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Volume 4, Number 1
Spring 2006

Tocqueville in New Orleans: 
Before and After Katrina*


     Edward A. Tiryakian
Duke University

    In this brief presentation, I will not tread on the familiar pages of the two volume Democracy in America that pulls together participant-observation, historical-comparative analysis and interpretive sociology in such a masterful way that 170 years after publication it is still in print and can still inform us about main facets and major tensions of American modernity. Rather, I thought it might be beneficial for sociologists meeting here in New Orleans this weekend (March 22-25, 2006), and especially at the start of our meetings to draw inspiration from the young Frenchman – still in his twenties and lacking a university degree when he visited here. Inspiration as to just how much sociological "work" can be accomplished in a short period of time doing field research, utilizing keen observation and strategic interviews to supplement archival research and secondary data. A post-disaster setting like New Orleans offers an enormous site for sociologists to do "work," not just attending sessions and regular convention events but to go outside and replicate in a short period of time what Tocqueville did in his brief stay.

Background to His Visit

    His visit to New Orleans was indeed brief, a small but important segment of his 9-month 1831-32 continental voyage, at opposite ends of which he visited two countries having French communities no longer autonomous. The first he visited was "lower Canada" in Montreal/Quebec, which, he noted (Langlois 2006), while conquered by the British remained apart and hostile to the English domination (and a few years later would lead an unsuccessful revolt led by "Patriots"). The other community, in Louisiana – and especially at their capital New Orleans, which, he also noted, was a bustling, thriving port city, fourth largest in the United States, and the French community enjoyed the prosperity of the country and while retaining their culture showed no opposition to the American government.

    In fact, in the decade of Tocqueville's tour of America, New Orleans's population doubled, from 46,000 in 1830  to 102,000 by 1840, and the city was one of the richest in the United States, sufficiently so that a new US mint was built and established in New Orleans that decade (1). Recall that Tocqueville's travels from May 1831 to February 1832 occurred during the presidency and populist acclaim of Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans and a bearer of American democracy who had put to rest the conservative Federalists in a new social order.

    The day before reaching New Orleans – December  31, 1831—Tocqueville had visited a sugar plantation that had 70 slaves up the Mississippi; this was perhaps the only plantation he saw during his entire stay in the United States. There he met Sam Houston, who had been governor of Tennessee and would later become president of the Texas Republic. Houston found it convenient to join Tocqueville (and his colleague Beaumont) aboard a ship going down the river to New Orleans, and Tocqueville made much use of Houston’s personal knowledge of American Indians to make notes on their condition. But Tocqueville also had a direct observation of their situation: on the river bank he saw Choctaw Indians being led out of their tribal lands by the Jackson government under the authority of the "Indian Removal Act." The Choctaw got on board the steamboat and remained until getting off at the mouth of the White River. Tocqueville talked extensively to one of them and noted their plight and sorrow. Essentially, the Indians were becoming a Diaspora people – the theme of this year's SSS meetings, albeit the Native Americans seem unfortunately overlooked as such in the progam.

    In any event, Tocqueville (with Beaumont) arrived in New Orleans early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 1832. He intended to use the Notes in his travel diary to prepare an essay called "Twenty-four Hours in New Orleans," but only made a rough draft that has not since surfaced, leaving us only with the title of part of the essay: "A Glimpse of New Orleans (coup d’oeil de la Nouvelle Orléans)."

    Tocqueville (and Beaumont) came well-prepared for intensive field research. They had numerous letters of introduction, which they had carefully sorted in terms of "the merit of the person to whom it was addressed (Tocqueville 1960:383),"  one of whom being the French consul. Before visiting him and the others, Tocqueville and Beaumont had laid out a detailed plan who they would see when and what else they would do during the day, including what appropriate clothing to wear at given times: 

… we put on a black tie for the members of the legislature, a white vest for the women… we resolved to consecrate two hours to an examination of the city, to knowing its external appearances, to seeing the character of its population, to studying the most apparent aspects of its morals and its customs… There would then remain for us four hours of daylight during which we cold visit all the celebrated men, Legislators, publicists, lawyers, poets and orators of New Orleans. Between these calls we would insert visits to the most beautiful women solely for the purpose of resting ourselves, I swear (1960:379).
    And after daylight work observing and conducting strategic interviews, Tocqueville and his erstwhile companion went to the theatre to see a production of Auber’s popular opera Le Maçon, where he noted about the audience
  Strange scene presented by the auditorium: dress circle, white; upper circle, grey. Coloured women very pretty.  White ones among them, but a trace of African blood. Gallery black. Stalls: we felt we were in France: noisy, blustering, bustling.
    And after the theater, Tocqueville went to two New Year's balls, one for the white population only, the second for a "mixed population" known as "Ball of the quadroons," where he noted:
Strange sight: all the men white, all the women coloured or at least with African blood… Coloured women destined in a way by the law to concubinage. Incredible laxity of morals. Mothers, young girls, children at the ball. Yet another fatal consequence of slavery… (1960: 164).
    It is not my intention in the brief time and space at my disposal to lay out Tocqueville's entire field work and what he drew from it during his short stay in New Orleans. Certainly it was very fruitful in giving him much materials on race relations that he was to incorporate in discussing this topic in Democracy in America. What I hope I can stimulate you to do is read his lesser-known Journey to America which contains his travel notebooks, and in particular, given this year’s meeting site, the materials pertaining to New Orleans. A lot has changed, that is obvious, and the hurricanes of 2005 have drastically changed New Orleans, perhaps forever. Were Tocqueville to return and attend our meetings, he would probably recognize some of the ethos of "good times" along Bourbon Street. But he would certainly make it a point to talk to a wide range of persons about the Katrina disaster and the post-disaster situation, and he would spend two or three hours visiting the 9th Ward, and walking up and down Canal Street and Poydras Street before nightfall.

    His observations and his interpretations are, in a sense, unique. But I think that sociologists of all generations can still greatly benefit from his general method of approaching a society (or a region) in vivo by considering three dimensions

  1.  the historical context of its situation
  2.  its laws and institutions
  3.  its mores and customs
    One hundred seventy-four years later, Tocqueville's Journey to America is still a valuable guide to how sociologists at an annual meeting can maximize their time in gathering data for these dimensions.

In His Footsteps

    One hundred seventy-four years later, Tocqueville's Journey to America is still a valuable guide to how sociologists at an annual meeting can maximize their time in gathering data for these dimensions.

    I was stimulated enough by Tocqueville's account of his early meeting with the French consul that, arriving in New Orleans the day before the start of the SSS meetings, I was motivated to emulate what he had done upon arriving. Consequently,  right after checking into the convention hotel, I took a taxi to the French Consular Office at 1340 Poydras Street, hoping that perhaps they might have a lithograph of how it looked in 1832.  The taxi driver (who was two days later to take me on a personal tour of Ward 9) pointed out that adjacent to the building of my destination was the now empty Hyatt Hotel, which had served as a temporary shelter for flood victims. The receptionist on the ground floor when I asked for the floor of the French consulate did not know there was one in the building. However, I called the number the hotel had given me, and a voice answered that yes, the office was on the 17th floor. That news flustered the receptionist who said she was new to the building and did not know who was on what floor.

    When I got upstairs, the security officer told me the consul was out of town, but I persisted and said I would speak to someone else. Fortunately she turned out to be a cultural attachée with a master’s degree in the social sciences, who was initially surprised but also delighted to find a French-speaking American sociologist cognizant of Tocqueville's visit to New Orleans. With Tocqueville as an impromptu "weak tie," the visit turned into a lengthy strategic interview providing me with much information regarding the post-Katrina situation. Among other topics we covered, the attachée (Ms.Ghespiere) told me of a yet unannounced important interdisciplinary conference on disasters that would take place in New Orleans next fall. She also told me from her personal contacts of the plight of sociologists and other social scientists in New Orleans universities who had given a great deal of their time and personal resources in relief effort for their students’ welfare, yet were being laid off  and their units threatened with elimination by their administration in post-disaster budget cutting. I had not heard that before in reports on post-Katrina New Orleans. We talked about many more things in the course an hour and a half. I left about 5:00PM, saying something about beating the rush. Ms. Ghespiere smilingly told me there wouldn't be many people leaving the building since only very few offices were presently occupied.

    I left to return to the convention hotel with the satisfaction of having replicated one small bit of Tocqueville's visit. Taking in the emptiness of the Hyatt Hotel, the emptiness of the multistoried modern building where the French Consulate is but where the receptionist did not know it was there, and later a variety of not finding things where they were said to be (such as the post office some blocks away) gave me a perspective of post-disaster New Orleans today having a certain eeriness or surreality. It would take a master observer and interviewer like Tocqueville to draw out fully this portrait. 


*Adapted from a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Sociological Society, New Orleans, March 22-25, 2006.

(1) Louisiana's population in 1830 had a total of 216,000 persons 46,000 urban dwellers, while blacks constituted 59% and whites 41%.  See


Jardin, André. 1988 (1984). Tocqueville. A Biography. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Langlois, Simon. 2006. "Alexis de Tocqueville, un sociologue au Bas-Canada," Paper presented at the International Association of Quebec Studies, Quebec City, February 8.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1960. Journey to America, tr. by George Lawrence and edited by J.P. Mayer. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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