At that time, the United States had a population of 13 million inhabitants (a 1830 census), including 2 million slaves, and had 24 states. France’s population was 36 million.
Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont sailed for America, aboard the ship “Le Havre” in April 1831.
The official purpose of the trip was to report on the U.S. prison system.
They arrive in Newport, then in New York on May 11. He discovers some peculiarities of American life, still relevant.
“They put practice before aesthetics”
He writes to Mary about the risk that Americans have to become an obese people:
“You can’t imagine the multitude of things you manage to get stuck here in your stomach. You know that regardless of the lunch, dinner, and tea with which they eat ham, they still make a very hearty supper and often a snack? »
Tocqueville and Beaumont visit penitentiaries including the one of Sing Sing, a thousand inhabitants small town on the Hudson banks. They look at the population and that is where the idea of writing a book on American institutions and democracy is born. This book must be useful to the French, accompany the process of change and avoid false leads. That will become “Democracy in America.”
2-From New York to Saginaw
In July, en route to West Point, they travel to Albany (25,000 inhabitants), the capital of New York State. It celebrates the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Tocqueville and Beaumont are part of the parade and placed in the lead. The parade ends in a church.
Tocqueville is surprised : “It’s unheard. The ceremony begins with a prayer! A prayer before reading the Declaration of Independence! »
They visit the farm of Enos Throop, the governor of the state. If he is not originally wealthy, the first person in a state is obliged to work in a second profession to live.
They meet Indians on the way to Buffalo and find that they are victims of their alcoholism.
On July 19, they boarded Ohio, a steamboat that crossed Lake Erie to reach Detroit (population 3,000), the last civilized city to the northwest.
They go in search of the limits of civilization (Saginaw), to meet the Indians in their natural environment. They rent horses, buy a compass and ammunition and embark on an expedition to the wild west, guided by two Indians. There, they met an Indian who spoke French with the Accent of the Cotentin : a “Bois-Brûlé”, the name of the children of Canadians and Indians. They are devoured by mosquitoes.
3-From Canada to Cincinatti
After this escapade and a ninth prison visit, the one of Detroit, they made a passage to Niagara Falls, then sailed to Montreal by Lake Ontario and the Saint Laurent, finally to Quebec, where they arrived on August 25.
Back in Boston (60,000 inhabitants) Alexis learns in a letter from Edward that Father Lesueur died on June 30.
He met John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, whose term had ended three years earlier, and discussed the problem of slavery with him.
In Philadelphia, they visited several prisons, all organized according to the doctrine known as “Philadelphia”: total isolation day and night. What amazes them most is not the prison system, but the racial discrimination between whites and blacks, present everywhere, from school to cemetery.
The trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh proved to be more challenging than expected. The sleighs are detestable and the roads are terrible. Winter brutally seized them on November 22, as they crossed the Appalachians. Then they boarded a large steamboat on the Fourth of July, which sailed down Ohio to Louisville, Kentucky. The ship is wrecked and Tocqueville and Beaumont think their last hour has come. Fortunately all the passengers will be rescued.
They finally arrived in Cincinnati (population 30,000) on the first day of December, a city whose population has doubled in 5 years and where gigantic buildings adjoin with cottages.
4-A hard time to New Orleans and back to Paris
Then, they then decide to go down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The cold is so intense that the rivers are frozen (1st time since 1777), they decide to walk to Louisville in the snow, then Nashville.
They meet Davy Crockett. They leave for Memphis; temperature is below 15 degrees. Alexis is in very bad shape. They stop at Sandy Bridge in an inn (a large log cabin). No doctor less than 50 km away, they stay there for several days, Tocqueville between life and death. Finally he recover and the two friends decide to leave for Memphis where they arrive on December 17. A steamboat takes them to New Orleans. On board, a tribe of Chactas Indians, driven from their territory, emigrate to the right bank of the Mississippi.
They stayed in New Orleans for three days, around January 1st 1832, and then moved up the East Coast of the United States to Washington (1800 km in 12 days of travel during which they discussed the contents of the books they planned to write).
Once they arrived in Washington, they met with the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, at the White House. They were frustrated after their meeting; the President did not live up to the topics that Tocqueville wanted to address, such as the future of the United States and Russia, which are moving towards a division of the world.
Then they returned to New York and France to arrive in Paris on March 24.