Beaumont, Gustave de
Gustave de Beaumont
Born February 6, 1802 (Beaumont-la-Chartre, France)
Died February 22, 1866 (Paris, France)
French magistrate, prison reformer
Gustave de Beaumont was a nineteenth-century French statesman when he received a commission from the King of France Louis Phillipe (1773–1850) to inspect American prison systems for the French government. In 1831 Beaumont and his friend and noted historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) sailed to the United States. They spent nine months inspecting American prisons. At the completion of their study, they published a report entitled On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France.
"But while working on the penitentiary system we shall see America; in visiting its prisons we shall be visiting its inhabitants, its cities, its institutions, its customs."
America was the New World to Europeans in the 1830s. The French Revolution (1789–99; a war in which the monarchy was overthrown and a republic was established) had called for "liberty, equality and fraternity," and the United States was seen as the political future with its principles based in individualism and equality. Many Europeans came to North America to observe and write accounts during these years. But the experiences of Beaumont and Tocqueville—in observing the U.S. criminal justice system—would greatly affect the thinking of the Western world.
Gustave de Beaumont was born in France in 1802, a few months after the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) began. The youngest son of Jules de Beaumont and Rose Preau de la Baraudiere, Gustave and his three siblings grew up comfortably on the farm of Chateau de la Borde. The countryside they called home was near the town of Beaumont-la-Chartre, where their father served as mayor. The town was located in the province of Sarthe, a rural and politically volatile region of France.
The aristocratic (wealthy upper class) Beaumont family had a long tradition of loyalty to the king. When the dictatorship of Napoleon ended in 1814, the Bourbon dynasty returned to the monarchy of France under the reign of King Louis XVIII (1755–1824). Young Gustave completed his schooling and went on to study law. When he reached the age of eligibility, he was appointed as an apprentice magistrate (local judge) in the courts because of his family's loyalty.
About this time, Gustave met another young magistrate who was to become a lifelong friend. Three years his junior, Alexis de Tocqueville was as idealistic and ambitious as Beaumont. Together the young nobles plunged into an intense course of studies including English, philosophy, history, and politics.
Charles X (1757–1836) ascended the throne in 1824 and a crisis began brewing in France. The storm broke on July 25, 1830, in the form of the French Revolution. The Bourbon dynasty was once again in exile and Charles X, who was the last Bourbon king of France, left for England three days later. Louis Philippe ascended the throne as the head of the House of Orleans. He was from the line of kings who had originally taken the monarchy from the Bourbons. Public loyalties were immediately divided.
Beaumont was in Paris at the time of the Revolution and survived the battle as well as the ensuing politics. He and Tocqueville retained their jobs as magistrates but both men found themselves in a dilemma. Like most nobility they were caught between the requirements of the new monarchy and loyalty to the Bourbon dynasty and family traditions.
The new government wanted to determine the commitment of its administrators and, after dismissing its known enemies, asked all remaining officials to take the oath of allegiance to Louis Philippe. Beaumont and Tocqueville reluctantly took the oath, which greatly bothered the majority of their friends and family—most of whom had refused to take the oath and had resigned instead of compromising their loyalties.
Despite their show of commitment, the government still suspected the dedication of the magistrates and they operated under a cloud of suspicion. Their higher position in society had made life intolerable since the Revolution, and to make matters worse public protests were becoming increasingly serious throughout the country. The continuing government of Louis Philippe was not assured, and if the government did fall the magistrates oath of allegiance had compromised them with whoever might gain the throne.
The political climate in France left twenty-eight-year-old Beaumont uneasy about his future prospects. He discussed his concerns with Tocqueville and on October 31, 1830, they submitted a formal request to the government to study the new prison reforms taking place in the United States. Both men were anxious to see the country they had heard so much about and to examine democracy in action.
Both men needed clearance from two ministries of the French government to obtain a leave of absence from their duties for the trip. They finally received permission for the eighteen-month assignment, but were required to travel at their own expense. Their departure date was set for April 1, 1831. They spent months preparing for their journey as well as studying the English language.
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.
Upon their arrival in Paris at the end of March, the two friends found the government unwelcoming and there was a cholera (an infectious, often fatal disease of the intestines) epidemic threatening the city. Within two months of their return Beaumont had been dismissed from his post in the government courts and Tocqueville resigned in protest. They kept busy by writing their prison report. It was published early in 1833 in both of their names. Beaumont wrote the main text and provided the sketches for the report. Tocqueville provided footnotes and comments and inspected several French prisons to complete their research.
The men agreed to go their separate ways in further writings about their American experiences. As it turned out, their report, as well as their individual writings, were well received. Tocqueville wrote the widely acclaimed Democracy in America and Beaumont published a novel titled Marie. The novel was based on ethnic relations he had observed in the United States, especially between black and white Americans. Beaumont received national acclaim for the novel as it went through five editions.
In 1836 Beaumont married his cousin, Clementine de Lafayette, who was the granddaughter of the French hero Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834). Beaumont went to Ireland and gathered information for a second case study that was published in 1839. He turned to national politics in 1840 and was elected to a legislative role in the Chamber of Deputies. Beaumont remained in politics including a term as ambassador to England until his death in Paris on February 22, 1866.
For More Information
Hall, Kermit. Oxford Companion to American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2002.
McCarthy, Eugene, J. America Revisited: 150 Years After Tocqueville. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.
Pierson, George Wilson. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.
The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour: Exploring Democracy in America.http://www.tocqueville.org (accessed on August 15, 2004).