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Challenge of Democracy - Details

Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science, will give the conference keynote address on Friday, September 30. Entitled "Political Equality in America: Tocqueville and Today," Professor Dahl's lecture will take place at the Beinecke Library at 4:00 p.m. Conference sessions, running from 9:00 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. on Friday, September 30 and from 9:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, October 1, will include speakers from the United States, Canada, and France. To view a detailed program, please visit the Beinecke Library website http:\\www.library.yale.edu and click on "Lectures and Conferences" in the right column. The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required for planning purposes.

In exploring why a young Frenchman of the early nineteenth century wrote one of the most penetrating analyses of Jacksonian America and the phenomenon of modern democracy, the Beinecke exhibition ranges from Tocqueville's original working draft of Democracy in America back to the political and literary sources he studied as a young man—such as Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Rousseau's Social Contract (1792) —and forward to contemporary works about America that served as supplementary sources to his own observations, such as Joseph Story's commentary on the United States constitution (1833).

Pivotal to the story of Tocqueville and his traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont are two handwritten letters in the exhibition, dated 27 January 1831 from the French Ministry of Justice, giving the men leave to travel to the United States, with the assignment to conduct research into American prisons. Having landed at Newport, R. I., they visited New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky, before sailing down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where Tocqueville noted the same diversity we know today: "faces of all shades of colour. Language French, English, Spanish, Creole. General appearance French; and yet signs, commercial posters usually in English. . . ." Along the way, both made notes about prisons; among those selected for the exhibition are comments on the prison in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Upon their return to France, it was Beaumont who completed most of the prison report while Tocqueville pondered the greater meaning of democracy in its New World setting.

"I admit that I saw in America more than America," Tocqueville wrote. "It was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions; I wanted to understand it so as at least to know what we have to fear or hope therefrom." Professor Frank Turner, who arranged the exhibition, points out that Tocqueville's experience in America was informed not only by his extensive reading but also by a tradition of French-American relations going back to the American Revolution and particularly by the history of the democratic experiment in France. "The excesses of the French Revolution had confirmed in modern times the dangers and tumult of democracy," Professor Turner writes. "America," he continues, "provided Tocqueville with the opportunity to examine democratic structures outside the context of either the ancient republics or the ongoing trauma of French political life."

That this is the third Tocqueville exhibition to be held at the Beinecke Library in the last thirty years is no coincidence. Yale scholars have been essentially responsible for a revitalized appreciation of Tocqueville and his writings in the twentieth century. It began when a young history instructor named Paul Lambert White (1890-1922) visited the Tocqueville family château in Normandy after the First World War. After White's untimely death, two other Yale scholars, John Allison (1884-1944) and George W. Pierson (1904-93) took up the Tocqueville connection. Pierson's book Beaumont and Tocqueville in America (1938), based on his Yale dissertation, marked the beginning of the modern study of Tocqueville. It was Pierson who arranged Yale's acquisition of the manuscript of Democracy in America. The Tocqueville/Beaumont collection now housed in the Beinecke Library is the largest publicly available assemblage of such material in the world.

The exhibition "Tocqueville and Beaumont and the Challenge of Democracy" continues at the Beinecke Library through October 24. Exhibition hours: Mondays through Thursdays, 8:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Fridays, 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Saturdays, 10:00 a.m-5:00 p.m. The exhibition brochure "Tocqueville and Beaumont and the Experience of Early Nineteenth-Century Democracy" by Frank M. Turner, director of the Beinecke Library, is available free to visitors.

Further highlights of the Tocqueville exhibition:

  • Beaumont's sketchbook of the American journey
  • Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, 1794
  • A long autograph letter from John Quincy Adams to Tocqueville, 12 June 1837, in which the former president corrects some of Tocqueville's statements about his presidency and offers comments on the French Revolution
  • A Daumier caricature of Tocqueville from 1849, when Tocqueville served briefly as French Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Beaumont's sketches of the house in Cannes where Tocqueville died in 1859
  • Beaumont's manuscripts for his book on Ireland (1839) and for his novel Marie, ou l‘esclavage aux États-Unis (1835), which addresses the problem of slavery in the United States

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