When, in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to study Democracy in America, the trial of nearly a half-century of the working of our system had been made, and it had been proved, by many crucial tests, to be a government of "liberty regulated by law," with such results in the development of strength, in population, wealth, and military and commercial power, as no age had ever witnessed.
De Tocqueville had a special inquiry to prosecute, in his visit to America, in which his generous and faithful soul and the powers of his great intellect were engaged in the patriotic effort to secure to the people of France the blessings that Democracy in America had ordained and established throughout nearly the entire Western Hemisphere. He had read the story of the French Revolution, much of which had been recently written in the blood of men and women of great distinction who were his progenitors; and had witnessed the agitations and terrors of the Restoration and of the Second Republic, fruitful in crime and sacrifice, and barren of any good to mankind.
He had just witnessed the spread of republican government through all the vast continental possessions of Spain in America, and the loss of her great colonies. He had seen that these revolutions were accomplished almost without the shedding of blood, and he was filled with anxiety to learn the causes that had placed republican government, in France, in such contrast with Democracy in America.
De Tocqueville was scarcely thirty years old when he began his studies of Democracy in America. It was a bold effort for one who had no special training in government, or in the study of political economy, but he had the example of Lafayette in establishing the military foundation of these liberties, and of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, all of whom were young men, in building upon the Independence of the United States that wisest and best plan of general government that was ever devised for a free people.
It's hard to think of a work that has so influenced our understanding of the United States as this still the most authoritative, reflective set of observations about American institutions and the American character ever written. That its author was a Frenchman, and an aristocrat at that, and that he was balanced and penetrating has often occasioned rueful surprise. However, de Tocqueville's distance from his subject is precisely what lends his observations such continuing currency. A few decades ago, for instance, we read Tocqueville for his prediction that Russia and the United States would one day contest for pre-eminence. Now, we ought to read him (Iraqis and Afghans should, too) for his classic analyses of the link between political parties and free associations and for his reflections on such matters as religion and public life, and "self-interest properly understood." But many solid translations exist. Why another? Because the Library of America would be incomplete without this canonical work of history and sociology. And this translation by Goldhammer, the dean of American translators from the French, accomplishes what it's hard to believe possible: it lends to this unalterably grave work some zest. Never slipping into slang, it gives a colloquial cast, fitting for our time, to a work normally rendered only with high solemnity. The Library of America claims that its editions will stay in print forever. This one's likely to stand that test.