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The Imperial Self in American LifeStephen J. Whitfield

From Columbia Journal of American Studies Vol. 4, No. 1 2000

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Tocqueville's masterpiece bears an equivocal relation to the argument of this essay By highlighting the leveling tendencies of a society that did not have to go through the ordeal of revolution in order to smash hierarchical authority (because Americans were already born equal), and by locating such egalitarianism as the ideal around which all institutions pivoted, he became famous for arguing that something unique had emerged at least in Western history Conditions in the world seemed more equal than the Europe from which the early settlers came; the apt contrast was with nations like his own France, which was still struggling with the legacy of its own feudal past, the vestiges of its ancien regime. But Tocqueville failed to see vaulting ambition as the measure of American novelty, precisely because of the absence of an aristocratic class and legacy Democracy in America claimed that the aristocrat was supposed to live by a code of honor, enacting the desire to distinguish himself whether through martial courage, or through patronage of the arts, or through sport, or through high style. Nobility could inspire memories of past splendor, and tended to inculcate a will to live up to the illustrious names one bears and to match the prominence of one's ancestors. The ambition of the aristocrat was pitched to the standards of glory and grandeur. But such values were not cultivated in the United States, whose inhabitants are never "devoid of a yearning to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims." Tocqueville believed that "ambition commonly ranges in a narrower field" in the new republic because it erased an aristocratic tradition.[5]

In a curious letter written early in his visit, he observed that Americans have known "neither wars, nor plagues, nor literature, nor eloquence, nor fine arts, few great crimes, nothing of what rouses Europe's attention; here people enjoy the most pallid happiness that one can imagine." [6] Nothing in that letter could now be said to be true; the cunning of history has falsified the vision of even the most astute of prophets. But by claiming that Americans had settled upon a middle way between the extremes that characterized Europe, Tocqueville was, probably unknowingly, echoing the invitation that Benjamin Franklin had extended most directly to British immigrants to populate the trans-Atlantic colonies. Such newcomers would avoid the excesses of wealth and poverty, of luxury and misery, and would find instead what Franklin called "a general happy mediocrity." [7] What makes Tocqueville's observations so haunting, however, was not only that the heir of an aristocratic family (defined in terms of blood, birth and title) could calibrate the loss of fixed status, the erosions of egalitarianism, the dynamic of a democratic transformation that would, he believed, sweep across his own continent as well. (He saw in the American present the European future.) He also saw that egalitarianism meant a loss in historical consciousness itself. The past itself was rendered discontinuous, because democratic peoples travel light. Disinheritance and isolation would become the psychic burdens of individualism-a term that Tocqueville himself largely coined ("a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth"). What the Declaration of Independence had enshrined as an inalienable right could mean estrangement and loneliness instead" [8]

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Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University . He is the author of eight books, including most recently A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988), The Culture of the Cold War (1996), and In Search of American Jewish Culture (1999). Professor Whitfield is also the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (2004).

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