(Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/15.)

In May 1831, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont landed in Newport, Rhode Island, for what would be a nine-month tour through the emerging United States. They spent Independence Day in Albany, zigzagged north to Canada, made a counterclockwise loop down through Cincinnati and Nashville, then came back up through the south. Technically they were there on a research trip: they dutifully visited prisons and penitentiaries, read up diligently on every aspect of American manners and morals, and talked politics with President Andrew Jackson in Washington DC (“not a man of genius”, Tocqueville thought).

But the pair also made time for a spot of pleasure: in Baltimore they scored free tickets to a grand ball, and in New Orleans they spent the evening at the theatre. Sojourning in a log cabin somewhere on the frontier, Tocqueville later admitted he had whiled away a few hours reading Shakespeare’s Henry V. “There is scarcely a pioneer’s hut,” he casually remarked in the book he compiled from the journey, Democracy in America, “where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare.”


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