Slave family picking cotton near Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1860s.

Slave family picking cotton near Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1860s.



No visitor to the United States left a more enduring record of his trav- els and observations than the French writer and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America, first published in 1835, remains one of the most trenchant and insightful analyses of Ameri- can social and political practices . Tocqueville was far too shrewd an observer to be uncritical about the United States, but his verdict was fundamentally positive . “The gov- ernment of a democracy brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens,” he wrote, “just as the dissemination of wealth brings the notion of property within the reach of all men .” Nonetheless, Tocqueville was only one in the first of a long line of thinkers to worry

whether such rough equality could survive in the face of a growing fac- tory system that threatened to create divisions between industrial workers and a new business elite .

Other travelers marveled at the growth and vitality of the country, where they could see “everywhere the most unequivocal proofs of prosperity and rapid progress in ag- riculture, commerce, and great pub- lic works .” But such optimistic views of the American experiment were by no means universal . One skep- tic was the English novelist Charles Dickens, who first visited the United States in 1841-42 . “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he wrote in a letter . “This is not the Republic of my imagination . . . . The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thou- sand respects, it appears in my eyes .

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