In the year 1831, while the United States was still fairly young, and thirty years before the start of the American Civil War, two young men arrived on the shores from France. Alexis de Tocqueville and his long time friend, Gustave de Beaumont were sent to study the prison system of America. The two men used this as a pretext to leave their country of France, and try to find a better way. They wanted to learn about democracy. To study it intricately and learn how to make it work in their own country, if it is the answer they were looking for.
They disembarked the ship in New York City in May of 1831 and spent the next nine months touring the country. Not only did they study the prisons, but they also studied American society. They researched America’s political, religious and economic attributes. The two men also visited parts of southern Canada, mostly Quebec. Then the went up as far as Ontario in northern Canada.
When Alexis and Gustave returned to France, they submitted their reports. Gustave went on to write his account of their trek in a novel that is more about the social injustice of slavery in the United States. “Democracy in America”, finally published in 1835, is Alexis’s culmination of his research. It gives a comprehensive study of the American way of life in that time period. He breaks down the governmental system down into its basic parts to explain how it works. This book has been touted as one of the first and most complete works on sociology and political science written.
“Democracy in America” starts out with an admiration for the democratic system of America in 1831. “Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions,” writes Alexis deTocqueville. Then he begins to do a geographical outline of the country. He especially loved the Mississippi valley, calling it, “the most magnificent habitation ever prepared by God for man.”
Of course, when the country was settled by Europeans, it was not uninhabited. Alexis liked the dignity of the native Americans he came across. When comparing them to the French, he said that although they were poor, they were not servile, as the poor in his own country were. He noticed there were signs of previous inhabitants, but their history was unknown. Since the native American tribes mostly consisted of hunters, they did not consider themselves as owning the land. Only farmers owned land. Alexis noticed that the land around the Mississippi River was so fertile and well suited for trade that it would be industrialized in no time. He could imagine a bustling community. Of course, in 1831, this was only a dream for the future.
Because the United States is such a young country, the history is more visible than in its European counterparts. But, people who relocated to America shared a common language, English. Also, the original settlers had a form of self-government firmly ingrained, with an abhorrence to monarchy, especially since their idea of monarchy was rooted in the Tudor reign. Alexis also believed that the morality of America was based on the Puritans who originally settled here, and therefore more strict than in his own country.
The wide open land is the reason Alexis thinks America is not right for the feudal system of government. The miles of land makes it too hard for a land baron to keep track of it. Also, what farm land there is, is not fertile enough to sustain a tenant and landlord. Therefore, a larger middle class was formed.
At this time, the country is divided into two major groups, the North and the South. Alexis saw the Southern States as being settled by men looking for gold. He believed these settlers had a low moral standard, which is what made the establishment of slavery so easy for them. That is the basis of their social problems. The original settlers of the Northern States were a more educated class, according to Alexis. Their reason for leaving the comforts of their home country was to practice their Puritan religion. What Alexis found interesting about the Puritan religion is that it has a strict democratic doctrine. He posited that the Puritans established a society of order almost immediately. After 1620, when the pilgrims landed, immigration continued and the country grew rapidly. Alexis feels that this made America, “a society homogeneous in all its parts.” In his opinion, the country possesses the most perfect democracy that has ever existed.
Fearing the immigrating people were potential revolutionaries, the English government was only too glad to see them go. Although the new immigrants considered themselves under British rule, they still engaged in a “self rule”. They adapted the laws to fit their surroundings. In New England criminal law was based on biblical codes. These laws could be extremely strict, but they were agreed upon by the majority. He finds their morality judgments even more austere than their laws. In Alexis’s opinion the laws the Puritans established were well ahead of their time, including a trial by jury and individual freedom. Even though the state was officially part of the monarchy, each town had its own set of laws and was organized like a small republic. These laws included providing for the poor and education for the public. The separation of church and state made both stronger. The morality provided by religion strengthened the government and the order of the government made the church grow stronger.
Alexis tries to differentiate between the laws that have a Puritan basis and the laws that have an English basis. The more English laws seem to have a more aristocratic feel to them. He finds that the “Anglo-American” society is basically democratic, even though the Southern States try to enforce a more aristocratic way of life.
Another law that is very American is the law of inheritance. Because the law automatically separates the land equally between children of the deceased, it spreads a family’s wealth around more than in Europe, where the oldest child inherits the title and the property. Another equality that Alexis appreciates is found in education. Most are equally educated with few at the lowest range and few at the highest. Even in leisure, he finds the Americans equal in their tastes. There seems to be no aristocratic element in the society. Unfortunately, he has discovered that Americans will sometimes give up their freedom for the sake of their equality. The upper classes give up almost all of their power if they want to be elected. American’s will not vote for someone who considers themselves a ruler, thus eliminating any form of aristocratic society.
There are two distinct governments in the United States, the state government and the federal government, with the state government sometimes holding the most power. The state governments are broken up into distinct sections. The township, is one, it handles local laws. The “selectmen” are elected on a yearly basis and enforce the laws. If anyone wants to make some changes to the laws, it must be put to a vote for all the members of the township. There are nineteen main officials holding the various positions that keep the town running smoothly, and if any citizen is elected they must perform the job to the best of their ability while obeying all the laws. Giving people a stake in the governing of their township breeds good citizenship.
Through a system of checks and balances, no one person has too much power. If an official commits a crime, he is tried in the same court everyone else is. As opposed to the European courts that try the aristocrats in a different court than everyone else. But, one of the drawbacks of this system is a problem supervising officials. The government must rely on complaints and most people who are benefiting from the misconduct won’t lodge a complaint.
Alexis notices that as he goes farther out into the country and away from New England, the power of the county increases, while the power of the township decreases. In summary, Alexis states, “Election of administrative officers, irremovability from office, absence of administrative hierarchy, and the use of judicial weapons to control secondary authorities are the chief characteristics of American administration from Maine to the Floridas.” He saw the decentralization of the government it’s most interesting point.
The government of the state is broken up into two legislative powers; the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate strengthens authority and the House ensures representation of interests. The advantage of this system is that it slows down the process so laws can be revised if necessary. The executive power of the state is run by an elected governor. He is in charge of the military and making sure the laws are followed. Since his term of office is so short, he stays very dependent on his constituents and their votes. In Europe, the people have no control or interest in local affairs. They expect the government to step in and handle them. Therefore, the people are subjects, not citizens. In the United States, people do not obey men, they obey the law. Crime is always punished, but sometimes the average person takes it upon themselves to contribute in catching a criminal, they see a crime as a public offense.
People need liberty in small matters so they can handle large ones. Alexis believes that the lack of small liberties was a key factor in the failure of the French Revolution. He believes the French Revolution had two minds, one towards freedom and the other towards despotism. The tendency of the French towards centralizing made it easy for tyranny to take hold. American’s may disagree on almost everything, but the love of freedom in unanimous. Since the courts base their rulings on the constitution and the constitution is always changeable, the judges have a lot of power. Also, the House of Representatives has the right to prosecute and the Senate has the right to punish. But, the punishment, through this measure, can only be removal from office. Criminal prosecutions must be held in a court of law. This system also guards against legislative tyranny.
Volume one, part one, chapter eight, opens with a description of the Federal Constitution. Alexis starts with it’s history, from the desire of state’s to have both autonomy and a unity with the rest of the country, through the original Articles of Confederation. He praises the leaders of the Revolution, and their great intelligence and character. He believes the fact that they were still around after the war to draft the constitution is what prevented an internal combat. When drafting the constitution, they clearly outlined the powers of the federal government and gave all the rest to the states. Then they created a federal Supreme Court to maintain a proper division of power.
The power of making war and maintaining peace are with the Federal government. They are also responsible for the regulation of currency, the postal service, communication services and taxation. Alexis notices that in many cases the Federal government has more power than many monarchies. In order to keep the President from having too much power, but, not too little, either, the legislature supervises a lot of his actions. The Senate has to approve his appointments and his treaties with foreign powers and Congress can make laws that regulate his power. Also, although the President does have the power to veto, the legislature can overturn his veto with a two-thirds majority vote.
The difference in the President of the United States and a constitutional King in France, is that although they both rely on public opinion, the President has less power and has legislator’s watching his actions. Whenever a President is coming to the end of his term, Alexis thinks, he has no incentive to try anything new. Then when a new President takes office, there is a period when the government could be unstable, but his powers are so small that the transitions is hardly noticeable. Alexis says that an unstable executive power such as the United States, is a danger to foreign affairs. But, the isolation of America keeps it safe from threats by other countries.
The Federal Courts handle federal laws of lesser importance than the Supreme Court. The members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. They cannot be removed, which is supposed to make them independent. When federal courts want to overturn a law, they do so in lawsuits, which represents people harmed. Alexis considers the two main dangers to democracy as, “the subjection of the legislative power to the will of the electoral body,” and “concentration of all other powers of the government into the hands of the legislative power”. The power of the federal government of the United States is so much more powerful than the government of European countries with similar Constitutions because it’s Constitution made the federal government in charge of dictating and executing its laws. Also, a large country has more flow of ideas and is more secure in their military effectiveness. Alexis says that the United States is “free and happy like a small nation, glorious and strong like a great one.”
After the Revolution there were two great political parties in the United States; the Federalist Party, that wanted to restrict popular power and the Republican Party, that wanted to extend it. The Federalist Party only lasted through the Jefferson administration, but that time was important because it controlled the burgeoning democracy. In the United States, Alexis notices the very wealthy stay away from political power. They find it to be a disadvantage and go about acquiring their own power in personal interests. They will act like they support the government, but in actuality have a great distaste for it.
The freedom of the press is important in the United States to keep the people, who have the real power over the government, informed. Alexis notices that the press in the U.S. is less powerful than the press in France because attacking the government is more common in the U.S. and less revolutionary. Also, since American’s notice a lack of journalistic competence, they don’t focus on their opinions, only on the facts. Therefore journalist doesn’t hold as much sway over public opinion in America as they do in France.
Alexis thinks the Senate is filled with eloquent and well-educated statesmen, while the House of Representatives is filled with men of “vulgar demeanor”. He believes this is because Representatives are elected directly and Senators are indirectly elected. Alexis hopes America will look into making changes in that system. He also sees a danger in the frequency of elections, since it makes laws unstable. He feels that people who run for office usually do so because they don’t have the ambition to manage their own affairs. And, they are usually paid less as political leaders for a salary. The higher to position, the lower the pay, because the average person can’t relate to that person.
Alexis feels that the taxes in France are higher because they must maintain a larger army, but the waste of money in the United States is much greater. They spend a lot of money helping the lower classes. In aristocracies, the sovereigns are more likely to bribe the people, while in democracy, it is the opposite. He also feels that a democratic government can’t withstand a war. They are ardent at first, but lose interest quickly. He also doesn’t think they can rally their troops quickly. And, democracies are not suited for foreign affairs. American’s are extremely patriotic, because they have a share in the government. Having been given political rites from the formation of the country, American’s know the importance and how to handle them. Alexis feels this would not hold true in other countries, because people would misuse their rites, having never had them. Since American’s make their laws, they are more likely to obey them, even if they disagree with them. Alexis finds the political fervor of the average American to be interesting. The habits of political freedom is a good guard against despotism.
By Chapter seven of Part two, Alexis is pointing out the power of the majority in America. “Since everyone’s opinion is of equal worth, the best opinion must be the opinion of the majority.” This can cause a problem because if a person disagrees with the majority, they have little recourse. Alexis believes that the tyranny of the majority is why there are so few good writers in America. They don’t want to go against the majority, creatively. Although people are allowed to say, think and write anything, the “omnipotent majority” constrains them.
Alexis admires lawyers. He sees them as educated and aristocratic in their bearing. Since they love order and law, they are more conservative. In France, laws are written out more clearly than in America. Therefore, lawyers in France are not as respected as they are in America, where only the lawyers can understand the writings.
Politics and religion go hand in hand. Therefore, religious ideas in the United States are conducive to democratic and republican institutions. Religion shapes morality and is stable, while politics are up for debate. In America, the freest and enlightened people are also the most religious.
With the end of Volume one, Alexis addresses the dwindling Native American population, and the loss of an intelligent race, as they are assimilated into the rest of the American’s. He finds them treated cruelly. Then he address the African slaves. He sees the situation as difficult. Slavery must be abolished, but racial prejudice is so strong that he can’t see how the slaves would be able to blend into the rest of society. Slavery was abolished in the Northern States because it wasn’t profitable, but the Southern States will find it difficult, because they fear the numbers of slaves. Alexis predicts that if they don’t free them soon, the slaves will seize freedom for themselves. That could prove disastrous for the white population.
Slavery doesn’t create conflicting interests between the North and the South, although it does create conflicting moralities. But, the greatest danger threatening the Union is conflicting wealth. As the North grows more powerful industrially, the South resents them. The Republican nature of the government is so deeply rooted that America will survive, even if the Union does not. There will not be any monarchs in America.
America has the most secure ports of any nation in the world and has a great navy. Alexis predicts that one day America will be the leading naval power of the globe. He also predicts that the United States will expand throughout the rest of the country, taking over the land now held by Spain. Also, that America and Russia will become two of the world’s greatest superpowers.
Volume 2 begins with a discussion on the influence of democracy on the intellectual movements in the United States. Alexis states that American follows a Descartes method of philosophy, allowing all traditional ideas room for attack. This scientifically skeptical approach can only flourish in a world that is secure in their religion and has never lost faith in their monarchs. The French apply a cartesian method because they like the more mathematical approach.
Alexis believes that since American’s tend to follow the opinion of the majority, they even use it in philosophy and religion. This makes people almost stop thinking for themselves entirely and completely led by the will of the greatest number. In his opinion, religion provides answers to questions even before they are asked, freeing people to concentrate more on their government in a democratic society. Alexis says that even if religion is not true, it contributes to a man’s happiness and dignity.
Since American’s value wealth above art, they put more value on knowledge. And they value religion as long as it doesn’t interfere with the gathering of wealth. They also tend to take a more pragmatic approach to science. Instead of theoretical studies, the value of science is seen through the accumulation of wealth. American’s want to acquire more things. Quantity above quality. Usefulness above beauty. In a democracy, people tend to read more for pleasure than deeper philosophical knowledge, so American’s have no great writers that produce works of great depth or erudition. Writers look at their craft as a job, not for spreading thought. In a democracy, politicians are more likely to try to impress their constituents than their peers, therefore the use simple speech and make it dramatic.
American’s are aware of the value of helping others, as it benefits themselves, “by serving his fellows man serves himself and that doing good is to his private advantage”. With a great love of creature comforts, American’s have allowed it to “dominate the national taste”. American’s are accustomed to instant gratification. A desire for abundance causes American’s to be more industrious. In keeping the separation of church and state constant, as is important in a democratic society, the best way for political leaders to support the church is through individual attendance.
While American’s view all honest professions as honorable, since they must all work for a living, and there is less inherited wealth, the seem to disdain agriculture. Farming takes longer to yield results, so American’s lean more towards the industry. Although the owners of the industries can become almost aristocratic, they are held back from it because aristocrats bond to each other, and there is no reciprocal duty between workmen and foremen as there is between peasants and aristocrats.
Because of the equality in a democratic society, American’s are not easily offended in their own country but are easily offended in other countries, when their government is attacked. They tend to have a high opinion of themselves. But, never the less, American’s are quick to lend aid to help out others because they know that it could easily be them in that predicament.
In America, women are not as sheltered while growing up and are better educated than their European counterparts. Therefore, they develop good judgment. Because there are fewer distinctions of class, a man must convince a woman of his love before she will marry him. In America, women are more equally treated, therefore most of the prosperity of the country can be attributed to women.
A large danger to democracy is the tendency to have a peace loving people with a war loving military. The equality of the people mean they don’t want to tip the basket of their contentedness, but the ambitious soldier wants to achieve status in battle. War is the quickest way for people to lose their freedoms, because in war governments take on more power. Because a democratic society breeds little discontent, Alexis believes civil war is not likely, since the majority would see this as damaging to their economic prosperity.
In conclusion, Alexis deTocqueville believes that the equality that American’s enjoy because of their democratic society has made life gentle and more humane. But, the challenge will be to maintain liberty.
Alexis de Tocqueville Biography
Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville was born in France in July of 1805. He was a political philosopher and historian. After barely escaping the guillotine, his parents escaped to England. The family returned during the reign of Napoleon. While his father was gaining a peerage, Alexis was learning democratic viewpoints. He despised the July Monarchy, under Louis Phillippe I. Because of his political positions, Alexis was not trusted by either side of the regime. So, getting him out of France seemed a good idea. So, Alexis obtained permission to examine the prison system in America.In 1831 he, and his life long friend, Gustave de Beaumont, began their travels.
In 1831 he, and his life long friend, Gustave de Beaumont, began their travels. Although, the orders were to investigate the American prison system, Alexis used the time to research his book, Democracy in America. Gustave de Beaumont also wrote accounts of their travels in “Jacksonian America: Marie or Slavery in the United States”. Alexis also traveled through England and wrote, Memoir on Pauperism. Then on to Algeria. Alexis was a fan of England’s form of indirect rule. And, was on the side of racial segregation. Especially in regards to English citizens and Arabs.
In 1835, Alexis traveled through Ireland. There he saw the horrible conditions the tenant farmers lived under. Families starving and dying in filth, even before the Great Famine. When he wrote about it, Alexis included the growing Irish Catholic middle class.
After the fall of the July Monarchy in 1948, Alexis was called back to Paris and elected a member of the Constituent Assembly. There he was instrumental in drafting the Constitution of the Second Republic. As a proponent of bicameralism, he believed in the wisdom of two parliamentary chambers. Alexis also stood behind the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage, or the right to vote of all citizens.
Even though he supported the uprising of the June Days Uprising of 1848 and General Cavaignac, Alexis accepted the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs from June to October of 1849. He voted to restrict the liberty of clubs and the freedom of the press. He also approved the arrest of demonstrators, limiting freedom of speech.
These measures were the very things he praised in his book, Democracy in America, but, he justified his actions by saying that he didn’t want the democracy in his country to come about in an “earthquake” , but to grow slowly and stably. After working with a group that tried to have Napoleon III arrested for high treason because he served too many terms in office, Alexis was arrested himself and spent a short time in prison. Afterwards, he retired from political life, spending the remainder of his days in his castle. Alexis could not serve under a man who would be a despot. After spending thirteen years trying to prevent it, he spent the rest of his days fighting the battle with his writing.
Spending years fighting tuberculosis, also, Alexis finally capitulated in 1839. He was given a Catholic service and entombed in Normandy at the deTocqueville Cemetery.