When There Was Democracy in America

Alexis de TocquevilleOn this day in 1817, the great Romantic seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky was born. Writer of The Magnificent Ambersons and other classics, Booth Tarkington was born in 1869. Journalist and creator of “Archy and Mehitabel,” Don Marquis was born in 1878. Fascist Benito Mussolini was born in 1883. Operetta composer Sigmund Romberg was born in 1887. Actor William Powell was born in 1892. Lawyer Melvin Belli was born in 1907. Detective writer Chester Himes was born in 1909. The great jazz guitarist Charlie Christian was born in 1916. “The Black Dahlia,” Elizabeth Short was born in 1924.

Songwriter and composer Mikis Theodorakis is 88 today. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is 60. And actor and (much more compellingly) commentator Wil Wheaton is 41.

The day, however, belongs to Alexis de Tocqueville who was born on this day in 1805. He was an early political scientist, but in the United States, he is mostly known for having written Democracy in America. Conservatives especially like to quote him. This is largely because they don’t understand the book. De Tocqueville did idealize America, but this was for the purpose of making a broad argument to the French people about the move from monarchy to democracy. And in discussing this, de Tocqueville especially disliked the inheritance laws in France that allowed the rich to hold onto their wealth generation after generation regardless of their merit. Conservatives of course love inheritance laws and hate estate taxes. If you get into the details of his writing, you will see that he is the 19th century equivalent of a liberal. But conservatives love him because they think that he said that America really is “exceptional.” What’s more, conservatives love this quote, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” The problem is that de Tocqueville never wrote that.

Happy birthday Alexis de Tocqueville!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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