Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) came to America in 1831 to see what a great republic was like. What struck him most was the country's equality of conditions, its democracy. The book he wrote on his return to France, Democracy in America, is both the best ever written on democracy and the best ever written on America. It remains the most often quoted book about the United States, not only because it has something to interest and please everyone, but also because it has something to teach everyone. When it was published in 2000, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop's new translation of Democracy in America--only the third since the original two-volume work was published in 1835 and 1840--was lauded in all quarters as the finest and most definitive edition of Tocqueville's classic thus far. Mansfield and Winthrop have restored the nuances of Tocqueville's language, with the expressed goal "to convey Tocqueville's thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today." The result is a translation with minimal interpretation, but with impeccable annotations of unfamiliar references and a masterful introduction placing the work and its author in the broader contexts of political philosophy and statesmanship.
In laying the foundation, he mentions a number of great "leveling" factors that led to the trend toward equality. The development of trade and technology is shown to have taken the last remnants of nobility by surprise. Inheritance laws drove equality by weakening the preservation of estates. At the same time, the colonial laws in the US were both very democratic and yet often completely intolerant of religious or moral behaviors. The example of adulterous couples being sentenced to being whipped and then married is a sufficient example. He also discusses the relation between democracy and religion, at one point calling Catholicism the ultimate democracy and frequently showing the tolerance and commonality that results from the varied and varying religious sects. "Classical historians taught how to command; those of our own time teach next to nothing but how to obey." (p. 496). He observes that manufacturing leads to an equivalent of aristocracy with craftsmen slipping into the level of nothing, but workers and industrialists becoming a separate class.
Regarding American government, he says that as an elected official, the President is a follower of the common will rather than a leader "The two main weapons used by the parties to assure success are newspapers and associations." (p. 179). He describes a constant lawmaking without lasting focus, resulting in a series of ideas half-completed (his example is the prison reform that created new prisons and a whole system more like medieval dungeons than before). Lawyers are America's aristocracy: "So hidden at the bottom of a lawyer's soul, one finds some of the tastes and habits of an aristocracy. They share its instinctive preference for order and its natural love of formalities; like it, they conceive a great distaste for the behavior of the multitude and secretly scorn the government of the people." (p. 264) "A French lawyer is just a man of learning, but an English or an American one is somewhat like the Egyptian priests, being, as they were, the only interpreter of an occult science." (p. 267). Three key factors to the stability of the US democracy are: the federal form giving the power of a great republic and the security of a small one, communal institutions to moderate the despotism of the majority, and the organization of judicial power. Congressman give speeches and muddle on in order to have text and quotes to send home to consituents, often saying things they don't understand themselves, so that "the debates of that great assembly are frequently vague and perplexed, seeming to be dragged, rather than march, to the intended goal." Because of the necessity of individualism, democracy tends to make people forget their ancestry and remove themselves from their contemporaries; two methods by which Americans combat the effect of individualism are newspapers and associations (p.508)."As equality spreads and men individually become less strong, they ever increasingly let themselves glide with the stream of the crowd and find it hard to maintain alone an opinion abandoned by the rest." (p. 520).
Comparing America to Europe, de Tocqueville observes few truly uneducated and few truly learned. When education is ending in America, it is just beginning for a European. Punishment is less severe but more likely. Impeachment is an administrative matter rather than a judicial one. It is lesser men who pursue politics as the more ambitious turn to industry. The marriage tie is more voluntary and fidelity adhered to, resulting in a more stable social infrastructure. Religion more powerful by being separate from the political. He observes a literary and artistic void due to concentration on industry, lack of leisure class, and lack of education. People learn government through participation and exercise of their rights; are more independent, more inward, but deny anything they cannot understand because they are more likely to have solved everything to get where they are. Democracy came about without an internal revolution, which meant no drastic change and subsequent stabilization. He sees less theoretical research but better application, "These same American who have never discovered a general law of mechanics have changed the face of the world by introducing a new machine for navigation." (p. 463). Women have more time to become individuals before marriage. Americans move around too much to allow manners to be established (because no chance for convention to solidify and no permanent relationship about which to worry). War, including duels, battle, and feuds, are considered worse than bankruptcy. People do not reach for ambitious goals. "... life is spent in coveting small prizes within reach." (p. 629).
Regarding democracy itself, "It really is difficult to imagine how people who have entirely given up managing their own affairs could make a wise choice of those who are to do that for them. One should never expect a liberal, energetic, and wise government to originate in the votes of a people of servants." (p. 694).
Among his final observations: "In democracies ignorance as much as equality will increase the concentration of power and the subjection of the individual." (p. 676)
Turn to the Footnotes found in Volume One, Chapter Ten (pages 322, 327 and 333 in this edition). The most interesting is the last: here Tocqueville recounts and augments Volney's description of the French-cultured inhabitants of Vincennes on the Wabash in the Ohio Valley.
Comparing the Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Franco-Canadian settlers, Tocqueville says, "These Frenchmen were worthy people, but neither educated nor industrious...The Americans, who were perhaps morally inferior to them, had an immense intellectual superiority. They were industrious, educated, rich, and accustomed to governing themselves." Tocqueville goes on to note that almost all the trading activity in Louisiana was conducted by the Anglo-Saxons and that in pre-revolutionary Texas, the Anglo-Saxons were already in control of most commerical activities just like in Louisiana.
The book is labelled as both American History and Political Science. De Tocqueville said the first volume was more about America, the second about democracy. The introduction by Mansfield and Winthrop, the translators and editors of the edition I read, called it both the best book on America and the best on democracy. That despite it being written by a French aristocrat--at least by birth although the introduction describes him as a democrat and liberal by conviction.
De Tocqueville says in his own introduction he did not mean to write a "panegyric" to America. He's critical, at times presciently so, of America and democracy both, and doesn't pull his punches about how slavery and racism might pull apart the country. He doesn't hesitate to call slavery "evil" and his depiction of the plight of Native Americans is both insightful and heartbreaking. Surprisingly so, not what I expected from a Westerner writing in the 19th Century. Yet despite some sharp criticisms--and it being written by an outsider, a foreigner, the book has been embraced and quoted by Americans both from the Left and Right. It's said to be commonly assigned in political science courses and I wish some excerpts had been assigned in mine, instead of the execrable People's History by Zinn. De Tocqueville in the end strikes me as much more credible, still relevant and much more thought-provoking about democracy and its faultlines--especially the "tyranny of the majority."
That's not to say this makes for easy reading. At times I considered giving up on it, slapping a two star rating as too tedious to read. Parts are a slog. I suggest anyone tackling this buy a paperback copy they don't feel hesitant to mark up and highlight and that they take it in short doses. This isn't one of those light, entertaining books. This isn't dessert or junk food. It's a meaty dish; one you chew on and parts can be hard to digest. But the man is brilliant. And it's surprising to me how 200 years later so much resonates in this book and is relevant to contemporary America and its politics. Well worth the effort to anyone interested in democracy or America.
At least the first volume is, which definitely deserves five stars for amazing. That first volume was a popular bestseller in its day, the second volume less so, and I can understand that. As De Tocqueville noted, the first book is more on America, and is grounded in a lot of telling observations. Not that it's absent in this second book, but the second volume is a lot more theoretical, and I think a lot of its points are better made in the first part. I also admit I'm not inclined to accept one of his major themes in this second volume, that religion is essential to democracy. And he seems very much off the mark in his contention that American democracy doesn't produce great literature or advances in the sciences. Admittedly, in 1835 when this second volume was published, about the only well-known American writers of fiction were James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. I can't say I much agree with his criticisms of individualism either. That's not to say reading both parts wasn't worthwhile, but less essential I feel than the amazing first volume.
2 volume set