Year of Statehood: 1788

Demographics ... Then and Now

Total Population 1,919,000 17,990,455
Population Per Square Mile 40.3 381.0














Hispanic Origin

American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut

Asian or Pacific Islander














* - 1830 Census Data Not Available

Sources: Historical Statistics of the U.S., Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition prepared by the U.S Bureau of the Census; and 1990 U.S. Census

May 11 - Arrive in New York City

Upon their arrival, the Mercantile Advertiser and the New York Evening Post both published the following:

"We understand that two magistrates, Mssrs. de Beaumont and de Tonqueville [sic], have arrived in the ship Havre, sent here by order of the Minister of the Interior, to examine the various prisons in our country, and make a report on their return to France. To other countries, especially in Europe, a commission has also been sent, as the French Government have it in contemplation to improve their Penitentiary system, and take this means of obtaining all proper information. In our country, we have no doubt that every facility will be extended to the gentlemen who have arrived."

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

May 13 - Meeting with NY State Governor

Journal entry about public officials

American Usages

The greatest equality seems to reign, even among those who occupy very different positions in society.
The authorities seem extraordinarily approachable.
The thirteenth of May Mr. Morse, a judge at Cherry Valley, presented us to the governor of New York, who was staying at a boarding house and and who received us in the parlor without any ceremony whatever. Mr. Morse assured us that anyone could at any time do as we had done.

(Pierson, p. 65)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 14 - Impressions of New York

Excerpt from Tocqueville's letter to his mother about New York

So here we are in New-York. To a Frenchman the aspect of the city is bizarre and not very agreeable. One sees neither dome, nor bell tower, nor great edifice, with the result that one has the constant impression of being in a suburb. In its center the city is built of brick, which gives it a most monotonous appearance. The houses have neither cornices, nor balustrades, nor portes-coeheres. The streets are very badly paved, but sidewalks for pedestrians are to be found in all of them. We had all the trouble in the world getting lodgings because at this time of year strangers abound; and we wanted to find a pension rather than an inn.

At length we succeeded in establishing ourselves admirably in the most fashionable street, called Broadway. By an accident, which we bless every day, Mr. Palmer, that Englishman of whom I spoke at the beginning of the letter, had already taken lodgings in the same house.
The friendship which bound him to us during the crossing, and above all the interest which he takes in the result of our trip, lead him to render us all the services in his power; and he has already been extremely useful to us. In addition, and this is the finest part of all, you have no conception of the facilities and agreements we find in this country for the accomplishment of our mission. All the Americans of all the classes seem to rival each other as to who will be the most useful and agreeable to us. It is true that the newspapers, which concern themselves with everything, have announced our arrival and expressed the hope that we would find active assistance everywhere.

The result is that all doors are opened to us and that everywhere we receive the most flattering reception. I, who have always lived in coaches and inns while traveling, find this new manner of life most agreeable.

One great difficulty, which we encountered the moment we left France and which we are now beginning to surmount, is the language. We thought we knew English at Paris. ... We had only the equipment needed for learning it fast. On shipboard we made unbelievable efforts in that direction; it so happened that we made translations from the English in the midst of a storm which scarce permitted us to write. Unfortunately, we had too many French-speaking people on the vessel. However we made great progress.

But once here, it became necessary to give up our language entirely; no one speaks it. So we express ourselves only in English. Often it's pitiful to hear us; but we at length make ourselves understood, and we understand everything. They assure us that we will end by speaking remarkably well. We shall then have made an excellent acquisition. ...

You no doubt want to know, my dear mother, what is our present manner of life. It is this: We get up at five or six and we work till eight. At eight o'clock the bell announces breakfast. Every one goes in promptly. After that we go out to visit a few establishments or to get into touch with certain men who are interesting to listen to. We return to dine at three o'clock. At five we usually go home to put our notes in order till seven, the hour at which we go out into society to take tea. This style of life is very agreeable and, I believe, very healthy.

But it upsets all our settled habits. For instance, we were utterly astounded the first day to see the women come to breakfast at eight o'clock in the morning carefully dressed for the whole day. It's the same, we are told, in all the private houses. One can with great propriety call on a lady at nine o'clock in the morning.

The absence of wine at our meals at first struck us as very disagreeable; and we still can't understand the multitude of things that they succeed in introducing into their stomachs here. You see, in addition to breakfast, dinner, and tea with which the Americans eat ham, they also eat a very copious supper, and often a gouter. That up to now is the only indisputable superiority that I grant them over us. But they see in themselves many others. These people seem to me stinking with national conceit; it pierces through all their courtesy.

[written] May 14, 1831

(Pierson, p. 67)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 15 - Impressions of New York

Journal entry describing Americans

First Impressions
Up to now we have formed the impression that the Americans carry national pride to an altogether excessive length.

I doubt if one could extract from them the smallest truth unfavorable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discrimination, and with an impertinence disagreeable to strangers that bears witness to but slight enlightenment. Generally speaking there is a lot of small-town pettiness in their makeup, and they make much of things in the way common to people unacquainted with great matters. But we have not yet met a really outstanding man.

By and large they seem to be a religious people. It is clear that no one thinks of ridiculing religious practices, and that the goodness and even the truth of religion is universally admitted in theory. How far is their life regulated by their doctrine? What is the real power of religious principe over their soul? How can the variety of sects not breed indifference, if not externally, then at least within? That is what remains to be known.

Up to now it seems to me that this country illustrates the most complete external development of the middle classes, or rather that the whole of society seems to have turned into one middle class. No one seems to have the elegant manners and refined politeness of the upper classes in Europe. On the contrary one is at once struck by something vulgar, and a disagreeable casualness of behavior. But also no one has what we should call mauvais ton in France.

All the Americans that we have met, right down to the simple shop-assistant, seem to have had, or to wish to appear to have had, a good education. Their manners are sober, poised and reserved, and they all wear the same clothes.

All the customs of life illustrate this mixture of the two classes which in Europe are at such pains to keep separate. The women are dressed for whole day at seven o'clock in the morning. At nine o'clock one can already pay some calls. By mid-day one is received everywhere. All bears the stamp of a very busy life. We have not met any fashionables yet. I have even got the idea that chaste morals here are less completely due to strict principles than to the impossibility for all the young people to think of matters of love and to be seriously occupied with them.

Sunday 15. I take up my letter, dear mother, on returning from a mass that we have just heard in a Catholic church which is situated at five minutes from here. ... I can't tell you what a strange feeling it is to find so far from home all the religious ceremonies that one has witnessed since childhood. The illusion of being in France was so complete that I spoke to my neighbors in French. But all the worshipers were Americans.

The church, which is a large one, was entirely full, and the meditation was more profound than in the churches of France. We heard a good sermon on grace in English, and were delighted to discover that we understood perfectly everything the preacher said. ...

The Catholics have a considerable establishment in New York. They have five churches and more than twenty thousand faithful. I have heard Americans say that the number of converts is very large. The church is also growing in the different provinces of the union; and I should not be surprised if the religious faith which is so attacked in Europe made great conquests in this country. Each year brings nearly fifteen to twenty thousand European Catholics here, who spread into the wildernesses of the west. The need of a religion is felt there more than anywhere else. They become fervent if they are not so already, or at least their children become so. The necessity of having some religious doctrine is so deeply felt on this side of the Atlantic that it seems to me that the Protestants themselves look down on Catholics who appear to neglect their cult. ...

(Pierson, p. 68)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 16 - Impressions of New York

Excerpt from Beamont's letter to his father about Americans

One of our first visits was to the consul of France, Baron de St. Andre [consul-general at New York] for whom we had a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has a wife and children. They are likeable people; and he immediately asked us to dinner. But there is nothing to be gained from their conversation. They don't know the country they are in at all and they are entirely without the faculty of observation. We dine there again today, which bores us, because we have much better things to do.

Mr. Palmer, the Englishman of whom I spoke before, continues to overwhelm us with attentions and with care. He is on the hunt for all the person who can be useful to us, so as to put us into touch with them. We have been presented to the Governor of the State of New York, to the mayor of the city, to the Recorder, to the Alderman, and to nearly all the magistrates; several among them even anticipate us and offer us their services.

... I want, mon petit pere, to inform you at once of the position in which I find myself here. The new society in which we are does not at all resemble our European societies. It has no prototype anywhere. It has also some primary conditions of existence that no other possesses, which makes it dangerous for any other society to imitate it: - It's quite a remarkable phenomenon, a great people which has no army, a country full of activity and vigor where the action of the government is hardly perceived!

But what conclusion to draw from it for the states of Europe? The United States have no ambitious neighbors to fear; they are more powerful than the peoples who surround them, so of what use would an army be?

In the United States political parties are almost unknown. There are sometimes personal disputes for places and public office; but never is the basis of things in question. The sole interest which absorbs the attention of every mind, is trade. It's the national passion, and it's not necessary to have all the arms of the Guard and of the Troops of the Line for the merchants to do their business. But is it the same in the states where for a long time past interior dissensions divide the people, and where the administration is unceasingly forced to have recourse to the public force to disarm the factions?

The American people is, I said, a merchant people. That is to say that it is devoured by the thirst for riches, which brings in its train many hardly honorable passions, such as cupidity, fraud, and bad faith. Thus they appear to have but one single thought here, but one single purpose, that of getting rich. In addition, they consider the bankruptcies which are very frequent in all the cities as of no importance or of very little account. Undoubtedly this is a very vicious side. Yet it is impossible not to admit that there is much morality in this people. (This at first glance seems hard to reconcile with what precedes) but I explain.

Morals there are extremely pure. A woman who does not conduct herself well is cited as an extreme rarity. To tell the truth, you meet only happy households. People get together often in winter; but
everything in the last analysis comes down to family life. Unmarried men pay attention only to girls; these once married think only of their husbands. So long as they are not engaged, they exercise an extreme freedom in their relations. One sees them out walking alone, for example. A young man accosts them, goes to the country with them, and this is considered quite natural.

They receive at home without their parents finding fault. But this life of freedom ends for them the day they get married. In short, the happiness which seems to reign in their families has something tempting in it. Doubtless I should never want to marry in a foreign country, because such a union entails a host of unpleasant consequences. But Tocqueville and I, glimpsing the happiness so common here and so rare in other countries were unable to keep from saying that, if we should ever be victimized by political circumstances in France, we would come to live here with our wives and children.

Whence comes this morality so powerful in the habits of a people which, as we have seen, is not
always a virtuous people? I believe that by and by I will be in a better position to answer this question than I am now. I already see however some causes which seem of a character to explain this fact. The first seems to me to be the religious spirit which dominate society - Nowhere are religious ideas more in honor. All the cults here are free and are honored; but he would be looked on as a Brute who did not belong to any religion. This general opinion spread throughout society arises out of some first causes which some day we will develop.

In the second place, there is here as I said only a single class of Merchants, all concerned with the same one interest, and competing against each other for one thing, riches. There is not, as in France, a certain number of individuals who, if they didn't busy themselves seducing women, would have nothing to do. Why are garrison towns more immoral than the others? Because a regiment in a city increases the number of unoccupied whose only pastime is to corrupt and seduce. Here commerce and industry take up all the time. One must add that the Americans have a colder temperament than we. Thus this people has an interest in being moral; it believes besides in a religion which commands morality, and the nature of its blood, instead of being an obstacle, favors this disposition and leaning in it.

I am going to study with care the divers[e] religious sects which exist here, and inform myself of the reasons for there being such perfect harmony between them. It seems that each day Catholicism makes numerous converts.

There are several Roman Catholic churches and a cathedral here; we visited them yesterday. The
Bishop, Mr. Dubois, is absent at the moment. We learned that at his home where we went to see him. We asked for his grand vicar, who was also out. We heard mass, and a Catholic priest delivered a sermon in English which we understood very well (we are making great progress in English, as we speak it all
day long). We found Mme de St. Andre [wife of the French consul] at the Catholic church, and she had us sit in her pew. Sunday is observed here with the greatest rigor. Not a single person works; the shops are closed otherwise than at Paris; one allows oneself no other reading than the Bible.

I am not describing New York to you because I, don't know the city yet. However, Saturday evening Tocqueville and I, while out walking, perceived a church that was open. Within were only a few pious souls wrapped in prayer. We found the door of the stairway leading to the steeple open. There we were climbing from attic to attic, by little staircases dark and steep. At last, after many tribulations, we got all the way to the top, and we enjoyed an admirable spectacle: that of a city of 240,000 inhabitants built in an island, surrounded on one side by the ocean and on the other by immense rivers, on which are to be seen an unending multitude of vessels and small boats. Its harbor is immensely wide. Its public buildings are few and as a rule of undistinguished construction.

The fine arts are here in their infancy. The commerce and industry which are the source of riches do not at the same time produce good taste. As for the political notions which the Americans entertain
about France, you must not believe that they are as enthusiastic about our revolutionists as it is thought. In general they consider the hero of two worlds [Lafayette] as a fine man who lacks judgment and who wants to apply political theories to a people whom they don't suit.

What's more, the aristocracy of fortune aims at distinctions here as elsewhere. Much is made of the oldness of families. I was astonished to hear these proud champions of equality call themselves honorable esquires. They put heraldic arms on their carriages and on their seals. The taste for superiority crops up everywhere. They are besides excessively vain. This results from the eulogies of their government which are made in Europe. As a consequence, to be on good terms with them, you have to praise them a great deal. I do it with all my heart, without its affecting my manner of seeing. This national pride induces them to do everything they can to fascinate our eyes and to show us only the fine side of things; but I hope that we will manage to find out the truth.

You can have no conception of the activity of our existence. We haven't the time to breathe. It's a rolling fire of agreeable invitations, of useful occupations, of official presentations, etc., etc. They tear us away from each other, and each one does all in his power to make our stay in New-York pleasant for us. The Sharmerhall [Schermerhorn] family with whom we crossed is one of the richest and most esteemed of the city; it overwhelms us with friendship. Mr. Prime, our banker, who is the wealthiest man in this country, also puts himself out to be nice to us.

There's where we stand, and as yet we have presented only two of our letters of recommendation. According to calculation, we still have seventy to present, and we realize now that we could have done without them. ...

When you answer, mon petit pere, please tell me what you think of the ideas I hazard in this letter on what I have already seen, and especially what you think of the country where I am? Do you believe that this people is called to a great destiny among the civilized nations; do you think that its institutions have solid foundations? Do you believe that it will long conserve its territorial unity? Would not the result of interstate war be a] dictatorial and soon a monarchical authority? What is your opinion on the character of the Americans? To what cause, think you, must the purity of their morals be attributed? ...

[written] May 16, 1831

(Pierson, p.64)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 18 - Newspaper Entry

The following was published in the New York Daily Advertiser


It is gratifying to learn that the French government are engaged in extensive examinations on the important subject of prison discipline. Commissioners, it is stated, have already gone to the different countries of Europe, and the two have arrived here in the packet ship Havre, who are to visit our principle prisons and penitentiaries, and report on their return to France. They are Messrs. De Beaumont and Tonqueville [sic]. As humanity is deeply interested in the improvement of the prisons of France and of all of Europe, we hope our philanthropists will afford the gentlemen all desirable facilities.

(Pierson, p.61)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 25 - Tour of New York's penitentiaries

Itinerary info. extracted from letter Beaumont wrote to his brother, Jules:

Activities for May 25:
  • Leave from City Hall at 10 a.m. in carriages
  • House of Refuge for delinquent minors
  • Bloomingdale hospital for the insane
  • Deaf and Dumb Asylum
  • Dinner at Bellevue Almshouse and Penitentiary with city officials
  • Blackwell's Island penitentiary

    (Pierson, p.86)

    Return to Travel Itinerary

    Next Entry

    Previous Entry

Excerpt from Tocqueville's letter to the Abbe Leseur about the dinner with city officials

The other day the mayor of New York and the Alderman ... to the number of 25 or 30 conducted us with great ceremony to all the prisons or houses of charity of the city. After which they invited us to an immense dinner,the first of this kind we have attended. I should like to describe it to you, but the thing is difficult. Picture to yourself, however, a long table like a refectory table at the high end of which the mayor flanked by your two servants was seated. Next came all the convives, tous grands personages a faire pleurer, for they laugh mighty little on this side of the Atlantic.

As for the dinner itself, it represented the infancy of art: the vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert. In a word, complete barbarism. My first glance around the table relieved me of a great weight; I didn't see any wine but only, as usual, water and brandy. So I seated myself with becoming gravity at the right of Mr. Mayor [Walter Browne] and awaited developments. Unfortunately, as soon as the soup was removed, they brought wine. The mayor drank to our health in the English manner, which consists in filling a small glass, in raising it while looking at you, and in drinking it, the whole performed with great solemnity. The person to whom this civility is addressed has to respond to it by doing exactly the same thing. We each, then, drank our glass, always with befitting dignity. Up to that point everything was going well.

But we began to tremble on perceiving that each of our table companions was getting ready to do us the same honor. We had the appearance of hares with a pack of dogs on their trail, and the fact is they would soon have had us in distress if we had allowed them to. But at the third class I took the step of only swallowing a mouthful, and I thus very happily gained what we in France call the end of the dinner, but which is here only the end of the first act.

Most of the dishes being then taken off, they bring lighted candles and weave you very neatly a certain number of cigars on a plate. Each one takes possession of one and, the society enveloping itself in a cloud of smoke, the toasts begin, muscles relax the least little bit, and they give themselves to the heaviest gaiety in the world.

Now you have a fair idea of a formal dinner in America. I confess that during this august ceremony I couldn't keep from laughing in my beard on thinking of the difference 1,500 leagues of sea make in the position of men. I thought of the more than subordinate role that I played in France two months ago and of the comparatively elevated situation in which we were finding ourselves here, the little noise that our mission has made at home and that which it makes here, all because of this little bit of sea-water I just spoke of.

I assure you, though, that we do not give ourselves the airs of a great seigneur. We are on the contrary the best princes in the world, and we are far from receiving as a debt the courtesies they show us. But these people, who have no great political questions to debate and who see nothing more worthy the attention of a government than the state of the prisons and penal legislation, insist on regarding us as young men of high merit charged with a mission of extreme importance.

The French agents themselves treat us with much distinction, and as they know that we are of the nobility, they give out on this head details which are of service to us. For you shall know that in this republican country they are a thousand times more fond of nobility, of titles, of crosses, and of all the inconsequential distinctions of Europe than we are in France. The greatest equality reigns here in the laws. It is even in appearance in the customs. But I tell you the Devil loses nothing by it. And the pride which cannot come out in public finds at the very bottom of the soul a fine corner in which to install itself. We sometimes laugh heartily to ourselves at the way some of our acquaintances affect to link themselves to the families of Europe and at the industry with which they seize on the smallest social distinctions to which they may attain.

We are going tomorrow to Sing-Sing, a village ten leagues distant from New York and situated on the North River [Hudson River]. We shall stay there a week to study the discipline of a vast penitentiary recently built there. What we have seen up to now suffices to prove to us that prisons attract general attention here and that in several respects they are much better than those of France.

But that's still only a very superficial view. We are delighted to go to Sing-Sing. It is impossible to imagine anything more beautiful than the North or Hudson River. The great width of the stream,the admirable richness of the north bank and the steep mountains which border is eastern margins make it one of the most admirable sights in the world. But that still isn't the America I should like to see. We are envying every day the first Europeans who two hundred years ago discovered for the first time the mouth of the Hudson and mounted its current, then when its two banks were covered with numberless forests and only the smoke of the savages was to be seen above the place where no buzz the two hundred thousand inhabitants of New York.

Man has so much that he is never content. ...

- [written] May 28, 1831

(Pierson, p.90)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 26 - Impressions of New York

Excerpt from Beaumont's letter to his brother, Jules, about life in New York

I have been in New York two weeks. Tocqueville and I are leading here the most active agitated life it is possible to imagine. Our great difficulty is to keep from getting confused between all the engagements and invitations that we have each day. We are overwhelmed by courtesies, burdened with visits, etc., etc. In the midst of all that one has to find time to work, and above all to reflect, and in truth it's not easy. We always get up very early, thanks to what benefieient instrument you well know.

We breakfast at eight, according to the custom. We then go to the Athenaeum, which is a sort of public library, where French, English, and American newspapers are to be found. This establishment has been opened to us free, as has also another library of the same kind where are to be had an even greater number of interesting works. We pass as much time as we can there making statistical investigations on the state of the population, on the public institutions, and on all the political questions which occupy us.

If we can escape the pursuit of our numerous friends, we throw on paper our ideas on what we have seen, we set ourselves problems to solve and we lay the foundations of a great work which ought some day to make our reputation. We have never done half of all that we had to do when dinner rings.

We take our places at a table always served with meats more solid than well prepared, and around which are seated some very pretty persons, occasionally accompanied by some very ugly ones. The great merit of women here is to be very fresh complexioned. Beyond that they have very few, or rather they have none at all of those exterior charms which contribute so powerfully to elegance of figure, and whose rounded form so agreeably flatters the eye.

I don't know why I speak of their physical qualities, for they are above all remarkable for their moral virtues. I said in one of my letters that in general they are of very severe principle and irreproachable conduct. All the people who have made observations on this point confirm me in this opinion.

Evenings we go out into society. We see several American families fairly often, particularly that of Mr. Prime, our banker. He is the richest business man in New York. He has a tall daughter, dry and homely, an excellent person, who is a good musician. We play charming duos of flute and piano, which amuses me a good deal. We are entirely at our ease in this house. They left yesterday for the country, which is on the shore of the Sound (East River) and we are much pressed to go see them. We also see the Jones family allied to the Shermerhall [Schermerhorns] with whom we were on the vessel which brought us to America. There are also in this house some very attractive girls, but without beauty, and rich rather than seductive.

We are received with infinite kindness in the Livingston family. Mr. Edward Livingston is at this moment Prime Minister of the United States. His family is very numerous. I see particularly his nephew John Livingston, for whom Montebello had given me a letter. Mrs. John Livingston is a charming woman, as attractive as can be, and flirtatious as well. But I do not know and shall never know myself if her coquetry goes further. We are to go together in several days to visit the military school of West Point, which is only a few miles from New York.

There are, finally, some very attractive women in the cruyere [Schuyler? Grier?], Duer families, etc., etc., where we go when we have the time.

If we went into society with intentions of pleasure or seduction, we could regard as lost the time we pass in these families. But as our resolutions are entirely opposed to this result, we find only profit in it. In the first place we inevitably learn the English language, for although many women know and speak French, nevertheless among twenty people there are always at least fifteen with whom we have to speak English.

In the second place, to acquire information about institutions and public establishments, etc., etc., we really have to see people; and the most enlightened are in the best society.

In the third place, it's in society that one learns the morals, the usages, the spirit, and the character of a nation. Finally, one improves oneself in seeing the world, and one learns to know men of all kinds. ...

[written] May 26, 1831

(Pierson, p.84)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 29 - Visit to Sing Sing

Journal entries about Sing Sing

The penitentiary system such as is established at Sing Sing seems to me dangerous to apply. This is
the reason: beyond question the discipline at Sing Sing is infinitely better than anything comparable one can see in France. Its effects are:

1st. The health of the prisoners.
2nd. Their extreme concentration on work.
3rd. The revenue the State gets from their work.
4th. Perhaps the moral reform of a certain number.

How are these effects produced? By the complete silence which isolates the prisoners from one another, and the continual work which occupies their physical and moral faculties. How is a sufficient degree of silence and work obtained? By the power of inflicting corporal punishment given arbitrarily to all the guards.

But how do the guards use this power in a way to produce the two effects of which I speak? That, in my view, is the main question and the one on which all the others depend. The power of giving strokes is granted to the guards of the gangs, and it often happens that they use it badly (too much or too little). Certainly, at least, it does not produce the same effect. To get this never-flagging attention from the guards, and to compel them to be at the same time pitiless and just, the Americans have made prison discipline the most pressing interest of each of the guards.

The prisoners are free; they are armed [working tools], have no chains and are kept in by no walls. An act of simultaneous determination on their part would infallibly set them at liberty. The preservation of discipline is the only tie that holds them. Every moment the guard tells himself that his life depends on the care with which he prevents plots, maintains assiduous work, and also avoids exasperating by unjust treatment an irascible character whose sudden influence might lead all the rest to follow him. Therefore he will be severe and just, and he will be so not from sense of duty or fear, but from self-interest.

So then it is by putting themselves in the midst of danger, by braving it face to face, that the Americans seem to me to have succeeded in conquering it. And it is in that that I find their example dangerous to follow. As long as the machinery is in good order, the discipline prevailing in their prisons will be a thousand times better than that of any of Europe. But there cannot be a half-revolt there. So the system at Sing-Sing seems in some sense like the steamships which the Americans use so much. Nothing is more comfortable, quick and, in a word, perfect in the ordinary run of things. But if some bit of the apparatus goes out of order, the boat, the passengers and the cargo fly into the air.

(Tocqueville, p.209)


There is an old man at Sing-Sing who can remember seeing the Indians established in this place. The name itself of Sing-Sing is taken from the name of the Indian chief.

We were shown a house where a descendant of Oliver Cromwell lives.

(Tocqueville, p. 214)


General questions -
When one reflects on the nature of this society here, one sees to some extent the explanation of what I have just written; American society is composed of a thousand different elements recently assembled.

The men who live under its laws are still English, French, German and Dutch. They have neither religion, morals, nor ideas in common; up to the present one cannot say that there is an American character, at least unless it is the very fact of not having any. There is no common memory, no national attachments here. What then can be the only bond that unites the different parts of this huge body? Interest.

(Tocqueville, p.218)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

May 30 - Visit to Sing Sing

Journal entry about Sing Sing

We saw 250 prisoners working in a shed cutting stone. These men, put under quite special supervision, had all committed acts of violence marking them as characters particularly to be feared. Each had to left and right a stonecutter's hatchet. Three unarmed guards walked about the shed. Their eyes were ever restless.

The same day - 30th May 1831 - in a quarry we saw several hundred prisoners working the stone under a burning sun (it was one of the hottest days of the year), they seemed to be working as energetically as workmen paid for the job.

Mr. Prince, minister at Sing-Sing and master of a boarding-school at the same place, told us that, all considered, he looked on the prison guards as men exposed to great danger, and felt that experience to date of the obedience of the prisoners was too recent to be absolutely decisive.

He compared the director of the establishment to a man who had tamed a tiger which, one day or another, might eat him up. Mr. Prince seemed to me an intelligent man and in a position to have an opinion. He did not believe in any great moral reform effected by the Sing-Sing system.

Mr. Cartwright seemed to think the same, but no one can know anything about it, as authentic statistics are lacking. I think that they would be more favorable to the system than the Americans seem to believe.

[written] 31st May 1831

(Tocqueville, p.211)



The gospel mission seems to usher more an industrial undertaking than a matter of zeal and conviction. Mr. Cartwright told us that it was almost impossible to get chaplains of ability for the penitentiaries because they were paid too little.

Several people have told us that clergymen endlessly change their opinions.

- 30th May 1831

(Tocqueville, p.212)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

June 1 - Visit to Sing Sing

Journal entries about the accessibility of public officials and the value of education

Public Officials

They are absolutely on the same footing as the rest of the citizens. They are dressed the same, stay at the same inn when away from home, are accessible at every moment, and shake everybody by the hand. They exercise a certain power defined by the law; beyond that they are not at all above the rest. The official and the man are never confused. The respect in which the one is held does not extend to the other; today there was a letter in the paper from a Boston manufacturer offering General Jackson a tortoise shell comb of American manufacture. He addressed the President as "Dear Sir."


Instruction publique

Everyone I have met up to now, to whatever rank of society they belong, has seemed incapable of imagining that one could doubt the value of education. They never fail to smile when told that this view is not universally accepted in Europe. They agree in thinking that the diffusion of knowledge, useful for all peoples, is absolutely necessary for a free people like their own, where there is no property qualification for voting or for standing for election. That seemed to be an idea taking root in every head. So the great expense for these States here has been the establishment of public education (Beaumont has the actual figures).

I do not yet know what is thought here about the disadvantages of half knowledge which are so serious with us. In any case it seems to me that the strongest arguments urged in Europe against the excessive diffusion of knowledge, could not be relevant here. Because:
1st. Religious morality suffers less from that here than anywhere else. There is no hostility between religion and science. 2nd. There is less to fear here than anywhere else from the malaise caused to a State by a great number of people whose education lifts them above their standing and whose restlessness could disturb society. Here nature provides resources which are still so far beyond all human efforts to exhaust them, that there is no moral energy and no intellectual activity but finds ready fuel for its flames. Mr. Power's opinion. See: Religion.

- Sing-Sing, 1st June

(Tocqueville, p. 200)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

June 3 - Description of Ossining

Excerpt from Tocqueville's letter to his father describing Ossining and the Hudson River

You would never guess my dear Father, in what situation I am placed in order to write to you. I am going to begin my letter by describing it to you. I am on the summit of a fairly high hill which borders the course of the Hudson. A hundred paces away is a country house where we are lodging forms the foreground of the landscape. At the foot of the hill flows the river [Hudson], which is five quarter-leagues wide and covered with sails. It penetrates to the north and disappears between high blue mountains.

There is no more delicious sight than the spectacle offered by its banks. Their reigns an air of prosperity, activity and industry that rejoices the sight. The whole sky is lit up by an admirable sun which striking its rays through the damp atmosphere of this country, throws over everything a soft and transparent coloring.

You may judge by the length of this description that he who makes it is comfortably placed to observe the countryside. In fact, at the top of the highest hill is an enormous plane tree; I am perched in the branches to avoid the heat, and it's from there that I write to you. Beaumont, who is at the foot, is sketching what I am trying to describe. We make, as you see, a perfect composition. Now it must be explained where we are, and why and how we are there. Sing-Sing, so called after an Indian chief who inhabited the place sixty years ago but whose tribe has since retired into the interior, is situated on the Hudson eleven leagues to the north of New York. It's a town of 1,000 to 1,200 souls which as been rendered famous by its prison. ...

- [written] June 3, 1831

(Pierson, p. 109)

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry

June 6 - Sing Sing

Humorous legal certificate written by Beaumont, found among Tocqueville's papers

I, the undersigned, doctor of politeness and courtesy, and frank friend of Sir Alexis de Tocqueville, that is to say more prompt to tell him his faults than his good qualities, certify the following facts:

The said Sir Alexis, formerly reproachable for too cool and reserved an air of society, too much indifference toward those he didn't like, and a silent and calm attitude too near to dignity, has accomplished a complete reform in his manners. He is now seen to be affable and agreeable toward every one, kind to old ladies as to young, and putting himself out to entertain even those whose face he doesn't like.

Is an example of this necessary? The fifth of June in an overwhelming heat, we found ourselves at Sing-Sing in the parlor of a respectable woman (more respectable perhaps than she of whom Brantome spoke and Descessars reminded us on the eve of our departure). This lady, who numbers about 45 springs, is passionately fond of music, an unhappy passion if ever there was one. To our misfortune, she sits down at the piano, she begins an infernal music which she continues two mortal hours, singing, crying, howling as if she were possessed of the devil. Traitor to my habits, I was in a corner succumbing to ennui and without strength to dissimulate.

What was Alexis doing at this moment? Seated near the piano with a smiling face, he was approving, applauding each tirade, and pouring the balm of satisfaction on the soul of virtuosa, avid for praise without measure. He really had the air of enjoying himself, and the expression of happiness was painted on his face! And yet that woman was ugly, old, and a detestable musician!! There's the man! Ab uno disce omnes.

I owe so many salutary reforms to the said Alexis, I daily receive from him so many services, that I should like to be able to say that I have rendered him one, in urging him to correct the little fault he had. But as I hadn't spoken of it again to him since our departure from Havre, I am forced to recognize that paternal advice has had more effect than mine. However that may be, I certify the fact to be true, and since I am giving certificates, I attest that the said Alexis is the best friend one could find on earth, and this friend being mine, I am happy to have him.

Made and given at Sing-Sing
6 June 1831
G. de Beaumont

Return to Travel Itinerary

Next Entry

Previous Entry