In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville began a nine-month journey in search of what he later called "Democracy in America." Using Tocqueville's original notes, Richard Reeves retraced those travels, going to the same places to find the modern counterparts of the Americans.
The Americans of the 1830s and the Americans of the 1980s are the subject and the glory of American Journey. For two men, the Frenchman and the American, traveling the United States was an adventure of the road and of the mind.
Tocqueville and Reeves both began their journeys in Newport, Rhode Island, and then traveled through New York and Philadelphia, crisscrossing the country to Michigan in the north and Louisiana in the South. But Tocqueville's ride from the St. Clair River to the wilderness of Saginaw Bay became, for Reeves, a walk in the wilderness of Detroit.
Tocqueville's conversations with an embittered ex-President, John Quincy Adams, echoed over the years when Reeves asked similar questions of Richard Nixon. The presidents of Harvard University, 150 years apart, each presented a book to the traveler: Tocqueville's was a volume on the duties of public officials; Reeves was given a book about coping with the stress of daily life. Tocqueville interviewed the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, the richest man in America. Reeves traced the signer's lineage to the direct descendent who was not admitted to the great medical school that stands on an old family estate.
Who are these nomad people, the Americans? How does this democracy of theirs work? Tocqueville asked and answered those questions in his time. Reeves, one of the finest of modern American political writwers, asked them again of the governors and the governed, of presidents and priests, of laborers and lawyers. In offices in Washington, prison cells in Philadelphia, banks in Manhattan, and classrooms in Boston and Los Angeles, Reeves recorded the words and ideas that have made America resonate throughout those 150 years of revolutionary change. The writer cannot contain his wonder at the consistency of the character and ideas that have continued to give us energy during two centuries. Americans are the same -- a breed apart with our passion for equality and our colonial suppression of Indians and many blacks, with our celebration of dissent and our dedication to conformity, with our belief in our own stirring rhetoric and our attempts to be better as a people than we know we are as individuals.
For a time, the two travelers part. Not only does Reeves talk with Americans in a West beyond the Mississippi River, but the American is more optimistic than the Frenchman was. Tocqueville believed that a democratic could never rise above themselves and their own petty demands and hatreds. Reeves discovered, almost with astonishment, a people better than his predictions, better than their leaders -- and, at their best, almost as good as their ideals.
Reeves, in an original and provocative analysis, concludes that the Republic and federalism are both collapsing in the face of more and more democracy -- and that Americans are better and happier for that.
American Journey is an adventure because Americans, Reeves found, are adventurers -- struggling, sometimes stumbling, toward a greater democracy in America.
"Reeves' reporting and analysis compare well with Tocqueville's own, which is to say they are first-rate." John Skow, Time
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