Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville, being commissioned at the age of twenty-six to investigate and report on American prisons, made use of his residence in the United States to gain a thorough insight into the political institutions and social conditions of the great Republic. The results of his observations and reflections were given to the world in 1835, in the two famous volumes De la Démocratie en Amérique, which were followed in 1840 by a third and fourth volume under the same title. As an analysis of American political institutions De Tocqueville's work has been superseded by Mr. Bryce's admirable study of the same subject; but as one of the great classics of political philosophy it can never be superseded, and has rarely been rivalled. With all a Frenchman's simplicity and lucidity he traces the manifold results of the democratic spirit; though sometimes an excessive ingenuity, which is also French, leads him to over-speculative conclusions. The work was received with universal applause.

I.—Equality

The most striking impression which I received during my residence in the United States was that of the equality which reigns there. This equality gives a peculiar character to public opinion and to the laws of that country, and influences the entire structure of society in the most profound degree. Realising that equality, or democracy, was rapidly advancing in the Old World also, I determined to make a thorough study of democratic principles and of their consequences, as they are revealed in the western continent.

We have only to review the history of European countries from the days of feudalism, to understand that the development of equality is one of the great designs of Providence; inasmuch as it is universal, inevitable, and lasting, and that every event and every individual contributes to its advancement.

It is impossible to believe that a social movement which has proceeded so far as this movement towards equality has done, can be arrested by human efforts, or that the democracy which has bearded kings and barons can be successfully resisted by a wealthy bourgeoisie. We know not whither we are moving; we only know that greater equality is found to-day among Christian populations than has been known before in any age or in any country.

I confess to a kind of religious terror in the presence of this irresistible revolution, which has defied every obstacle for the last ten centuries. A new political science is awaited by a world which is wholly new; but the most immediate duties of the statesman are to instruct the democracy, if possible to revive its beliefs, to purify its morals, to enlighten its inexperience by some knowledge of political principles, and to substitute for the blind instincts which sway it, the consciousness of its true interests.

In the Old World, and in France especially, the more powerful, intelligent, and moralised classes have held themselves apart from democracy, and the latter has, therefore, been abandoned to its own savage instincts. The democratic revolution has permeated the whole substance of society, without those concomitant changes in laws, ideas, habits, and manners which ought to have embodied and clothed it. So it is that we indeed have democracy, but without those features which should have mitigated its vices and liberated its advantages. The prestige of royal power is gone, without being replaced by the majesty of law, and our people despise authority as much as they fear it. Our poor have the prejudices of their fathers without their beliefs, their ignorance, without their virtues; they have taken self-interest for a principle without knowing what their interests are. Our society is tranquil, not in the consciousness of strength and of well-being, but a sense of decrepitude and despair. That is why I have studied America, in order that we may ourselves profit by her example. I have no intention of writing a panegyric on the United States. I have seen more in America than America herself; I have sought a revelation of Democracy, with all its characters and tendencies, its prejudices and its passions.

II.—Religion and Liberty

Our first consideration is of great importance, and must never be lost sight of. The Anglo-American civilisation which we find in the United States is the product of two perfectly distinct elements, which elsewhere are often at war with one another, but have here been merged and combined in the most wonderful way; I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty. The founders of New England were at the same time ardent secretaries and enthusiastic radicals; they were bound by the narrowest religious beliefs, but were free from all political prejudice.

Thus arose two tendencies which we may trace everywhere in American manners, as well as in their lives. All political principles, laws, and human institutions seem to have become plastic in the hands of the early colonists. The bonds which fettered the society in which they had been born fell from their limbs; ancient opinions which had dominated the world for ages simply disappeared; a new career opened for the human race; a world without horizons was before them, and they exulted in liberty. But outside the limits of the political world, they made no ventures of this kind. They abjured doubt, renounced their desire for innovation, left untouched the veil of the sanctuary, and knelt with awe before the truths of religion.

So, in their world of morals, everything was already classed, arranged, foreseen, and determined; but in their world of politics, everything was agitated, debated, and uncertain. In the former they were ruled by a voluntary obedience, but in all political affairs they were inspired by independence, contempt for experience, and jealous of every authority.

Far from impeding one another, these two tendencies, which appear so radically opposed, actually harmonise and seem even to support each other. Religion sees in civil liberty a noble field for the exercise of human faculties. Free and powerful in her own sphere, and satisfied with the part reserved for her, she knows that her sovereignty is all the more securely established when she depends only on her own strength and is founded in the hearts of men. And liberty, on the other hand, recognises in religion the comrade of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its rights. It knows that religion is the safeguard of morals, and that morals are the safeguard of the laws, and the judge of the continuance of liberty itself.

III.—Omnipotence of the Majority

The greatest danger to liberty in America lies in the omnipotence of the majority. A democratic power is never likely to perish for lack of strength or of resources, but it may very well fall because of the misdirection of its strength and the abuse of its resources. If ever liberty is lost in America, it will be due to an oppression of minorities which may drive them to an appeal to arms. The anarchy which must then result will be due only to despotism.

This danger has not escaped the notice of American statesmen. Thus, President James Madison said, "It is of great importance to republics, not only that society should be defended from the oppression of those who govern it, but also that one section of society should be protected against the injustice of another section; for justice is the end towards which all government must be directed." Again, Jefferson said that "The tyranny of legislators is at present, and will be for many years, our most formidable danger. The tyranny of the executive will arise in its turn, but at a more distant period." Jefferson's words are of great importance, for I consider him to have been the most powerful apostle that democracy has ever had.

But there are certain factors in the United States which moderate this tyranny of the majority. Chief among these is the absence of any administrative centralisation; so that the majority, which has often the tastes and instincts of a despot, lacks the instruments and the means of tyranny. The local administrative bodies constitute so many reefs and breakwaters to retard or divide the stream of the popular will.

Not less important, as a counterpoise to the danger of democracy, is the strong legal spirit which pervades the United States. Lawyers have great influence and authority in matters of government. But lawyers are strongly imbued with the tasks and habits of mind which are most characteristic of aristocracy; they have an instinctive liking for forms and for order, a native distaste for the will of the multitude, and a secret contempt for popular government. Of course, their own personal interest may and often does over-ride this professional bias. But lawyers will always be, on the whole, friends of order and of precedent, and enemies of change. And in America, where there are neither nobles nor able political writers, and where the people are suspicious of the wealthy, the lawyers do, in fact, form the most powerful order in politics, and the most intellectual class of society. They therefore stand to lose by any innovation, and their conservative tendency is reinforced by their interests as a class.

A third safeguard against the tyranny of the majority is to be found in the institution of a jury. Almost everyone is called at one time or another to sit on a jury, and thus learns at least something of the judicial spirit. The civil jury has saved English freedom in past times, and may be expected to maintain American liberties also. It is true that there are many cases, and those often the most important, in which the American judge pronounces sentence without a jury. Under those circumstances, his position is similar to that of a French judge, but his moral power is far greater; for the memory and the influence of juries are all about him, and he speaks with the authority of one who habitually rests upon the jury system. In no other countries are the judges so powerful as in those where the people are called in to share judicial privileges and responsibilities.

IV.—Equality of Men and Women

Inasmuch as democracy destroys or modifies the various inequalities which social traditions have made, it is natural to ask whether it has had any effect on that great inequality between men and women which is elsewhere so conspicuous. We are driven to the conclusion that the social movement which places son and father, servant and master, and in general, the inferior and superior, more nearly on the same level, must raise woman more and more to an equality with man.

Let us guard, however, against misconceptions. There are people in Europe who confuse the natural qualities of the two sexes, and desire that men and women should be, not only equal, but also similar to one another. That would give them both the same functions, the same duties and the same rights, and would have them mingle in everything, in work, in pleasures, and in business. But the attempt to secure this kind of equality between the two sexes, only degrades them both, and must result in unmanly men, and unwomanly women.

 The Americans have not thus mistaken the kind of democratic equality which ought to hold between man and woman. They know that progress does not consist in forcing these dissimilar temperaments and faculties into the same mould, but in securing that each shall fulfil his or her task in the best possible way. They have most carefully separated the functions of man and woman, in order that the great work of social life may be most prosperously carried on.

In America, far more than elsewhere, the lines of action of the two sexes have been clearly divided. You do not find American women directing the external affairs of the family, or entering into business or into politics; but neither do you find them obliged to undertake the rough labours of the field, or any other work requiring physical strength. There are no families so poor as to form an exception to this rule.

So it is that American women often unite a masculine intelligence and a virile energy with an appearance of great refinement and altogether womanly manners.

One has often noticed in Europe a certain tinge of contempt even in the flatteries which men lavish on women; and although the European often makes himself a slave of a woman, it is easy to see that he never really regards her as his equal. But in the United States men rarely praise women, though they show their esteem for them every day.

Americans show, in fact, a full confidence in woman's reason, and a profound respect for her liberty. They realise that her mind is just as capable as that of man to discover truth, and that her heart is just as courageous in following it; and they have never tried to shelter or to guide her by means of prejudice, ignorance, or fear.

For my part I do not hesitate to say that the singular prosperity and the evergrowing power of the American people is due to the superiority of American women.

V.—The Perfectibility of Man

Equality suggests many ideas which would never have arisen without it, and among others the notion that humanity can reach perfection—a theory which has practical consequences of great interest.

In countries where the population is classed according to rank, profession, and birth, and everyone has to follow the career to which he happens to be born, each is conscious of limits to his power, and does not attempt to struggle against an inevitable destiny. Aristocratic peoples do not deny that man may be improved, but they think of this as an amelioration of the individual, and not as a change in social circumstances, and while they admit that humanity has made great progress, they believe in certain limits which it cannot pass. They do not think, for instance, that we shall arrive at sovereign good or at absolute truth.

But in proportion as caste and class-distinction disappear, the vision of an ideal perfection arises before the human mind. Continual changes are ever taking place, some of them to his disadvantage, but the majority to his advantage, and the democrat concludes that man in general is capable of arriving at perfection. His reverses teach him that no one has yet discovered absolute good, and his frequent successes excite him to pursue it. Always seeking, falling, and rising again, often deceived, but never discouraged, he hastens towards an immense grandeur which he dimly conceives as the goal of humanity. This theory of perfectibility exercises prodigious influence even on those who have never thought of it. For instance, I ask an American sailor why the ships of his country are built to last only a few years; and he tells me without hesitation that the art of shipbuilding makes such rapid progress every day, that the finest ship constructed to-day must be useless after a very short time. From these words, spoken at random by an uneducated man, I can perceive the general and systematic idea which guides this great people in every matter.

VI.—American Vanity

All free people are proud of themselves, but national pride takes different forms. The Americans, in their relations with strangers, are impatient of the least criticism, and absolutely insatiable for praise. The slightest congratulation pleases them, but the most extravagant eulogium is not enough to satisfy them; they are all the time touting for your praise, and if you are slow to give it they begin praising themselves. It is as if they were doubtful of their own merit. Their vanity is not only hungry, but anxious and envious. It gives nothing, and asks insistently. It is both supplicant and pugnacious. If I tell an American that his country is a fine one, he replies, "It is the finest in the world." If I admire the liberty which it enjoys, he answers, "There are few people worthy of such liberty." I remark on the purity of manners in the United States, and he says, "Yes, a stranger who knows the corruption of other nations must indeed be astonished at us." At length I leave him to the contemplation of his country and of himself, but he presently runs after me, and will not go away until I have repeated it all over again. It is a kind of patriotism that worries even those who honour it.

The Englishman, on the contrary, tranquilly enjoys the real or imaginary advantages which his country affords. He cares nothing for the blame nor for the praise of strangers. His attitude towards the whole world is one of disdainful and ignorant reserve. His pride seeks no nourishment; it lives on itself. It is very remarkable that the two people who have arisen from the same stock should differ so radically in their way of feeling and speaking.

 In aristocratic countries, great families possess enormous privileges, on which their pride rests. They consider these privileges as a natural right inherent in their person, and their feeling of superiority is therefore a peaceful one. They have no reason to boast of the prerogatives which everyone concedes to them without question. So, when public affairs are directed by an aristocracy, the national pride tends to take this reserved, haughty, and independent form.

Under democratic conditions, on the contrary, the least advantage which anyone gains has great importance in his eyes; for everyone is surrounded by millions very nearly his equal. His pride therefore becomes anxious and insatiable; he founds it on miserable trifles and defends it obstinately. Again, most Americans have recently acquired the advantages which they possess, and therefore have inordinate pleasure in contemplating these advantages, and in showing them to others; and as these advantages may escape at any moment, they are always uneasy about them, and look at them again and again to see that they still have them. Men who live in democracies love their country as they love themselves, and model their national vanity upon their private vanity. The close dependence of this anxious and insatiable vanity of democratic peoples upon the equality and fragility of their conditions is seen from the fact that the members of the proudest nobility show exactly the same passionate jealousy for the most trifling circumstances of their life when these become unstable or are contested.