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What Alexis de Tocqueville Really Said

What Alexis de Tocqueville Really Said

It is almost preordained that keynote speakers and casual essayists, when asked to address the topic of volunteering in the United States, will eventually quote Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous Frenchman who keenly observed American life and then wrote Democracy in America, published in France in 1835 and 1840. Ask anyone what he said, and you'll hear some variation of "America is a nation of joiners." Since de Tocqueville wrote in French, whether or not he actually used this phrase may be buried in translation, but his extensive commentary on early nineteenth century life is absorbing reading even in the 21st century.

I first read Democracy in America in 1976 when Katie Noyes Campbell and I were researching the first edition of By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers. I was impressed then and am even more impressed today. In rereading the book to prepare for this "Voices from the Past" article, I was struck by how clairvoyant many of de Tocqueville's observations seem. If you are so inclined, I urge you to read -- even skim -- Democracy in America. Among other things, it delineates why there are similarities and differences in civic participation between the United States and various countries in Europe. It is not an uncritical work, either. As you'll see below, de Tocqueville tried to be as objective as possible.

To read the full article

Thu, 02/01/2001
In working with some of our people from other countries it has been interesting to learn that they think of volunteers as those who support demonstrations, whether peaceful or otherwise. Since becoming a part of the IYV 2001 project they are learning the important role volunteers can make in their own country. They also solicit government to support their volunteer efforts. I too have quoted Tocqueville and it is good to be reminded of his writings lest we forget. I feel a great civil society is madeup of the best we have to offer, our volunteers. They led the way so many years ago and continue to do so today.