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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville arrives in America

One hundred and eighty years ago this week, Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont began the nine-month tour that would result in the landmark Democracy in America (1835–1840).

They reached land on May 9 after thirty-seven torturous days at sea. The captain of their ship had badly mismanaged provisions: many passengers were sick and there had been little to eat during the last days of the voyage. No sooner had Long Island come into view than strong winds from the west threatened to delay the ship’s arrival in New York. Alarmed and desperate, the passengers rose up to persuade the captain to dock in Newport, Rhode Island, instead. Tocqueville’s letter home to his mother a few days later describes his first experience of America:
At eight o'clock in the evening we dropped anchor in the outer harbor of Newport. A fishing dory soon came to reconnoitre us. We were so happy to find ourselves at land that all the young people and the captain himself immediately embarked in the dory, and a half hour afterwards we arrived, not without wetting our seats a little, at the wharf of Newport. Never, I guess, were people so glad to be alive. . . 
We jumped ashore and each of us made more than a dozen awkward gambols before we got ourselves solidly on our feet. In this way we went to an inn where the captain treated us to supper. What I for one liked best about this meal was something that has no merit in your eyes, water. Ours hadn't been drinkable for several days.
The two tourists visited Newport early the next morning and Tocqueville’s keen anthropological insights begin:
We went to visit the town, which seemed to us very attractive. It’s true we weren’t difficult. It’s a collection of small houses, the size of chicken coops, but distinguished by a cleanness that is a pleasure to see and that we have no conception of in France. Beyond that, the inhabitants differ but little superficially from the French. They wear the same clothes, and their physiognomies are so varied that it would be hard to say from what races they have derived their features. I think it must be thus in all the United States.
Beaumont was even less kind:
We had been told that the women of Newport were noteworthy for their beauty; we found them extraordinarily ugly. This new race of people we saw bears no clear mark of is origin; it’s neither English nor French nor German; it’s a mixture of all the nations.
After observing Newport’s natives for three hours, they boarded the steamship President for the eighteen-hour ride to New York and their next excellent adventure.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

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