Alexis de Tocqueville letter to his father from Washington, D.C. [January 24, 1832]

Alexis-de-TocquevilleFrom Tocqueville to his father,

Washington, January 24, 1832

We have been here for a week and shall stay on until February 6. Our sojourn is useful and agreeable. Gathered in Washington at this moment are all the most prominent men in the entire Union. We no longer need to elicit from them ideas about what we don’t know, so we go over more or less familiar ground and concentrate on doubtful points. It’s a very useful kind of counterproof. We are always treated with great respect

At this moment I am revolving many ideas about America. A fair number still in my head: I’ve scattered the seed of many more onto notepaper; others crop up in summaries of conversations I’ve had. All these raw scraps will be served up to you.

A visit to Washington gives one some idea of how wonderfully well-equipped men are to calculate future events. Forty years ago, when choosing a capital for the Union became a matter of public concern, the first step, reasonably enough, was to decide upon the most favorable location. The place chosen was a vast plain along the banks of the Potomac. This wide, deep river bordering one end would bring European goods to the new city; fertile fields on the other side would keep markets well provisioned and nourish a large population. People assumed that in twenty years Washington would be the hub of the Union’s internal and external commerce. It was bound, in due course, to have a million inhabitants. Anticipating this influx, the government began to raise public edifices and lay out enormously wide streets. Trees that might have hindered the construction of houses were felled by the acre. All this was nothing but the story of the milk-jug writ large:

Il etait quand je l’eus de grosseur raisannable
J’aurai … [3]

The farmer’s wife and Congress reasoned in much the same way. The population didn’t come; vessels did not sail up the Potomac. Today. Washington presents the image of an arid plain scorched by the sun, on which, scattered here and there, are two or three sumptuous edifices and five or six villages that constitute the city. Unless one is Alexander or Peter the Great, one should not get involved in creating the capital of an empire.

* This is an excerpt from the Yale University Press version. The University of Virginia Press version is slightly different in its semantics and sentence structure. *

De Tocqueville, Alexis Letters From America, edited and translated by Frederick Brown. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. 2010.

Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and Travels; edited by Olivier Zunz, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. 2010.



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