With Alexis de Tocqueville in Green Bay

by

Jerrold Rodesch

 

(Reprinted with Permission from Voyageur, Historical review of Brown County and Northeast Wisconsin, Summer 1986.)

Alexis de Tocqueville remains for many the most profound analyst of America and Americans.Democracy in America, his master work, was based on extensive travels in this country in 1831-32, including a visit to Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was also based on his subtle theories about "a democratic state of society," toward which he saw historical development moving and of which he found the United States the most fully realized instance. This country was at once a cautionary example and the most important field of research for those who wished to know the outlines of the future. Tocqueville analyzed the American legal and political systems and the social and cultural life of a democratic people. By democracy he meant a condition of political and social equality, in contrast to the still hierarchical system of privileged orders of traditional Europe. Democracy in America combines detailed accounts of America in the 1830s with elaborate sociological generalizations. It also predicts the direction of development for American institutions and attitudes. A century and a half later the American journalist Richard Reeves re-traced Tocqueville's travels and re-posed Tocqueville's questions about American democracy, publishing the story of his tour of the country and his answers in American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America(Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).

Like Tocqueville, Reeves came to Green Bay. But Tocqueville's reasons for coming were different from Reeves'. Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, were young noblemen who held minor office in the French government. Politically compromised in the Revolution of 1830, they sought and obtained a commission to study the American penitentiary system, at the time a model for reformers everywhere. They were thus able to remove themselves gracefully from the political scene in France, to promote an important reform program, and also to secure an opportunity to tour the remarkable new society and radical republican experiment that so intrigued and puzzled Europeans. They were as well moved by a curiosity to reach the very "frontier of European civilization and even, if time allowed, to visit some of the Indian tribes which have preferred to flee into the most savage solitudes rather than bend themselves to what the whites call the delights of social life." As they traveled west from New York the frontier "seemed to flee before us....Everywhere the hut of the savage had given place to the house of the civilized man, the forests had fallen, the solitude was coming to life." Tocqueville had expected to find in America a geographical gradation of social forms from urban civilization in the east to a progressively simpler, more primitive life in the west: "It's there, in short, between a few degrees of longitude, that I hoped to find framed the history of all humanity.''1

He found nothing like this. In fact,

Of all the countries of the world America is the least fitted to furnish the spectacle I came there to seek. In America, even more than in Europe, there is only one society. ...The plane of a uniform civilization has passed over it. The man you left in New York you find again in almost impenetrable solitudes: same clothes, same attitude, same language, same habits, same pleasures. Nothing rustic, nothing naive, nothing which smells of the wilderness....Those who inhabit these isolated places have arrived there since yesterday; they have come with the customs, the ideas, the needs of civilization.2

The great continental wilderness, the vast frontier, did not shape American character. To the contrary, the wilderness was transformed by Americans as quickly as they could into a replica of civilization. Here was as obvious a case as there could be of the domination of the physical world of nature by culture and ideas.

The wilderness that provided Tocqueville his insights was the Michigan Territory, of which present-day Wisconsin was then a part. He reached Detroit on July 22, 1831, sensing at last that he was approaching "the limits of civilization." He and Beaumont set out on horseback for Saginaw Bay. This trek through dark forest and solitude (and swarms of mosquitos) brought Tocqueville satisfaction that he had reached the edge of civilized society. He met there Indians he regarded as yet uncorrupted by the white world, and white men who were the advance party of rapid and total change. A separate essay Tocqueville wrote about this travel, "Two Weeks in the Wilderness" (Quinze Jours au Désert), was in part a tale of adventure, in part another occasion to examine the American experience. He felt awe in the virgin forest: "Pressed against each other, their branches intertwined, the forest trees seem to form only a single whole, an immense and indestructible edifice, under whose vaults reigns an eternal obscurity. "Thus everything is still, everything in the woods is silent under the foliage; one would say that the Creator has for a moment turned his face away and that the forces of nature are paralyzed." The great forest, he also saw, was not really indestructible, and he described the ruthless clearing that had already taken place by the isolated settlers that he found even in the midst of the wilderness, "this ocean of foliage."3

Tocqueville talked to these settlers. He noted their greed. He was amused by some of their practices: before one log house he was startled to find a huge black bear serving as guard. ' "What a devilish country is this,' said I, 'where they have bears for watchdogs.' " He appeared even more startled when, during an attempt to travel at night in the woods, he found a river and there in the deep forest darkness met a man who addressed Tocqueville in Norman French. "Had my horse spoken to me I don't think I should have been more surprised." He reported among these white pioneers a respect for the Indians he had not encountered elsewhere. A number of whites said of the Indians that they "would rather live in their midst than among the whites." But even those who "mingled love of the savage life with the pride of civilization" were carriers of European religion, principles and ideas; they were transformers of the frontier, and they believed that the Indians and their way of life were rapidly passing away.4

Saginaw Bay was to be Tocqueville's venture into the western wilds, but on returning to Detroit he quickly seized another opportunity to penetrate even further westward. The means itself showed how suddenly the wilderness was to vanish: a grand excursion boat, a steamboat named the Superior, had put in at Detroit in the course of a tour for "Parties of Pleasure," for ladies and gentlemen from the East who wished to see "these distant regions" of the western lakes. Tocqueville and Beaumont joined the tour and made their way to Mackinac, to Sault Sainte Marie and, finally, to Green Bay, which was to be the extreme point of their venture into the wilderness.5

They arrived at Green Bay on August 9, stayed overnight and departed. The full entry in Tocqueville's notebook reads:

Arrival at 8 o'clock in the morning at Green Bay. Fort. Village on the bank in the middle of a prairie on the bank of a stream. Indian Iroquois village higher up. Large settlement. We do not know what to do; I go shooting alone. River crossed by swimming. Canoe. Plants at the bottom of the water. I get lost for a moment; return to the place without realizing it. After dinner go out with an Englishman to Ducks Creek: 4 miles. We go by canoe up a little lonely stream. Arrival at the house of an Indian woman. Grass. Pleasant jaunt. We come back.6

Lonely Duck Creek marked the end of Tocqueville's quest to reach the edge of European and American civilizations.

Tocqueville's journey produced not only his account of travels and sights; he reported also his intense questioning of the people he met, and he tried to focus his experience in the analysis of American society and the progress of democracy. The large themes that attracted his attention in the western lakes were three: the sudden process by which the frontier was absorbed into civilization; the character and fate of the Indian peoples in consequence of this process; and the effects of American democracy on religion. The civilizing process was a direct and obvious subject for his observation and analysis. It was one of the intellectual motives for his travel. So was the study of Indians caught up in the currents of change.

Tocqueville's view of the Indians is a melancholy one, and it is of course dominated by the casual European assumptions of that time about racial differences and the superiority of white men, of, as Tocqueville wrote, "MAN preeminently so called." He saw no honor in the white possession of superiority because it was turned into tyranny and the oppression of "lesser" races. The seizure of Indian lands and the disappearance of game animals would be fatal: "I believe that the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish, and that whenever the Europeans shall be established on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, that race of men will have ceased to exist." Of the two choices the Frenchman imagined, to remain in "savagery" or embrace civilization, neither could save the Indians.7

He contrasted the condition of America's black slaves with that of the Indians, for one absolute servitude, for the other, in the state Tocqueville understood as "savage," "the uttermost verge of liberty." The pride and the "pretended nobility" of the Indians led them to delight in their independence, and "civilization has little hold over them....Far from desiring to conform his habits to ours, he loves his savage life as the distinguishing mark of his race and repels every advance to civilization, less, perhaps, from hatred of it than from a dread of resembling the Europeans."8 It was at Green Bay (in the other instance in Tocqueville's writing that he mentioned the trip here) that he heard a dramatic tale supporting this belief in the tenacity of Indian resistance to European influence and retention of old ways.

In the summer of 1831 I happened to be beyond Lake Michigan, at a place called Green Bay, which serves as the extreme frontier between the United States and the Indians of the Northwest. Here I became acquainted with an American officer, Major H., who, after talking to me at length about the inflexibility of the Indian character, related the following fact: 'I formerly knew a young Indian,' said he, 'who had been educated at a college in New England, where he had greatly distinguished himself and had acquired the external appearance of a civilized man. When the war broke out between ourselves and the English in 1812, I saw this young man again: he was serving in our army, at the head of the warriors of his tribe; for the Indians were admitted among the ranks of the Americans, on condition only that they would abstain from their horrible custom of scalping their victims. On the event of the battle C. came and sat himself down by the fire of our bivouac. I asked him what had been his fortune that day. He related his exploits, and growing warm and animated by the recollection of them, he concluded by suddenly opening the breast of his coat, saying: 'You must not betray me; see here!' And I actually beheld,' said the major, 'between his body and his shirt, the skin and hair of an English head, still dripping with blood.' 9

Tocqueville had no doubt that the strategy of independence would fail the Indians as, in their traditional life, they simply lacked the organization and resources to resist conquest. Conquest meant destruction. Whether by compulsion or choice, accepting the life of civilization was no solution. Tocqueville believed that Indians were entirely capable of adopting white ways, of becoming civilized, if they had no alternative. The example of the Cherokee people in the southern states demonstrated it (and they were, at the same time, able to retain a distinct group identity). But the process of cultural change was slow and fragile, and for the Indians it had to take place in the midst of a largely hostile and varicious people, "(it must be owned)," Tocqueville wrote, "the most grasping nation on the globe." The result would defeat Indian hopes, whether through economic exploitation, corrupting agents like alcohol, or outright dispossession by force, as was the case for the Cherokee. "Cupidity and violence" would destroy Indians, free or civilized, all under the sanction of white law. "It would be impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity." Such was Tocqueville's sardonic conclusion.10  

Engraving of the episcopal Mission Building in Green Bay, about 1832.
(Engraving courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin).

Tocqueville drew on the general history of European colonization of the Americas, and his examples for the United States came from all sections of the country, but he found concrete evidence and specific observations for all his conclusions during his trip to the western lakes. In Buffalo he had been shocked by the degraded condition of the Indians, certain that contact with civilization had physically and morally debased the native peoples. On the frontier he found vigorous and proud Indians admirably suited to an environment not yet absorbed into a modern regime. In the forest the Indian was genuinely in his element. "There," Tocqueville wrote, "the ladder was upside down." There the French nobleman was "marching like a blind man" dependent on his Chippewa guide. But there was no hope. The movement of history was inexorable. The white settlers Tocqueville spoke to in their log houses in the forest repeated over and over to him that "their race is dying. They are not made for civilization." Some said this with sadness; more asserted with satisfaction that "the true proprietors of this continent are those who know how to take advantage of its riches....''11

If the European appropriation of North America and the fate of the Indians were obvious themes for Tocqueville to contemplate in the Michigan Territory, the subject of religion came up by chance. He met a Catholic priest aboard the Superior. He held lengthy conversations with Father James Ignatius Mullon about Catholicism in the United States and particularly about the doctrine of separation of church and state. Mullon's opinions were apparently a significant influence on Tocqueville and Beaumont in coming to the conclusion that religion ought to be separated from political institutions. At the time, of course, no such condition obtained in Europe, and most European Catholics supported state protection and support of religion. Mullon argued that without government involvement all religions have equal status and opportunity, and religious ideas and feelings prosper to the extent that they are freed from extraneous political dispute. He argued that Catholicism in particular prospered: "there is not a country in the world where the Catholic religion counts adherents more fervent and proselytes more numerous." He did acknowledge considerable hostility to Catholics among American Protestants, especially Presbyterians, but he impressed Tocqueville by his zeal and confidence. Tocqueville also quizzed him on the success of Indian missions, and Father Mullon enthusiastically claimed the spread of Christianity among the Indians and the fervor of their adherence to the church.12

On the waters of the western frontier Tocqueville pursued some of the most troubling and complex issues of European civilization, testing particularly

an opinion on the relationship of politics and religion. Religion was a subject he treated with great care and interest in Democracy in America, seeing it as a most critical problem for democratic theory and practice and of special importance for the new nation. For Tocqueville, a Roman Catholic, religion was not only a matter of truth but of sociological necessity. Humanity needed the constraints of a morality founded on the authority of transcendent faith. In America, where civil power was not grounded in religious authority and no clear structure of social privilege constrained individual choices, the development and persistence of vital religious institutions and belief would test the success of theA merican experiment.13

Sketch of the old parade ground in the center of Ft. Howard, early 1830s, by an unknown soldier.
(Sketch courtesy of State Historical Society of Wisconsin).

Tocqueville took some hope from the evidence he saw. Religion flourished here. "In the United States the sovereign authority is religious...." But the picture he drew was an elaborate and complicated one, and he foresaw various forces for change in the religious culture of the country. The proliferation of religious sects bewildered him. And the entire foundation of Protestantism seemed to him too weak to bear the social weight of a democracy. Each Protestant sect he thought could be properly measured by its deviation from a Catholic center of faith. Protestantism was a compromised faith perhaps suitable to an epoch of historical transition but hardly "definitive." Protestants filled their churches preaching morality but lacked dogmatic conviction. Under the public show of piety and service "there is a great depth of doubt and indifference." Their principle of religious toleration "in my opinion, is nothing else than good round indifference...." Roman Catholicism, still a small church in America in 1831, promised a more adequate basis for a democratic state, and Tocqueville was convinced the church would thrive here and, in principle, ought to. "America is the most democratic country in the world, and it is at the same time...the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes most progress." Men in a democratic society either abandon religion altogether or choose a faith that is "simple and uniform....Our posterity will tend more and more to a division into only two parts, some relinquishing Christianity entirely and others returning to the Church of Rome." The historical record of Catholic support in Europe for aristocratic and monarchical government was circumstantial, based on the support provided to the church by the old regimes. In America, where no such tie between state and church was permitted, Catholicism would triumph on the basis of its powerful discipline and unity of belief, its primary religious authority. In religious matters Catholics remained "at bottom as intolerant as they have ever been, as intolerant in a word as people who believe." In American politics "they constitute the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States." This was not a contradiction but rather evidence of the relationship between the lack of public constraints in democratic society and the subsequent need for a religious culture "to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for wellbeing ["the exclusive enjoyment of present and material pleasure"] that men feel in periods of equality."14

 

When Richard Reeves came to Green Bay in 1979 in his re-creation of Tocqueville's journey, he chose to write about religion. Like Tocqueville Reeves combined in his travel book a descriptive report with essays on key themes in American social development. And in writing about religion and the related but larger question of how individuals through their values and commitments, can transcend the limits of isolated selfishness, Reeves accepted Tocqueville's most urgent concern about how societies composed of free and equal parties can cohere. Reeves, then, took on one of Tocqueville's central themes when he visited Green Bay, "a very Catholic city," and attended services at St. Agnes and St. Willibrord to assess what had happened to Tocqueville's speculations. Tocqueville had dismissed the judgment of American Protestants who told him that Catholicism would itself be changed in America, by democracy. Reeves, not a Catholic, knew of the church at second hand, rowing up in Jersey City with Catholic friends who belonged to the church before the reforms of the 1960s. To Reeves Catholicism was still the strong otherworldly faith that Tocqueville wrote of. He was not prepared for St. Agnes, a brightly lit modern building filled with healthy suburbanites in shorts and polo shirts. A xylophone and guitars supplied music. The congregation sang "a bouncy little tune...,

'The Spirit is A'Moving All Over, All Over the World.' " The young, smiling priest, with "a blond Afro, the kind that is shaped in beauty parlors," preached: "Think you've been shortchanged in life?...Look at the bright side: you have the Spirit." At the greeting of peace a man shook Reeves' hand and said, "Have a nice day!"15

 

Sketch of the first Church in Green Bay, 1823.
(Sketch courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin).

Reeves was "stunned" at "this peppy fun. Let's hear it for the Spirit! Even Presbyterians...would have looked down on this." The church had been Americanized with a vengeance. Reeves went, almost fled, to what he hoped would be a more familiar Catholic Church, St. Willibrord, which seemed to him at least to look like a church. As he entered, a bearded priest was speaking: "Hey! Hey, I've accepted Christ....The Spirit shows itself through, through what? Through sharing! Through giving yourself to others, through being open...." So Tocqueville had gotten it wrong. The churches were protestantized by Tocqueville's standards, themselves now carriers of "the new values" growing out of democratic progress. Pop religion had become the servant of a selfish democracy; wellbeing and immediate satisfaction the only purpose left, the sense of duty lost; simplistic Freudianism a kind of vague authority for self-absorption and the gratification of endless craving. Therapy displaced faith. Religious institutions themselves prospered as the agencies of an essentially secular and even anti-religious culture. The surge of "Fundamentalism was formed by reaction to this phenomenon, but according to Reeves Fundamentalists merely won an occasional battle "in a war they had already lost."16

Lithograph of Ft. Howard "in the Green Bay. "
(Lithograph courtesy State Historical Society)

Reeves is distinctly more positive in outlook, more hopeful about the future than Tocqueville, who for all his own speculative hopes saw America as a flawed nation struggling without guidance or precedent to create the world's first modern democracy. Tocqueville thought that his nation, France, and others that must move toward modern conditions of equality could learn from America's failures as well as from our achievements. There is no doubt that Tocqueville would have found the Green Bay Catholicism that Reeves described a frightening failure. But Reeves turned Tocqueville's foreboding back on itself. Tocqueville was worried that "the light of faith grows dim" and feared for the viability of free institutions without it. Reeves says that we no longer believe that religion is a necessary underpinning of representative government. Indeed we might preserve our democracy-our condition of freedom and formal equality - even without the forms of representative government that Tocqueville admired. Our new technologies and communications media may make possible a quite different kind of society than has ever existed. No doubt the changes will be "traumatic," but Tocqueville's very pessimism reveals our capacity to adapt. Tocqueville's pessimism is our modern pessimism; we need not even change the words. Yet our society has undergone vast transformation without suffering the failures he feared. We may continue to entertain his doubts about democracy, but we have already passed into a new world.17

Reeves' optimism is forced. He sounds more than a little like the Green Bay priests whose "nice" Catholicism he scorned. Tocqueville's doubts about democracy not only persist; the human condition he examined remains real. His very chapter headings suggest something not about a new world but about the condition of any democratic society: "Of the Taste for Physical Well-Being in America," "Why Americans are So Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity," "How Excessive Care for Worldly Welfare May Impair That Welfare." He concluded that "The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness." Perhaps he might have noted that the advertisements for A&W Root Beer and Budweiser in the St. Agnes Church bulletin that amused Richard Reeves were marks of just that "most grasping nation" he had despaired of if it ever lost some means "to direct human actions to distant objects"18


 

Dr. Jerrold C. Rodesch is an associate professor of humanistic studies at the University ofWisconsin--Green Bay and an associate editor of Voyageur. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an undergraduate and received his master's degree and Ph.D. from Rutgers University.


NOTES

 

 

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Quinze Jours au Désert,in George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America(Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., Anchor Books, 1959), pp. 146, 157.

2. Ibid., p. 151.

3. Ibid., pp. 153, 178-179.

4. Ibid., pp. 170-171, 174, 183.

5. Quoted in Pierson, pp. 200-201.

6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., Anchor Books, 1971), p. 146.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., ed. with an Introduction by Phillips Bradley, trans. Henry Reeves as revised by Francis Bowen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 1:332, 342. The first volume of Tocqueville's De la Démocratie en Amérique was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.

8. Ibid., 1:334.

9. Ibid., 1:334-335.

10. Ibid., 1:344-353.

11. Tocqueville, Quinze Jours au Désert, " pp. 146-149, 174-176.

12. Pierson, pp. 203-206; Tocqueville, Journey to America, pp. 16-19.

13. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:20-28.

14. Ibid., 1:300-303; 2:20-30; Pierson, pp.99-103. See also Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 47-53.

15. Richard Reeves, American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 195-196. Portions of this book (the part dealing with Reeves' visit to Green Bay) in the April 12, 1982, issue of The New Yorker,58:53-124.

16. Reeves,American Journey, pp. 196-205. Tocqueville believed in fact that the "external forms" of religion would and ought to change under democratic conditions. The forms should become simpler and more flexible so long as changes in ritual did not affect the substance of belief. However, he made an exception for Catholicism, because "In all religions there are some ceremonies that are inherent in the substance of the faith itself, and in these nothing should on any account be changed. This is especially the case with Roman Catholicism, in which the doctrine and the form are frequently so closely united as to form but one point of belief." Democracy in America, 2:25. 

17. Reeves, American Journey, pp. 205-206.

18. Ibid., pp. 196-197; Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:

Chs. X. XIII. XVI: 2:149-151. 334.

 

 

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