Cover image for America Through European Eyes: British and French Reflections on the New World from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Edited by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac

America Through European Eyes

British and French Reflections on the New World from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

Edited by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac

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296 pages
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2009

America Through European Eyes

British and French Reflections on the New World from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

Edited by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac

“Many have read Tocqueville’s observations of Jacksonian America, but how did other visitors from Europe respond to early American institutions and customs? This excellent volume discusses fine and highly varied insights from European visitors such as Gustave de Beaumont, George Berkeley, James Bryce, Michel Chevalier, G. K. Chesterton, Victor Jacquemont, and Frances Trollope. This volume is a superb introduction to the topic of European reactions to America’s new democracy.”

 

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George W. Bush’s foreign policy touted America as the model of democracy worth exporting to the four corners of the globe. Osama bin Laden has painted a picture of our society as soulless and materialistic, representing values that are the antithesis of his version of Islam. Such starkly contrasting images of America fuel much heated debate today and drive conflicts around the world. But foreigners have long had a love/hate relationship with the United States, as this book reveals.

Contributors from comparative literature, history, philosophy, and political science combine their talents here to trace the changing visions of America that foreign travelers to our shores from England and France brought back to their contemporaries over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Novels and letters, political analysis, and philosophy are mined for perceptions of what America meant for these European visitors and how idealistic or realistic their observations were. Major writers such as Tocqueville play an important role in this dialogue, but so do lesser-known thinkers such as Gustave de Beaumont, Michel Chevalier, and Victor Jacquemont, whose importance this volume will help resurrect.

“Many have read Tocqueville’s observations of Jacksonian America, but how did other visitors from Europe respond to early American institutions and customs? This excellent volume discusses fine and highly varied insights from European visitors such as Gustave de Beaumont, George Berkeley, James Bryce, Michel Chevalier, G. K. Chesterton, Victor Jacquemont, and Frances Trollope. This volume is a superb introduction to the topic of European reactions to America’s new democracy.”
“This lively and enjoyable volume offers striking new insights into the ways that Europeans have conceptualized America and made it part of the social imaginaries that define us today. Moving beyond the typical focus on Tocqueville as a keen observer of the United States, the volume’s essays show us how other great thinkers from Britain, Ireland, and the European continent have read the contested place of ‘America’ in Western modernity.”
“In addition to offering new perspectives on some of the major contributors to European constructions of America (Hegel, Tocqueville, Heidegger, etc.), America Through European Eyes examines the works of lesser-known French and British figures such as Jacquemont, Trollope, Chevalier, and Bryce, whose influential accounts of life in the United States have helped shape the ongoing debate about the New World as both a promise and a threat. Detailed readings of a particular author combine with historical narratives to provide both depth and breadth to this excellent volume on transatlantic relations.”
America Through European Eyes [is] an indispensable starting point for anyone wishing to understand how British and French attitudes to America have changed, and yet, paradoxically, have remained consistent since at least the early 19th century. . . . [Craiutu and Isaac] have performed a salutary service in deepening our understanding of just how profoundly Tocqueville reflected on the relation between human motivation, social mores and political institutions.”
“In America Through European Eyes, Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey Isaac have assembled a stellar group of thinkers from across the political spectrum to examine the question: what does America mean to Europe? . . . The authors explain in careful detail some of the most essential and neglected works of the nineteenth century. That this collection is valuable goes without saying. That it is worth reading is incontestable.”

Aurelian Craiutu is Associate Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of Liberalism Under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (2003) and editor/translator of Tocqueville on America After 1840 (2009).

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Democracy in Dark Times (1998).

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Europeans in Search of America

Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac

Part One: America’s Many Faces

1. The Idea of America in the History of European Political Thought: 1492–9/11

Alan Levine

Part Two: America and the Enlightenment

2. Notes on Bishop Berkeley’s New World

Costica Bradatan

3. From Voltaire to Raynal and Diderot’s Histoire des deux Indes: The French Philosophes and Colonial America

Guillaume Ansart

4. On the Political Efficacy of Idealism: Tocqueville, Schoelcher, and the Abolition of Slavery

Nick Nesbitt

Part Three: French Views of America

5. A Precursor of Tocqueville: Victor Jacquemont’s Reflections on America

Aurelian Craiutu

6. Tyranny and Tragedy in Beaumont’s Marie

Christine Dunn Henderson

7. French Visions of America: From Tocqueville to the Civil War

Jeremy Jennings

Introduction

Europeans in Search of America

Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac

In America I Saw More than America

—Tocqueville

Ever since its discovery by the Europeans, America has captivated the imagination of people around the world, as a geographic space and as a site of human possibility. As the United States emerged as a major political actor on the world scene and acquired over time a powerful symbolic status, Europeans often saw in America, to use Tocqueville’s own words, “much more than America.” In America, they perceived the “image of democracy itself, its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions.” During the past two and a half centuries, admirers and critics alike have put forward an amazingly diverse array of interpretations ranging from celebrations of America as the land of freedom and the “City upon a Hill” to accusations of America as a police state that condones deep-seated injustices and plays the role of an arrogant imperial power.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to deny that the twentieth century was, in almost all respects, an “American century” in which America’s political and economic supremacy and symbolic status among other nations was consolidated. The United States stood firmly against both fascism and communism, and assumed responsibility for protecting the values of Western civilization that were threatened by the rise of totalitarian doctrines. Yet America’s rise to prominence has paradoxically been accompanied by a certain uneasiness among its more ambivalent friends as well as its critics. While giving America its due credit for resisting European imperial aggressions, commentators have often feared that the growing Americanization of the world might come to have a nefarious influence on the human soul, as well as on the bodies, of the many peoples across the world who stood in the way of America’s self-understood project of expanding the sphere of “liberty.”

The end of the cold war almost two decades ago seemed to herald an “end of ideology,” and to bolster America’s image or self-image as the defender of freedom, by promoting the United States to the rank of the world’s only superpower. Nonetheless, it did not take commentators long to realize that America’s political, military, economic, and cultural hegemony was bound to generate unintended and troubling consequences, and that these would seriously challenge the political supremacy of the United States and its globalizing vision of democracy in the twenty-first century. After the shocking and tragic events of September 11, 2001, the generous rhetoric of “We are all Americans” signaled for a brief moment that the world—and especially the European world—felt a deep solidarity with a free country under attack by violent fundamentalist extremists. Yet in many quarters the genuine sympathy for America disappeared almost as quickly as it had surfaced, replaced by a growing aversion to U.S. foreign policy and, for some, an outright aversion to “America” itself, as a political and economic power and as a society, indeed as the modern society par excellence. While no doubt fueled in large part by the aggressively moralistic “Bush Doctrine,” and by the Bush Administration’s so-called “preventive” war in Iraq, for many it was not simply what America was doing but what it was that came under suspicion and sometimes under rhetorical attack. Commentators continue to debate the extent to which this criticism of the United States represented a troubling and perhaps virulent form of “anti-Americanism.” But there can be no denying that “America” is (yet again?) a source of symbolic and political controversy, and its exemplary status, and indeed its value as a “democratic republic,” has been placed into question.

Regardless of whether or not America’s current foreign policy should be regarded as a form of imperial overreach, the rise of new discourses of suspicion toward the United States, and indeed of new forms of what many supporters and critics alike have come to regard as “anti-Americanism,” cannot—and should not—leave us indifferent. For the rhetorical contest over “America” condenses and shapes many of the central dynamics of contemporary geopolitical contestation. And yet, surprisingly and indeed ironically, as the symbolic contest for the “real” image of America goes on, for many citizens around the globe, American society continues to be an unknown (cultural and political) universe, a true terra incognita. The remark once made by Johan Huizinga—“we know much too little about America” —remains as valid today as when it was uttered a century ago. This is especially true among many of America’s critics around the world, who often rely on myths and preconceptions of American society that are vicarious expressions of their dissatisfaction with their own societies. This intellectual tendency to project hopes and fears onto “America” has abetted a disquieting confusion of facts, images, and representations, and it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the “real” from the “imagined” America. In one sense this is hardly an issue distinctive to America, for as we well know, all societies involve symbols, and “social imaginaries,” and indeed the modern nation-state is grounded not in any “real” substrate but in an “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s well-known words. Nonetheless, if all social forms are equally symbolic, this does not mean that all symbols are equally important. And, for reasons that have everything to do with the historical evolution of the United States in relation to Europe, and with the current structure of world politics, and especially with the global reach of American economic, political, and cultural power, “America” has become a particularly potent symbol, whose understanding—and misunderstanding—carries particularly significant consequences.

That is precisely why it is both timely and important to study the origins and the evolution of the image of America in the eyes of European travelers and commentators. It is our hope that by revisiting some classic accounts of American society and politics, we can shed some light on the genealogy and the coherence of current controversies about “America,” and thereby help, in a small way, to make possible more productive debates both about what the United States does and what it is.

Our book examines the representations of America in the writings of modern French and English travelers. We have chosen to limit our focus to British and French commentators mainly because their societies have historically had the most intense contact with America. Obviously, Spain’s “discovery” of “the New World,” and its colonization of part of it, was historically formative, as were the early activities of the Dutch and Portuguese. And obviously over the course of time, and as it expanded westward, the United States became a true “melting pot” of nations and ethnicities. The narratives produced by these complex encounters are all no doubt important, and the narrative of American history, and of the history of “America” as a symbol, has a place for all of these discourses. Nonetheless, from the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase to the First and Second World Wars, the complex relations with Britain and France have exerted a powerful influence on the fate of America.

In choosing to present accounts of the opinions on America expressed by lesser-known French figures such as Gustave de Beaumont, Michel Chevalier, Jean-Jacques Ampère, Guillaume-Tell Poussin, Victor Jacquemont, Édouard Laboulaye, and Duvergier de Hauranne, we wanted not only to go beyond the often-cited Alexis de Tocqueville, but also to demonstrate the faux pas committed by recent critics of French politics who have mistakenly argued that France has been America’s oldest enemy. Not only is this false—France is the only major West European country never to have been at war with the United States!—but, what is more, there were many perceptive French travelers to the United States who left valuable accounts of their travels that revealed original aspects of America that are worth reconsidering today. Although these French writers often complained that the Americans were “uncultivated,” we should not assume that the whole range of French attitudes toward America was exhausted by the lamentations of their most skeptical Cassandras. The famous Statue of Liberty—a global symbol of America as a haven of liberty—was indeed a gift of France to America, and the thinker who first came up with the idea behind F. Bartholdi’s project was none other than Édouard Laboulaye, a major liberal politician during the Second Empire and himself an enlightened disciple of Tocqueville.

More broadly, we have sought to underscore the complexity of European experiences of America as well as the complexity of European reflections on America. The writers discussed in this volume invite us to rediscover the diversity of America. Needless to say, what Gustave de Beaumont discerned in America differed from Frances Trollope’s more critical view of American mores. Bryce and Chesterton were both Englishmen, but their accounts of America were remarkably different in their emphases, hopes, and fears. One might argue, by looking at the range of accounts offered by French and English commentators featured below, that each of them discovered, so to speak, their own personal Americas, and that in almost all cases, their perceptions of America were highly selective, filtered through preexisting conceptual lenses. Yet the accounts authored by these writers combined perceptive discussions of America with original meditations on the nature of modernity, the character of democracy, and the destiny of their own countries. For most of them, America was a starting point sui generis, or, to put it differently, a bridge between what they saw in Europe and what they aspired to change there. This attitude is best illustrated by the famous statement made by Tocqueville in the introduction to Democracy in America. “I did not go to America to satisfy curiosity, however legitimate; I sought there lessons from which we might profit. . . . I admit that I saw in America more than America; it was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passion; I wanted to understand it so as at least to know what we have to fear or hope therefrom.”

The essays in this book discuss a range of texts, including novels, letters, comparative histories, and philosophical treatises. Almost all of them represent reflections based on actual experience of America and are in some sense travel narratives. While one should be wary of relying too heavily on a genre that is impressionistic and often lacks historical sophistication, travel notes combine, arguably better than any other genre, the mundane need for practical details and information with the thirst for deeper knowledge and the spirit of adventure in love with exotic landscapes. Travel is not only a fascinating way to appreciate America’s peculiar physiognomy, but it also presents a unique opportunity for drawing comparisons and rethinking the legitimacy of claims to universal truth made on behalf of American civilization. The foreign travelers’ uncanny eye for details, their insights into how everyday manners function as pillars of democracy in America, their sometimes unexpected affinity with and empathy for the nonfamiliar, as well as their unique propensity for comparison and hyperbole help us appreciate better America’s vibrant dynamism and originality as well as some of the less attractive features of the American political landscape.

The writers discussed in this volume are important figures who played a significant role in the cultural and political debates in their own countries. The ten chapters of our book present their views of America, place their writings in the historical, political, and cultural contexts of their times, and highlight the ways in which their insights and judgments have been part of a broader transatlantic discourse about the role of the United States with important resonances in both France and England. This discourse represents an interesting moment in modern intellectual history, and at the same time it sheds light on themes and issues of enduring significance that still reverberate in current controversies. It goes without saying that the writers profiled here were partial and flawed even if perceptive observers. Not all of their remarks were fair or accurate; some of their critiques were exaggerated, while others were based on superficial observations. Without a doubt, each of the writers analyzed here attained only provisional success in their attempt to understand the unique profile of America. Nonetheless these commentaries, taken together, constitute a remarkable and illuminating dialogue about “American exceptionalism” and the vices and virtues that flow from it.

By examining the ways in which the image of America was constructed in the writings of modern French and English writers, our volume demonstrates that both the idealization and the criticism of America were to some extent a projection of French and English aspirations and anxieties and an attempt to account for—and come to terms with—Europe’s progressive loss of status and influence. As Alan Levine, Jeremy Jennings, and Richard Boyd point out in their contributions to this volume, for many European critics of America the stakes are very high, involving nothing less than the preservation of their own societies from the influence of American culture and democracy. Yet these societies are themselves complex entities in the throes of modernization, and only with great difficulty can they be reduced to some essential “national character.” In the same way, French and English interpretations of America do not constitute a homogeneous bloc and, as Alan Levine shows in the opening chapter, it would be inappropriate to reduce the complex set of French and English narratives about America to a simplistic opposition between pro-Americans and anti-Americans, or even between promodernity and antimodernity. Various themes and images recur over time and are often arranged in new configurations. The chapters of this book selectively trace the transformation of these themes and demonstrate how America has moved from representing a pastoral Arcadia and Europe’s past to symbolizing Europe’s future and the land of incessant change, mobility, impersonality, and progress—in short, the apotheosis of modern society. They also show how European thinkers have sometimes missed the mark in blaming America for problems that should properly be laid at the feet of modernity itself.

The book consists of four parts. Alan Levine’s opening essay, which constitutes part 1, offers a historical survey of the multifarious ways in which America has been interpreted by Europeans since its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Levine’s purpose is twofold: to illuminate the ways in which America was perceived by the political thinkers of Europe, and to examine the symbolic functions that America served for Europe over the centuries. Beginning with the “discovery” of America, Levine examines what theorists from the Old World thought about America and how they reacted to events in America at each stage of its unique development.

Levine identifies four major periods in the interpretation of America. The first period centers on the theorists of the Spanish Renaissance who first tried to explain the strange New World by incorporating it into the traditional Christian-Aristotelian worldview. The second centers on Enlightenment thinkers’ attempts to explain America as the home of “natural man,” the third encompasses eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European reactions to the experiment associated with the new American republic, and the fourth period centers on the twentieth-century view, widespread throughout Europe, of America as the epitome of the technological and consumerist society. Levine traces the evolution of America as a symbol and argues that America remains one of the most powerful symbols in the world, articulating European aspirations and anxieties about the Enlightenment, liberalism, and modernity itself. That is why, Levine concludes, European critiques of America often reveal more about Europe’s own problems, hopes, and fears than about America’s distinctiveness.

Part 2, “America and the Enlightenment,” includes three essays examining the French philosophes’ interpretation of America, Berkeley’s educational project for the island of Bermuda, and the issues of race and slavery in the Americas through the lenses of Victor Schoelcher.

Costica Bradatan’s “Notes on Bishop Berkeley’s New World” takes up the larger meaning of “America” and focuses on George Berkeley’s 1725 essay A Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations, and for Converting the Savage Americans, to Christianity, By a College to be erected in the Summer Islands, otherwise called The Isles of Bermuda. Despite the fact that he had never traveled to the islands of Bermuda, Berkeley offered in his Proposal an extremely detailed description of their natural landscapes and projected various details about their inhabitants, praising the purity of their morals and the innocence of their manners. The islands were thus in effect idealized settings for his boldest educational project. Bradatan discusses Berkeley’s project from three complementary perspectives: from the point of view of the tradition of the quest for the “earthly paradise,” which was the basis for the first voyages of discovery and colonization of America; from the point of view of utopianism, by placing Berkeley’s project in the tradition of the educational utopias, from Plato to More, some of which left their distinct imprint on the establishment of the first colleges in the New World; and, finally, from the perspective of the project’s messianic tones, with special reference to Berkeley’s famous verses announcing that “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way.” As such, George Berkeley’s project to build a theology and fine arts college in the islands of Bermuda is analyzed as a paradigmatic case of symbolic reconstruction and idealization of the New World, as the quest for the “earthly paradise” within the larger utopian and eschatological tradition. Bradatan shows that in designing his educational project, Berkeley was, consciously or unconsciously, under the strong influence of these ancient notions and patterns of thought and mapped out his encounter with the New World using a repertoire of old phantasms, hopes of universal renewal and dreams of spiritual salvation. Berkeley’s American project, Bradatan argues, is hardly understandable without taking seriously into account its messianic elements, something that Berkeley seems to have shared with many of the early American colonists themselves.

Guillaume Ansart’s “From Voltaire to Raynal and Diderot’s Histoire des deux Indes: The French Philosophes and Colonial America,” examines the image of America in the ideological milieu of the philosophes by focusing on the North American chapters of Raynal and Diderot’s Histoire des deux Indes (1780). The Histoire des deux Indes contains a detailed treatment of the colonies and their history from their origins to the eve of the rebellion. The influence of religion on the development of the colonies receives extensive attention and, in many instances, Pennsylvania and the Quakers appear in contrast with Puritan New England. Raynal and Diderot emphasize the fact that the Quakers did not engage in theological dogmatism but instead preferred to encourage the practice of a “natural” morality inspired by the simplicity of early Christians. This tendency toward universalism greatly appealed to the philosophes, and the Histoire des deux Indes underscores the positive social effects of religion in Pennsylvania: tolerance, freedom, and equality lead to a climate of peace and social harmony, which in turn leads to prosperity. To the benign universalism of Quaker morality Raynal’s book opposes the dogmatic severity of Puritanism, with its strict application of Old Testament norms to all aspects of everyday life.

The other significant opposition running through the North American chapters of the Histoire des deux Indes is the difference in cultural and political traditions between the northern and southern colonies. According to Raynal and Diderot, freedom and religious tolerance were not as deeply rooted in the South as in the North, nor was the spirit of commerce and industry as developed. In this context, they underlined the positive consequences of Puritanism such as the orderly, rational organization of the New England colony from its inception, the republican spirit, and the development of commerce and industry. In the end, Ansart concludes, the Histoire des deux Indes hesitates between two distinct visions of colonial America: a return to an idealized communal past and a model for a new future of progress, freedom, and enlightened trade.

Nick Nesbitt’s “On the Political Efficacy of Idealism: Tocqueville, Schoelcher, and the Abolition of Slavery,” examines the French debate on abolition in the period preceding 1848, which is presented as a conflict between realists and idealists. According to Nesbitt, though each camp stood opposed to the institution of chattel slavery in France’s American colonies, it was the uncompromising political idealism of Victor Schoelcher that actually carried the day and brought an immediate and universal end to slavery in France’s colonies in 1848. Though Tocqueville explicitly critiques slavery as a violation of blacks’ human rights, by the time of his 1839 report to the French government on abolition, he calls for a temporary prohibition on the possession of land by freed slaves, excluding them from full citizenship. Nesbitt derives two lines of French abolitionist thought. On the one hand, he identifies a middling realistic strand stretching from Condorcet and the Société des Amis des Noirs to thinkers such as Tocqueville, who called for a gradual and partial emancipation of slaves; and on the other hand, he singles out a radical idealism that can be found in the case of Toussaint Louverture and Schoelcher, who remained faithful to the Enlightenment concept of natural right, arguing that any and all human beings are capable of autonomous action. According to Nesbitt, the events of the Haitian Revolution lay at the core of this divergence. While Tocqueville based his hesitant emancipationist realism in part upon the conventional assessment of the 1804 revolution, Schoelcher’s greater familiarity with the French colonies and the political philosophy of Toussaint and 1804 led him to militate for universal abolition and full, immediate citizenship. In developing these conflicting currents of French political thought in the nineteenth century, Nesbitt highlights certain dilemmas of imperial power that become endemic sources of controversy in twentieth-century American political discourse.

Part 3 explores the views of America held by leading nineteenth-century French writers and politicians who were contemporaries of Tocqueville. Aurelian Craiutu’s essay, “A Precursor of Tocqueville: Victor Jacquemont’s Reflections on America,” analyzes the image of America in the writings of Victor Jacquemont (1810–32), a friend of Stendhal and one of the most prominent representatives of the new French generation that came of age around 1820. A gifted natural historian, Jacquemont epitomized the romantic intellectual in love with exotic landscapes and cultures and in search of unprecedented adventures (his travel diary in India brought him posthumous fame in France). He arrived in the New World in December 1826 and spent almost six months there, visiting Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Haiti, and parts of Canada. Although Jacquemont’s observations on America have been neglected to this day, they deserve to be retrieved from oblivion because, in many respects, he was a forerunner of Tocqueville and introduced a series of themes that were later developed further in Democracy in America. Craiutu’s essay focuses on Jacquemont’s comments on the themes of equality and equalization of conditions, self-government and the spirit of association, and Protestantism; the relationships between society and government and between religion and morality; and domestic life, journals, and political debates in America. Craiutu argues that although narrower in scope than Tocqueville’s ideas, Jacquemont’s reflections anticipate the latter’s more subtle and nuanced analysis of democratic mores and religion in America. Jacquemont followed American journals and debates closely and noted the signs that announced a possible civil war between the North and the South. Also worth noting are his remarks on the power of public opinion and the homogenization of society. Jacquemont had serious reservations about American pragmatism and was far from being enthusiastic about its effects on American mores. Toward the end of his journey, Jacquemont did not conceal his dissatisfaction with the American way of life and the ensemble of American mores which he found cold and vulgar. He concluded that, for all its virtues, the American way of life did not provide a civilized type of liberty.

Christine D. Henderson’s essay, “Tyranny and Tragedy in Beaumont’s Marie,” explores Gustave de Beaumont’s portrait of slavery and of racism in America from his famous novel Marie: A Tableau of American Moeurs. Beaumont visited America with Tocqueville in 1831–32. Their travels took them to New England, Michigan and the Ohio River area, Memphis and New Orleans, and Washington. Praised for the promise of liberty and equality held out in its founding, nineteenth-century America was justly criticized by foreigners and natives alike for betraying that promise by allowing racial slavery to continue within its borders. Beaumont’s novel—which received great critical and popular acclaim upon its publication in 1835—relates a tragic tale of interracial love between a young Frenchman and a mulatto American woman, which explains its subtitle, “A Tableau of American Moeurs.” A serious dimension accompanies the novel’s entertaining melodrama—as Beaumont states in Marie’s preface, his intention is to probe “the violence of the prejudice which separates the race of slaves from that of free men.” Henderson’s essay examines Beaumont’s portrait of “the black race” as well as the long- and short-term effects of slavery upon both blacks and whites. It also explores Beaumont’s assessment of America’s prospects for overcoming racism and the legacy of slavery and draws some parallels with Tocqueville’s account of the future of the three races in America.

Jeremy Jennings’s contribution, “French Visions of America: From Tocqueville to the Civil War,” comments on Michel Chevalier’s, Guillaume-Tell Poussin’s, Jean-Jacques Ampère’s, Duvergier de Hauranne’s, and Édouard Laboulaye’s respective reflections on America, which he then compares briefly to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Jennings argues that Chevalier’s Lettres sur l’Amérique du Nord are worthy of being placed immediately beside De la démocratie en Amérique, because Chevalier offered an empirical economic study of America that is as valuable and prophetic in its way as is Tocqueville’s more institutional and philosophical description. Chevalier’s two volume work, first published in 1836, remains virtually unknown (in both France and America) and has singularly failed to attain the canonical status long since accorded to Tocqueville’s own two volume study, published in 1835 and 1840. The comparison between the two authors can be extended further, as both Chevalier and Tocqueville invoked the example of America in the heated atmosphere of the Revolution of 1848 and the birth of the Second Republic. Chevalier explored aspects of American life and society that were completely unnoticed by his more illustrious compatriot. That Tocqueville’s earlier description of America remained a point of reference for French visitors is then amply illustrated by Jennings’s brief accounts of the reflections on America by Poussin, Ampère, Laboulaye, and Duvergier de Hauranne. As Jennings points out, each of these French travelers saw something to admire about America, from its vigor and vitality as a young nation to the economic power of America seen as a symbol of a future that one day, in some form or other, was bound to reach European shores.

Part 4 is devoted to examining three different English views of America. In his essay “From Aristocratic Politesse to Democratic Civility, or, What Mrs. Frances Trollope Didn’t See in America,” Richard Boyd comments upon Frances Trollope’s visit to America in 1827 to establish a dry goods emporium in Cincinnati. Although the trip, as Boyd points out, was an unmitigated disappointment, personally and financially, it culminated in a successful book analyzing American society and manners, Domestic Manners of the Americans, that was a best-seller in England and the United States upon its appearance in 1832. Trollope’s book offered a sophisticated picture of the manners of the Americans and invites its readers to reflect on how daily manners can serve as a foundation for democratic political institutions. Despite the salience of this topic Trollope’s book has generated little scholarly attention among political theorists when it has not been flatly dismissed as nothing more than an embittered and condescending expression of an aristocratic critique of American society and its system of government. Through an analysis of Trollope’s spirited account of American life, Boyd’s essay underscores important differences between her vision of American manners and that of Tocqueville. Where the latter appreciated the redeeming features of democratic manners and morals, especially the kind of easy spontaneity and democratic equality with which Americans treated one another, Trollope saw mostly “vulgarity,” “grossness,” “familiarity,” “presumptuousness,” and “universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanour.” Yet, as Boyd argues, her musings paradoxically capture better than Tocqueville’s the sense in which America’s democratic norms of civility serve to communicate a sense of the equality and intrinsic dignity of all persons. Trollope’s Domestic Manners is an especially fruitful text for exploring the suggestion that the everyday habits of democratic life are expressive of its moral virtues and vices. Trollope’s stark critique of American democracy allows us to distinguish these two commonly conflated synonyms for “manners”—namely, civility and politeness—and to determine why the latter assumed such noxious and exclusionary formulations only in the wake of modern democracy.

Russell Hanson’s essay, “Tyranny of the Majority or Fatalism of the Multitude? Bryce on Democracy in America,” offers a comparative analysis of Tocqueville’s and Bryce’s interpretations of America. In The American Commonwealth (1888), James Bryce chided Tocqueville for exaggerating the danger of tyrannical majorities in the United States. The real danger, Bryce said, is a deepening “fatalism of the multitude,” which induces people to accept and even endorse majority opinions. That is different from submitting to the will of a powerful entity, and it has different consequences for liberty, as Bryce suggested. Hanson clarifies the distinction between tyranny of the majority and fatalism of the multitude, and he shows how it accounts for Tocqueville’s and Bryce’s different assessments of political tendencies in the United States. Hanson concludes by arguing that Bryce has the more accurate analysis of American politics, but that Bryce’s critique of Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy in general is limited by the “exceptionalist” nature of Bryce’s argument.

Patrick Deneen’s essay, “What G. K. Chesterton Saw in America: The Cosmopolitan Threat from a Patriotic Nation,” focuses on Chesterton’s reflections on America, with special emphasis on Chesterton’s travel essay, What I Saw in America, in which he at once recognized the globalizing tendency of America’s philosophical underpinnings—expressed through the universalisms of the Declaration of Independence—and its propensity toward economic expansion and standardization. As Deneen points out, What I Saw in America contains one of the most-oft quoted and almost invariably misunderstood lines that attempts to describe the essence of America. In his first chapter, entitled “What Is America?” Chesterton famously described America as “the nation with the soul of a Church.” Chesterton did, in fact, conclude that America is a religious nation, but this is not the core meaning of the famous line, according to Deneen. Rather, Chesterton was speaking of “America’s creed,” and argued that Americans base their identity more or less wholly on a shared set of beliefs in contrast to the Europeans’ various identities in the form of traditions and practices. Chesterton claimed that the creedal identity resulted in a strenuously nationalistic and patriotic people. He believed that America was a country that fundamentally rested on commitments to nationality, patriotism, and its own form of particularity, however apparently universalistic in theory. Chesterton claimed that America demonstrated the limit to which the nation-state could be stretched, beyond which it would cease to be a nation—and hence, a self-governing entity—in any real sense. In contrast to his frequent intellectual nemeses, H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw, Chesterton viewed America not as an inspiration for an eventual world government, but rather as a distinct and definitive expression of human particularity, one that accorded more closely with a traditionalist view of human nature than with any form of cosmopolitan citizenship.

As our volume makes clear, while this particular cast of distinguished writers differed regarding the accomplishments and failings of the United States as well as regarding the broader significance of American society, they agreed that American society was particularly and distinctively significant, by virtue of its relentless modernism and its effective and in some ways implacable organization of political power. Indeed, as Jeffrey Isaac makes clear in his concluding essay, this symbolic and material importance of the United States is more manifest than ever today, precisely because of the terms according to which the cold war was resolved, leaving the United States as the world’s lone “superpower.” At the same time, the world that American power has inherited is a world of proliferating antagonism and conflict. The working out of these antagonisms and conflicts will no doubt be determined largely by the mobilization of material forces. Nonetheless, often the strongest material force is the force of political ideas and symbols, myths and counter-myths. To the extent that this is true, the debates about the “meanings” of America are likely to persist and to have important consequences well into the future. That is why the “symbolic geography” of “America” must remain a focal topic of sober historiographical inquiry and critical investigation.