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Gustave de Beaumont

Coming To America

The United States in 1831 consisted of all lands east of the Mississippi River and lands to the west considered part of the 828,000-square-mile acquisition from France known as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The estimated population of thirteen million persons lived mostly along the East Coast. Beaumont and Tocqueville set sail from Le Havre, France, on April 3 aboard the Havre. After more than a month at sea they had their first glimpse of America when they landed in Newport, Rhode Island, on May 9.

Their original destination had been New York City but adverse weather and a shortage of food and water had forced an early landing in Rhode Island. They spent the night onboard ship and left Newport the next day on an American steamboat that delivered them to New York City on May 11. During their time in America the men used a wide variety of transportation including stagecoaches, canoes, sailing ships, and horseback.

Conscious of their official purpose, Beaumont and Tocqueville immediately began their investigation of American prisons. They arrived at Mount Pleasant, New York, on May 29 to visit Sing Sing Prison where they began their report, entitled On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France (see sidebar). They based their report on a thorough study of the reforms at Sing Sing, as well as at Auburn in New York, Cherry Hill in Philadelphia, and Wethersfield in Connecticut. Because their interests only involved the new penitentiary system, they spent little time on the older prisons that existed in most American states. Included in the report were interviews with wardens, supervisors, and prisoners. They wrote about the makeup of the prison population as well as the practices and attitudes about punishment. Armed with his sketch books, Beaumont documented much in pictures while Tocqueville wrote in his journals.

Beaumont and Tocqueville were dedicated to their prison assignment but also used their research to make observations about American democracy and culture in general. The tireless travelers covered a large area in their brief time in North America. They went north through the Great Lakes to Canada and back south as far as New Orleans before heading to Washington, D.C. Along the way they stopped and spoke to politicians, businessmen, commentators, and newsmen.

The Prison Report

Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville coauthored a volume on prison reform entitled On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France. Published in 1833, it covered their research of American penal systems conducted from May 1831 through February 1832. The report written by Beaumont and Tocqueville observed that while some American penitentiaries in their study could serve as models for other countries to copy, some were models of everything that should be avoided.

The two facilities Beaumont and Tocqueville studied most thoroughly were the Cherry Hill Prison in Philadelphia and the Auburn Prison in New York. They found three distinct differences that set them apart from older American prisons and from European prisons. First, isolation was used in order to keep prisoners from corrupting each other. Secondly, work was provided for inmates throughout their jail time. Lastly, an attempt was made by authorities to reform prisoners both morally and spiritually.

They reported that nine states had adopted new systems and the other fifteen still used the old systems. The old systems were overcrowded and unhealthy with many escapes and deaths recorded. Of those states using the new systems, most followed Auburn, which showed some evidence of changing criminals. At Auburn isolation was enforced by forbidding inmates to talk to one another even while working together during the day. At night, each inmate was locked in a separate cell to avoid communication.

Beaumont carried several notebooks to record the journey in sketches. The first album was a rough sketchbook done in pencil to record his first impression of the people and places he saw. The second album was produced in pen and ink, reproducing the pencil sketches in more elaborate detail for the report.

The media took note of the two French gentlemen who had been commissioned by the King of France and gave them wide coverage in the press. While in Washington, D.C., Beaumont and Tocqueville met with U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) and former president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29). Beaumont and Tocqueville were summoned back to France early, after having been absent less than a year. They obediently returned to New York City and set sail aboard the Havre on February 20, 1832.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGustave de Beaumont - French Aristocracy, Political Play, Coming To America, The Prison Report, Political Disappointment