May 19, 2019

American Must-Reads: Democracy in America

posted on: Thursday April 4, 2019

Life is too short to read everything. It may even be too short to major in American studies, history, or English. This column, brought to you by professors in American studies, history, and English, highlights the books you simply cannot let pass, whatever your major. Start your list! 

by Dr. Margaret Manchester, Assistant Professor of History

In 1831, a young Frenchman interested in sociology and political theory traveled to the United States with his companion.  De Tocqueville’s main purpose was to study American prisons, but in that endeavor, he spent months crisscrossing the U.S. gathering information about its government and economy, its inhabitants and their social mores, and many other features of American life. Democracy in America was published in 1835, and it has become one of the foundational works for studies of American culture and politics.  

Although he traveled during the Age of Jackson, his analysis is remarkably prescient, particularly when he discusses the long-term consequences of a racialized slavery.  He argues, for example, that among the most formidable of all the ills threatening the future existence of the Union is the presence of black slaves, noting the “natural prejudice which prompts me to despise whomsoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal” (349).  In one memorable section, he travels by steamboat down the Ohio River, separating free Ohio from slave Kentucky.  The stark cultural differences he notes on the two sides of the river, including an indolent southern white population benefitting from the toil of slave laborers, contrasts with the industry and energy he finds in the free state.  This book, written in a lively and engaging style, is a must read for anyone interested both in the development of American institutions and the lingering issues of race and inequality.

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