Day One:

Monday, June 17
Along the Erie Canal with Alexis de Tocqueville


Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study Democracy in America (1835, 1840) analyzes the novel political system and evolving cultural norms associated with democracy in the United States. Despite Tocqueville's preference for abstractions, Democracy in America can be best understood as a product of its historical moment and the specific people and places that he encountered during his visit to the United States.

This session will serve as a general introduction to the themes of the seminar, focusing on how Tocqueville's travels in western New York shaped his account of American democracy. After arriving in New York City in 1831, Tocqueville and his companion Gustave de Beaumont traveled the length of the Erie Canal - which had opened just six years earlier - from Albany to Buffalo. They visited a Shaker meetinghouse west of Albany, and later viewed the Mohawk Valley through the lens of James Fenimore Cooper's novels. Stopping in Auburn, they met Elam Lynds, originator of the Auburn system of prison reform. They spent three days in nearby Canandaigua at the home of the legal expert John C. Spencer, whose ideas about American law and politics helped shape Democracy in America. In Buffalo they encountered their first Native Americans - presumably Haudenosaunee - who were in town to collect federal payment for their lands.

This journey through upstate New York encompasses several of the main features of life in the region. The Eric Canal catalyzed a rapid though still incomplete transformation of the frontier. Tocqueville and Beaumont registered the region's strikingly flat social hierarchies when they met New York's governor at his farm outside Auburn, where he worked half the year to support his family. Further, they witnessed religious innovations that reinforced this egalitarian democratic ethos; reform projects that tapped those spiritual energies and directed them toward changing the world; and displaced but persistent indigenous communities with durable claims to the land.

The readings for the session include literary depictions of the Eric Canal by Philip Freneau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Selected chapters from Democracy in America, including "How Religion in The United States Avails itself of Democratic Tendencies," "Why Some Americans Manifest a Sort of Spiritual Fanaticism," and "The Trade of Literature," will anchor a wide-ranging discussion of the rise of Mormonism, revivalism, and Spiritualism; the establishment of the Oneida Colony and other utopian projects; and the region's print culture. This session will also address Beaumont and Tocqueville's work on prison reform and introduce other social reform movements in the region.

Tentative Readings:

Philip Freneau, "The Great Western Canal" (1820); Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Canal Boat" (1835); excerpts from Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States (1833), Ch. 1 and "Conversation with Mr. Elam Lynds"; excerpts from Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835 and 1840)

Optional Readings:

"First Book of Nephi" in the Book of Mormon; Charles Grandison Finney, "What a Revival of Religion Is" in Lectures on Revivals of Religion

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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this seminar do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

View of the Erie Canal by John William Hill (1829)