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What Alexis de Tocqueville Really Said

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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.