Quintessential America

The Image of Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville Foresaw a Modern Barrington



Consider the emotional plight of a wayfarer in a very strange land, trying to grapple with a rip-roaring frontier country that was both rough outwardly and strangely sophisticated in its heart.

What would an educated, worldly French visitor to America have thought of us in 1830 when we were only 13 million souls spread over 25 states? What was there to see about us that even we did not clearly comprehend?

When French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America at the behest of his government, he was not completely honest about his plans. He was sent along with his friend, prison reformer Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly to study the fledgling nation’s prison system, but what he wanted most was to understand us as a unique people.

He had bigger aspirations and inspirations for his curiosity. He wanted to understand if democracy actually could work. Did we have magic in us?

The response he wrote in Democracy in America about that experience has come to define us, even now, 200 years later. We have seen ourselves in the mirror of his massive two-volume social commentary. The reflection is not perfect, but even in his occasional overgeneralized criticisms, he understood who we were, and even what dangers might lie ahead for us.

He worried that we cared so much about accumulating money that we might have no attention left for picking good leaders. Though a thousand books have been written since on virtually the same topic, we have found no one since who comprehended our vast possibilities and troubling weaknesses as clearly as he did. His insights have become handy clichés for modern pundits. But no one measured us as deeply as he did.

Indeed, it takes no logical leap to apply the de Tocqueville civic analysis and see what he saw in our country’s future, if only we could survive our own constant, overwhelming tumult.

He saw Barrington, Ill.

Open Hands, Open Government

Although Barrington and its cousin communities along the Lake-Cook county boundary would not exist for another 30 years after de Tocqueville set sail for home, there remains an eerie similarity in style, enthusiasm, and values that link the centuries. Even as Barringtonians celebrate the heritage of their first official 150 years, they needn’t stretch the truth to see themselves in his words. His mirror stills works.

First, consider the evidence of a social gesture so ordinary and ubiquitous that few acknowledge it even as they employ it. Ponder the common handshake.

Open your hand. Extend your arm toward a stranger and expect them to do likewise to you. Then you firmly grip each other’s hand and shake vertically. Though Europeans understood what the handshake was, no European noble shook hands with any common citizen.

Though the social theory is that medieval knights signaled the end of combat by showing their open, unarmed hands to their foes, the invention did not translate into ordinary life. Strict class systems defined all of Europe in de Tocqueville’s era and social rules were meant to maintain barriers, not overcome them. He, after all, was comfortable in French courtly manners, and would no more have hugged a commoner than embraced a bear.

But de Tocqueville immediately recognized the gesture as pure American metaphor and an essential symbol of American openness and honesty. Deals are validated with it. Bargains settled. Grudges ended. Fortunes sealed. Friendships ratified. It is a bargain only equals can share. You see it every day. Often many times every day if you stop to watch people interacting.

The rest of the world had no commensurate gesture. In the same spring when Barrington was founded, Ulysses S. Grant shook Robert E. Lee’s hand to end the Civil War.

The handshake has become so important that no business can be conducted in the English-speaking business and academic world—which constitutes most of the planet—without mastering it. Business schools catering to non-American clients actually teach the proper technique for the handshake—not physically overpowering, not passive, but forthright and shared.

De Tocqueville saw the handshake as the natural manifestation of free citizens that needed no invitation or approval to congregate, debate, vote, and demand their government be accountable. Even in an America where freedom was doled out grudgingly to women and racial minorities, de Tocqueville saw an evolving social colossus.

Consider all the elements that define Barrington’s qualities as a community. The openness of village government and town hall participation by citizens was largely unknown in Europe.

Barrington also is home to at least 100 active “associations” of private citizens whose personal connections drive philanthropy, environmentalism, education, and civic improvement. The Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital began as a fundraising effort by local women aghast that emergency ambulances needed trips to Elgin to reach advanced medical treatment.

In many ways, Barrington has translated the social power of the handshake into civic power. Consider the 40-year-old Citizens for Conservation, Smart Farm, the Barrington Area Conservation Trust, and the Flint Creek Watershed Partnership. Or Hands of Hope, Barrington Children’s Charities, the District 220 Educational Foundation, Barrington Area Special Voices, Barrington Youth & Family Services, Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society (HARPS), Walk On Farm, or Hope’s In Style. Or the Kiwanis club, Breakfast and Noon Rotary, or the Lions.

Parents fill the meeting hall if the school system riles them to action. When bike riders compete for road space with car drivers, the debate over citizen rights fills the town hall. Barringtonians hardly ever sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to decide their fate.

America invented this “grassroots” civic energy, a theme that Europe only faintly perceived, before de Tocqueville. Barrington has mastered that art.

Barrington prospers and shares the prosperity. That freedom to prosper, de Tocqueville reasoned, was part of what gave America a dynamic heart. Groups of average citizens routinely banding together to aid those less fortunate amazed him. Strangers helping strangers was a revelation to him.

Indeed, there was nothing in de Tocqueville’s Europe that vaguely resembled American democracy.

Of course, de Tocqueville was a man of his times. He was French. He had “le attitude.” For example:

On American patriotism: “Nothing is more annoying … than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused.”

On free thinking: “I know no country, in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America … If ever freedom is lost in America, that will be due to the … majority driving minorities to desperation….”

Equality of the sexes: “It is easy to see that … equality forced on both sexes degrades them both, and … could produce nothing but feeble men and unseemly women.”

The President: “…the President of the United States is only a docile instrument in the hands of the majority. He loves what it loves and hates what it hates; he sails ahead of its desires, anticipating its complaints and bending to its slightest wishes.” And President Andrew Jackson? “A man of violent character and middling capacities.”

Electing Leaders: “The people never can find time or means to devote themselves to such work. They are bound always to make hasty judgments and to seize on the most prominent characteristics.”

Free Press: “The more I observe the main effects of a free press, the more convinced am I that, in the modern world, freedom of the press is the principal … element of freedom.”

The Courts: “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.”

War and Government: “War … must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government … ”

Expansion: “…Anglo-Americans alone will cover the whole immense area between the polar ice and the tropics, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.”

He never demanded American perfection. Only perfectibility. “The greatness of America,” he said, “lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults … I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw greatness in us and in our future. He liked what he saw.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best—sharing, helping, living.