Chapters seven and eight detail the use of majority rule in the American nation, while chapter nine deals with the causes of stability that maintain America’s nationhood. This section concludes a great deal of the thought brought forward in the last several chapters, in particular the relationship between the social state of America versus that of European alternatives, the similarities of political thought between America and its former mother country England, as well as finding the line between a coherent democratic order and a rule of tyranny. Chapter nine concludes with the harbingers of what is to come in the Twentieth Century: the liberalization of the West and the rise of totalitarian doctrines.
The democratic majority, Tocqueville begins, must be absolute: “nothing outside of the majority can offer resistance” (403). Interestingly, this statement seems to contradict some of Tocqueville’s words on the freedom of association and the formulation of political parties. This is only at first glance, however: the majority can manifest in various political parties over time. Parties, and associations, are merely vessels for the power of the majority itself.
That said, the very nature of the democratic structures means that the majority will always legislate itself more power at the expense of minorities. The power of the majority, Tocqueville writes, is irresistible and, in fact, mostly arbitrary:
“The moral dominion of the majority is based in part on the idea that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in many men combined than in one man alone, more in number than in the choice of legislators. It is the theory of equality applied to minds. This doctrine attacks the pride of man in its last refuge. Consequently the minority admits it with difficulty and gets used to it only with time. Like all powers, and perhaps more than any other, the power of the majority thus needs to last in order to seem legitimate. When it is beginning to be established, it makes itself obeyed by force; only after living under its laws for a long time do you begin to respect it.” (404-405)
The claim to rule arises in democracy purely from the imposition or threat of force. Fundamentally, political power is not derived from reason, faith, or heredity, but rather from the threat of the mob and their demands. This rule, Tocqueville writes, is true even in democracies such as the United States; rather than try to nullify this power, the governmental structures have tried to harness and orient this power toward liberty rather than anarchy.
“Administrative instability is an evil inherent in democratic government,” Tocqueville writes, “because it is in the nature of democracies to bring new men to power” (407). Administration, a powerful tool of the government, can be centralized only through the use of the political structure. Tocqueville uses the case of France during the 1790s as an example, but explains that such totalitarian impulses are unlikely to arise in America due to a combination of factors: firstly, America is not in a state of revolution, and secondly, America’s familiarity with democratic rule extends much further into its roots than France’s had at the time.
That said, democracies—and in particular America—do not pass long-standing laws or expect their laws to be unalterable. This frequency of legislation is looked upon as progress: Tocqueville believes that changing the laws and even adjusting the constitutions of the various states in America are each acts of improvements to the political sphere. European governments of the time, however, did not take so quickly to legislation; this ensured slower social change but simultaneously granted government the ability to make long-term plans which democracies find intrinsically difficult to follow through on.
This brings Tocqueville to comment on the idea of the tyranny of the majority. He conceives of the majority, “taken as a whole,” to be “an individual who has opinions and, most often, interests contrary to another individual called the minority” (411). Although admitting that, as he argued above, this would assume that the majority is indeed omnipotent and prone to running roughshod over its opponents, he refuses to acknowledge that such is actually the case.
He acknowledges that omnipotence in the political sphere, be it under a democratic or aristocratic framework, is never good news. The only one in whom omnipotence can be trusted is, of course God; the works of men are as flawed as the hearts of men are, and through those flaws power extorts a heavy toll. There are fail-safes present in the American system, he posits: the executive and judicial branches. Although legislators hold some minimal sway over both in their decisions on salaries, the executive is insulated enough that he remains free to act according to his own will, at least insofar as he is free from campaigning for reelection. Chapter eight of part one had to do with this. The judicial branch, similarly, remains insulated from both campaigning and the electorate, inasmuch as they are appointed by executors.
But it is still possible, however, for the majority’s will to encroach upon both of these branches of government. Tocqueville notes it is in large part due to America’s youth as a nation that has prevented tyranny from springing up: its “political passions are still not very deep” and “so vast a field for human activity is presented that interests are rarely opposed to each other” (415). “No guarantee against tyranny is found there,” he continues, “the causes for the mildness of government must be sought in circumstances and mores, rather than in laws” (415).
“[A]t the same time that it favors the legal despotism of the legislator,” Tocqueville continues, on the topic of the majority’s omnipotence, it “also favors the arbitrariness of the magistrate” (416). Tocqueville is keen to note that such arbitrariness, when ordered toward the service of the governed, is not by its nature tyrannical. And the magistrates, beholden either to elected officials or to the electorate itself, hold the capacity to implement the spirit of the laws even if that comes at the expense of their letter.
Thought, in this sense, refers to the various ideals of the people who comprise a given nation. Democracy’s leveling instincts ensure that thought is more widely controlled under democratic regimes than under monarchical or even aristocratic. As Tocqueville explains:
“Today, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe cannot prevent certain ideas hostile to their authority from circulating silently within their States and even within their courts. It is not the same in America; as long as the majority is uncertain, people speak; but as soon as the majority has irrevocably decided, everyone is silent, and friends as well as enemies then seem to climb on board together. The reason for this is simple. There is no monarch so absolute that he can gather in his hands all of society’s forces and vanquish opposition in the way that a majority vested with the right to make and execute laws can at will, vested with the right and the force.” (417)
Kings and aristocrats can affect the ideas only of those nearest to them, being singular individuals. Their power extends to the material wellbeing of the governed, but not necessarily to the moral sphere. Democracy, being a widely-dispersed political ideology in which all citizens take part, affects the moral sphere to a much greater degree. It is, in fact, the means by which the political power is legitimized. As a result, it is the mass of people who determine the scope, mode, and acceptability of thought. “I know of no country where, in general, there reigns less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America”, Tocqueville writes (417).
Tocqueville does warrant that the number of various subjects that can be discussed in America is extremely wide and diverse, but the moment the unsaid borders are transgressed, anyone looking to speak on those subjects suddenly finds himself without a platform and without friends. He writes:
“Princes had, so to speak, materialized violence; the democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, to reach the soul, crudely struck the body; and the soul, escaping from these blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul. The master no longer says: You will think like me or die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains with you; but from this day on you are a stranger among us. You will keep your privileges as a citizen, but they will become useless to you.” (418)
We have seen this sort of destruction writ large in the scope of the last several decades, in which the collapse of the Soviet regime has yielded a spiritual resurgence in the Eastern Bloc while their Western cousins have accelerated their decline in religious interests. The relationship between law and morality, between the political and social states, is key here, and confusion of one for the other will always end in the destruction of either the polity’s body or of its soul.
Amusingly, these words get to the heart of a problem that is periodically illustrated as a conflict between communism and capitalism, in modern discourse. However, given that this was written at a time before communism had been unleashed in all of its horror, and before capitalism had been implemented on a recognizable sale, it serves to reason that such trends are manifestations of political and administrative despotism versus political and administrative freedom. Man, left to his own devices, and free from the moral fiber that religious background instills in the social fabric, will purge his soul of his own volition if his material needs are not attacked from the outside by an aggressor.
That said, Tocqueville’s assertion may have been somewhat premature. “If America has not yet had great writers,” he exclaims, “we do not have to look elsewhere for the reasons: literary genius does not exist without freedom of the mind, and there is no freedom of the mind in America” (419). Granted, Tocqueville’s work was written before the likes of Melville, Hawthorne and Twain had been established. Yet it is easy to see today the essence of what he was saying.
Tocqueville moves on to address the organizing principle involved with national character. Aristocratic and monarchical regimes tend to limit the influence of great men. They seek the ears of those in power, if they are not already in power themselves; as a result, their own ideas are either ignored, coopted, or subsumed into the will of the reigning person. And it is not uncommon to see such men “take a type of pleasure or pride in sacrificing their will to that of the prince and, in this way, give a kind of independence of soul to the very act of obedience” (421). The democratic organization, however, allows great men to be drowned out; a larger market exists for those “who seek to bank on the sovereign’s weaknesses and to live at the expense of the sovereign’s passions” (421). Where monarchies are bolstered by an underlying love of king and country, the same force present in democracies serves to undermine the legislators and executives in a form of schadenfreude. “In absolute monarchies, the king often has great virtues; but the courtiers are always vile”, Tocqueville writes; “[w]hat I blame democratic republics for is putting the courtier spirit within reach of such a large number” (423).
The chapter concludes with a brief rumination on the fact that it is the legislators, not the executive, from whom tyranny will spring. The majority, manifest in the legislation of the laws, will eclipse the minorities to such a degree that arms will be taken up and violence will become the only appropriate form of political discourse. This is what eventually occurred in 1861. It was not any one executor who tyrannized those in the political minority, even if it was one executor in particular whose election triggered the secession of the Southern states. Executors have only temporary fiat to, within a limited degree, administrate and deliver the laws; but it is through the laws that are legislated that majority omnipotence is measured.
Tocqueville begins chapter eight reiterating his notions of political and administrative centralization and reminding the reader that only the former exists in the United States—at least at the time of his writing. Because only former exists, “the majority, which often has the tastes and instincts of a despot, still lacks the most advanced instruments of tyranny” (428). Because the social state of the American Union remains democratic, which takes passing interest of but not prerogative over the affairs of fellow citizens, the tyranny of the majority cannot come to full fruition. The majority, Tocqueville explains, is not fully aware of its own power in the United States, and this is precisely because the majority is fundamentally American; the people in America mostly want to be left to their own devices.
Much of chapter eight deals with the spirit of the jurist, in Tocqueville’s terms. On that topic, he mentions that any “public official” who is “vested with an office for life… takes a personal interest in society remaining immobile” (431). This applies to judges given their life-appointments to their positions. While this implies that they are undisposed to both political “progress” as such, the truth is that such lifelong magistrates are every bit as prone to the impulses of the times as the majority is—what the magistrates are keen on preserving is their status within the structure.
As such, Tocqueville points out how jurists and aristocracy are cut from very similar cloth. The jurists of a nation alter in function depending upon the character of the nation. In America, they hold extraordinary power due to the construction of the Constitution, their removal from legislative capacity, and their independence from executive influence. In any aristocratic society in which nobles “have wanted to share some of their privileges with jurists,” Tocqueville remarks, “these two classes have found it very easy to join together and have, so to speak, discovered themselves to be of the same family” (435). Authority, independence of political partisanship, and a love of order unite both classes.
“When the rich man, the nobleman and the prince are excluded from government,” he adds, “the jurists arrive there by right, so to speak; for then they are the only enlightened and skillful men that the people can choose outside of themselves” (436). The jurists, in other words, occupy a check against the unwashed masses who control the majority. It is impossible to occupy a position in the courts and not be both a learned man and a man of the law.
Tocqueville spends some time to clarify the differences between the Anglo-American tradition of jurists and the French. In the English world, the jurist “seeks what has been done; the French jurist, what you must have wanted to do; the first, evidence; the second, arguments; the one wants judgements, the other wants reasons” (437). Even the nature of the laws themselves varies between these two traditions. French laws, Tocqueville asserts, are “often more difficult to understand, but everyone can read them”, whereas the English laws are “obscure to the common people and less accessible to them” (438). He continues, remarking on the nature of English jurist traditions:
“’[T]he English jurist esteems the laws, not so much because they are good as because they are old; and, if he sees himself reduced to modifying them on some point in order to adapt to the changes that societies are subjected to by time, he resorts to the most incredible subtleties in order to persuade himself that, by adding something to the work of his fathers, he is only developing their thought and completing their efforts. Do not hope to make him recognize that he is an innovator; he will consent to go to absurd lengths before admitting himself guilty of such a great crime… English legislation is like an ancient tree on which jurists have constantly grafted the strangest shoots, in the hope that, while producing different fruits, they will at least blend their foliage with the venerable stock that supports them.” (438)
Not one to mince his words on the subject of his countrymen’s national rivals, Tocqueville’s general feelings of Enlightenment-style disdain for tradition also leaks through in passages such as these. But he continues, remarking that America’s system is not altogether different. Since America lacks a genuine aristocratic class, and since its polity distrusts the rich, the jurists themselves occupy the highest intellectual class of the polity. “If you asked me where I place American aristocracy,” he remarks, it would be “at the lawyers’ bar and on the judges’ bench” (439). It is only here that democracy meets a significant countermeasure.
In addition to their place in the courts themselves, jurists in fact occupy nearly every level of the American government. Tocqueville explains how they “fill the legislatures and are at the head of administrations” since they are “the only enlightened class that the people do not distrust” (440). In doing so, their knowledge of law and their reasoning capacity play integral roles in the legislation and execution of the nation’s laws, even if they do not comprise the sole class through which such legislation or execution is served.
Tocqueville continues from here to discuss the function of the jury in the United States. He makes clear that the jury serves two functions: first as a judicial institution and second as a political one. As a judicial institution, he writes only briefly and explains that it should be no coincidence that the importance of the jury has grown in Anglo-American justice as their enlightenment has grown. Juries embody the very concept of justice, Tocqueville believes, and as such, their importance—greater than merely of jurisdictional policy—lies primarily in the political sphere.
Juries are of “eminently republican character” Tocqueville writes, “in that [they] place the real direction of society in the hands of the governed or of a portion of them, and not in the hands of those governing” (445). Juries, he believes, therefore have the capacity to hammer out through reason the values of the society greater than an individual autocrat would. He goes on to defend the use of juries in civil matters: “[w]hen the jury is reserved for criminal affairs, the people see it act only from time to time and in particular cases” and thus get used to its absence in the ordinary affairs of life; in other words, juries that are only present for criminal cases are looked upon as exceptional uses of jurisdictional power (447). But when “the jury is extended to civil affairs, its application comes into view at every moment; then it touches all interests; each person comes to contribute to its action; in this way it enters into the customs of life” and its actions become integral to the foundation of social mores from which legislation arises (447). The jury, in other words, “teaches each man not ot retreat from responsibility for his own actions… without which there is no political virtue” (448).
It’s important to note that Tocqueville is essentially defending the use of civil proceedings in order to maintain common social order; the politics of lawsuits, in his belief, undergird the social mores of a democratic society. Since he has already acknowledged the cumbersome nature of democratic legislation and the disorganized nature of the democratic social state, the use of juries to regulate the social order comes across as distinctly Orwellian, to use modern parlance. All it takes is a committed party to break through the veneer of jurisdictional separation for the boundary between civil and criminal proceedings to be blurred in order to end up with a Bolshevik-style kangaroo court.
Tocqueville’s defense of the jury as a political institution reveals how fully he believes in general Enlightenment worldview. It is politics, he believes, which must affect the social order to such a degree as to ensure that all citizens are included within its grasp, even while he acknowledges that the political state exists causally after the social state. He writes:
“The jury serves unbelievably to form the judgement and to augment the natural enlightenment of the people. That, in my opinion, is its greatest advantage. You must consider it as a free school, always open, where each juror comes to be instructed about his rights, where he enters into daily communication with the most learned and most enlightened members of the upper classes, where the laws are taught to him in a practical way, and are put within reach of his intelligence by efforts of the lawyers, the advice of the judge and the very passions of the parties. I think that the practical intelligence and good political sense of the Americans must be attributed principally to the long use that they have made of the jury in civil matters.” (448)
Chapter eight concludes with these remarks on juries and their relationship with the jurist class. Tocqueville believes the jury to be a fundamentally educational force used as a political institution, one in which the people learn the mechanisms of power and thereby understand how to rule with it, even if they lack the prescience of more learned men.
Chapter 9 – Of the Principal Causes That Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic of the United States
Democracy is maintained in the United States’ republic by three causes, Tocqueville writes: the first is Providence, the second is the laws, and the third are their habits and mores.
“There are a thousand circumstances independent of the will of men that make it easy to have the democratic republic in the United States”, Tocqueville begins, “[s]ome are known, others are easy to make known” (453). He is referring to, as he clarifies next, the lack of neighbors, which insulates America from major wars and foreign threats to their sovereignty. It also means that they don’t have a need to raise and keep a standing army for the purposes of national defense.
Secondly, Tocqueville notes the general lack of capital. He writes, “to subject the provinces to the capital is to put the destiny of the whole empire, not only in the hands of a portion of the people, which is unjust, but also to put it in the hands of the people acting by themselves, which is very dangerous” (455). He explains how the accumulation of capital creates classes of consultants, which in today’s jargon would approximately correlate to the Wall Street banking, investment, and speculator elite. Additionally, the rapid accumulation of capital leads to urbanization and, as a result, greater administrative centralization.
He notes that the combination of these two factors is somewhat unprecedented in European history. They are so prevalent, in fact, that “[i]n Europe, the culmination of good laws is to produce well-being; in America all the work of bad laws would scarcely succeed in preventing well-being from being produced” (456). The circumstances of America’s existence, according to Tocqueville, make the failure of her experiment a remote possibility.
The civilizations of antiquity, he continues, were founded in such conditions as to require constant defense against the other societies in their area. While the native populations would seem to pose a similar threat to the Americans, Tocqueville remarks that these peoples were little more than “wandering tribes who did not think of using the natural riches of the soil”, an observation not so much oriented toward their agricultural abilities so much as their utter lack of complex industrial and architectural abilities (456). Put simply, the native population of the American east, although varied and of differing levels of sophistication, remained primitive.
Tocqueville spends the next several pages dwelling on the migration of Americans from their coastal origins inward toward the mostly-empty heartlands. He emphasizes the unrooted American lifestyle, led by frontiersmen who are always seeking new land and new wealth. “In Europe, we are used to regarding as a great social danger restlessness of spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, extreme love of independence”, he writes; “[t]hese are precisely all the things that will guarantee a long and peaceful future to the American republic” (462). He continues to remark how it is the excess of materials that allows the American spirit of liberty and plenty to survive without the typical means of democratic excess leading to its demise. He writes: “[y]ou do not have to fear giving birth to too many passions, because all passions find an easy and salutary means of satisfaction. You cannot make men too free, because they are almost never tempted to make bad use of liberty” (463).
This particular cause, as Tocqueville sees it, is specific only to America, and it can be found in particular amongst those European emigres who have fled their countries due to political turmoil. He concludes his section on providence by delivering an anecdote from a man purportedly from the French Revolution, whose views on economics and politics had shifted drastically upon his settlement in the frontier country of Pennsylvania. Tocqueville remarks how it was precisely the material plenty found in America that had led to the man’s reversal of his previously-totalitarian views.
Tocqueville reiterates the general framework of the political power in the United States by summarizing it in the form of three main mechanisms: the federal union, the local townships, and the judicial system. The federal system maintains a national character and the means to execute national interests. The local polities ensure democratic freedom. The judicial system, lastly, works as an effective check against the majority while also providing a coherent unity of jurisdictional prudence from the local levels up through the federal level.
The topic of laws as they relate to democracy is indeed what a majority of the book has been about, so Tocqueville decides to spend no more time in this chapter elaborating on them.
Social Mores and Religion
On mores, Tocqueville clarifies that he is speaking generally on the topic of “different notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the ensemble of ideas from which the habits of the mind are formed” (466). Mores, therefore, are part of the defining threads of the social tapestry; with this in mind, he continues into the importance of religion and how it has shaped democracy in American life.
The early religious life of America, as Tocqueville noted near the beginning of his work, came in the form of the pilgrims fleeing—as he remarks—first the Pope, and then the English. It was a wholly new form of Christianity that was bottom-up democratic at its root. This is why the New England polity revolved so heavily around the New England parishes. But he switches gears quickly to address the status of Catholicism in the new young nation. More broadly, he writes that “[n]o religion so disdained the use of physical force as the religion of Jesus Christ. Now wherever physical force is not honored, tyranny cannot endure. Therefore you see that despotism has never been able to be established among Christians” (468). Christianity has always been the religion most disposed to liberty.
Building from this, Tocqueville claims that Catholicism is the most disposed toward the leveling instincts of the democratic order, so much so that he believes Catholicism to be the most compatible sect of Christianity with democracy in toto. Catholicism only distinguishes between two classes of people, he explains: the priest and the people who are of equal value to God below him. The same rites, the same observances, and the same demands are placed upon the rich as they are upon the poor. All people of the society come to worship at the same altar. Protestantism, by contrast, leads men into individualism and independence more than it leads them to a state of equal communion.
This is a remarkably un-nuanced interpretation of Catholicism as it relates to the social order. That said, his comments do shed light on the correlation between Catholic statesmen of the American traditions and their general status as support of programs for community wellbeing. The staunch division between Church and State in America drove the priest class into occupying a position from which the democratic secularism remains a viable and public alternative.
The diversity of Christian congregations in America is of little consequence, Tocqueville carries on, because while “each sect worships God in its way,” ultimately “all sects preach the same morality in the name of God” (473). Tocqueville sees very little of note between the differences espoused between the varying sects of American Protestantism and even how they are rivaled by the Catholic presence in the country. Of most importance are their outward demeanors and the morals which undergird the social state. Ever a man of the Enlightenment, the preservation of the social contract, in this case through the means of religious dogmas, maintains the presence of a democratic order.
It is religion, he declares, which “must be considered as the first of [American] political institutions” even if it is not involved directly with the political affairs (475). The reason is simple: although liberty, conceived as such without context or purpose, functions according to the maxim of that “everything is allowed in the interests of society”, it is the religious backbone of the American order, in addition to its general sense of religious homogeneity, which puts de facto prohibitions upon the actions of men. The law allows for any gross contortion of the social contract insofar as the action does not break the contract; it is religion, however, which prevents such contortions from becoming the norm of American behavior. Or at least, that’s how it was at the time of Tocqueville’s writing. “Religion is much more necessary in the republic that they advocate”, he writes, speaking of the secular liberty’s fiercest defenders, “than in the monarchy that they attack, and in democratic republics more than all others” (478).
The priestly class in America, Tocqueville mentions, are all of the same agreement: the separation of Church and State are ultimate moral positives. Interestingly, Tocqueville mentions the Enlightenment critique of religion, stating that the “philosophers of the XVIIIth century” believed that “[r]eligious zeal … must fade as liberty and enlightenment increase”, but he quickly remarks that “the facts do not agree with this theory” (479). In fact, as liberty and enlightenment increased in the Americas, he writes, American Protestantism and Catholicism both seem to have flourished. The Catholic priests that he mentioned before argued for a moral framework in which a nation’s political structure was as morally valuable as his house. Tocqueville writes:
“When finally I found out what the mind of the clergy itself was, I noticed that most of its members seemed to remove themselves voluntarily from power, and to take a kind of professional pride in remaining apart from it.
I heard them anathematize ambition and bad faith, whatever the political opinions that ambition and bad faith carefully used to cover themselves. I learned, by listening to them, that men cannot be blameworthy in the eyes of God because of these very opinions, when the opinions are sincere, and that there is no more sin in being wrong in matters of government than in being mistaken about the way in which your dwelling must be built or your furrow must be plowed.” (481)
Tocqueville continues by commenting on the relationship between religion and political regimes in general. By pitching as their goals a sense of immortality commonly longed for by all men, religions position themselves above any single regime. When attached to specific regimes, however, their power may be heightened with the force of the political order working in their favor, but they lose the universality of any religious claims. The people of the nation become their only subjects.
In the American system, which changes over its politicians on a fairly regular basis, religion would have no way of maintaining a grip directly on the polity itself, since its officials would be displaced at some point or another. Thus, religiosity in America had to be reduced to a background noise. Politics the sort described earlier in Democracy in America subsumed much of the social state of Americanism even while it was shrouded under religious-infused inspiration. The force Tocqueville refers to in these passages, although he does not name it, is the gradual secularization that came upon the West in the wake of the Enlightenment.
The response to this secularization took two forms, of which, various forms of both were on display in America: utter renouncement of religion entirely and the embrace of atheism, or doubling down on religious belief. Americans are generally split on that issue, but due to the nature of their political system, they are able to hold together a moral framework of Christian virtue even if some of them believe it’s a shame. The louder proselytizers drown out the dissenting voices of nihilism. This is different, however, from Europe, whose attempts to rectify secularity usually coincide with the embrace of religion by the political order. “Unbelievers in Europe”, Tocqueville explains, “pursue Christians as political enemies, rather than as religious adversaries; they hate faith as the opinion of a party much more than as a mistaken belief; and in the priest they reject the representative of God less than the friend of power” (488).
Tocqueville continues on from here to comment on the status of enlightenment in America. The country has had very few writers of note up to the time that he was writing, he reminds his readers. Fewer still are to be found public intellectuals of merit who, despite living in a politicized society in which an overabundance of laws are passed, are able to comment and ascertain the spirit of those laws for posterity. Meanwhile, the same can be said with regard to America’s relationship with the inventive engineers. “America already carries an immense weight in the destinies of the world;” he writes, “and perhaps it only lacks great writers to overturn violently in a moment all the old societies of Europe” (489-490).
America is a nation placed directly between the extremes, Tocqueville explains. “If he pays attention only to the learned,” he writes, an observer “will be astonished by their small number; and if he counts the ignorant, the American people will seem to him the most enlightened on earth” (490). The same can be said with respect to landownership, to education, to scientific inquiry, and in fact, to almost every field of human endeavor. Americans are a people equalized in opportunity and, as a result, have leveled the stratified social concepts of the Old World.
That said, the astuteness of the American public over their own governance is beyond reproach. “In the United States,” Tocqueville explains, “the whole of the education of men is directed toward politics” (494). As a result, the average American is capable of speaking on the subject of both the contemporaneous issues as well as the broader political systems of his country freely and easily, even if he makes overgeneralized comments about foreign soil.
Of Physical Causes, Laws, and Mores
The “laws serve more to maintain the democratic republic in the United States than physical causes, and mores more than laws” Tocqueville writes, titling the penultimate section of chapter nine. The American order was founded on foreign shores by Europeans, as were the colonies of South and Central America. And yet, clearly the general circumstances of their founding were not enough to distinguish the South American experiments from the North American Union. “[N]ature had isolated in the same way” these southern nations, “and this isolation did not prevent them from maintaining armies. They made war on each other when foreigners were lacking. Only the Anglo-American democracy, until now, has been able to remain at peace” (495). He continues:
“If, for peoples to be happy, it was sufficient to have been placed in a corner of the universe and to be able to spread at will over uninhabited lands, the Spanish of South America would not have to complain about their lot. And when they would not enjoy the same happiness as the inhabitants of the United States, they would at least make the peoples of Europe envious. There are, however, no nations on earth more miserable than those of South America.” (495-496)
It is not enough to suggest that the physical circumstances of nationhood led to the creation of America. He continues by remarking on the distinct character of American citizenry to push further westward—the ability and willingness of established, decently affluent men in places like New England to uproot themselves and their family to establish homesteads in the regions across the Great Lakes. This stands in contrast to the French Canadians who, Tocqueville mentions, congregate in cities and avoid wherever possible the wild frontiers. Such a difference in character between peoples cannot be chocked up to a mere difference in legislative authority or political structure.
Tocqueville then posits the rhetorical question: given that the American order’s establishment was founded only minimally on its physical circumstances, could the same sense of Americanism be established someplace else according to the same laws and mores? He acknowledges that “outside of America there are no nations that, derived of the same physical advantages as the Anglo-Americans, have still adopted their mores” (500). And yet, he continues on to posit hypothetical scenarios. The relationship that laws hold with the material circumstances is crucial:
“if the laws of the Americans seem to me defective in many points, and it is easy for me to imagine others, the special nature of the country does not prove to me that democratic institutions cannot succeed among a people where, physical circumstances being less favorable, the laws would be better.” (502)
The general deficiency of legislation happens to be exactly what makes Tocqueville convinced that American values can be, if not exported, then certainly imported into other regions with general but varying levels of success.
Tocqueville’s last comments in this chapter take a more general look at the nature of democracy as it relates to the world and its sweeping movement across the West. He acknowledges the uncertainty and the failings that democracy brings with itself, and that the alternative is, by and large, the absolute rule of a single man. “I know that today there are many honest men hardly frightened by this future,” he writes, “who, fatigued by liberty, would love finally to rest far from its storms” (505). And yet the nature of such authoritarian absolutism, Tocqueville recognizes, has changed shape from the ancient regimes of old to the modern period. “Religion, love of subjects, the goodness of the prince, honor, family spirit, provincial prejudices, custom and public opinion limited the power of kings and enclosed their authority within an invisible circle”, he explains, noting that “the constitution of peoples was despotic and their mores, free” (506-507). But Modernity, left unnamed at this point in history, has overturned such concepts.
Revolutions have diminished the power of kings in the eyes of Western Man; feeling this, the princes and monarchs that still reign can rule without constituency to virtue or reason. The social order in which a virtuous absolutism was possible disintegrated as the Enlightenment spread across the continent, and the guillotines of France severed the last threads that kept it together. “As long as the family lasted, the man who struggled against tyranny was never alone”, Tocqueville comments, “[b]ut when patrimonies are dividing, and when in so few years races are merging, where to locate the family spirit?” (509) The organization of the ancient regime, ordered according to a fraternal love and bearing familial resemblance, has been supplanted with the reign of masters over servants or slaves.
Tocqueville does not believe that the restoration of mores necessary for such virtuous absolutism to return is possible. For him, Modernity has guaranteed the playing field to honor only one zero-sum game:
“If men must in fact reach the point where they must all be made free or all slaves, all equal in rights or all deprived of rights; if those who govern societies were reduced to the alternative of gradually raising the crowd up to their level or allowing all citizens to fall below the level of humanity, wouldn’t this be enough to overcome many doubts, reassure many consciences, and prepare each person to make great sacrifices easily?” (511-512)
He speaks guardedly, however, for he does not advocate for the following of America in its course to pursue enlightened liberal democracy by its own methods. He writes, “I am not unaware of the influence exercised by the nature of the country and antecedent facts on political constitutions, and I would regard it as a great misfortune for humankind if liberty, in all places, had to occur with the same features” (513). And yet, America is as of yet the only country to succeed so fully with the experiment. Given that being the fact, Tocqueville explains that it should be with an even hand and a level head that Europe advance slowly down the path out of the Divine Right of Kings toward the democratic society America has pioneered. The alternative, he believes, “will arrive sooner or later at the unlimited power of one man” (514).