Democracy and Unfreedom: Revisiting Tocqueville and Beaumont in America

SARA M. BENSON

SAGE JOURNALS, Volume 45, Issue 4

Abstract: This essay reexamines the famous 1831 prison tours of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. It reads the three texts that emerged from their collective research practice as a trilogy, one conventionally read in different disciplinary homes (Democracy in America in political science, On the Penitentiary in criminology, and Marie, Or Slavery: A Novel of Jacksonian America in literature). I argue that in marginalizing the trilogy’s important critique of slavery and punishment, scholars have overemphasized the centrality of free institutions and ignored the unfree institutions that also anchor American political life. The article urges scholars in political theory and political science to attend to this formative moment in mass incarceration and carceral democracy.