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Tocqueville on American Character: Why Tocqueville's Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit is as Vital and Important Today as It Was Nearly Two Hundred Years Ago Paperback – October 5, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

The subtitle is incredibly long, but Tocqueville on American Character is fairly short: 209 pages of text, and in relatively large print. It's a long essay on a man and his vital observations. Writes Michael Ledeen: "No one ever understood us so well as Tocqueville, which is why every generation of Americans has felt obliged to come to grips with his remarkable insights into our character." It's almost impossible to understand the American psyche without reference to Tocqueville, a French aristocrat whose Democracy in America may be the most widely read and appreciated book on the subject. "No author, before or since, has so provocatively challenged us with our own highest ideals, and simultaneously pointed to our most perilous shortcomings," writes Ledeen. "No one has so clearly identified the political beliefs and national passions that set us apart from the rest of the world, or so deeply probed the tensions, paradoxes, contradictions, and anxieties that make Americans the most revolutionary people on earth."

Yet Tocqueville traveled to the United States 30 years before the Civil War. Do his lessons still apply? More than ever before, writes Ledeen, whose book is both penetrating and accessible. "No one can be considered an educated person without having grappled with Tocqueville's profound inquiry into the American character," he says. Well, his book is a nifty way to grapple with Tocqueville without having to read the much, much longer Democracy in America. Ledeen consciously writes for a modern audience. He's explicit in telling readers why Tocqueville matters today, and how his 19th-century wisdom can live on to inform debates about everything from the purpose of religion in public life to the proper role of government. Tocqueville on American Character is a special book; upon completing it, readers won't just think they've received an education--they'll actually feel brighter. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Ledeen (Machiavelli on Modern Leadership), a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, turns his attention to the French aristocrat who visited America in the 1830s and produced the wildly popular and classic travelogue-cum-philosophical essay Democracy in America. Ledeen argues that Tocqueville's observations about America are just as valid and relevant today as they were 160 years ago. Principal among these observations, according to Ledeen, is that, although materialistic, Americans are also extremely religious; further, he argues that American democracy feeds American religiosity and vice versa. Ledeen cautions that in the last few decades, Americans have embraced a rigid distinction between religious and public life, one that would have been unrecognizable in Tocqueville's day. Tocqueville, he asserts, saw the dangers inherent in individualism and applauded Americans for balancing their atomizing tendencies by joining voluntary associations. Ledeen simply echoes this, failing to address the declining role of such associations in American life. This volume ultimately disappointsAthere is far more summary of Tocqueville than analysis of contemporary America, and what analysis Ledeen does offer isn't compelling (such as his garbled claim that Americans' participation in voluntary associations has something to do with a love of the emotional and therapeutic). His argument is further marred by a faint jingoism ("Americans love big challenges"; "It's dangerous, even fatal, to underestimate us"). Readers would do well to skip this unconvincing survey and read Tocqueville's original text. (July)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (October 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312284667
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312284664
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,070,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Nyilis on August 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
My first impression upon reading this book is that it would make the perfect college text: concise, well-written, filled with wisdom, witty, and highly relevant to what most Americans care about--or should. Naturally, college professors will find themselves intrigued by this volume, maybe even be tempted to read it--but extremely unlikely to ever add it to their required reading lists. The reason is simple: Ledeen makes a strong case for the proposition that certain aspects of liberalism undermine the American character, a contention that most academics would either dispute with moral indignation--or argue would be a good thing. Readers would like to know if, first, Tocqueville accurately captures the American spirit--the character of her people--and, second, if Ledeen accurately represents the views of Tocqueville. On the first, I cannot think of a more discerning and brilliant commentator on the mentality of Americans, which is, of course, why we still read him and love to quote him. As for the second, it is clear that Ledeen is sensitive to even the most subtle nuances of Tocqueville's thinking, and he returns to Tocqueville's actual words again and again. Ledeen's chapter on "Religious Faith Anchored by Secular Institutions" is a superb analysis of the role religious faith in a secular society can play, and how it is vital to our character. His chapter on "Apostles of Freedom Tempted by Luxurious Tyranny" is exceptionally insightful and billiant. Ledeen is one of those large-minded conservatives who is deeply concerned about what he calls "our collective national mission," who celebrates what is best about America, but despairs at the forces which he sees as undermining it. Nearly every page contains useful insights and well-argued observations about what is happening to the American character. Tocqueville has found an commentator worthy of his brilliance.
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33 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Many people in America have not read Alexis de Tocqueville's brilliant analysis of the American character, as he experienced on his trip to the United States in 1826. That's too bad, because his work brilliantly defines what is different about American society from any other one on Earth. As an aristocratic Frenchman, perhaps it was easier for him to see us as we are, by seeing how different we are from Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans.
The concept of the book is to summarize de Tocqueville, and then to test his observations against what has happened since. I have not seen that done before, and looked forward to seeing the results.
When Michael Ledeen is describing de Tocqueville, or political thinking of that time, the book is superb. If the book had stopped there, it would have been a five star book. So if you want to read it for that background, you will be well rewarded. Alternatively, you can read de Tocqueville directly. I would prefer the original, but either would serve.
In his contemporary commentary on America, Mr. Ledeen is basically giving us a political sociology analysis. For such work, it is helpful to have facts that look from various perspectives and dimensions. The first problem with this book is that Mr. Ledeen prefers to give just one anecdote or one fact, and build his observations from that. That approach works well for stimulating debate, but falls short of being convincing about our unique character. I found this approach very suspect.
Second, Mr. Ledeen prefers to always come at the problem from the perspective of being paranoid about losing our ideal character. I think his point of view is a valid one, but there are others.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Charles McVey on July 11, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book for that person is not knowledgeable about what our American ancestors thought about the elements of American political life that are so debated now. Ledeen presents de Tocqueville's `Democracy in America' in a straight forward, easy to read style. If you like what you read here, go for the big time and read de Tocqueville's `Democracy in America' and you will be the richer for it.

The importance of de Tocqueville is that he presents an American character that made America great. Whether you are of the Right or the Left, you cannot help but compare those character traits with our current... well, you fill in what you will.

A negative with Ledeen's work is his loss of focus by deviating to address President Clinton. I regret to say that was out of place.
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36 of 53 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a fine book that makes accessible Tocqueville's writings. Clinton-lovers won't like this book, because Toqueville would have thought Clinton the worst thing that could happen to America, "A leader that gives Americans prosperity will have nothing more demanded of him." Which is why Americans have so stupidly overlooked Clinton treasonously selling our military technology to China, in exchange for campaign donations, as Ledeen illustrates clearly. An important book.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin Benda on November 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A.M. Ledeen's A.Tocqueville 's analyses of American spirit - relevant today?
The original "Democracy in America" is a well known university source of reference even now .In 1826 a French nobleman Tocqueville devoted himself to study the American ideas concerning life under American Democracy started 200 years ago by the Pilgrims. He found the American character did not fundamentaly change, and the success of America is a direct result of its principles, which remain stable even when circumstances change. Ledeen 's analyses of them in today's conditions ( he describes the important characteristics and ideals ) as alive and well. The dynamic mindset for continuous improvement is more then materialism. Initiative is a permanent state of mind, esteem of personal liberty results in individualism and deep religious conviction gives a base for morality in dealing with the neighbour.
Equality is taken for granted in spite of status or wealth. This is true in the west as well as the east where the original settlers started. Northern neighbour Canada, is different, regimented and respectful of old world systems even though the nature and climate are similar. Americans created something new an free, left behind old habits and goals. Having lived in Europe and Latin America it impressed me as liberated from burdens of superficial formality .
He detects that Americans drive for a change. Every generation adopts new discoveries, destroys the old system and obstacles ruthlesly, expecting their sons to do better then the fathers.However they do respect the basic principles. There has been a confirmation by many that America can stay good even if there are many risks.
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