Letters from America

Letters from America

Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Frederick Brown
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Letters from America
    Book Description:

    Young Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States for the first time in May 1831, commissioned by the French government to study the American prison system. For the next nine months he and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, traveled and observed not only prisons but also the political, economic, and social systems of the early republic. Along the way, they frequently reported back to friends and family members in France. This book presents the first translation of the complete letters Tocqueville wrote during that seminal journey, accompanied by excerpts from Beaumont's correspondence that provide details or different perspectives on the places, people, and American life and attitudes the travelers encountered.

    These delightful letters provide an intimate portrait of the complicated, talented Tocqueville, who opened himself without prejudice to the world of Jacksonian America. Moreover, they contain many of the impressions and ideas that served as preliminary sketches forDemocracy in America, his classic account of the American democratic system that remains an important reference work to this day. Accessible, witty, and charming, the letters Tocqueville penned while in America are of major interest to general readers, scholars, and students alike.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15383-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xx)

    In April 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville sailed for America aboard the schoonerLe Havre.His companion was Gustave de Beaumont, equally highborn and a fellow lawyer, who had befriended him when he first entered the legal profession four years earlier, at the lower court in Versailles. Having secured leaves of absence from the judiciary, the two young men traveled as unpaid commissioners authorized by the government to study the American penal system, with the reform of French prisons in mind.

    Tocqueville declared in private that the commission was hardly more than a pretext. It would enable him to tour the...

      (pp. 3-21)

      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...

      (pp. 22-107)

      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...

      (pp. 108-179)

      I won’t write to you at length, my dear Papa; the bearer of this letter will give you news of me in greater detail than I myself could in ten pages. I’m sorry that Schérer is leaving us but am delighted that he will call upon you and fill you in. I know how much value I would attach to conversation with a man who had just seen you and I imagine that you are of like mind. I therefore rejoice in advance over the pleasure you will experience. I beg you to receive Schérer hospitably. He was a very...

      (pp. 180-208)

      I learned of Bébé’s death yesterday evening, my good friend. I was already worried, because the last batch of letters included none from him. Knowing his punctuality and affection, I suspected that he was more seriously ill than you allowed; and on the way to Boston I told Beaumont again and again how much I feared that news of some great misfortune awaited me. Yesterday, although it was very late, I fetched my letters at the post office. When I opened the parcel and didn’t see his script, I guessed the terrible truth. Never in my life have I felt...

      (pp. 209-256)

      We arrived at Philadelphia on the 12th. This city of about 200,000 souls resembles none that we’ve seen until now. It is laid out with a regularity one is tempted to call too perfect. All the streets are aligned with geometric precision and all cross the entire city in one direction or the other. All the buildings are clean, carefully maintained, and look like new. It is a charming city, a place fit for people who don’t own a carriage, since every street has wide sidewalks. Its one defect, I repeat, is its monotonous beauty. As for its inhabitants, my...

      (pp. 257-270)

      You know, dear sister, that our intention was to return to France by way of England. We anticipated an excursion no less useful than pleasurable: with what we have learned of the language and to some extent of English customs, three weeks in England, amid the political passions boiling there, would have expanded our knowledge greatly; but at Norfolk we heard reports that damnable cholera has made its appearance in the north of the country.¹ Tomorrow, in Washington, we shall know the truth; should those reports be confirmed, we will straightaway revise our plans and return directly to France. Two...

  5. APPENDIX: Tocqueville on Civil Law in Pennsylvania
    (pp. 271-274)
  6. INDEX
    (pp. 275-284)