In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville, a twenty-six-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months travelling across the United States. From the East Coast to the frontier, from the Canadian border to New Orleans, Tocqueville observed the American people and the revolutionary country they'd created. His celebrated Democracy in America, the most quoted work on America ever written, presented the new Americans with a degree of understanding no one had accomplished before or has since. Astonished at the pace of daily life and stimulated by people at all levels of society, Tocqueville recognized that Americans were driven by a series of internal conflicts: simultaneously religious and materialistic; individualistic and yet deeply involved in community affairs; isolationist and interventionist; pragmatic and ideological.
Noted author Michael Ledeen takes a fresh look at Tocqueville's insights into our national psyche and asks whether Americans' national character, which Tocqueville believed to be wholly admirable, has fallen into moral decay and religious indifference.
Michael Ledeen's sparkling new exploration has some surprising answers and provides a lively new look at a time when character is at the center of our national debate.
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The subtitle is incredibly long, but Tocqueville on American Character is fairly short: 209 pages of text, and in relatively large print. It's a long essay on a man and his vital observations. Writes Michael Ledeen: "No one ever understood us so well as Tocqueville, which is why every generation of Americans has felt obliged to come to grips with his remarkable insights into our character." It's almost impossible to understand the American psyche without reference to Tocqueville, a French aristocrat whose Democracy in America may be the most widely read and appreciated book on the subject. "No author, before or since, has so provocatively challenged us with our own highest ideals, and simultaneously pointed to our most perilous shortcomings," writes Ledeen. "No one has so clearly identified the political beliefs and national passions that set us apart from the rest of the world, or so deeply probed the tensions, paradoxes, contradictions, and anxieties that make Americans the most revolutionary people on earth."
Yet Tocqueville traveled to the United States 30 years before the Civil War. Do his lessons still apply? More than ever before, writes Ledeen, whose book is both penetrating and accessible. "No one can be considered an educated person without having grappled with Tocqueville's profound inquiry into the American character," he says. Well, his book is a nifty way to grapple with Tocqueville without having to read the much, much longer Democracy in America. Ledeen consciously writes for a modern audience. He's explicit in telling readers why Tocqueville matters today, and how his 19th-century wisdom can live on to inform debates about everything from the purpose of religion in public life to the proper role of government. Tocqueville on American Character is a special book; upon completing it, readers won't just think they've received an education--they'll actually feel brighter. --John J. MillerAbout the Author:
Michael A. Ledeen, a noted political analyst, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He lives and works in Washington D.C.
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