Friday, October 19, 2018

Tocqueville Exhibit Opens

By Frank Boles

On October 9, the Clarke Library opened its newest exhibit, Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The library’s reference librarian, and resident scholar of early nineteenth century Michigan, John Fierst, curated the exhibit and spoke at the presentation that accompanied the opening. If you’d like to hear the presentation please use this link:

Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 trip to the United States resulted in one of the most quoted books describing governance in the young Republic. Democracy in America, published in 1835, was a liberal, French nobleman’s take on the great experiment in self-rule beginning in North America. Tocqueville believed democracy inevitable and overall he found the way it was growing in the United States to be successful.

The Clarke’s exhibit, however, does not focus on Tocqueville’s famous book, but rather a portion of the trip often overlooked – a visit to Saginaw, Michigan. Tocqueville and his friend and traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, came to America not just to learn about how democracy worked here. But they also wanted to see two things that Europe lacked: virgin forest and Native Americans. It was for these reasons Tocqueville Beaumont made the spontaneous decision to come to Michigan Territory. The forests of New York State were simply too well groomed by the settler’s axe. The Native Americans they met in the East were not the proud, independent warriors they imagined, and who in retrospect looked suspiciously like an idealized view of their own sense of what the French nobility should be.

What resulted, a long essay by Tocqueville entitled Two Weeks in the Wilderness, is in turns comic, inspiring and tragic. Tocqueville could certainly see the humor in America, and in how he sometimes had to deal with Americans and their idiosyncrasies. As they approached Todd’s Tavern, near Flint, Tocqueville was startled to see a large black bear standing in his path. He could not but wonder, “what the devil kind of country is this, where they use bears as watchdogs?”

Tocqueville also spoke with considerable unhappiness about “Yankee” settlers inability to understand his desire to see nature unblemished by civilization and their consistent disparaging comments about Native Americans. The settlers then pouring into Michigan found equally puzzling why someone would just want to go out and look at uncut trees or talk to Indians.

To find his wilderness, Tocqueville resorted to subterfuge. He visited the federal land office in Detroit early one morning and asked the typical question of where a man might profitably invest money in land. He was told that the land near Lake Michigan was particularly promising, and thus quickly removed that destination from his travel plans. He then casually asked if there were any places he would be wise to avoid. Saginaw, came back the quick reply; a place full of uncut forest, hostile Indians, and mosquitoes.

Overjoyed by discovering a location Americans found wretched, he and Beaumont hurried away to plan their trip. By 11:00 that morning they had rented horses, purchased supplies and were on their way. Saginaw proved everything they hoped for, and of which the land office supervisor thought so little. 

Of the forest Tocqueville would write of how he experienced “the sweetest and most natural emotions of the heart,” emotions he said words could not convey. Being in the forest near Saginaw was one of “those rare moments when the universe stands in perfect equilibrium before your eyes. When the soul, half asleep, hovers between present and future, between the real and the possible. When surrounded by natural beauty and quite warmth, man , at peace with himself amid universal peace, can hear the beat of his own heart, each pulse marking the passage of time as it flows drop by drop into the eternal river.”

Tocqueville was equally aware of the fragility of the environment he found so inspirational. “This savage natural grandeur is about to meet its end, and the idea of it mingles in the mind with the superb images to which the triumphant march of civilization gives rise. One feels proud to be human, yet at the same time one somehow feels bitter regret that God had granted man so much power over nature.”  He knew it would soon all be changed by ‘the impetus that drives the white race to conquer the whole of the New World.”

Tocqueville was less successful in meeting his idealized Native. Part of the problem was simply that he could not speak Ojibway. For example, along the trail he meets, an Indian, who did not speak English.  Tocqueville’s initial reaction was to fear the man, but although they could only communicate with signs, soon enough the mood changed. Of the experience Tocqueville wrote, “A serious Indian and a smiling Indian are two completely different people. A savage majesty predominates in the stillness of the former to which one reacts with an involuntary feeling of terror. Let the same man smile and his whole face takes on a simple, kindly expression that lends it real charm.”
Having hired two Native Americans to guide them on the final part of their journey to Saginaw, Tocqueville wrote, “We felt completely in their power. Here the tables were turned. Plunged into darkness and forced to rely on his own strength, the civilized man proceed blindly, incapable of negotiating the labyrinth or even preserving his own life. Faced with the same challenges, the savage triumphs. For him the forest holds no mysteries. He is at home. He walks with his head held high, guided by an instinct more trustworthy than the navigator’s compass….  As they led us by the hand, like children, their smiles seemed almost contemptuous.”
Tocqueville eventually reached Saginaw. He decided it was worth the trouble of getting there, and we hope you will take the time to join us and view the exhibit, Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. We hope you will also enjoy the companion publication, Aristocracy on the Saginaw Trail: Alexis de Tocqueville In Michigan, written by John Fierst and available without charge in paper in the Clarke’s exhibit galleries or online at 
Our thanks go to Judge Avern Cohn, whose financial support made possible the catalog and maps found in the exhibit.
And for the record, Tocqueville and Beaumont not only found forests and Natives in Saginaw, they also found mosquitoes. 
“This little bug is the scourge of the American wilderness. Its presence would be enough to make a long stay unbearable. I have never been subjected to torture equivalent to what I experienced throughout this journey and especially during our stay in Saginaw. During the day the mosquitoes prevented us from drawing, writing, or remaining in one place for even a moment; at night thousands of them hovered about us. Any part of the body left uncovered immediately became their gathering place. Awakened by the pain of a bite, we would cover our heads with sheets, but they could pierce right through them. Hunted down and pursued by these small insects, we got up and went outside for some fresh air until at last we succumbed to fatigue and slept intermittently and badly.”
Tocqueville’s “triumphant march of civilization” in which he took such pride, seems to have met its match in tiny insects. Then again, we would be wise to remember that the twenty-first century has yet to figure out how to keep “the scourge of the American wilderness” from ruining a camping trip.