What he found, in contrast to Europe, was that the American social ethic was not based on aristocracy, and in fact Americans seemed to have a deep-seated fear and loathing of European titles (at least the middle and common classes). Instead, Americanism was based on a system in which hard work and money-making (e.g. aggressive capitalism) was the dominant ethic of the time. In this period of radical change and development, he perceived that the common (free) person never deferred to elites and where one was rewarded for being a greedy individualist. He writes: "Among a democratic people, where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living… Labor is held in honor; the prejudice is not against but in its favor" (Ibid., 398).
What is also interesting is that, at times, no matter how unbiased a historical or sociological account portends, what is excluded is often as important as what is included. There was, by all accounts, a clear aristocracy in the South -- based on money, land, and power. This aristocracy controlled slaves, vast wealth through plantations, and was tied more to Great Britain in some ways than it was to the northern colonies. De Tocqueville was at least somewhat aware of this but thought that the direction of America was such that the philosophical ideals of the North would move not only Westward, but South as well. He saw a population that was democratizing, and rapidly, which explained why America was so very different from Europe. What he did not see, though, was that it would take an extremely bloody and vicious war, the assassination of a President, and over a decade of policies designed to put America back together to even begin to realize what he thought was just around the corner. To his credit, though, as he observed from Europe the events leading to the Civil War he noted:
I do not think it is for me, a foreigner, to indicate to the United States the time, the measures, or the men by whom Slavery shall be abolished…Still, as the persevering enemy of despotism everywhere, and under all its forms, I am pained and astonished by the fact that the freest people in the world is, at the present time, almost the only one among civilized and Christian nations which yet maintains personal servitude; and this while serfdom itself is about disappearing, where it has not already disappeared, from the most degraded nations of Europe.
An old and sincere friend of America, I am uneasy at seeing Slavery retard her progress, tarnish her glory, furnish arms to her detractors, compromise the future career of the Union which is the guaranty of her safety and greatness, and point out beforehand to her, to all her enemies, the spot where they are to strike. As a man, too, I am moved at the spectacle of man's degradation by man, and I hope to see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all the inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth (Letters on American Slavery, 2006).
Really, de Tocqueville did not have America wrong as much as he had a more optimistic and rose-colored picture of the times. He saw the country as so different from Europe that almost anything in the pursuit of democracy and equality was justified -- as long as it was moving in the right direction.
Letters on American Slavery. (2006, June 5). Retrieved September 2010, from Anti-Slavery Literature: http://antislavery.eserver.org/tracts/lettersonamericanslavery/lettersonamericanslavery.html
Damrosch, L. (2010). Tocqueville's Discovery of America. New York: Farrar, Sraus, and Giroux.