Thursday, January 18, 2007

Tocqueville's Democracy in America: Solving a Mystery and Exposing a Fraud


Early in May of 1831, two young Frenchmen arrived in the United States to study American penology and prison systems. Alexis de Tocqueville, 26, and Gustave de Beaumont, 29, were scions of old aristocratic families. To prepare for their trip, they studied the available literature about America. Their inspection tour of American prisons was actually a polite cover for their real interest: to study the social and political institutions of the young republic.

Indefatigable researchers, Tocqueville and Beaumont crisscrossed the United States from Canada to Louisiana and from the East Coast to Michigan on the western frontier. Traveling by steamboat and stagecoach, they visited 17 of the 24 states then in the union. Upon returning home, they wrote a joint report suggesting that France copy the penitentiary system in America. Working from notes gathered in their travels, Tocqueville later published his masterpiece entitled Democracy in America. It is still read and widely quoted for its trenchant observations on American society and institutions.

C-Span's Error
After researching the nine-month journey of Tocqueville and Beaumont through the United States, in May of 1997 the C-Span network began broadcasting from each stop on their trip. The TV tour, which was billed as "In Search of Tocqueville's Democracy in America," began in May of 1997. It concluded in February of 1998, coinciding with and commemorating their departure from New York City for France on February 20, 1832.

To mark Tocqueville's journey, C-Span erected plaques at the places where he and Beaumont stopped. In Peekskill, N.Y., a plaque was placed at the new waterfront park, Riverfont Green, to mark his visit to the area. Here is how C-Span described Toqueville's itinerary on July 1, 1831, based on its research in available records: "Leave Yonkers by steamboat; stop in Peekskill long enough to go hike Anthony's Nose; board the steamboat North America headed for Albany." But there is no documentary evidence that Tocqueville and Beaumont ever stopped at Peekskill, much less hiked to Anthony's Nose, which is north of Peekskill, near the present Bear Mountain Bridge. If not Peekskill and Anthony's Nose, what settlement and mountain had they visited?

Separating historical fact from historical fiction is a task often reserved for professional historians who follow in later generations. Nevertheless, the amateur historian of minor talents may sometimes dare to walk where the academic lifts his robes and stalks away. The evidence from which C-Span concluded that Tocqueville and Beaumont had visited Peekskill, and then had hiked north along the river to Anthony's Nose was both tenuous and bothersome. In 1831, successive formidable barriers of Manitou Mountain, Anthony’s Nose, Mine Mountain, Canada Hill and Sugarloaf descended to the water’s edge and effectively blocked land travel north from Peekskill along the river. The main road north from Peekskill (the Albany Post Road) veered far to the east toward Continental Village,. After passing on the east of the mountainous barrier, travelers on the Albany Post Road (Route 9) headed northwest down the Old West Point Road (Route 403) to Garrison. It was not until 1922 that the Peekskill-Bear Mountain Bridge toll road was laboriously carved into the sheer slopes of Manitou Mountain and Anthony's Nose along the river to reach the Bear Mountain Bridge. Careful reading of contemporary sources offers strong evidence that Tocqueville and Beaumont probably did not stop in Peekskill and certainly did not "go hike Anthony's Nose."

Let's Look at the Record
On June 30, 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont started their tour of the United States, sailing by sloop from New York City to Yonkers. Arriving unannounced at the home of the influential Livingston family, they were disappointed not to find them at home. To while away the day, Beaumont sketched the Hudson, and Tocqueville hunted birds with his fowling piece.

The following excerpt is from a letter Beaumont wrote to his brother Jules from Albany on July 4, 1831. It was printed in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, a massive work by George W. Pierson, professor of history at Yale University and Yale's first official historian. It was based on Pierson's 1933 Ph.D. thesis. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938):

That night [June 30] we found in our inn two beds prepared in a kind of attic, so well-warmed by the last rays of the setting sun that I thought we should suffocate during the night. Finally the steamboat from New York to Preskill [Peekskill] came next morning to draw us from our hole. In taking this boat we were counting on having it carry us to Calwell.

Beaumont quite obviously had difficulty either in transcribing local place names or in reading his own notes. Author Pierson could not identify the mysterious Calwell and noted "not sure about this" after the place name. Beaumont's letter continues:

We did in fact arrive at Calwell. There we took a charming promenade through woods and over rocks; and we sweat blood and water to get to the summit of a very high mountain from the top of which we saw one of the most beautiful spectacles and one of the most imposing tableaus the North River presents. On all sides we saw chains of mountains stretching out before us. There was near us especially a bay called Anthony's Nose, whose shape is all that is most picturesque. We waited until evening for a steamboat. At nine o'clock it arrived with its usual speed. It did not land where we were because that would have taken too much time, but it sent us off a boat into which we were thrown like packages with our trunks, and we found ourselves being towed by the steamboat until we caught up with it. All this happened so quickly, in such darkness and on such a vast sheet of water that there was something magical in our taking off.

Later in his letter, Beaumont identified the steamboat as the North America.

What Mountain, What Bay?
Calwell's geography sounds vastly different from that of Peekskill, then a comparatively large community dotting the gentle slopes at the mouth of Annsville Creek. and the area around it. But old maps do show a small community variously named Caldwell Landing or Caldwell's Landing on the opposite, west bank of the Hudson directly across from Peekskill. Caldwell Landing/Caldwell's Landing is today called Jones Point. This was obviously Beaumont's "Calwell." Timetables of the period reveal that, like Peekskill, the hamlet was a regular stop for steamboats then plying the river. A ferry once connected it to Peekskill. Caldwell's Landing also lay at the foot of an impressive mountain, Dunderberg, the southernmost peak of the Highlands west of the Hudson. The mountain up which Tocqueville and Beaumont toiled could not have been Anthony's Nose.

Anyone who has hiked in Harriman State Park is familiar with the Ramapo-Dunderberg trail (affectionately called the "R-D") and its red on white blaze on trees and rocks. With its eastern terminus at Jones Point, the R-D's course up the slopes of Dunderberg follows the trail taken by the French travelers. And what about the bay Beaumont reported sighting? Looking north today from the summit of Dunderberg as the two French travelers did, a hiker cannot miss the bay Beaumont described as "near us." Lying just below the viewer, between Dunderberg and the sprawling bulk of Bear Mountain, Doodletown Bight forms a deep loop in the Hudson shoreline. Bounded on the east by Iona and Round Islands and closed off on the south by Salisbury and Ring Meadows, this bay has remained picturesque to this day. Still learning English and somewhat shaky in the new tongue, Beaumont can perhaps be forgiven for misidentifying the bay as Anthony's Nose, especially since the bay and the prominence called Anthony's Nose are both visually on a direct line of sight from Dunderberg.

C-Span failed to identify and locate this crucial landmark bay. Yet on the slim evidence of the name of the mountain misapplied to the bay, the network mistakenly assumed that Tocqueville and Beaumont had climbed Anthony's Nose. It would have been a remarkable feat indeed for the two travelers to arrive at Peekskill from Yonkers on a morning boat, make an arduous trip to climb Anthony's Nose, and return to Peekskill to kill time waiting around for a northbound boat. Besides, Anthony's Nose was only a river pilot's navigational landmark--hardly an objective warranting so much effort. Moreover, Peekskill was a bustling and vibrant Westchester County village. A visit to it would have given them a chance to study an interesting community outside of New York City, and Beaumont would certainly have described it in his letter.

John Curran is Peekskill's official historian and curator of the Peekskill Museum who participated in the C-Span telecast from Peekskill. When Mr. Curran's attention was called to Beaumont's account by this writer, he conceded that Tocqueville and Beaumont had probably not visited Peekskill, nor could they have climbed Anthony's Nose. Beaumont's "Calwell" obviously was Caldwell's Landing, and his "very high mountain" clearly was Dunderberg.

Mr. Curran remarked somewhat ruefully to this writer that the C-Span incident was a reminder that a wise historian should always seek original sources to verify facts. "We [the Peekskill Museum] own a copy of the Pierson book," he said. "I should have checked it instead of relying on the work of the C-Span research staff. We'll have to have the plaque changed. It now says that Tocqueville visited Peekskill; it should have read that Tocqueville could see Peekskill from Caldwell's Landing across the river."

The Tocqueville Fraud
A deviation in the itinerary of Toxqueville and Beaumont is not the only mistake made by latter-day interpreters of the accoint of their journey through America. As a writer and principal author of record of Democrcy in America, Tocqueville is often quoted--but not always quoted accurately. Aside from the above-cited itinerary misinterpretation, Tocqueville has also been the subject of a long-standing hoax in which a widely used quotation is attributed to him. The following stirring but fake Tocqueville quotation has become popular with political speechwriters over the years:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers--and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce--and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution--and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Stirring rhetoric--but not words Alexis de Tocqueville ever wrote or uttered. As part of a course assignment, a student of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California discovered that the quotation is nowhere to be found in Tocqueville's masterwork, Democracy in America. The exact origin of these sonorous words is unclear. It turns out that part of the spurious quotation was apparently lifted from a book by Raymond C. Knox titled Religion and the American Dream (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934).

At least three American presidents--Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton--have all used the counterfeit Tocqueville sentiment. In a campaign speech in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower quoted it, attributing it only to "a wise philosopher [who] came to this country." Ronald Reagan employed it in a 1982 speech, harking back to Eisenhower's quotation as the source. Two years later, Reagan used it again, declaring that Tocqueville "is said to have observed that 'America is great because America is good.'" Reagan speechwriters became so enamored of the phony Tocqueville passage, they inserted it into several other Reagan speeches.

In 1987, ultra-conservative Representative William Dannemeyer (R-Cal.) paraphrased the counterfeit quotation to "America ceased to be good in 1971, when America's promise to pay ceased to be good." What the congressman was referring to was President Richard M. Nixon's decision sixteen years earlier that the value of the dollar would not be linked to the amount of gold held in Fort Knox.

Bill Clinton told a Boston audience in 1992, "I believe in the essential core goodness of the American people. Don't forget that Alexis de Tocqueville said a long time ago that America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will no longer be great."

No historian, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1993 not only embellished the false quote but ascribed an incorrect date to it, saying: "As the remarkable French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1850's, the source of American virtue . . . will always be found in the churches and synagogues of America." But Tocqueville's Democracy in America was published in 1835. Use of the false Tocqueville quote inevitably increased in campaign years. In May of 1996, in a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), another presidential hopeful, used the fictitious Tocqueville line about America's pulpits "flaming with righteousness." Later that same year, Pat Buchanan worked the "America is great" theme into the speech launching his campaign for the presidency.

And so it goes; the misattribution continues. In 2001, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao repeated it and dated it to the mid-1800s. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Chairperson of the American Red Cross, used the specious quotation in 2005, attributing it to Alex de Tocqueville. As recently as Thanksgiving Day 2006, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) repeated it as a Tocqueville quote. National and state elections are always in the offing, it seems. Despite their questionable heritage, ersatz Tocqueville quotations will continue to do yeoman service in the cause of politicians and public figures. Whenever you hear them repeated, listen closely. That noise you may hear in the background could be the sound of Alexis de Tocqueville turning over in his grave.

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