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The first part of this guide covers roughly the first hundred pages of Democracy in America, beginning with the author’s introduction and ending with the fourth chapter.
Tocqueville begins his book with a thirty-some page introduction in which he states, and then later restates, that Democracy in America is not a travelogue. Nor, does he add, is it merely a catalogue of various American institutions. Instead, it is a work of political science that attempts to capture the growth of a liberal-democratic revolution that Tocqueville believes is sweeping the West.
This belief falls in line with his Enlightenment predecessors, and as the introduction continues—indeed, as the rest of the whole work continues—the ideological debts that Tocqueville owes to the likes of Rousseau, Locke, and even Hobbes are numerous.
Despite his liberal tendencies, Tocqueville remains erudite on his critique of democracy and the pitfalls it faces, particularly in relation to the Old World. The absolutist kings of France worked as levelers frequently throughout French history, he claims, helped the lower classes to behave as nobles “when they were ambitious and strong,” while the moderate and weak rulers “allowed the people to put themselves above kings.” He continues: “The former helped democracy by their talents, the latter by their vices” (8). Democracy, as Tocqueville sees it then, is an historical inevitability, held back only by the seemingly oppressive structures of old and somewhat broken traditions and archaic kings. The divisions of lands between nobles, the peasant revolts, and the breakdown of the feudal system presents a seven hundred year-long narrative that Tocqueville points to as evidence. “Everywhere you saw the various incidents in the lives of peoples turn to the profit of democracy;” he says,
“all men aided it by their efforts: those who had in view contributing to its success and those who did not think of serving it; those who fought for it and even those who declared themselves its enemies; all were pushed pell-mell along the same path, and all worked in common, some despite themselves, others without their knowledge, blind instruments in the hands of God.” (10)
While not quite a radical for his time, Tocqueville is not the counterrevolutionary in the vein of Boland or Chateaubriand, to be sure. It is through this particular lens of democratic progressivism that Tocqueville’s book was conceived and written. And yet, he remains uncertain as to future developments of this democratic lurching, given how equality and liberty have, for the most part, already been reached in unprecedented levels across the West at the time of his writing: “we are prevented by the magnitude of what is already done from foreseeing what can still be done” (14).
Yet, while not exactly a traditionalist, is he not altogether an ideologue. He respects the order of the ancient regime, noting how, when the nobles indeed believed themselves noble, and the serfs accepted the nobility’s claim upon power as legitimate, art and culture flourished and living standards were generally stable. “It is not the use of power or the habit of obedience that depraves men;” Tocqueville writes, but rather “the use of a power that they consider as illegitimate and obedience to a power that they regard as usurped and oppressive” (20). He goes on to remark how the proliferation of Enlightenment principles led to democratizing of these older structures, and, revealing again his liberal tendencies, writes of how a “free association of citizens would […] be able to replace the individual power of the nobles, and the State would be sheltered from tyranny and license”, secure in his faith in the fundamental goodness of individualism and a government unfettered by hierarchy (20). Egalitarianism, that dreaded horror from the French Revolution, remained an ideal even after the Terror, after Napoleon, and after the Bourbon restoration.
Still, he holds back complete embrace of his liberal tendencies:
“The poor man has kept most of the prejudices of his fathers, without their beliefs; their ignorance, without their virtues; he has accepted, as the rule for his actions, the doctrine of interest, without knowing the science of interest, and his egoism is as wanting in enlightenment as his devotion formerly was.
Society is tranquil, not because it is conscious of its strength and its wellbeing, but on the contrary because it believes itself weak and frail; it is afraid of dying by making an effort. Everyone feels that things are going badly, but no one has the necessary courage and energy to seek something better; we have desires, regrets, sorrows and joys that produce nothing visible or lasting, similar to the passions of old men that end in impotence.
Thus we have abandoned what the old state could present of the good, without acquiring what the current state would be able to offer of the useful; we have destroyed an aristocratic society, and we do not think about organizing on its ruins a moral and tranquil democracy and, stopping out of complacency amid the debris of the former edifice, we seem to want to settle there forever.” (22-23)
This is the portrait a man who, after putting his ideas to the test, has begun already to see the major flaws in democracy, liberalism, and the Enlightenment ideals. Equality reduces men to animals, democracy reduces the State to a regime that must preside over animals, and fraternity turns to malice between animals that have destroyed their arts, their institutions, their stories, their history, and their culture. Although not as pessimistic as his counterrevolutionary contemporaries, Tocqueville’s overtures to Enlightenment thought, and in particular to liberal democracy, are never reach the bright-eyed naïve wonder of youthful revolutionaries on the palisades. His defense is tempered by at least a reasonable understanding of what this liberal democratic social revolution is costing the West.
Tocqueville at once sees a worldwide (or at least Western/Europe-wide) democratic order and equality of conditions as the narrative end-game toward which all of history progresses. He sees this as a mechanism that will free man of his oppressions, but at the same time, he acknowledges the degradation of the spirit that the liberal ethos inflicts upon those societies who suffer it. It’s striking how parallel his belief and his acknowledgement run side by side through his introduction, and likewise throughout much of Democracy in America, due to how relevant such a coordination of opposites is to the modern liberal-conservative views today.
“It seems to me beyond doubt,” he writes, “that sooner or later, we will arrive, like the Americans, at a nearly complete equality of conditions” (27). This statement alone encompasses the limits of his optimism and his enthusiasm. “I did not even claim to judge if the social revolution, whose march seems irresistible to me, was advantageous or harmful to humanity”, he continues, asserting that his travels in and writings on America were in order to “discern clearly its natural consequences and, if possible, to see the means to make it profitable to men” (28). He concludes his philosophical musings with his admittance that “in America, I saw more than America; I sought there an image of democracy itself, its tendencies, its character, its prejudices, its passions; I wanted to know democracy, if only to know at least what we must hope or fear from it” (28).
The last part of his introduction lays out his plan for the rest of the work. The first part covers the establishment of democracy in the New World, its dependency upon laws, the origins of those laws, and the stopgaps and countermeasures put in place in order to assure democracy’s relative stability. A second part, originally, was to look at the more social and philosophical impacts that democracy had upon American life and culture, and how it shaped America differently from how Europe has traditionally been molded. Tocqueville admits, however, that he may not have been successful in this task.
He concludes his introduction by acknowledging that this book, due to its construction and its content, will be easy to criticize by any reader looking to tear it apart. Likewise:
“this book follows in no one’s train exactly; by writing it I did not mean either to serve or to combat any party; I set about to see, not differently, but farther than parties; and while they are concerned with the next day, I wanted to think about the future.” (32)
This was not written with any particular political aim in mind. As a work that, he emphasized at the beginning, would be the start of a new political science, its goal was to service theory above agenda, to make the ideas fit the facts, and, of course, to first discern the facts on the ground. Close to two hundred years have passed since Tocqueville published this work, and it remains among the most poignant and insightful commentaries on American democracy ever written. It’s safe to say that he succeeded in his endeavor, possibly beyond his wildest dreams.
The first chapter is little more than a topographical overview of the North American continent north of the Rio Grande. After explaining the importance of the Rockies to the west and the Allegheny mountains to the east, Tocqueville makes special note of the Mississippi river and its tributaries. Navigable rivers were imperative to a strong and functioning integrated economy, as railroads only just begun to see use. Networks of steam engines were still on the horizon, so steamships, riverboats, and barges remained imperative to both civilian travel and trade.
It’s important to note that Tocqueville’s sojourn in the United States took place from between 1828 to 1834, some two decades after Lewis & Clarke first embarked to explore the Louisiana Purchase and make contact with the Pacific Ocean up in what is now Washington State. While the details of the unorganized territories acquired with the Louisiana Purchase still remained elusive, certain geographical details had been established and recorded by numerous travelers, traders, and frontiersmen by the time Tocqueville made landfall in the US. Additionally, Louisiana and Missouri had already gained statehood, with the organized territories of Arkansas and Michigan not far behind.
He also mentions the Indian Nations that populated much of this continent at the time, making brief note of how alien their cultures and ways were to the arriving Europeans. Of “[t]he social state of these peoples,” he says,
“it could have been said that they multiplied freely in their wilderness, without contact with more civilized races. So among them, you found none of those doubtful and incoherent notions of good and evil, none of that profound corruption which is usually combined with ignorance and crudeness of mores among civilized nations who have descended into barbarism again. The Indian owed nothing to anyone except himself. His virtues, his vices, his prejudices were his own work; he grew up in the wild independence of his own nature.” (40)
A certain Rousseauian sense of noble savagery is the first most striking feature of his observation. However, rather than a glorification of Native barbarism, closer inspection and context reveals that Tocqueville admires the Indian peoples only inasmuch as they are a comparatively quaint and alien culture to his own. Americans, descended from and removed only by a few generations from the European and English homelands, are an intriguing offshoot of the Western ethos. Indians, however, aren’t. There was no culture known to Westerners that warrants comparison to them, not even the South American civilizations conquered by Spanish several centuries prior.
Whatever awe Tocqueville reserves for the Indians, it’s weighted with the amusing parallel observation that, as a people, they don’t seem to be very smart. The great American experiment, with its culture and infrastructure, as a combination of various cultures and races, “indicated on the part of its inventors,” Tocqueville says, “an exercise of intelligence of which the Indians of today seem little capable” (40). Continuing in this vein, he remarks that the Indians seem to have very little grasp over their own history, drawing again both distinction between the Western tradition and their way of life, in addition to a modern view of a backwards people. Of the great earthworks that litter the Ohio river valley and the various mounds across the continent—known well to the settlers even then—the Indians displayed both a general lack of interest and ignorance toward who made them or when they were constructed. This ambivalence toward the history of their land and themselves, remembered only partially in myth, rightly struck Tocqueville as somewhat absurd.
He concludes the first chapter with another meditation on how remarkable the East Coast of the continent really is: how easily navigated by extensive river routes, how seemingly pre-ordained geographically for industrialized ports, and how rich and extensive so much area for farmland existed only a short ways inland. This was where, he says, “civilized men had to try to build society on new foundations. Applying, for the first time, theories until then unknowable or considered inapplicable, civilized men were going to present a spectacle for which past history had not prepared the world.” (44) The great American Experiment seemed destined for these shores.
Chapter two kicks off with a brief rumination on the origin of societies. Tocqueville announces his belief that, were it possible to see into the distant past at the creation of societies, the origin of that societies’ held beliefs and prejudices would be made apparent. He uses the metaphor of a babe in the crib, and how the entirety of the man that babe will grow up to be remains present in the crib, even if he is not fully realized yet. “People always feel the effects of their origin,” he exclaims, “[t]he circumstances that accompanied their birth and were useful to their development influence all the rest of their course” (46). This proclamation illuminates further his musings on the natives from the previous chapter; man is born as an effectively blank slate, Tocqueville believes. The sufferings he endures, coupled with the society he is born into, shape the entirety of his psychological and physical being. Likewise, Tocqueville expands, the society must be shaped in much the same way, as societies remain little more than collections of the people within them.
Using this as his starting point, he then restates the purpose for writing this book in the first place. America’s establishment and its fight for independence from Britain gave the modern people of Europe an opportunity to watch a country come into existence. It would be an experience that Western people had been able to observe as an uninvolved party, allowing them to “discern the first causes of the destiny of nations that the obscurity of the past hid from them”, in Tocqueville’s own words (48). He continues:
“When, after attentively studying the history of America, you carefully examine its political and social state, you feel deeply convinced of this truth: there is not an opinion, not a habit, not a law, I could say not an event, that the point of departure does not easily explain. So those who read this book will find in the present chapter the germ of what must follow and the key to nearly the whole book.” (48-49)
The point of departure that he mentions is, of course, the formulation of the country. It should be possible to explain all aspects of the American nation and its character by analyzing its origin, he believes, so naturally, he begins with some brief analysis of America’s colonial period.
“It is hardly the happy or the powerful who go into exile, and poverty as well as misfortune are the best guarantees of equality that are known among men,” Tocqueville writes, emphasizing how a general baseline sense of egalitarianism was present in the early colonial period simply on the basis of a shared community of hardship that forging new settlements necessitates (50). Organizations of men were naturally ordered into rudimentary hierarchies merely to facilitate proper leadership and expedite certain goals, and yet—even in spite of the periodic immigration of powerful families to the colonial shores—Tocqueville notes that the formulation of the colonies rejected, as a system, the existence of an aristocratic class. Things were too sparse to begin with, the work too difficult, and the wealth too hard to make, to allow any denizen significant enough leisure to be of aristocratic categorization. This was an altogether new phenomenon, he adds, unseen in the world in recent memory.
He then proceeds into a brief analysis of the North and the South, carefully explaining the crucial differences between both, despite their shared Anglo-Saxon heritage. Of the South, its origin as an attempted gold prospect colony in Virginia, quickly-turned-farming colony, meant the colony was established predominantly by the underclasses of British working and agrarian peoples. This note is important only in that they distinctly lacked “noble thought” and “plans that were not material,” which Tocqueville connects with the quick imposition of slavery there for economic purposes (52). By contrast, the North was first settled by a rather learned class of English pseudo-elite. While hardly aristocratic in origin, the Puritans of New England were among the most educated groups to ever become colonists, and as Tocqueville notes, “other colonies had been founded by adventurers without families; the emigrants of New England brought with them admirable elements of order and morality; they went to the wilderness accompanied by their wives and children” (54). These first Northern settlers, in other words, staked much more on the success of their colonies than their Southern compatriots did. Had New England failed, it would have been the loss of an entire way of life, complete with the families, doctrines, and morals that supported it. Had the first Southern colonies failed, it meant the loss of a few personal fortunes.
Tocqueville then begins to quote at length Nathaniel Morton, a noted historian of New England’s first colonial years. He emphasizes the sense of providence that led the Pilgrims to the New World, and specifically to the banks of Massachusetts and Plymouth Rock, their spectacular survival in the wilderness, and their hardship getting there. While New England established itself, Britain meanwhile was jilted by the social and religious upheavals that took place during the reign of Charles I. The succeeding, albeit difficult colony in the North America turned out to be an attractive settlement for scores of immigrants fleeing the sectarian persecution of the mother country. In an unique circumstance, most of these immigrants, due to their religious affiliations, came largely from the middle classes. Thus a backwater colony in the middle of nowhere half a world away became a haven for educated, moral, familistic peoples from very similar social backgrounds and built upon survivable prejudices. This, coupled with the comparatively homogenous and egalitarian society that rejected the increasingly unstable and mis-ordered hierarchies of the old world, allowed New England to thrive. “Democracy, such as antiquity had not dared dream it,” Tocqueville writes, “burst forth fully grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society” (59).
The organization of the early colonies is worthy of attention, as well. England’s method of granting charters in North America followed a few general methods: sometimes, as with New York, a governor was appointed by the crown and run essentially as an extension of the English bureaucracy; in other cases, legal ownership was granted to a person, a group, or a company, to use at more or less their own discretion, although under the oversight of the crown. In the latter’s case, land was usually sold to the constituency of that colony and the owner of the charter became effectively governor of the region, as was the case in Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and New Jersey. New England’s case, however, was different from both of these: the inhabitants of the colony, already present, were granted formal recognition as a political society and given the rights to “govern themselves in everything not contrary to [England’s] laws” (60). What is fascinating about this is how quickly New England spread from the banks of Massachusetts all the way to the Hudson and North to Eerie, and how long some of these townships and polities had to wait in order to gain recognition from the crown.
Tocqueville takes some time to note the legislative intensity in some of New England’s colonial penal code, including a puritanical enforcement of various Old Testament regulations with excessive citations to scripture. Amusingly enough, Tocqueville makes it clear that “these bizarre or tyrannical laws were not at all imposed; that they were voted by the free participation of all those concerned; and that the mores were still more austere and puritanical than the laws” (64). Examples of some of these “bizarre or tyrannical” laws included various prohibitions on tobacco, on worship of alternate gods, improper or alternative worship of the Christian God, witchcraft, and improper conduct between unmarried couples (including mere flirtation).
And yet, despite the absurdity of some of these laws, Tocqueville mentions how beneath the more theocratic aspects of the puritan’s legal code, there rested a bedrock of law and order that later constitutions would imitate. He cites free votes of taxes, election of governors and legislators, and trials by jury as things codified by these same early colonial codes of law. “In most European nations,” he says, “political existence began in the higher ranks of society; little by little and always incompletely, it was transmitted to the various parts of the social body,” but in America, “you can say that the town was organized before the county; the county, before the state; the state, before the Union” (65). The colonialism of the American experiment grew upwards as a movement toward union, rather than outwards as a metropolitan enforcement of centralized authority. Authority, Tocqueville essentially says, was built from the bottom up: a tribute to the Enlightenment spirit that Tocqueville increasingly attributes the United States’ inception to.
“The legislation of this era announces in the mass of the people and in its leaders a civilization already well advanced; you feel that those who make the laws and those who submit to them all belong to a race of intelligent and enlightened men who have never been completely preoccupied by the material concerns of life.” (66)
With this aside serving as a preamble, Tocqueville then explains how centralized local township authority really was in the New England sphere back in the 17th century colonial period. Education was a foremost interest of the state, to such a degree that municipal magistrates could remove from the parents any rights of custody over their children. The theocratic infusion into law, alongside the democratic values more identifiable with today’s culture, leads to a grim conception of a fairly totalitarian local politic, yet Tocqueville writes that “it is religion that leads to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws that brings men to liberty”, casting aside the tempered distinction between secular and religious authorities, and their complex interrelation, that the Middle Ages had brought to Europe (67). What Tocqueville perceives as progress toward a democratic and liberalized freedom of peoples instead comes across as a backward reversion to a confused application of religious spiritualism applied directly to the civic order.
Tocqueville concludes the second chapter with a brief observation that aristocracy remains beneath the democratic fabric of the American quilt, citing as one example the unfairness that bail demands in relation to poor suspects versus the rich. The poor, often unable to meet bail, are forced to serve harsher penalties than rich suspects who can often use their fortune to escape punishment beyond a handful of additional fines. Yet, Tocqueville adds, it is often the poor who write and legislate much of the law in the American system. This holdover that values the rich, he claims, is a remnant of English law rather than the Puritan law that he considers a striking American invention. But such a simplification of the early American justice seems to contort what truth he attempts to get at, even though he does claim to be capable of citing many other such examples.
“In my view, the social state is the material and intellectual condition in which a people finds itself in a given period.” (74)
Tocqueville begins his third chapter with this definition of a social state, declaring it the “first cause of most of the laws, customs and ideas that regulate the conduct of nations;” adding that still affects and changes anything it doesn’t create (74). Having described the geographical territory of America in the first chapter, and the general demographic heritages of its people in the second, Tocqueville now begins to look at America in detail.
He briefly reiterates the democratic essence of the American social state presented in the previous chapter, explaining that democracy is best conceived as a social mode, while the people’s individual sovereignty is the political analogue. He acknowledges briefly that that these two aspects of life are entirely “inseparable, because democracy is even more compatible with despotism than liberty” (76). Personal sovereignty, he goes on to state, is “always more or less a fiction wherever democracy is not established” (76). The fundamental equality among men remained a staple of life in New England, making it, as he effectively stated in chapter two, the most democratic experiment of a social state known to man. But that state did not exist beyond the banks of the Hudson to the west and south.
After the initial settlement period of the first colonial waves to the New World, English aristocracy began small migrations here and there among the rest of 13 colonies. Tocqueville refers here to the granting of charters to people like George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, and William Penn, the man who received the charter for Pennsylvania, among some others.
Aristocracy, he still insists, did not really arise in America—at least not in a form recognizable to European sensibilities. The southern landowning classes, he notes, was built upon the labor of slaves. What we would know as the Antebellum Southern Gentlemen, for instance, lacked tenants and therefore the patronage that the lords of the Old World had—their slaves were bartered and sold at market and lived in a mode distinctly different from the serfs even of the feudal times. Inheritance even among these landholding classes was not as sophisticated a tradition as it remained across the Atlantic, either. Tocqueville concludes that “[i]t was a kind of aristocracy not much different from the mass of the people whose passions and interests it easily embraced, exciting neither love nor hate; in sum, weak and not very hardy” (78). Even democracy’s aristocratic outgrowths tend to equalize the human will, as Tocqueville noted in his introduction’s musings.
“But it was the law of inheritance,” Tocqueville says, “that pushed equality to its last stage” (78). Inheritance, though a matter of civil law, is so fundamental to the social organization of a society that its importance cannot be overstated. It is through the mechanism of inheritance that generations maintain their bonds from present to past and into the future. It is the law of inheritance, Tocqueville explains, that “reunites, concentrates, gathers property and, soon after, power, around some head; in a way it makes aristocracy spring from the soil”, and as this process accelerates through the generations, some of the less-fortunate have-nots frequently attempt to block inheritance (79-80). In modern parlance, death and estate taxes are typical means of doing this, though the modern income tax is essentially a block on the same thing.
But Tocqueville goes in a different direction: when inheritance laws mandate the division of a father’s property amongst his children. The impact of such divisions of fortune is felt only over the span of generations, but it is not difficult to see how this is an essentially leveling force against individual prosperity. No matter how wealthy a man may get within his lifetime, such legislation demands that this fortune be reduced as it passes onto his children. It serves as a check against the formation of new aristocratic units—and, as the history of America has born witness—the alternative to this is simply to have fewer children for the wealth to be divided between. “[T]he law of equal division exerts its influence not on the fate of property alone;” Tocqueville adds, “it acts on the very soul of the proprietors, and calls their passions to its aid. These indirect effects rapidly destroy great fortunes and, above all, great estates” (81).
This observation on the division of inheritance brings Tocqueville to a brief statement on the relationship between family estates and land ownership in the old societies in which primogeniture reigned. In older societies, the land remained in the holding of one family and specifically one person at a time, cementing the status of the firstborn (in most cases). Values, nobility, custom, and culture remained tied up in the land, equal and indistinct from the family who owned it. However, where estates are divided up between children, they shrink in size, and whatever social meaning was instilled in the land is severed from the family and its conception of wealth. This leads, eventually, to the diminishment of land ownership altogether. And Tocqueville notes that a democratic society is significantly less interested in the tradition-bearing aristocracies of the Old World. There is a distinct “pecuniary interest in selling [the land], since movable assets produce more income than other assets” and, in particular, because such movable assets “lend themselves much more easily to satisfying the passions of the moment” (82). In his observations purely on the nature of inheritance, Tocqueville at once acknowledges the impulsiveness of a democratic society while also predicting the gradual movement into urban subletting and the rent society that modern America is culturally dominated by today. As landownership decreases in pursuit of more immediate, less abstract long-term and intergenerational goals, renting and—in the postmodern world, suburban subdevelopments—become the norm. Society itself ceases to see the passage of wealth between generations as necessary to a thriving culture. As Tocqueville notes, “[w]hat is called the family spirit is often based on an illusion of individual egoism” (82-83).
He continues in similar vein:
“It is not that there are no rich in the United States as there are elsewhere; I do not even know of a country where the love of money holds a greater place in the human heart and where a deeper contempt is professed for the theory of the permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity, and experience teaches that it is rare to see two generations reap the rewards of wealth. The people are like the divinity of this new world; everything emanates from and returns to them.” (85)
As the wealth of families atomizes according to more distinct and distant family relations, and as the bonds therein decline in prominence, the pursuit of wealth accelerates class mobility. Although liberalism conceives this class mobility as a fundamentally positive good, the effects on society’s stability, in addition to the individualistic impulsiveness that it implies about that society’s outlook, beg to differ. Class mobility, although not altogether a bad thing, tends to accelerate, rather than stabilize, the self-destructive patterns in human weakness.
Tocqueville moves on to address the settlers to the West of the Mississippi in brief, detailing the new struggle of the cohesive American social state to integrate new states into an ever growing and expanding union. Additionally, he addresses the distinct lack of sophisticated education among the American population. Even the rich, the presumed elite, generally lack the higher education that European sensibilities have come to expect among the upper classes. “There primary education is available to every one;” he says, “higher education is hardly available to anyone. This is easily understood and is, so to speak, the necessary result of what we advanced above” (87).
Curiously, he continues, the richer families and individuals do not form a cohesive class apart from other Americans. Nearly all Americans work, as he discussed previously; as such, apprenticeships and the need for specializing in professions typically begins in an average American’s mid-teenage years—concluding the “cultivation of the mind” right about the time “when ours begins” (87). This results in a society in which leisure ceases to exist; nearly all men who are rich began their lives poor, and all who could afford leisure later in life labored strenuously as young men. Study was accounted for only in relation to their chosen professions, as anything extraneous to that remained too much to handle while holding down a job.
Tocqueville concludes chapter three with the observation that this equalization of land, wealth, and education—the inadvertent and de-centralized propagation of such leveling—has resulted in a society quite unlike most others in history. And this equalization must also extend to the body politic. Americans are not likely to find “a middle course between the sovereignty of all: of the people, and the absolute power of one man: a king” (89). Tocqueville acknowledges again the dangerous impulses that this sort of unbridled equality brings about:
“There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great. But in the human heart a depraved taste for equality is also found that leads the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in liberty.” (89)
Again, Tocqueville seems to predict the future. The germ of free market capitalism, the radical individualistic pursuit of greatness, finds its antithesis—extreme collectivism and totalitarian socialism—in the same shadow marked by Adam’s fall, to put it biblically. Liberty and equality can exist side by side only for so long as morals are capable of controlling impulsiveness and vice.
He ends with a somewhat dark observation that the pursuit of both of these values, even insofar as they do not cancel each other out, hamstrings the populace from adequately defending themselves against authoritarian aggression. “Since none among them is then strong enough to struggle alone with any advantage,” their individual senses of greatness being held firmly in check, “it is only the combination of the strength of all that can guarantee liberty. Now, such a combination is not always found” (90).
Ever a child of the Enlightenment, Tocqueville begins his exegesis on the American people’s sovereignty by reiterating the consent of the governed. The people’s sovereignty, he begins, “which is more or less always found at the base of nearly all human institutions, remains there as if buried. It is obeyed without being recognized” (91). America’s popular sovereignty, however, is not masked beneath a vague unwillingness to revolt or the haphazard brokerage of power among sectarian parliamentary groups. Instead, it is omnipresent and in every facet of the society at large.
He briefly details how colonial self-rule was restricted in its democratic aims due to its allegiance to the homeland. “[I]t was reduced to hiding in the provincial assemblies and especially the town”, he says, continuing that “American society at that time was not yet ready to adopt it in all its consequences” (92). Suffrage—for Tocqueville, something of a right rather than a privilege—remained in the hands of landowners; he notes that Northern requirements of property ownership were much smaller than those required of many Southern jurisdictions. In all likelihood, this was a result both of the distinct cultural differences between the two, in addition to the much smaller areas Northerners tended to congregate toward versus the vast expanses of Southern geographical territory.
Tocqueville writes next of how the American Revolution was spurred on by the individualistic strains among the local townships and congregations, and how, upon victory over their old motherland, the upper classes “came to think only of winning [the people’s] will at any cost”, since they knew they could not fight them (94). He observes:
“In an effort to outdo each other, the most democratic laws were then voted by the men whose interests were most damaged by them. In this way, the upper classes did not incite implacable popular passions against themselves; but they themselves hastened the triumph of the new order. So, a strange thing! The democratic impulse showed itself that much more irresistible in the states where aristocracy had more roots.” (95)
He goes on to cite Maryland as an example, being founded as a colony by English aristocracy and yet, perhaps counterintuitively, being the first to enact what in the nineteenth century constituted universal suffrage. Suffrage, with relation to its legislation on account of the government, is a force that cannot be held back once introduced, Tocqueville claims. The more the limits upon it are reduced the more those who do not meet the qualifications call out indignantly until everyone finally the vote is extended to everyone.
Tocqueville looks upon this without any particular reverence or melancholy; rather, he drifts quickly into addressing that the political class of America is indistinguishable from it’s ‘people’; the local jurisdictions are run and operated by the same people who tend to the shops, run businesses at the ports, or work the field hands on the farms. “There are countries were a power, in a way external to the social body, acts on it and forces it to follow a certain path”, he writes; “[n]othing of the sort is seen in the United States; there society acts by itself and on itself” (96).
It’s striking how different the statement is compared to how the government and the people are construed today, despite Tocquevillian odes to popular sovereignty among the political class. Much of the same could be said about many of the things we’ve seen in Tocqueville’s writings so far on America. The changes in wealth, the various stratifications of society, the rupture in the political classes between the federal levels and the local politics—all of it paints the America of the early nineteenth century as almost an entirely different country. The tales of American hardship, the folk-stamina of the agrarian communities, the raw individualism of the frontiersmen, and the diligent work ethic of the businesspeople near the coasts: these are all alive still, to varying degrees, in the American experiment. But they have been fundamentally altered beyond what Tocqueville writes of, and often in ways that the mere passage of time is unable to account for.
As we continue to dive into Democracy in America, more divergences between the America of Tocqueville’s travels and the America of today will likely become evident. And yet, similarities—perhaps more than we can expect—will certainly float to the surface, as well.