restricted access Educating Tocqueville: Jared Sparks, the Boston Whigs, and Democracy in America
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Educating Tocqueville
Jared Sparks, the Boston Whigs, and Democracy in America

Without Jared Sparks and the Boston Whigs, we might not have Democracy in America (DIA). In Boston in late September and early October 1831, Tocqueville’s interviews with New World elites––former Federalists and National Republicans who would soon establish the Whig Party in America––put the Old World aristocrat in mind of Rousseau’s “habits of the heart.”1 And New England native Jared Sparks (1789–1866) suggested to Tocqueville two of DIA’s “driving ideas”: the tyranny of the majority and the seminal importance of the New England town for American democracy.2

At the time, Sparks was pioneering documentary history in America by editing and publishing the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, and other leaders of the American Revolution. Yet Sparks was also a clergyman whose ordination in 1819 was memorable as the occasion on which William Ellery Channing preached his foundational sermon Unitarian Christianity. Sparks had been chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1820s and then editor of America’s most renowned journal of letters, the North American Review, from 1823 to 1830. Sparks would go on to become America’s first professional academic historian when his alma mater Harvard appointed him McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History in 1839. A decade later he would follow Edward Everett as Harvard’s president, an office he held until early 1853.3 [End Page 169]

When Tocqueville was in America there was hardly a more reliable source on all things American than Jared Sparks.4 He was Tocqueville’s most valuable informant, and he epitomized the impact of the Boston Whigs on Tocqueville’s thought.5 In early 1832 he mailed Tocqueville and Beaumont a detailed memoir on the New England town just before the two Frenchmen embarked for their trip back to Europe. Tocqueville’s debt to Sparks in Volume I, Part I, Chapter 5 (I.1.5) of DIA is well known, but not in any detail. The first part of this essay will flesh out just what Tocqueville owed Sparks for this part of DIA.

Yet Sparks’s influence reaches further into Tocqueville’s work than just this single chapter. First of all, the “tyranny of the majority” has a chapter in DIA all its own. And in his memoir and in his interviews with the two French aristocrats, Sparks also emphasized the need to begin at the beginning when studying American democracy; the impact of inheritance law on western migration; democracy’s reliance on education; and the uniformity of the laws. All of these ideas either originated with, or were affirmed by, Sparks. Part two of this essay will assess the full extent of Sparks’s impact on DIA.

After a brief interlude on religion, the third part of this essay will examine Sparks’s political thought and his disagreement with Tocqueville over the “tyranny of the majority.” Sparks likely learned his contractualism, and his defense of majority rule, from Locke. Looking at Locke reveals the probable source of Sparks’s political philosophy and of his argument against Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority”––an idea that irritated many American readers and that, of course, originated with Sparks himself.6

First Things First: Starting with the Town (DIA I.I.5)

Before hearing from Sparks on the matter, Tocqueville had heard two of his other informants stress the importance of the New England town for American democracy. Harvard president Josiah Quincy III spoke of Massachusetts as “a collection of small republics,” and Massachusetts State Senator Francis C. Gray said that town democracy was what distinguished New England not only from Europe, but also from the rest of the United States. Yet Sparks brought the point home. “Nearly all societies, even in America, begin with government concentrated in a particular place and subsequently expand around that central point. But our ancestors founded towns [End Page 170] before there was a state.”7 Tocqueville must then have thought to himself, if I want to see American democracy in its simplest and purest form, I should look at the New England town. As he...