the time and capacity needed to furnish it? That is the question. Something else preoccupies me: I shall write what I think or write nothing at all, while bearing in mind that wisdom does not want every truth aired. I hope that we shall be able to speak about all that at our leisure two months hence.

We have been here for a week and shall stay on until February 6. Our sojourn is useful and agreeable. Gathered in Washington at this moment are all the eminences of the entire Union. It remains for us only to elicit from them ideas about what we don’t know, but in conversation we go over more or less familiar ground and concentrate on doubtful points. It’s a very useful kind of counterproof. We are always treated with great respect and courtesy. Yesterday, the French minister introduced us to the President, whom we called “Mister” with perfect ease. He, in turn, greeted us in much the same way that he does his familiars, shaking our hands. He makes no distinctions among people. . . .

A visit to Washington gives one some idea of how wonderfully well equipped men are to calculate future events. Forty years ago, when choosing a capital for the Union became a matter of public concern, the first step, reasonably enough, was to decide upon the most favorable location. The place chosen was a vast plain along the banks of the Potomac. This wide, deep river bordering one end would bring European goods to the new city; fertile fields on the other side would keep markets well provisioned and nourish a large population. People assumed that in twenty years Washington would be the hub of the Union’s internal and external commerce. It was bound, in due course, to have a million inhabitants. Anticipating this influx, the government began to raise public edifices and lay out enormously wide streets. Trees that might have impeded the construction of houses were felled by the acre. All this was nothing but the story of the milk-jug writ large:

Il était quand je l’eus de grosseur raisonnable.

J’aurai. . . .[27]

The farmer’s wife and Congress reasoned in much the same way. The population didn’t come; vessels did not sail up the Potomac. Today, Washington presents the image of an arid plain scorched by the sun, on which, scattered here and there, are two or three sumptuous edifices and five or six villages that constitute the city. Unless one is Alexander or Peter the Great, one should not get involved in creating the capital of an empire.

I’ve backed myself into such a corner that I don’t have time to discuss the memoir you sent me. But I hope to be with you a week or ten days after this letter arrives and I shall dilate upon the subject more satisfactorily than on paper. What I can do right now, my dear father, is thank you; your work sheds light on subtleties that help me understand the administration of this land. One’s mind, as you know, is enlightened only by comparing one thing to another. Your memoir has already served as the basis for many very useful questions. You say in one of your letters to me, dear father, that you are counting on me to do something beneficial in this world; I desire it no less than you, dear father—even more for your sake, I swear, than for my own. Embrace Mama for me, and my brothers and sisters. May God preserve you all! The thought that henceforth I shall not take a step that doesn’t bring us closer to one another makes me happy.


To Mary (“Marie”) Mottley[28]                                                    From America,

[date undetermined]

. . . And what would I reproach you for? For having introduced me to the only real happiness I’ve known in this world, for having enabled me to develop a great interest in existence, for having endured uncomplainingly the rough edge of my violent and autocratic character, for having subdued me with sweetness and tenderness. To my knowledge, those are the only reproaches I can summon. You have done still more for me, my beloved friend, another service I’ve kept for last. You have steered me away from a path that might have been my undoing. You have opened my eyes to what there is of nobility, generosity, and I daresay, of virtue in true love. It is my belief, I swear it, that my love for you has made me a better man. I love what is good more for love of you than for any other reason. The thought of you elevates my soul; I would like to make you proud of me and give you fresh proof every day that you were not mistaken in choosing me. Finally, I have never been more disposed to think of God, more convinced of the reality of another existence than when I think of you. You have been able to observe with what singular pleasure I converse with you about the gravest questions of life. You alone in the world, without exception, know how matters stand in the deepest recesses of my soul; you alone are acquainted with my instincts, my hopes, my doubts. If ever I become Christian, I believe that it will be through you. What I write here, Marie, is not an improvisation; these are thoughts long harbored . . .

Haven’t you noticed, my tender friend, that we experienced our happiest moments when we spoke least. I have often thought that during those instants something happens that is said to happen after death: our two souls chime without having recourse to the senses. Each of us enjoyed his own happiness and the other’s; our souls communicated sensations, sentiments, ideas a thousand times more swiftly than in words and yet the most profound silence reigned between us. How can one understand such pleasures when one has never loved? How can one ever forget them once one has felt them? For myself, if I were unfortunate enough to die before seeing you again, dearest one, what I would miss most would not be the pleasures that attach most men to life, no, assuredly not, I would experience only one desperate regret: that of not being able to feel again this delicious tristesse of love, of no longer hearing that inner voice of the soul. I would miss not the joys of the world but the very sorrows of a loving heart and the soft sighs it cannot stifle.

I love you as I have never loved in my life. My reason and my heart are at one in adoring you. I wasn’t suddenly taken captive: you won me gradually by revealing a little more of yourself each day. You conquered my soul, you made it yours; you now reign over it as absolute mistress. I love you as one cannot love at sixteen, and yet I feel, when I think of you, all the generous passions, all the noble instincts, the absolute detachment from self that are normally the attributes of love only at that age.

I don’t know why, Marie, men are fashioned after such different models. Some foresee only pleasures in life, others only pain. There are those who see the world as a ballroom. I, on the other hand, am always disposed to view it as a battlefield on which each of us in turn presents himself for combat—to receive wounds and die. This somber imagination of mine is home to violent passions that often knock me about. It has sowed unhappiness, in myself no less than in others. But I truly believe that it gives me more energy for love than other men possess.



[Translated from the French by Frederick Brown]

[1] Born Louise Le Peletier de Rosambo, Madame de Tocqueville was the granddaughter of Lamoignon-Malesherbes, famous as counsel for the defense of Louis XVI during the Revolution, who followed his client (and daughter and son-in-law) to the guillotine. Louise de Rosambo narrowly escaped the same fate. She married Hervé de Tocqueville, the scion of old Norman nobility, in 1793.

[2] Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s friend and fellow lawyer, who later married Clémentine de Lafayette, the marquis’s granddaughter. He and Tocqueville were commissioned by the government of King Louis-Philippe to study the American penal system. The vessel on which they sailed was a 450-ton schooner, with an American captain and crew.

[3] Charles Palmer was a retired major general, who had fought in the campaign against Napoleon. Representing Bath in the House of Commons, he owned considerable property there and vineyards in the Bordelais.

[4] Le Constitutionnel was a left-leaning paper, patriotic and anticlerical, favored by the moderate, liberal bourgeoisie, which gained power and influence in the Revolution of 1830.

[5] Édouard Schérer was a son of General Schérer, who had frontier commands during the Revolution and became minister of war in 1797.

[6] Literally “face à Israel,” or “in the presence of Israel”—from “coram Israel,” a common expression in the Vulgate meaning “to appear in public.”

[7] The Faubourg Saint-Germain was a neighborhood of elegant mansions in Paris, inhabited mainly by the old-line aristocracy, including the Tocquevilles.

[8] Tocqueville had traveled in Italy with his older brother Édouard in 1827.

[9] The league was calculated differently at different times in different countries. Tocqueville’s league was about 3 miles, or 5 kilometers.

[10] River navigation by steamboat had made great strides since Robert Fulton accomplished the round-trip voyage between New York and Albany aboard the Clermont in 1807. The New York-Providence line was opened in 1822. More than 130 miles of its course took place at sea. Tocqueville’s steamer, the President, had been put in service a year earlier. It was 413 feet long.

[11] Émilie de Tocqueville was a sister-in-law, the wife of his brother Hippolyte. She had inherited the chateau of Nacqueville, 8 kilometers from Cherbourg and near the Tocquevilles’ chateau. There were three Tocqueville brothers: Hippolyte born in 1797; Édouard, born in 1800; and Alexis, born in 1805.

[12] The exact address was 66 Broadway.

[13] Bon Georges Charles Evrard de Belisle was Hippolyte de Tocqueville’s father-in-law.

[14] Bébé was a sobriquet for the abbé Lesueur, a priest who had tutored Alexis’s father, Hervé de Tocqueville, and remained in the family as tutor to Hervé’s three sons.

[15] The bishop, Jean Dubois, had emigrated during the Revolution. At the time of Tocqueville’s visit, he was in Rome raising money and recruiting priests for his diocese. John Power, the grand vicar, was an Irish priest who had been called to America in 1819 by the trustees of St. Peter’s parish in New York. He was a theologian and renowned preacher.

[16] On July 26, the Bourbon monarchy issued its last edicts. A revolutionary uprising followed on July 27–29, known as “Les Trois Glorieuses.” On August 8, Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne as a constitutional monarch. Tocqueville’s father, who had been an important prefect during the Restoration, lost his post and his seat in the Chamber of Peers. Unemployment was rife. Riots continued to break out in major cities, often resulting in the destruction of church property.

[17] The penal system at Auburn required inmates to work in common during the day and live isolated from one another at night.

[18] Jean-Conrad Hottinguer was a prominent French banker of Swiss origin, the co-founder of France’s first savings bank, the Caisse d’Épargne et de Prévoyance.

[19] The movement to which Tocqueville alludes led to the Reform Act of 1832 and fundamental changes in the electoral system of the United Kingdom.

[20] Tocqueville states “five quarter leagues,” or more than three and one-quarter miles.

[21] The first line of La Fontaine’s fable, based on Aesop’s “The Fox and the Crow.”

[22] Dating to the fifteenth century, when the belfry of Saint-Éloi in Dunkirk acquired its bells, the “Dunkirk Carillon” was the most boisterous of French country dances.

[23] Tocqueville is referring to plans for a royalist uprising in Brittany, associated with the clandestine return of King Charles X’s exiled daughter-in-law, the Duchesse de Berri.

[24] 15 degrees Celsius is +5 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale.

[25] The appellation generally used today is Choctaw.

[26] Tocqueville is referring to the Indian Removal Act, signed into law by Andrew Jackson in May 1830, which led to tens of thousands of Indians emigrating westward in what was described as “a trail of tears and death.” It is estimated that forty percent of the tribes died en route. The Choctaws were removed in 1831, the Chickasaws in 1837.

[27] The verses are from La Fontaine’s fable La Laitière et le Pot au Lait, in which a farmer’s wife balancing a jug of milk on her head as she walks to market daydreams about all that the sale will buy her: more chickens, a pig, a cow and her calf. She jumps for joy at the prospect, and spills the milk. “[The pig], when I bought it was reasonably fat./ When the time comes to sell it . . .”

[28] Tocqueville met Mary Mottley in Versailles, where she and the unmarried aunt who had brought her up lived as members of an expatriate English colony. Born in 1801, she came from a naval family, her father having been bursar of the seaman’s hospital at Gosport. Tocqueville married her in October 1835.