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Monday, July 11, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: "Why Americans Are Often So Restless" from Democracy in America

What kind of people are Americans? One of the most astute observers of American character was actually a French writer named Alexis de Tocqueville. His travels in America took place around 1830 but his comments have held up pretty well throughout the years. Tocqueville starts out this section by saying that in certain remote corners of the Old World you may still stumble upon a small district that seems to have been forgotten amid the general tumult, and to have remained stationary while everything around it was in motion. The Old World was Europe of the early 19th century and time seems to have passed them by. Things have changed in a couple of hundred years. But Tocqueville goes on to observe that the inhabitants, for the most part, are extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light. Here’s the point: these people had nothing. They had few civil rights. And yet they were fairly happy and content. Now Tocqueville shifts the scene: In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures. Those folks in the oppressed backwater were generally content with their lot in life. Americans had more freedoms than any other people in the world and yet they still weren’t happy. Why was this? Tocqueville says the chief reason for this contrast is that the former (the poor peasants) do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter (the freedom-loving Americans) are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. In short, Americans had more freedom and more material possessions than people living in other countries, but that wasn’t enough. They spent a lot of time thinking about the things they didn’t have. Question: have things changed? Do Americans still want more than they have right now? Of course we do. Just watch television or surf the Internet and you’ll see all kinds of ads selling all kinds of things that Americans don’t have. Americans want the good life. And this is what makes us restless. This is what keeps us restless. We’re never satisfied. We’re continually wanting bigger and better. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the positive side it could inspire people to achieve excellence. On the down side it could make people resentful because they don’t have as much as they think they deserve. This attitude also tends to make people even more restless. Tocqueville notes that in the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on… Americans tend to go where the grass is greener… He plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops… obviously Americans don’t like to plant deep roots. He embraces a profession and gives it up… changing careers is in our DNA. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics… Are politics any less important to Americans now than they were in 1832? And if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Oh yes, Americans love their vacation time. And a lot of times they come back home more tired than they were when they left. Are these observations wrong or are they generally true of Americans, even today? They say that America is the land of opportunity. For a young man an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destiny. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. Most young men won’t become rich and famous. But some will. That’s what makes America, America. The possibility is always there. And that’s what keeps Americans restless. Still, Tocqueville liked America. And he liked Americans too.


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