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1831 de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) traveled to the United States with Gustave de Beaumont in 1831. Their official mission was to study the penitentiary system in the United States but they traveled and observed everything and everywhere they could. These travel observations form the background for deTocqueville's most famous work, Democracy in America. It is interesting to note that de Tocqueville in going to Michigan thought he was visiting the "utmost limits of European civilization."

Pocket Notebook Number 2

Alexis de Tocqueville22nd July. At sunrise we are sailing through the middle of the lake towards the North West, the shores are only to be seen in the distance, but a great many little islands surround us. We are passing beside the little island of 'Middle Sister' near which took place the naval battle in which the English were defeated.

Entry of the Detroit River. An island; two passages. We take the English channel. House of Fort Malden. French appearance of the village. Catholic Church. Cock on the church tower. Scottish soldier in full dress on the bank; on the other side two stark naked savages in a canoe, twisting as fast as a whirlpool round our boat. Rings hanging on the nose. Under the trees on the bank, huts of a sort with a fire in the middle. Naked children around. On one side extreme civilization, on the other the extreme opposite.

We arrived at Detroit at 4 o'clock. A fine American village. Many French names on the houses; French bonnets. We went to see Mr. Richard, the priest in charge of the Catholic church in Detroit. We found him busy teaching at school. His story: brought up by the Irish in Paris; studied theology at Saint Sulpice; ordained priest at the last ordination of 1791; went into exile; came to Detroit; a few years ago was Congress representative for the territory of Michigan. An old man whose religion seems to be ardent and sincere. Desultory conversation, but interesting. The Protestant population begins to be preponderant in Michigan on account of emigration. But Catholicism gains some converts among the most enlightened men. Mr. Richard's opinion about the extreme coolness of the upper classes in America towards religion. One of the reasons for the extreme tolerance; anyhow tolerance complete. Nobody asks you of what religion you are, but if you can do the job. The greatest service one can do to religion is to separate it from temporal power. The slightest nuance of ill feeling towards popular government, intrigues and cabals; the elections are even made by the central government. United States systems for the new States. They are made to get accustomed by degrees to governing themselves. Colony of native Christians at Michilimackinac. Their zeal, their ardour, their education.

On leaving Mr. Richard our embarrassment about which way to set out. All the Americans wanted us to choose the best roads and oldest settlements. We wanted the wilderness and savages but did not like to say so too clearly.

Saginaw Bay was proposed and, to put an end to the argrument, we decided on that.

23rd July. We bought pillows, a compass, brandy, sugar, and ammunition. We hired two horses.

Conversation with Mr. Biddle.

We left at 11 o'clock. Our dress. Our way of travelling. Birds killed. Our joy at advancing at last into the wilds. Perfectly flat ground. One league without trees and under cultivation around Detroit.

A Fortnight in the Wilds

In the evening, the weather having turned favorable, we moved quickly towards Detroit across the middle of the lake. On the following morning we were in sight of the little island called Middle Sister, near to which Commodore Perry won a celebrated naval victory over the English.

Soon afterwards the level coast of Canada seemed to be moving quickly towards us, and we saw the Detroit River opening in front of us and the houses of Fort Malden in the distance. This place, founded by the French, still bears many traces of its origin. The houses are placed and shaped like those of our peasants. The Catholic bell-tower with a cock on top rises in the middle of the hamlet. One might think it a village near Caen or Evreux. A strange sight turned our attention away from these sentimental reminders of France: on the bank to our right was a Scotch soldier mounting guard in full uniform. It was the uniform made so famous by the field of Waterloo. Feather in cap, jacket, all complete; his clothes and arms glinted in the sunlight. To our left, as if on purpose to point the contrast, two stark naked Indians, their bodies streaked with dyes, rings in their noses, came up at the same moment from the opposite bank. There were in a little bark canoe with a coverlet for sail. Letting their frail boat run with wind and current, they shot like an arrow towards our ship and in an instant had turned round it. Then they went off quietly to fish near the English soldier who, still glinting and unmoving, seemed put there as the symbol of the high civilisation of Europe in arms.

We reached Detroit at three o'clock. Detroit is a little town of two or three thousand souls, founded by the Jesuits in the middle of the forest in 1710, and still having a great number of French families.

By this time we had crossed the whole state of New York, and gone a hundred leagues over Lake Erie; by now we were touching the limits of civilisation, but we had no idea whatsoever whither to wend our way next. To get information was not as easy as one might have thought. To break through almost impenetrable forests, to cross deep rivers, to brave pestilential marshes, to sleep out in the damp woods, those are exertions that the American readily contemplates, if it is a question of earning a guinea; for that is the point. But that one should do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in. Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man. He will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge or a fine village. But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that possibility completely passes him by.

So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths. As for Indians, you will see only too many in our public places and in the streets; there is no need to go very far for that. Those here are at least beginning to get civilised and have a less savage look. We were not slow to realize that we should not get the truth out of them by a frontal attack and that it was necessary to manoeuvre.

So we went to call on the official appointed by the United States to see to the sale of the still uninhabited land that covers the district of Michigan; we represented ourselves to him as people who, without any decided intention of settling in the country, might yet have distant interest in knowing what land cost and how it was situated. Major Biddle, that was his name, this time understood wonderfully well what we wanted to do, and entered a once into a mass of details to which we paid avid attention. 'This part here', he said to us, pointing out on the map the St. Joseph River which, after many a bend, flows into Lake Michigan, 'seems to me the best suited for your scheme; the soil is good there; there are already some fine villages established there, and the road leading thither is so well maintained that public conveyances traverse it daily.' 'Good'! we said to ourselves. 'Now we know where not to go, at least unless we want to visit the wilds in a mail van.' We thanked Mr. Biddle for his advice, and asked him with an air of casualness and a pretended scorn, what part of the district had so far least attracted the attention of emigrants. 'In this direction', he told us without attaching more importance to his answer than we had to our question, 'towards the northwest. As far as Pontiac and in the neighbourhood of that village some fairly good settlements have been established. But you must not think of settling further on; the ground is covered by almost impenetrable forest which stretches endlessly to the northwest, where one only finds wild beasts and Indians. The United States are always considering opening up a road; but so far it has barely been begun and stops at Pontiac. I say again, that is a part you should not think about.' We thanked Mr. Biddle again for his good advice, and left determined to take it in just the contrary sense. We could not contain ourselves for joy at having at last discovered a place to which the torrent of European civilisation had not yet come.

On the next day, the 23rd July, we hastened to hire two horses. As we contemplated keeping them for ten days or so, we wanted to leave a sum of money with their owner; but he refused to take it, saying that we could pay on our return. He showed no alarm. Michigan is surrounded on all sides by lakes and wilds; he let us in to a sort of riding-school of which he held the door. When we had bought a compass as well as provisions, we set out on our way, rifle on shoulder, as thoughtless of the future and happy as a pair of schoolboys leaving college to spend their holidays at their father's house.

If we had indeed only wanted to see forests, our hosts in Detroit would have been right in telling us that we need not go very far, for, a mile out of the town, the road goes into the forest and never comes out of it. The land it passes over is completely flat and often marshy. From time to time along the road one comes to new clearings....

From: JOURNEY TO AMERICA by Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated by George Lawrence. Edited by J. P. Mayer. New Haven: Yale University Press, [1959.]: 134-135; 334-337.

See Also:

Jardin, Andre. Tocqueville: A Biography. Translated from the French by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.


ezierski, John. A Fortnight in the Wilds. Michigan History 1980 64 (3): 28-34.

Kilar, Jeremy. Tocqueville's Companion Traveler Gustave de Beaumont and the Journey to the Michigan Wilderness in 1831. Michigan History 1984 68 (1): 34 -39.


iebersohn, Harry. Discovering Indigenous Nobility: Tocqueville, Chamisso, and Romantic Travel Writing. American Historical Review 1994 99 (3): 746- 766.

Lively, Jack. The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1962.

Nash, Roderick. American Cult of the Primitive. American Quarterly 1966 18 (3): 517-537.