I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men's hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Democracy in America was a book published in two volumes by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and 1840. The book is a summarization of de Tocqueville's touring of America in the early 1830s (mostly 1831), in which he observed the process of democracy in America from a third party perspective. It is avaliable as a mass market paperback (ISBN number 0553214640).

This book provides a snapshot of the United States at a time where Cincinnati was a frontier town and Tennessee was a wild and uncontrolled country. For nothing else, this book is interesting in that it provides a window into an America of almost two hundred years ago.

If there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil. That is to say, it will not be the equality of social conditions but rather their inequality which may give rise thereto.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Where this book really shines, though, is from a philosophical perspective. While de Tocqueville is continually writing about and describing his experiences in America, he uses these experiences to provide the foundation of a conservative political philosophy. He believed that culture was the underlying power behind government, and all institutions were shaped by culture. In that, he promoted the concept that to truly understand democracy in a given country, one should understand the culture.

In essence, he believes that the form of democracy that exists in the United States is a result of the culture that has developed here. A natural extension of this is that the people are the modifying force on the government, not the other way around; in other words, the underlying point of conservative politics.

The electors see their representative not only as a legislator for the state but also as the natural protector of local interests in the legislature; indeed, they almost seem to think that he has a power of attorney to represent each constituent, and they trust him to be as eager in their private interests as in those of the country.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The early portions of the book make for some challenging reading. The opening chapters merely describe the geography of the United States and surrounding areas and provide a brief history of the country that doesn't differ much from what we all learned in American history. For the casual reader, no new material is really presented in the first couple of chapters.

The rest of the book, however, alternates between a fascinating description of the United States circa 1830 and a building of a political philosophy and perspective on democracy as a result of these observations. In other words, aside from the first two chapters or so, the book is largely a solid read for those interested in political philosophy.

Be forewarned; Alexis de Tocqueville is guilty of much of the same literary problems that such early writings are riddled with. Although he directly addresses the problems, he is guilty of a casual belief in the inequity of genders and races. If this presents a difficulty for you, this book will likely infuriate you and cause you to be distracted from the points he is trying to make.

If you can get past the language and attitudes of the times, though, there is a lot to chew on, both in terms of absorbing his observations and making up your own mind about his resulting philosophy. As a moderate, I found myself alternately agreeing and disagreeing with him, but I felt that the book was more than worth my time in terms of developing a greater understanding of democracy in general and a conservative perspective on it.

I am far from denying that newspapers in democratic countries lead citizens to do very ill-considered things in common; but without newspapers there would be hardly any common action at all. So they mend many more ills than they cause.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The entire book is available online for your perusal; if someone wished to bother to cut and paste the entire work here with suitable linkage, it would serve the political content of this database quite well. It is available at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/toc_indx.html .

If you found this work to be interesting, I strongly recommend a perusal of The Federalist Papers, a nearly contemporary work that addresses democracy as it exists in the United States from a much different perspective. Another book worth perusing is The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, which provides a later perspective on the democratic process in the United States.

In towns it is impossible to prevent men from assembling, getting excited together and forming sudden passionate resolves. Towns are like great meeting houses with all the inhabitants as members. In them the people wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their desires into execution without intermediaries.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville was an amazing man. In a mere nine months he traveled the length and breadth of the United States of the 1830's and came to understand it better than most citizens who live in the US their whole lives. He expressed his understanding in the two volume work Democracy in America.

Tocqueville's self-chosen mission was to examine the institutions of democracy in America and determine what, if anything, could be applied in his homeland. He was a well-educated French aristocrat with a long family tradition who had extensively studied the philosophic and political science writings of his day. He came to America with a keen mind and a keen eye for the practical details of American institutions.

Democracy in America turned out to be more than a treatise on American institutions, however. In the end, Tocqueville came to understand what made America and Americans work. He understood America's roots, values and soul. He by no means liked everything he saw - some features of America he found dangerous, even ominous, and some he found wondrous. He wasn't afraid to make predictions and, more than any of his contemporaries, his predictions came true.

The Poor Lawmakers

One of the first observations that Tocqueville makes in the book is that, in America, "it is the poor who make the law, and they habitually reserve for themselves the greatest advantages of society." (pp.45) (page numbers, by the way, refer to the edition described at the bottom of the writeup) At first, to modern Americans, this seems absurd. Everyone knows that the rich have always had the greatest influence on the making of laws and have always had the advantages. Tocqueville was a little too perspicacious to fall into this superficial way of thinking:

Now, it is certain that so far, in all the nations of the world, the greatest number has always been composed of those who did not have property, or of those whose property was too restricted for them to be able to live in ease without working. Therefore universal suffrage really gives the government of society to the poor. (pp.201)
Now people today may not be considered "poor" if they have to continue to work for a living, but almost everyone would agree that someone who does not have to work for a living is certainly rich. Tocqueville lived before the rise of the great American middle class (although he saw it coming, saying that as more people in America became property owners, it would be harder for them to avoid "striking themselves with the tax they establish" (pp.201))

To prove that his statement is still true today, one need look no further than the US government's greatest impact on society: the Federal Income Tax. If the rich really were in charge, why would their taxes be enormously higher than everyone else's? What better sign that the poor are really in charge (in terms of number of votes) than the fact that they have managed to establish a tax code that puts the burden on everyone else? Tocqueville even saw this one coming, "the government of democracy is the only one in which he who votes the tax can escape the obligation to pay it." (pp.201)

Lastly, Tocqueville saw an interesting social phenomenon in the US that is even more true today than it was then: a distrust of the rich. The rich had an elevated position in old Europe and, indeed, almost everywhere else in the world. In the US, however:

In the United States, the people have no hatred for the elevated classes of society; but they feel little good will for them and carefully keep them out of power; they do not fear great talents, but they have little taste for them.
Today, of course, there is little left of the "elevated classes", you're either a celebrity or one of the masses, with the very rich considered celebrities whether they like it or not. And it's still true that while being of the "elevated classes" may make someone the object of public fascination, it doesn't mean that the masses want them as their political leader (see "Associations" below, however).

Commerce

Tocqueville was at first amazed at the extent to which free people would turn their focus to commerce. He found the American pursuit of wealth to be both disturbing and fascinating. He was also intrigued by the economic mobility of Americans. The poor sometimes became rich over night and the rich were apt to fall into poverty without warning.

...I know of no country where the love of money holds a larger place in the heart of man and where they profess a more profound scorn for the theory of the permanent equality of goods. But fortune turns here with incredible rapidity and experience teaches that it is rare to see two generations collect its favors. (pp.50)
He was fascinated by the way Americans held not just the pursuit of wealth, but the very idea of success itself in such high regard. He said, "I cannot express my thought better than by saying that the Americans put a sort of heroism into their manner of doing commerce (pp.387)" and "they love success more than glory (pp.603)". While he found this drive towards commerce somewhat distasteful, he found the subsequent economic mobility of the citizens to be a leveling force within society.
...if the principal object of a government, according to you, is not to give the most force or the most glory possible to the entire body of the nation, but to procure the most well-being for each of the individuals who compose it and to have each avoid the most misery, then equalize conditions and constitute the government of a democracy.(pp.235)
Tocqueville came to completely understand that democracy frees people to do the one thing that they desire above all else: make their life better. Freed of tyranny and strife, people naturally begin to work towards improving their lot. The commercial strivings of the Americans were nothing more than human nature allowed out of the cage of oppression:
All that he (the American) demands of the state is that it not come to trouble him in his labors, and that it assure him the fruits of them.(pp.604)

Associations

Tocqueville was amazed at the degree with which Americans took the running of their society into their own hands. These days, Americans may be so used to this facet of American life that they think it has always the way. Tocqueville's reaction shows that this was something new, an unexpected side-effect of democracy:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, the associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government of France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States. (pp.489)
These associations, to Tocqueville, were a replacement for the great leaders in an aristocracy. He says, "In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons whom equality of conditions has made disapear. (pp.492)" It is interesting to think of this in today's American society, where celebrities constantly lend their names to good causes. My guess is that Tocqueville was shrewd enough to know the difference between celebrity and power. On the other hand, perhaps the modern day cult of celebrity is just a modern extension of what Tocqueville called the "mother science", which is the "science of association" (pp.492).

Tyranny of the Majority

Tocqueville was not overly impressed with the intelligence of the average person. It's not that he thought they were stupid, but that they were clearly not geniuses. Given this, he found the idea of majority rule inefficient and at least capable of tyranny.

It is ... as difficult to conceive of a society in which all men are very enlightened as of a state in which all citizens are rich... I shall have no trouble admitting that the mass of citizens very sincerely wants the good of the country; I even go further and say that the lower classes of society seem to me generally to mix fewer combinations of personal interest with this desire than do the elevated classes; but what they always seem to lack, more or less, is the art of judging the means, even while sincerely wishing the end.
Here, he has said a mouthful. To be sincere in a desire is far cry from knowing the best means to achieve it. Just because the majority in the US wants something good and just, there is no guarantee that they know the best way to make it happen.

The US Government had full powers over its people and Tocqueville found this dangerous. With nothing to check governmental power, the majority could do anything and no citizen would have recourse to any other body than the government, which is made up of the votes of the majority.

When a man or party suffers from an injustice in the United States, whom do you want him to address? Public opinion? that is what forms the majority; the legislative body? it represents the majority and obeys it blindly; the executive power? it is named by the majority and serves as its passive instrument; the public forces? the public forces are nothing other than the majority in arms; the jury? the jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce decrees; in certain states, the judges themselves are elected by the majority. Therefore, however iniquitous or unreasonable is the measure that strikes you, you must submit to it. (pp.241)
I can imagine today's war protesters reading this with some satisfaction. The majority has created for them a tyranny they can't escape. On the other hand, it's possible that Tocqueville underestimated the Bill of Rights. In his eyes, the Bill of Rights was subject to Amendment, so represented no permanent check on governmental power. In practice, however, it has turned out to be extremely hard to make fundamental changes to these checks on government power. It takes more than a simple majority to make changes to the Bill of Rights (or the Constitution in general); it takes an overwhelming national will. Our most recent Amendment, for example, was proposed by James Madison in 1789 and only passed in 1992 (the 27th, which bars congress from granting its members pay raises in the middle of terms). It took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the Civil War to pass the 13th Amendment.

Race Relations

Tocqueville saw race relations as a grave danger to the United States. Writing in the 1830's, he was one of the first voices to speak out about the dangers of American slavery and the plight of the Native Americans. While the Native Americans had, in a sense, complete freedom (including the freedom to die of starvation or privation) and the Black slaves had zero freedom; he saw their plights as similar:

The Negro is laced at the ultimate bounds of servitude; the Indian at the extreme limits of freedom. Slavery scarcely produces more fatal effects in the first than does independence in the second. (pp.305)
Interestingly, Tocqueville saw the North as being more prejudiced against the Black man than the South. In the South, the white man had little to fear from the Black man, but in the North he had constantly to worry that the Black man might become his equal:
In the South, the master does not fear lifting his slave up to himself because he knows that he will always be able, if he wishes, to throw him back into the dust. In the North, the white no longer perceives distinctly the barrier that will separate him from a debased race, and he draws back from the Negro with all the more care since he fears one day being intermingled with him. (pp.329)
While Tocqueville certainly considered slavery immoral, his real concern was for its effect on the society, white and black, in the US. He saw slavery as bad, even for the masters, and worse for the slaves. He knew that even freeing the slaves would not be enough to solve the problem. Americans would have to either free themselves from racial prejudice or ship the Black man away:
Leaving the Negro in servitude, one can keep him in a state bordering on that of a brute; free, one cannot prevent him from instructing himself enough to appreciate the extent of his ills and to glimpse a remedy for them... From the moment that whites and emancipated Negroes have been placed on the same soil as peoples foreign to one another, one will understand without difficulty that there are no more than two choices for the future: Negroes and whites must intermingle entirely or separate. (pp.341)
He didn't think the "intermingle entirely" choice had any chance at all.

Religion

People of present day America can't really think about religion and democracy together in the same sentence. We've been conditioned for decades to keep the two separate. Tocqueville had no such conditioning, however, so he could freely ponder the relationship. He saw a great benefit to democracy from religious morality. As shown above, Tocqueville was distinctly worried about the fact that democracy in the US had placed complete power in the hands of its people. One possible help for this, he thought, was religious morality:

...at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything. (pp.280)
Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.
He also saw religion as a brake on human nature's love of "material enjoyments", saying "The greatest advantage of religions is to inspire wholly contrary instincts." (pp.419)

Tocqueville also believed that the Christian faiths were destined to live on in American life. While he was aware that not everyone who lived by Christian values, he saw those values so permeating society that some Americans would pretend to be believers because "they were afraid of not looking like they believe them." (pp.279) He even contrasted Christianity with Islam (in yet another of his stunningly prescient pronouncements), noting that a religion that is to serve as the moral basis for government needs to restrict itself to moral codes only:

Mohammed had not only religious doctrines descend from Heaven and placed in the Koran, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, in contrast, speak only of the general relations of men to God and among themselves. Outside of that they teach nothing and oblige nothing to be believed. That alone, among a thousand other reasons, is enough to show that the first of these two religions cannot dominate for long in enlightened and democratic times, whereas the second is destined to reign in these centuries as in all the others. (pp.419)
Argue among yourselves about the possibility that Islam has "dominated" for "long" in "enlightened and democratic times"; it seems clear that fundamental Islam and democracy are not natural bedfellows.

Lastly, Tocqueville felt that the separation of church and state was more important for the church than the state and he felt that supporting the authority of religion with government power was a fools errand:

I do not believe in the prosperity any more than the longevity of official philosophies, and as for state religions, I have always thought that if sometimes they could temporarily serve the interests of political power, they would always sooner or later become fatal to the Church.

Nor am I in the number of those who judge that to elevate religion in the eyes of peoples and to put the spiritualism that it professes in honor, it is good to give its ministers indirectly a political influence that the law refuses them.

I feel myself so sensitive to the almost inevitable dangers that beliefs risk when their interpreters mix in public affairs, and I am so convinced that one must maintain Christianity within the new democracies at all cost, that I would rather chain priests in the sanctuary than allow them to leave it. (pp.521)
To solve this quandary of keeping religion in everyday mores and the moral compasses of government officials without polluting the church or the government by associating them closely together, Tocqueville offers this:
I believe that the only efficacious means governments can use to put the dogma of the immortality of the soul in honor is to act every day as if they themselves believed it; and I think it is only in conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great affairs that they can flatter themselves they are teaching citizens to know it, love it, and respect it in small ones. (pp.521)
Think about this - and the fact that almost all Presidents have read Tocqueville - next time you listen to a speech that brings religious morality into government action.

Predictions

Tocqueville wasn't afraid to make predictions. He seemed certain of most of them:
  • (predicting almost exactly the future growth of America) Before a hundred years have passed, I think that the territory occupied or claimed by the United States will be covered by more than a hundred million inhabitants and divided into forty states. (pp.362)
  • (speaking about that other great people, the Russians, and predicting, in a way, the cold war) The American struggles against the obstacles that nature opposes to him; the Russian grapples with men. The one combats the wilderness and barbarism, the other, civilization vested with all its arms: thus the conquests of the American are made with the plowshare of the laborer, those of the Russian with the sword of a soldier.
    To attain his goal, the first relies on a personal interest and allows the force and reason of individuals to act, without directing them. The second in a way concentrates all the power of society in one man.
    The one has freedom for his principal means of action; the other servitude.
    Their point of departure is different, their ways are diverse; nonetheless, each of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day. (pp.396)
  • (predicting the strife of the industrial revolution) I showed in a previous chapter how aristocracy, driven out of political society, had withdrawn into certain parts of the industrial world and established its empire there in another form. (pp.556)
  • (on the pace of change in democratic times) It therefore seems natural to believe that in a democratic society, ideas, things, and men must change forms and places eternally and that democratic centuries will be times of rapid and incessant transformations. (pp.607)
  • (about the effects of abolition) If one absolutely had to forsee the future, I would say that, following the probable course of things, that the abolition of slavery in the South will increase the repugnance for blacks felt by the white population. (pp.343)
  • (the future of slavery) ..whatever the efforts of Americans of the South to preserve slavery, they will not succeed at it forever... It will cease by deed of the slave or the master. In both cases, one must expect great misfortunes. (pp.348)
  • (predicting the Civil War) The most dreadful of all the evils that threaten the future of the United States arises from the presence of blacks on its soil. (pp.326)

Tocqueville had a lot more to say on a lot more subjects: Indians, the dangers of government, the curiosities of American executive power, taxation, the industrial revolution and so on. Far to much to cover in detail here. His clarity of vision has kept him relevant for almost 200 years. He's still often quoted today. Interestingly, by both political parties. As Mansfield and Winthrop put it in their introduction:
On the Left he is the philosopher of community and civic engagement who warns against the appearance of an industrial aristocracy and against the bourgeois or commercial passion for material well-being: in sum, he is for democratic citizenship. On the Right he is quoted for his strictures on "Big Government" and his liking for decentralized administration, as well as for celebrating the individual energy and opposing egalitarian excess: he is a balanced liberal, defending both freedom and moderation.

Indeed, his contribution to the understanding of Democracy and America was unique.


For those of you seeking erudite-sounding sig lines, here is a sample of Tocqueville quotes:

...parties in the United States as elsewhere feel the need to group themselves around one man in order to more easily reach the intelligence of the crowd. They therefore generally make use of the name of the presidential candidate as a symbol; they personify their theories in him. (pp.127)

It is therefore permissible to say that in a general manner that nothing is so contrary to the well-being and freedom of men as great empires. (pp.151)

To a stranger, almost all the domestic quarrels of Americans at first appear incomprehensible or puerile, and one does not know if one ought to take pity on a people that is seriously occupied with miseries like these or envy it the good fortune of being able to occupied with them. (pp.170)

When an idea has taken possession of the mind of the American people, whether it is just or unreasonable, nothing is more difficult than to root it out. (pp.178)

In the eyes of democracy, government is not a good; it is a necessary evil. (pp.194)

The people feel much more than they reason; and if the present evils are great, it is to be feared that they will forget the greater evils that perhaps await them in case of defeat. (pp.214)

Someone said to me one day in Philadelphia that almost all crimes in America are caused by the abuse of strong liquor, which baser people could use at will because it was sold to them at a low price. (pp.214)

There is nothing more annoying in the habits of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. (pp.227)

I think there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than the United States. (pp. 403)

Give democratic peoples enlightenment and freedom and leave them alone. With no trouble they will succeed in taking all the goods from this world that it can offer; they will perfect each of the useful arts and render life more comfortable, easier, milder every day; their social state naturally pushes them in this direction. I do not fear they will stop. (pp.518)

In the United States women are scarcely praised, but it is shown daily that they are esteemed. (pp.575)

There are two things that a democratic people will always have much trouble doing: beginning a war and ending it. (pp.621)


The above quotes are from this very fine edition: Democracy in America, Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Harvey C. Masfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, (c) 2000, ISBN 0-226-80532-8.

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