Tocqueville and the Michigan Mosquito

Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French traveler and social commentator, arrived in Detroit 166 years ago—in July of the hot and humid summer of 1831. The primitive, almost untouched wilderness of Michigan earned prominent attention in the book he wrote four years later and which remains a classic today, Democracy in America.

Tocqueville’s visit provokes a question with significant implications for our time. Why was Michigan in 1831 still a sparsely populated territory (it became a state in 1837), with its interior hardly touched by settlers, when Indiana to the south had been a state since 1816 and Illinois, even farther west, a state since 1818?

The answer, in a word, was mosquitoes. The Michigan Territory had a reputation of being uninhabitable, a consequence of the ordeals of its early surveyors in confronting so much standing water and the intolerably vicious, buzzing hordes of mosquitoes.

Tocqueville encountered Michigan mosquitoes in force between Pontiac and Saginaw on a barely perceptible trail through the nearly impenetrable forest, where they were so fierce he couldn’t even pause to write in his notebook. After a day of hunting near Saginaw, "surrounded by a cloud of these insects, against whom one had to make perpetual war," he spent a night that was, in his words, "one of the most painful of my life." He was overwhelmingly fatigued, but the buzzing and the biting kept him from sleeping.

Tocqueville later wrote that he had "never experienced a torment" like mosquitoes, which were "the scourge of the American solitudes." He agreed with the surveyor’s assessment: "Their presence would suffice to render a long sojourn there insupportable." Referring to the swampy lands where mosquitoes bred, the United States Supreme Court said this, decades after Tocqueville’s visit: "the police power is never more legitimately exercised than in removing such nuisances."

Eventually, stalwart pioneers moved into Michigan’s interior anyway. The key to the success of settlement was drainage. As swamps were drained, the water table fell on upland soils and at last, farmers could come to grow crops. Later, the development of subsurface clay tiles enabled individual fields to be even more efficiently drained. The productive agriculture that is such an accepted part of today’s Michigan has been achieved in spite of Mother Nature.

The early settlers had another incentive to drain the swamps—the violent chills and raging fever of malaria. Whole families in their forested cabins were often felled at the same time. In 1859, the new Michigan Agricultural College in East Lansing came to a standstill because all 100 students, and all but one of the faculty members, contracted malaria. Swamps were believed to have a connection to the disease, although the culprit was first thought to be noxious vapors because the mosquito role was not yet understood. After the college drained a swamp, the malarial outbreaks there declined. Across the state as swamps were drained, the mosquito that spread "the pioneer’s disease" vanished, allowing Michigan’s population and prosperity to grow.

The state’s early residents attacked their problems under a system that greatly contrasted with Tocqueville’s France, where, he wrote, "the government concerns itself with everything." He was quite impressed with Americans in general, in great measure because of "the ease with which they do without government." He observed that Americans had respect for the law and each other’s rights, and consequently felt they had no need for strong government as they worked for the prosperity of their society. They were not destroying the environment by draining the swamps. They were making it habitable, and doing it often at private expense.

Today, however, swamps or "wetlands," even on private property, are regulated and forcibly preserved by complex rules of both state and federal governments. One Michigan cranberry grower going through the regulatory maze said, "It’s been difficult, costly and time-consuming. It was a learning experience—one I hope to never go through again." These days, who hasn’t heard horror stories of people deprived of the use and value of their property because it has some standing water?

Partly through government policy, but also because of private preservation efforts, the country as a whole is now actually gaining new wetland acreage. That fact suggests that it may be time to turn away from alarmist rhetoric about wetland loss and focus instead on realistic policies that are compatible with both a sound environment and respect for private property. Swamps have ecosystem values worth preserving, but ecosystem analysis is incomplete without taking into account human health and economic needs.

Few Michiganians would be here now if settlers in Tocqueville’s time hadn’t taken the initiative to drain the swamps. Michigan would still be largely uninhabitable, and Detroit might well be known today as the "Malaria City" instead of the "Motor City." Michigan’s prosperity is easily taken for granted, but it is helpful to know that it has occurred despite formidable natural obstacles.