Democracy In America
Alexis de Tocqueville
FUTURECASTS online magazine
Vol. 8, No. 10, 10/1/06.
Democracy in America:
"The Social Influence of Democracy" is covered in "Democracy In America," the second of two related books by Alexis de Tocqueville on the results of the U.S. experiment with democracy almost a half century after the Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown. The author acknowledges the vastness of the subject, and candidly denies any claims to comprehensiveness - offering instead a series of vignettes. He is concerned with broad, predominant generalities rather than with the characteristics of particular individuals or idiosyncratic small groups.
Tocqueville strives to draw general principles from American and European experience that explain the contrasting results in France.
American civil society is a ferment of active associations that Tocqueville accurately emphasizes as the key factor providing stability and the ability to function successfully as a democracy.
Tocqueville is a skilled observer, and we are fortunate to have his knowledgeable impressions of the initial impacts - the successes and failures - the strengths and weaknesses and peculiarities - of the societal outcomes flowing from the efforts of the founding fathers.
The author's emphasis is not just on society under American democracy, but on its comparison with societies under European aristocratic and democratic systems. Indeed, he actually writes more about the democratization trends impacting European governments and society - especially in his native France - than about the contrasting experience in America. It is actually France's troubled democratization that most concerns him, and he strives to draw general principles from American and European experience that explain the contrasting results.
The author offers his opinions and expectations - many quite prescient - based on a variety of the social characteristics he has observed. He candidly admits the tentative nature of his expectations. Revolutionary times have set all in motion and continue in their course - the ultimate outcomes are essentially unknowable. The extent of the changes are without parallel in history, so Tocqueville finds no guide in the history of the past.
FUTURECASTS is interested primarily in his observations about the democratic society of America, and herein covers only a few of Tocqueville's opinions and comparisons.
Coming from France, which in 1831 is still recovering from its revolutionary ordeal and still throbs with revolutionary passions, Tocqueville is greatly concerned with the factors that promote social order and tranquility in the U.S. He spends many pages on this subject - much more than can be summarized in this article.
American civil society is a ferment of active associations that Tocqueville accurately emphasizes as the key factor providing stability and the ability to function successfully as a democracy. Strong but tolerant attitudes and ethics derived from religion that is separated from direct political support or influence on politics also play major roles, as does such factors as social and political mobility, the substantial degree of local political autonomy, and the domestic and social influence of American women.
By the time of their Revolution, Americans had already had more than a century and a quarter of experience with self government due in large part to the benign neglect of London prior to 1760.
Democracy in America was not the result of a democratic revolution, Tocqueville perceptively emphasizes. Americans arrived from England expecting to retain and practice the rights and freedoms of Englishmen.
By the time of their Revolution, Americans had already had more than a century and a quarter of experience with self government due in large part to the benign neglect of London prior to 1760. (England was preoccupied with domestic political conflict between the Crown and Parliament and with external conflicts with Spain, the Dutch, and France.) They have not experienced the vast disruptions of true social revolution. There was never any period of widespread anarchy, such as experienced in France.
Social equality - an "equality of conditions" - is a primary result of mature democratic systems. Tocqueville attributes a wide array of social phenomena to this underlying cause.
This article frequently uses modern terms and phrases for purposes of clarity and brevity.
Political freedom and individual liberty have produced a very pragmatic people, busily engaged in the building of their lives without spending much time or exhibiting much interest in philosophical introspection.
Each generation finds its own way, broadly ignoring the cares and beliefs of the prior generation.
People are generally inclined to draw their own conclusions rather than accepting some received wisdom from prominent individuals, and are unconcerned with European prejudices and class concerns. They exhibit an "instinctive incredulity of the supernatural and a very lofty and often exaggerated opinion of human understanding."
Indeed, they broadly reject sophisticated rationalizations and persist in believing only what they individually can perceive - or simply remain unconcerned with matters of no immediate practical interest.
"It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up tightly within himself and insists upon judging the world from there."
Broadly ignorant and uncaring about European rationalistic philosophical concepts, the Americans nevertheless just naturally apply them. Each generation finds its own way, broadly ignoring the cares and beliefs of the prior generation.
"Equality begets in man the desire of judging of everything for himself; it gives him in all things a taste for the tangible and the real, a contempt for tradition and for forms."
There is constant social mobility undermining class distinctions. This froth of free thinking induces constant churning of political ideas.
Christianity "gave birth" to an "Anglo-American society" with the "moral truths" that originate within Christianity. Since religious practice has been separated from political practice, however, the unquestioning acceptance of Christianity does not render society rigid in its political or religious attitudes. Although the basic tenets of Christianity are accepted without question by all, people constantly shift among mainstream Christian sects.
Skepticism about the views of various individual advocates and leaders leaves the multitude prone to strong belief in common understandings.
Nevertheless, Americans are generally swayed by those beliefs that gain popular currency (what today is called the "conventional wisdom"). Widespread conformity of popular beliefs arises from this independence of mind and belief in social equality. Skepticism about the views of various individual advocates and leaders leaves the multitude prone to strong belief in common understandings.
"Not only is common opinion the only guide which private judgment retains among a democratic people, but among such a people it possesses a power infinitely beyond what it has elsewhere. At periods of equality men have no faith in one another, by reason of their common resemblance; but this very resemblance gives them almost unbounded confidence in the judgment of the public; for it would seem probable that, as they are all endowed with equal means of judging, the greater truth should go with the greater number."
People are skeptical of differing viewpoints, heavily engaged in their own concerns, and thus largely inattentive to the passionate advocates of change. Although activities are in constant flux, established attitudes change only slowly.
"When once an opinion has spread over the country and struck root there, it would seem that no power on earth is strong enough to eradicate it. In the United States general principles in religion, philosophy, morality, and even politics do not vary, or at least are only modified by a hidden and often an imperceptible process; even the grossest prejudices are obliterated with incredible slowness amid the continual friction of men and things."
This is different than in France - where society is still under the powerful influence and passions of its revolution.
There is power in majority opinion which perforce rules in a democracy, and a faith in it akin to a religion with the majority its "ministering prophet." The public does not persuade others to its beliefs, "it imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence." The public does not force its ideas on others, but it makes it "extremely difficult to believe what the bulk of the people reject or to profess what they condemn."
"In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion."
Tocqueville is skeptical about a decision-making process so powerfully influenced by the enthusiasms of the crowd. He fears majoritarian despotism as much as any other form of despotism.
In this, Tocqueville echoes James Madison. Indeed, American history is replete with policy errors - some of disastrous import. However, in this regard the record is certainly no worse than for other forms of government and better than most. The public expects success, and will at least slowly change its collective mind when failure becomes evident. This usually - but not always - has at least prevented the stubborn maintenance of major failed policies.
Change does occur, Tocqueville notes, but usually from the force of experience. Such change is sometimes dramatic - but is often imperceptible.
Americans rely on common sense (to use the modern phrase). Among people free to busily pursue their individual desires, there is little time or inclination for deep introspection and philosophic examination into the nature of things not of immediate concern. Outside the narrow confines of each individual's practical knowledge - with which he pursues his trade - people simply draw broad conclusions on the basis of just those facts immediately at hand evaluated in light of common experience.
Even on a higher level, Americans tend to generalize far more than peoples in stratified societies. American intellectuals draw the broadest possible conclusions from intellectual analyses.
"In the age of equality all men are independent of each other, isolated and weak. The movements of the multitude are nor permanently guided by the will of any individuals; at such times humanity seems always to advance of itself. In order, therefore, to explain what is passing in the world, man is driven to seek for some great causes, which, acting in the same manner on all our fellow creatures, thus induce them all voluntarily to pursue the same track. This again naturally leads the human mind to conceive general ideas and superinduces a taste for them."
Tocqueville carefully distinguishes between generalizations from careful analysis and that from superficial examination.
"Some of them are the result of slow, minute, and conscientious labor of the mind, and these extend the sphere of human knowledge; others spring up at once from the first rapid exercise of the wits and beget none but very superficial and uncertain notions."
When citizens have to take a practical part in government, they soon learn the limitations and become skeptical of the broad generalizations of political philosophy.
Nevertheless, Americans are not slaves to political theory. Unlike the French, they have not the passion - the "blind confidence in the value and absolute truth" - of their political theories.
Tocqueville attributes this to the greater experience with democratic self-government of the American people, who have thus perforce had to grapple with the problems arising from the practical shortcomings of political theory. People cannot rely on broad generalities for dealing with the problems of their daily lives. For those matters, they must more minutely examine into details. When citizens have to take a practical part in government, they soon learn the limitations and become skeptical of the broad generalizations of political philosophy.
Dogmatic belief in religion shapes men's attitudes towards "their general duties towards their Creator and their fellow men." Without such attitudes, mankind would be reduced to "disorder and impotence."
Those who shake free from religious intellectual and moral beliefs are generally so at sea and vulnerable that they readily submit to secular dogmas, or abandon all philosophy in mindless pursuit of immediate gratification.
Religion "is indispensable to all, although the study of it is inaccessible to the greater number." (Even atheism is essentially a religious belief - a "secular" religion - based inevitably on faith rather than on reason.) The "useful arts" of everyday life, on the other hand, are approached by the few skilled in each of them but are of little interest to the many.
Each religion provides its adherents "a solution that is at once clear, precise, intelligible, and lasting, to the mass of mankind." Aside from those religious sects that impose a theocratic intellectual despotism on the minds of adherents, religion, "if it does not save men in another world, it is at least very conducive to their happiness and their greatness in this." Indeed, Tocqueville points out, those who shake free from religious intellectual and moral beliefs are generally so at sea and vulnerable that they readily submit to secular dogmas, or abandon all philosophy in mindless pursuit of immediate gratification.
While religion is essential for a functioning civil society, and is eagerly grasped by the mass of Americans, there is little patience with elaborate ceremony. Some ceremony is essential, of course, but those sects that insist on obeisance to elaborate ceremony limit themselves to "a band of fanatical zealots in the midst of a skeptical multitude."
With a free competition for adherents amongst a multitude of religious sects, clerics in America have to be careful about the secular subjects they seek to influence.
"In America religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go. Within its limits he is master of the mind; beyond them he leaves men to themselves and surrenders them to the independence and instability that belong to their nature and their age. I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States, or where it presents more distinct, simple, and general notions to the mind."
This was true of all the mainstream sects - including Catholicism - that Tocqueville observed at that time.
There had been and would be other times and circumstances when religion would play a very substantial role in secular politics and affairs.
Mindful of the many choices in the highly competitive religious marketplace, American clerics - to the extent possible without conflict with core beliefs - readily share the common secular beliefs and passions of the people. Yet, Tocqueville fears false and dangerous religious sects, and warns of the need to struggle against them lest they undermine the nation's freedoms.
Withdraw religion from this materialist world, and the materialist urge unchecked by any moral constraints must reach destructive proportions.
Americans at this time keep the Sabbath and attend to their religious obligations. They take time to contemplate religious virtues and "an ideal world, where all is great, eternal, and pure."
Tocqueville emphasizes the importance of moral guideposts that turn men's attentions to their long term interests;
"Give democratic nations education and freedom and leave them alone. They will soon learn to draw from this world all the benefits that it can afford; they will improve each of the useful arts and will day by day render life more comfortable, more convenient, and more easy. Their social condition naturally urges them in this direction; I do not fear that they will slacken their course.
Tocqueville asserts that it is religion that keeps this striving in perspective and is one of the most prominent reasons for the successful maintenance of American political institutions. Withdraw religion from this materialist world, and the materialist urge unchecked by any moral constraints must reach destructive proportions, Tocqueville warns. He urges leadership that emphasizes the importance of religion. He urges opposition and intolerance for those who attack regular religious practices.
"The heart of man is of a larger mold; it can at once comprise a taste for possessions of the earth and the love of those of heaven; at times it may seem to cling devotedly to the one, but it will never be long without thinking of the other."
Separation of church from state support and political affairs is nevertheless important to Tocqueville. There is nothing like involvement in political affairs or support from government to destroy the belief of the public in that religion. The only way political leaders can effectively support the religious beliefs that support their political institutions is by example - "by scrupulous conformity to religious morality in great affairs" - to teach the public "to know, to love, and to observe" religious morality in their lesser concerns.
Religion teaches men to aim for distant, long term - and even infinite - goals, Tocqueville points out. Should a skeptical age ever lose its religious and other moral guideposts, Tocqueville fears, it might degenerate into what is today called short-termism - where long term considerations are forever slighted in favor of short term goals and immediate gratification. (We see much of this today in democratic politics and in the emphasis on quarterly results in corporate management.) The outcome of such short sightedness must always be disastrous. (Just think of the runaway entitlement obligations that Congress refuses to consider, and the Keynesian budgetary deficits and monetary expansion designed to give the appearance of prosperity for the next election.)
There is a widespread belief that man is perfectible - that there is no substantial limit to human character. This age old philosophic theory takes on new meanings and enjoys new possibilities under American conditions of freedom and social equality. After all, Americans are free to improve themselves in many ways in addition to their possession of material wealth and creature comforts.
In the constant ferment of a free economic system, everything is constantly changing and improving. People prosper or decline - often to rise again later. Nothing is permanent. Everyone expects improvement.
"Aristocratic nations are naturally too liable to narrow the scope of human perfectibility; democratic nations, to expand it beyond reason."
Literature, the arts and the sciences:
America is weak in the higher sciences, the fine arts and literature at this time. There is neither patronage nor market for things that are not immediately practical.
However, those gaps will ultimately be filled, Tocqueville presciently believes. He notes the widespread appreciation for the literature and Enlightenment philosophy coming out of Europe. Americans are in an exceptional - perhaps unique - position expanding into their continental nation, and are certainly no example of what to expect of democracy in less favored lands.
"Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven."
However, the natural differences in abilities and ambition inevitably result in unequal economic outcomes, and those in more secure economic circumstances inevitably turn some of their attentions "to the infinite, the spiritual, the beautiful." Such people will be far more numerous in a prosperous democracy than in a monarchy's privileged aristocratic class.
"In free and enlightened democratic times there is nothing to separate men from one another or to retain them in their place; they rise or sink with extreme rapidity. All classes mingle together because they live so close together. They communicate and intermingle every day; they imitate and emulate one another. This suggests to the people many ideas, notions, and desires that they would never have entertained if the distinctions of rank had been fixed and society at rest. In such nations the servant never considers himself as an entire stranger to the pleasures and toils of his master, nor the poor man to those of the rich; the farmer tries to resemble the townsman, and the provinces to take after the metropolis. No one easily allows himself to be reduced to the mere material cares of life; and the humblest artisan casts at times an eager and furtive glance into the higher regions of the intellect. People do not read with the same notions or in the same manner as they do in aristocratic communities, but the circle of readers is unceasingly expanded, till it includes all the people."
With the development of a market for intellectual pursuits, America will quickly produce a multitude of those seeking to supply it. However, Tocqueville points out, it will be a product that is widely varied in type and quality - and will not be confined to the emulation of the arts and literature of Europe. (Tocqueville hit this one right on the head, as he does with much that follows on this subject.)
Americans make extensive and inventive use of existing scientific knowledge, but have neither time nor inclination for higher scientific investigations that lack immediate practical application. The constant striving and tumult of a free people busily engaged in building their economic lives leaves little time for deep contemplation of abstract philosophic or scientific principles. Fame and fortune flow only to scientific discoveries that are "immediately applicable to productive industry."
"Men who live in democratic communities not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it. A democratic state of society and democratic institutions keep the greater part of men in constant activity; and the habits of mind that are suited to an active life are not always suited to a contemplative one."
Rapid common sense decisions - informed by experience - are valued in the market far more than months or years of deeper analysis that is of no immediate apparent practical result. Nevertheless, the number of people able to engage in scientific pursuits is so much greater in a democracy, that inevitably there will from time to time arise among them those possessed of "speculative genius" and driven to employ it in the higher sciences.
The mass markets in democratic countries respond to the desires of masses of people who have means individually above those of European peasants but well below those of the small class of European aristocrats. There is a constant effort to lower costs by increasing the efficiency of production and by limiting the quality to the merely adequate.
There is a "hypocrisy of luxury" as people strive to demonstrate higher status by means of their material possessions. (Even then, there was striving to "keep up with the Joneses.") People are constantly going into debt to maintain or grasp material status well above their reach.
Similarly, the fine arts flourish in quantity but diminish in quality. Paintings and statuary are more numerous than in Europe but generally of lower quality. Fine architecture is of whitewashed brick or painted wood rather than marble. The subjects of the fine arts are of the mundane rather than of the divine. They are representations of reality rather than of perfection.
However, the governments of the American nation and its states plan on a grandiose scale. Magnificent government buildings rise incongruously in village-sized capital cities.
American literature is comprised mainly of reprints and adaptations of European elementary treatises on useful knowledge, a vast religious literature, numerous political pamphlets of only temporary purport, and a few fine works. English literature is everywhere, and the few fine American writers are seldom appreciated in America until their work succeeds in England.
Thus, Tocqueville concludes, there is at this time no fine literature that is American in character. However, he presciently expects that it will develop, and that it will be uniquely American in character. The market will not be responding to the refined tastes of an aristocracy. It will be responding to the intermingled "motley multitude" subject to "incessant changes of place, feelings, and fortunes" - a "heterogeneous and agitated mass." The consumers in this mass market will call forth a coarser product of differing styles and subject matters.
"Such men can never acquire a sufficiently intimate knowledge of the art of literature to appreciate its more delicate beauties; and the minor shades of expression must escape them. As the time they can devote to letters is very short, they seek to make the best use of the whole of it. They prefer books which may be easily procured, quickly read, and which require no learned researches to be understood. They ask of beauties self-proffered and easily enjoyed; above all, they must have what is unexpected and new. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, they require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject."
"Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over-burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste."
Of course, Tocqueville realizes that he is generalizing about a subject that has infinite grades of style and quality - that the expected coarsening will take some time to become manifest and predominant - and that there will always be exceptions and hopefully some exceptional talents that will arise.
"Democratic literature is always invested with a tribe of writers who look upon letters as a mere trade; and for some few great authors who adorn it, you may reckon thousands of idea-mongers. (We have long since arrived at this point.)
American English is increasingly different from that of England. American English is as tumultuous and changeable as everything else in America.
"[Democratic] nations love change for its own sake, and this is seen in their language as much as in their politics. Even when they have no need to change words, they sometimes have the desire."
Instead of drawing new words from ancient tongues - Greek or Latin -- a free people without the time or inclination to acquire knowledge of dead languages draws new words from such sources as the living tongues of foreigners with whom they engage in commerce, or they give new meanings to existing words or phrases or restore old discarded words or borrow words from the professions or technical arts or adopt and adapt words and expressions from among themselves as they intermix and as class distinctions break down.
There is also an increasing tendency towards broad generalization. Americans use generic terms or abstract expressions without specifying the subjects to which they apply. The "capacity" to do particular things becomes nebulously "capacities" in general. The actuality of certain things becomes an indefinite reference to "actualities" (or "facts"). Tocqueville himself admits to frequent usage of "equality" without specification of any particular subjects. This tendency renders speech "more succinct" but "less clear."
Poetry, too, is subject to this coarsening and emphasis on current conditions. The use of poetry to enhance the image of living persons is met with withering skepticism when all consider themselves socially equal to all. Instead of gods and heroes, American poets have turned to inanimate nature - to describing streams and mountains.
However, ultimately, democratic peoples are most interested in themselves, and poetry will perforce become introspective, focusing on the individual and the democratic society of which the individual is a member. However, Tocqueville asserts, there are as yet no real poets in America.
"Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions. The poet will not attempt to people the universe with supernatural beings, in whom his readers and his own fancy have ceased to believe; nor will he coldly personify virtues and vices, which are better received under their own features. All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more. The destinies of mankind, man himself taken aloof from his country and his age and standing in the presence of Nature and of God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole theme of poetry among these nations."
However, it is bombast that permeates the styles of writers and orators in America. A people concerned with the everyday economic mundane and viewing clearly and speaking concisely and accurately of everyday matters, responds to bombast and puffery in its literature and public speaking. When the attention of a democratic people is drawn outside themselves and their own narrow spheres and mundane concerns, they expect something "amazing," "vast," "unlimited." Responding to this market, authors "perpetually inflate their imaginations, and, expanding them beyond all bounds, they not infrequently abandon the great in order to reach the gigantic."
"I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret the world of reality."
Drama, too, descends to the depiction of the ordinary - but with special circumstances. Anything may be ventured. There are no rules of style. "The drama becomes more striking, more vulgar, and more true."
"When the democratic classes rule the stage, they introduce as much license in the manner of treating subjects as in the choice of them. As the love of drama is, of all literary tastes, that which is most natural to democratic nations, the number of authors and of spectators, as well as of theatrical representations, is constantly increasing among these communities."
The play is the thing - its value as literature is of no consequence. The audience seeks "the keen emotions of the heart," not "the pleasures of the mind." The probability of the plot is readily sacrificed for "perpetual novelty, surprise, and rapidity of invention."
However, although rapidly growing, the stage is as yet not very popular in America. Puritan ethics and the perpetual pursuit of material gain leave little inclination or time for anything else except religion. Drama is also subject to various forms of local censorship.
Contemporary American historians tend to write history as if preordained by great forces unalterable by human intelligence and leadership, Tocqueville observes. Historians in aristocratic lands write history as if it is totally dependent on particular leaders and unaffected by social forces.
Democratic legislators constantly respond to the narrow interests of their constituents, regardless of the broader national or party interests. There is a constant flow of petty and often ill informed oratory designed to meet constituent expectations. However, there is also the occasional possibility of great debate and oratory on conditions in the nation and the fate of man in general that arouses broad interest even in Europe.
Equality of condition is more ardently desired than liberty, Tocqueville asserts. In France, he notes, the passion for equality continues to observably increase (and remains strong to this day).
Equalizing measures are enjoyed broadly and easily - while the benefits of liberty must often be obtained by considerable sacrifice and toil - and will inevitably be unequally distributed.
Economic equality is just one aspect of the phenomenon. There are a wide variety of other aspects: political, legal, access to amusements and trades, etc.
Tocqueville speculates at some length as to why equality is valued above freedom, the advantages and disadvantages of both, and the dangers of pushing each to an extreme. Equalizing measures are enjoyed broadly and easily - while the benefits of liberty must often be obtained by considerable sacrifice and toil - and will inevitably be unequally distributed. (He does not discuss vanity and envy - and discusses tendencies in democratic France rather than the U.S.)
Both freedom and despotism seek popular support with promises of equality of conditions among the populace. The passionate desire for equality provides the leverage for demagogues and despots seeking to undermine liberty.
"[Americans] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands."
The independence of the individual within society is a relatively new phenomenon. Tocqueville distinguishes it from selfishness since individualism can exist with high levels of selflessness towards family, friends and community - and mankind in general. In democratic nations, where duty to particular men is much reduced, "the duties of each individual to that race are much more clear." Bonds are thus extended, but "relaxed."
"As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
"Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."
"As soon as a man starts to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had at first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his co-operation."
However, self government necessarily draws men from their individual concerns to those of the public as a whole.
"When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man starts to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had at first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his co-operation."
"[Politicians learn] to think of their fellow men from ambitious motives; and they frequently find it, in a manner, their interest to forget themselves."
To facilitate individual commercial interests, the commercial interests of all must be facilitated and self interest must be allied with that of the community. Thus, a functioning civil society is created.
Reputation and public goodwill become valuable assets.
"Many of the passions which congeal and keep asunder human hearts are then obliged to retire and hide below the surface. Pride must be dissembled, disdain dares not break out; selfishness fears its own self. Under a free government, as most public offices are elective, the men whose elevated minds or aspiring hopes are too closely circumscribed in private life constantly feel that they cannot do without the people who surround them. Men learn at such times to think of their fellow men from ambitious motives; and they frequently find it, in a manner, their interest to forget themselves."
Tocqueville is well aware of the grubby aspects of politics, but emphasizes the powerful interests that induce men to join together in common political endeavor and even to sublimate partisan differences after elections are over so that they can work together. America's federal system of state and local autonomy favorably brings these political incentives close to the people so that they permeate the nation.
"[If] the object be to have the local affairs of a district conducted by the men who reside there, the same persons are always in contact, and they are, in a manner, forced to be acquainted and to adapt themselves to one another."
To govern at the local level, political leaders must attend to the numerous personal concerns of their constituents. To facilitate individual commercial interests, the commercial interests of all must be facilitated and self interest must be allied with that of the community. Thus, a functioning civil society is created.
"In the United States the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people; on the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day. They know that the rich in a democracy always stand in need of the poor, and that in democratic times you attach a poor man to you more by your manner than by benefits conferred. - - - [The more opulent] might spend fortunes - - - without warming the hearts of the population around them; that population does not ask them for the sacrifice of their money, but of their pride."
"Elected magistrates do not make the American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elected."
" Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice; what was intentional becomes an instinct, and by dint of working for the good of one's fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them are at length acquired."
These incentives and the actions of its civil society are major factors in the prosperity and stability of the nation. Tocqueville recognizes the limitations of the people in politics, but wisely notes:
"Elected magistrates do not make the American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elected."
Also vital is the fact that those magistrates - and all other government employees - are dependent on the prosperity of the commerce of the people for the government revenues from which their salaries are paid.
However, personal incentives are not the whole story. Mutual concern, patriotism, the sense of duty to the community and the nation is widespread and sincere in America and provides the psychological foundation for the economically, legally and politically empowered civil society that makes everything else work.
"The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness. Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice; what was intentional becomes an instinct, and by dint of working for the good of one's fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them are at length acquired."
This undermines the passions and avoids the dangers of demands for equality.
Democratic revolutions always leave destructive passions in their wake between those who have escaped oppression and those who were their oppressors. The Americans are fortunate, Tocqueville wisely notes, in having not had to endure such a revolution. They "were born equal instead of becoming so," and so are relatively devoid of such passions.
The multiple impacts of this social equality are emphasized by Tocqueville throughout the book. He views it as a predominant force explaining the manifold unique characteristics of American democracy in particular and the democratizing trends in Europe in general.
Associations of every description and for every purpose are constantly being formed in America. Civil society is in constant vibrant ferment. "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations." When nobody has the privileges and influence to individually get things done, people must band together for their common purposes.
When nobody has the privileges and influence to individually get things done, people must band together for their common purposes.
Associations are political parties, commercial and manufacturing companies, "religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive."
"The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."
In their pastimes as in their political and economic activities, they maintain a vast array of individual differences. Thus, although all are socially equal, they divide into a multitude of small private associations reflecting their different opinions and tastes.
"They can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him assistance." The freest people on earth have thus "carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires."
Americans are independent but individually feeble because of their general equality of conditions. "They can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him assistance." The freest people on earth have thus "carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires."
Tocqueville presciently notes the dangers of leaving to government the numerous and increasing tasks of all types that the people cannot undertake as individuals. He thus foresees the dangers of socialism and the welfare state. The more welfare tasks the government undertakes, the more it will enfeeble civil society.
"The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies.
Government efforts in these matters are "always inadequate and often dangerous."
"Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away."
"Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America."
Social movements gain their strength by association. Referring to the temperance movement (ultimately vastly successful - and then ultimately equally vastly unsuccessful), Tocqueville famously notes:
"As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to."
It is this development of civil society - economically, politically and legally empowered - that is the key ingredient in the practical functioning of an American republic based on individual liberty and equality of social condition.
"Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of associations is the mother of science, the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made."
However, associations in Europe are viewed with fear and jealousy by the people - and with suspicion by governments.
Newspapers - despite their very real excesses - are vital links tying civil society together. Newspapers proliferate as associations and causes and political entities increase. (The media is much more complex today, but essentially serves the same purpose.) Indeed, readers of particular newspapers constituted informal associations of people who agree with its editorial views.
"What best explains to me the enormous circulation of the daily press in the United States is that among the Americans I find the utmost national freedom combined with local freedom of every kind."
The freedom of association in the U.S. Constitution empowers civil society politically, legally and economically to take parts - large and small - in the vast array of civil activities.
Political parties serve as examples that instruct people on how to form, manage and use associations for other purposes. The freedom of association in the U.S. Constitution empowers civil society politically, legally and economically to take parts - large and small - in the vast array of civil activities. Since all are free to benefit economically within the system, all have a stake in the conduct of government and the tranquility of the state. Civil society through its associations thus plays a generally positive role in preserving freedom and public tranquility.
"In their political associations the Americans, of all conditions, minds, and ages, daily acquire a general taste for association and grow accustomed to the use of it. There they meet together in large numbers, they converse, they listen to one another, and they are mutually stimulated to all sorts of undertakings. They afterwards transfer to civil life the notions they have thus acquired and make them subservient to a thousand purposes. Thus it is by the enjoyment of a dangerous freedom that the Americans learn the art of rendering the dangers of freedom less formidable."
Americans have generally become convinced by their religious and moral philosophers that their practical self interest is served by public service. There is little appeal to abstract virtue.
These associations are the essence of American civil society.
Taking actions to serve the public good serves each person's individual interests in a just and functioning society. Americans have generally become convinced by their religious and moral philosophers that their practical self interest is served by public service. There is little appeal to abstract virtue. They thus believe that this is "the principle of self-interest" rightly understood.
"The Americans - - - are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice; for in the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves."
It is this inclination to contribute to the public good - however rationalized - that prevents free peoples from degenerating into a morass of selfishness. Tocqueville councils that associations and their service must be encouraged through education and public campaigns. These associations are the essence of American civil society.
Political apathy is one of the great dangers that threaten democracies. Apathy permits small numbers of passionate men to dictate outcomes.
"Their present condition, then, is that of an almost exclusively manufacturing and commercial association, placed in the midst of a new and boundless country, which their principle object is to explore for purposes of profit. This is the characteristic that most distinguishes the American people from all others at the present time."
"The passion for physical comforts is essentially a passion of the middle classes; with those classes it grows and spreads, with them it is preponderant. From them it mounts into the higher orders of society and descends into the mass of the people."
Rich and poor and all in between are all dependent on the public order and tranquility of society for the preservation of their material gains and the opportunity to acquire more.
This passion for consumer goods and services by 1831 permeates all strata of American society, and is its predominant force.
However, rich and poor and all in between are all dependent on the public order and tranquility of society for the preservation of their material gains and the opportunity to acquire more. Thus, this passion is generally kept within bounds and is not permitted to debouch public moral codes. It is a "virtuous materialism" generally confined to permitted enjoyments.
Unlike in all other nations, to strive and fail - to become bankrupt - is no disgrace.
Thus, success in commercial endeavors is highly valued. The acknowledged attributes of such success are glorified, while attributes that undermine the chances of success are denigrated. The ardent pursuit of wealth - within legal bounds - is applauded, while resort to violence - such as in duels and vendettas - is condemned - a complete reversal of aristocratic concepts of honor.
Boldness of enterprise, skilled craftsmanship and hard labor are widely praised - inactivity and sloth widely despised. Even the wealthy feel the need of being engaged in some useful activity. Unlike in all other nations, to strive and fail - to become bankrupt - is no disgrace. More than in most countries, marital disloyalty is severely condemned. The family unit is recognized as the foundation of society and thus also of the economic prosperity of the community.
"To earn the esteem of their countrymen, the Americans are therefore forced to adapt themselves to orderly habits; and it may be said in this sense that they make it a matter of honor to live chastely."
Manly courage is highly esteemed, but broadly interpreted as including not just martial courage but also boldness in enterprise, in exploration and settlement of new territories, in braving life at sea - all activities necessary to build the nation and its communities.
"Honor - - - is to be found in democratic as well as in aristocratic ages, but - - - it assumes a different aspect in the former. Not only are its injunctions different, but we shall shortly see that they are less numerous, less precise, and that its dictates are less rigorously obeyed."
However, notions of honor are of minor purport. People "seldom have time to fix attention on them." In America, everything is in constant motion, and conditions are constantly changing. All are preoccupied with their own activities. There is considerable variance in what people think important about the conduct of others and about their own conduct. Frequently, suspect conduct is merely mildly reproved - or simply allowed to pass.
Ambition is everywhere, but those with grandiose ambitions are very few. All men "want to rise above their station," but competition from other ambitious men is fierce. Thus, the vast majority are forced to recognize realities and limit their ambitions to the more modest ranges of wealth and political power reasonably within their grasp.
"Ambition is ardent and continual, but its aim is not habitually lofty; and life is generally spent in eagerly coveting small objects that are within reach."
Those few who do achieve great wealth have so consumed their lives in the effort that they go no further. The rapid advancement possible within an aristocratic class is rare in a democracy. Even those who pursue power directly through politics must generally rise slowly through the political ranks so that their chances for high offices do not come until their later years. (After James Monroe - the last of the founding generation of leaders - all of the nation's 19th century presidents were seasoned politicians or military generals.)
Of course, democracy is far from immune to failure, and democratic systems are always subject to attack on several fronts - ideological, military, demagogic - threatened by the men who lead such attacks.
America is also a land of spiritual yearning that not infrequently becomes fanatical. Itinerant preachers travel the western territories drawing crowds from great distances to their camp meetings to listen to their religious discourses. Strange sects are constantly forming and disbanding. Materialism alone is clearly not enough for the American people.
A mobile society of free men is in constant motion in pursuit of material and other forms of gratification. It is constantly "restless in the midst of abundance."
The barriers of privilege have been swept away, providing all men access to whatever economic path they want to take - but they are everywhere met with the barriers of competition from others on the same path, rendering success strenuous, uncertain and limited.
People grasp for gratification in this world - not being content to await the next.
"In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him."
The barriers of privilege have been swept away, providing all men access to whatever economic path they want to take - but they are everywhere met with the barriers of competition from others on the same path, rendering success strenuous, uncertain and limited.
"This constant strife between the inclination springing from the equality of conditions and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind."
However, the genius of the American system is that it continues to draw people into politics and public service. Americans are determined - indeed passionate - defenders of their political freedoms and individual liberties. Thus, civil society thrives, and the system maintains its balance.
"An American attends to his private concerns as if he were alone in the world, and the next minute he gives himself up to the common welfare as if he had forgotten them. At one time he seems animated by the most selfish cupidity; at another, by the most lively patriotism. - - - [Indeed] the Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare; they are attached to the one by the other. They by no means think that they are not called upon to take a part in public affairs; they believe, on the contrary, that their chief business is to secure for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of those possessions which they have already acquired."
Once a man acquires some education and capital, he goes into commerce or manufacturing or ventures into the West.
A vast and growing middle class, with equality of conditions, property rights and interests in commerce, is correctly viewed by Tocqueville as the foundation for democracy and stability. Private endeavor is the route to individual prosperity in the U.S. Once a man acquires some education and capital, he goes into commerce or manufacturing or ventures into the West.
"All he asks of the state is not to be disturbed in his toil and to be secure in his earnings. Among most European nations, when a man begins to feel his strength and to extend his desires, the first thing that occurs to him is to get some public employment."
In many European nations, nothing has changed in the last century and three quarters.
"If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality of conditions."
"Place-hunting" becomes the trade most generally followed whenever government imposes numerous obstacles to the people's commerce (or just fails to facilitate the people's commerce). Place-hunting, Tocqueville explains, is "a great social evil" destructive of "the spirit of independence" and producing widespread "venal and servile" social tendencies that are of a parasitic rather than a productive nature. (Place-hunting becomes the essence of all socialist systems and systems dominated by government administered alternatives to markets.) Since not all place-hunters can be satisfied, place-hunting is also ultimately destabilizing.
While there is constant churning and changing of circumstances in a democracy, democracies with a vibrant middle class and a politically, legally and economically empowered civil society, free from inordinate government intrusions, are nevertheless inherently the most stable of political systems - once they mature well past their revolutionary stage.
James Madison was more perceptive on this point. Democracies must not only be "mature," they must be contrived so as to deal pragmatically with their inherent weaknesses. This is something that two centuries of repeated democratic experiments has not successfully accomplished in many Latin American nations. These nations have made an art form out of how to fail at democracy.
However, these nations are all burdened with a large dissatisfied underclass whose education has been neglected and whose commerce has not been facilitated. There was, in fact, such an underclass in the U.S., too, when Tocqueville was there, and he took especial notice of it.
In France, there is still passion for revolution - in America there is a widespread dread of it.
"If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality of conditions."
It is idleness that is disparaged in America, so that even the wealthy feel they must find useful activities to fill their time.
Work for profit in honest callings is considered honorable in America, whereas it is disparaged in aristocratic Europe. It is idleness that is disparaged in America, so that even the wealthy feel they must find useful activities to fill their time - or flee to Europe where they can indulge themselves without work.
"In America no one is degraded because he works, for everyone about him works also; nor is any one humiliated by the notion of receiving pay, for the President of the United States also works for pay. - - - In the United States professions are more or less laborious, more or less profitable; but they are never either high or low: every honest calling is honorable."
Entrepreneurship (to use a modern phrase) is stimulated by material incentives, freedom, and the acceptance of the necessity that men work for pay. The wealthy and the not so wealthy venture into commerce or manufacturing to increase their economic status.
"Those who live in the midst of democratic fluctuations have always before their eyes the image of chance; and they end by liking all undertakings in which chance plays a part. They are therefore all led to engage in commerce, not only for the sake of the profit it holds out to them, but for the love of the constant excitement occasioned by that pursuit."
Thus, although capital remains scarce, the U.S. is already the world's second maritime nation, and its manufacturing, although still quite small, is rapidly advancing.
"In the United States the greatest undertakings and speculations are executed without difficulty, because the whole population are engaged in productive industry, and because the poorest as well as the most opulent members of the commonwealth are ready to combine their efforts for these purposes. The consequence is that a stranger is constantly amazed by the immense public works executed by a nation which contains, so to speak, no rich men. The Americans arrived but as yesterday on the territory which they inhabit, and they have already changed the whole order of nature for their own advantage. They have joined the Hudson to the Mississippi and made the Atlantic Ocean communicate with the Gulf of Mexico, across a continent of more than five hundred leagues in extent which separates the two seas. The longest railroads that have been constructed up to the present are in America."
However, the business cycle regularly visits widespread commercial disaster on the nation and its striving people.
Tocqueville fears that industrialization will inevitably increase inequality between workers and manufacturers to the point where the latter become a new aristocracy. (By the end of the 19th century, this had indeed come to pass.) However, this aristocracy will not be hereditary - it will not be a social "class." Members will constantly be rising into it or dropping out of it or retiring from it. Nor will there be any permanent bonds between master and laborer, as neither will owe any permanent obligation to the other. The manufacturer seeks not to govern but to use laborers.
Tocqueville - like the classical economists before him and the Marxists after him - is prey to the great labor market fallacy that it is the fate of workers to be degraded and impoverished by the advance of industrialization. Nineteenth century industrial plants certainly imposed harsh conditions on workers, but even then it was better than what was available in agriculture, and by the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization had materially improved the lot of the industrial laborer. Conditions in America were always better than those in Europe.
Manners are natural but coarse in America.
Manners in America convey neither the grace nor the hypocrisy of those in aristocratic society.
Good manners are expected by society but never demanded. They are similar throughout society, but untutored and therefore full of subtle variances according to the temper of different people. Manners in America convey neither the grace nor the hypocrisy of those in aristocratic society.
"[Manners] form, as it were, a light and loosely woven veil through which the real feelings and private opinions of each individual are easily discernible. The form and the substance of human actions, therefore, often stand there in closer relation; and if the great picture of human life is less embellished, it is more true. Thus it may be said, in one sense, that the effect of democracy is not exactly to give men any particular manners, but to prevent them from having manners at all."
A "habit of inattention" becomes general and is considered by Tocqueville "the greatest defect of the democratic character."
"They inflict no useless ills, and they are happy to relieve the grief of others when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane."
There is a seriousness of demeanor that is maintained as Americans wend their way through life, but they nevertheless frequently act in an "inconsiderate" manner because they cannot give full time and attention to all their varied concerns and undertakings. In a democracy, people always have a multitude of activities and possibilities and move swiftly among them during a lifetime. Business, trade, politics, social and domestic activities and possibilities proliferate - much is undertaken and anything is possible. Thus, a "habit of inattention" becomes general and is considered by Tocqueville "the greatest defect of the democratic character."
Empathy becomes general as social conditions become equal. As differences dissolve, the ability to feel the pain and other emotions of others is no longer confined by class and acquaintance. It extends throughout the community - and even to all humanity.
"In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another, but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills, and they are happy to relieve the grief of others when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane."
Slaves are still an underclass, and so do not enjoy the social equality of other inhabitants of the nation.
Criminal justice is more humane in America than in any other nation. The number of capital offenses has been reduced, and no longer includes political offenses.
Even the practice of slavery is observably less severe than in the colonies of European nations - although "the slaves still endure frightful misery - - - and are constantly exposed to very severe punishments." Slaves are still an underclass, and so do not enjoy the social equality of other inhabitants of the nation. They are thus not included within the humanity for whom their masters feel empathy.
Americans get along easily with one another in large part because of their social equality. This is not the case with their kin in England.
"In America, where the privilege of birth never existed and where riches confer no peculiar rights on their possessors, men unacquainted with one another are very ready to frequent the same places and find neither peril nor advantage in the free interchange of their thoughts. If they meet by accident, they neither seek nor avoid intercourse; their manner is therefore natural, frank, and open; it is easy to see that they hardly expect or learn anything from one another, and that they do not care to display any more than to conceal their position in the world. If their demeanor is often cold and serious, it is never haughty or constrained; and if they do not converse, it is because they are not in a humor to talk, not because they think it their interest to be silent."
Having no privileged status to covet or defend eliminates the need to respond to petty irritants.
Americans are slow to take serious offense - but once offense is taken, they tend to retain it. "They hardly ever forget an offense, but it is not easy to offend them."
This, too, Tocqueville attributes to their equality of conditions - both social and political - their lack of class consciousness. Having no privileged status to covet or defend eliminates the need to respond to petty irritants.
"The political institutions of the United States constantly bring citizens of all ranks into contact and compel them to pursue the great undertakings in concert. People thus engaged have scarcely time to attend to the details of etiquette, and they are besides too strongly interested in living harmoniously for them to stick at such things. They therefore soon acquire a habit of considering the feelings and opinions of those whom they meet more than their manners, and they do not allow themselves to be annoyed by trifles.
However, when traveling abroad, Americans are confounded by the infinite levels of class and privilege and often respond in notoriously inappropriate ways. (An early example of "the ugly American" abroad.)
Although individualistic, Americans are always willing to lend a hand to those in need. All are willing individually to be of service in small ways that can amount to considerable help when joined by a large number of people.
Americans are charitable. Although individualistic, Americans are always willing to lend a hand to those in need. All are willing individually to be of service in small ways that can amount to considerable help when joined by a large number of people.
"Equality of condition. while it makes men feel their independence, shows them their own weakness: they are free, but exposed to a thousand accidents; and experience soon teaches them that although they do not habitually require the assistance of others, a time almost always comes when they cannot do without it."
Americans are full of patriotism and pride in their nation - and verbally persistent in their expression of it. Their country, their freedom, their morality, their relatively uncorrupted governance, are all flaunted when in contact with foreign visitors. Their democratic privileges and rights are newly won and still fragile and so are jealously guarded and proudly exhibited.
"Men living in democracies love their country just as they love themselves, and they transfer the habits of their private vanity to their vanity as a nation."
There is enough economic mobility so that servants and masters are interchangeable, with servants striking out on their own as masters, and masters who do not prosper reduced to servants. Their status is not due to some permanent rank as in aristocracies, but to temporary contracts - and the status extends only so far as the contract.
Masters and servants in the U.S. share the equality of conditions and thus share many similar traits.
"Equality of conditions turns servants and masters into new beings, and places them in new relative positions."
Indeed, there is enough economic mobility so that servants and masters are interchangeable, with servants striking out on their own as masters, and masters who do not prosper reduced to servants. Their status is not due to some permanent rank as in aristocracies, but to temporary contracts - and the status extends only so far as the contract.
Beyond that, they are all citizens of the nation sharing equal political and legal status. In the minds of both master and servant and the outside community, there is an "imaginary equality between them, in spite of the very real inequality of the conditions." Beyond the contract, they feel no obligation to each other and have little if any sense of common interest. Outside the realm of the major manufacturers, this relative independence and mobility of workmen has led observably to a slow increase in wages and circumstances. Tocqueville repeats his fear that it is different for the masses of workers who are dependent on industrial jobs.
Nobody is obliged to do your bidding. Anything you want or want done you must pay for.
"Democracy loosens social ties, but tightens natural ones; it brings kindred more closely together, while it throws citizens more apart."
It is only money that distinguishes one person from another. All enjoy equality of conditions, and face the same risks and enjoy the same opportunities. Nobody is obliged to do your bidding. Anything you want or want done you must pay for.
There is thus always energetic activity that results in rapid changes in circumstances - but always involved mundanely and monotonously with money. Business and manufacturing are the widespread passions of the ambitious. They immerse themselves in the daily grind of such activities - accepting the monotonous discipline required for success. However, this feature of economic development is observable in all nations seeking economic growth. (Tocqueville succumbs to his own aristocratic prejudices with his mildly disdainful attitude towards economic ambitions.)
The family, too, is observably impacted by this social equality. As soon as a son reaches the point where he can achieve his economic independence, he becomes a man independent from his father - who expects exactly that - that his sons will quickly grow to become independent adults. Their relationship becomes less patriarchal and more intimate and affectionate - "rules and authority are less talked of, confidence and tenderness are often increased, and it would seem that the natural bond is drawn closer in proportion as the social bond is loosened."
Family correspondence demonstrates this change in family relationships. Equality of condition also greatly impacts the relationships among children within and outside the family. Tocqueville sums up:
"Democracy loosens social ties, but tightens natural ones; it brings kindred more closely together, while it throws citizens more apart."
American women approach life with confidence and self reliance and a "happy boldness" that startles European visitors.
Women fulfill their roles with an inward strength observable in all the different regions of the nation.
The good order of her home and their place in society depend on her good sense.
The men may not be chaste, but they do not flaunt promiscuity. Social standing and economic prospects - as well as immortal souls - hang in the balance.
Young women also experience rapid maturity in independence. The general social response has been to expose young women early to the realities of their world so they are best equipped to deal with them. Their education is not a sheltered one.
"[A] democratic education is indispensable to protect women from the dangers with which democratic institutions and manners surround them."
The result is that American women approach life with confidence and self reliance and a "happy boldness" that startles European visitors. Those women who do not "abandon themselves to evil" are "remarkable rather for purity of manners than chastity of mind."
The morality of any society depends on its women, Tocqueville notes, and that applies equally to both democratic and stratified societies. American women, he concludes, take this role very seriously.
However, as free as they may be in their youth, American women become constrained in their married lives. They readily share the vicissitudes of fortune of their husbands - even following them into the hardships and dangers of the western wilds. Society demands of them a dutiful domesticity - and they widely join in with that society. They fulfill their roles with an inward strength observable in all the different regions of the nation.
This morality, too, is attributed by Tocqueville to the equality of condition of people in general and women in particular. Marriages are not arranged - they arise among people who willingly seek them. The good order of her home and their place in society depend on her good sense.
"In a country in which a woman is always free to exercise her choice and where education has prepared her to choose rightly, public opinion is inexorable to her faults. The rigor of the Americans arises in part from this cause. They consider marriage as a covenant which is often onerous, but every condition of which the parties are strictly bound to fulfill because they knew all those conditions beforehand and were perfectly free not to have contracted them."
Men are fully preoccupied by the pragmatic activities of their economic lives. They may not be chaste, but they do not flaunt promiscuity. Social standing and economic prospects - as well as immortal souls - hang in the balance.
"In America a young unmarried woman may alone and without fear undertake a long journey."
"If I were asked - - - to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of [the American] people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women."
With its English and Puritan background, the moderate nature of its revolutionary experience, and the widespread equality of social conditions that it has long experienced, these special conditions are unique to American democracy.
Tocqueville has nothing but contempt for those - already in the 1830s - who "would make man and woman into beings not only equal but alike," with the same functions, duties and rights. Such attitudes, he notes, are not (yet) evident in America.
"The Americans have applied to the sexes the great principle of political economy which governs the manufacturers of our age, by carefully dividing the duties of man from those of woman in order that the great work of society may be the better carried on."
The man is the head of the household - socially and legally reinforced in that status. He is engaged in "the rough labor of the fields" and the economic labors of the day that frequently require great physical strength and endurance, while the women confine themselves to "the quiet circle of domestic employments" (a full time and arduous job in those days).
"[Women] generally preserve great delicacy of personal appearance and always retain the manners of women although they sometimes show that they have the hearts and minds of men."
Most women make a virtue of necessity and take pride in the accomplishment of their roles. Tocqueville offers the following observations:
"In the United States men seldom compliment women, but they daily show how much they esteem them. They constantly display an entire confidence in the understanding of a wife and a profound respect for her freedom; they have decided that her mind is just as fitted as that of a man to discover the plain truth, and her heart as firm to embrace it; and they have never sought to place her virtue, any more than his, under the shelter of prejudice, ignorance, and fear."
"It is true that Americans rarely lavish upon women those eager attentions which are commonly paid them in Europe, but their conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression. In America a young unmarried woman may alone and without fear undertake a long journey."
"As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked - - - to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of [the American] people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women."
The nature of and dangers posed by armies in democratic nations is discussed by Tocqueville in an abstract way. (The dangers of usurpation have been manifest frequently in Latin American democracies, but not in Anglo Saxon democracies.)
Long difficult conflicts undermine democracies by enlarging the sphere of government administration. The best check on misuse of the military against democratic institutions, Tocqueville concludes, is a broad popular ethic of democratic principles. (The U.S. relies on such an ethic as well as on civilian control of the military.)
That the democratic army will be unappreciated during peacetime and composed of men from society's lower classes is perceptively explained by Tocqueville. Democratic armies offer ordinary men prospects of promotion far beyond what is possible in aristocratic armies. Those with better talents and education, however, will have better prospects in civil life.
For those who choose a military career in the armies of democratic states, the status conferred upon them from their rise through the ranks is often a major step up from where they have come in civil life. War offers the possibility of far more rapid promotion, and will be welcomed by those in the middle ranks. However, those already in the highest ranks have more to lose and will be prone to caution.
The soldiers of democratic armies will be more flexible and resourceful in adapting tactics to battlefield conditions because they are not so completely dependent on orders from above.
The weaknesses and lack of readiness for war of the peacetime armies of democratic nations are explained by Tocqueville.- as is the reasons why democratic armies achieve such great strength as a conflict continues. (Here, the conclusions are better than the analysis.) He notes more perceptively that the soldiers of democratic armies will be more flexible and resourceful in adapting tactics to battlefield conditions because they are not so completely dependent on orders from above.
Tocqueville goes on to speculate (with varied success) about the comparative military strengths and weaknesses of democratic and aristocratic nations.
The threat of despotism:
Bigger and more centralized government poses serious threats to democracy, Tocqueville perceptively warns.
Government grows to provide security - and it grows as a multitude of projects and causes seek the assistance of government resources. The persistent tendency thus, Tocqueville points out, is towards an increasing scope for government in democratic systems. Moreover, there are always people whose ambitions run towards various government projects that they hope to profit from.
When equality of conditions becomes extensive, only government can muster the resources and leadership for major projects - and people will applaud such government efforts. Governments thus centralize power in a thousand ways.
"Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested, but they always love the power itself."
A long history of freedom builds resistance to government usurpation of the liberties of the people. However, for new democracies, there is great danger that people will not adequately resist government usurpation of their rights and privileges and will let their freedoms slip away. Unlike in America, democracy at that time was unfamiliar - and fragile - in mainland Europe.
"As the classes that managed local affairs have been suddenly swept away by the storm, and as the confused mass that remains has as yet neither the organization nor the habits which fit it to assume the administration of these affairs, the state alone seems capable of taking upon itself all the details of government, and centralization becomes, as it were, the unavoidable state of the country."
In Europe, "the notion of private rights is weak and - - - the power of government is unbounded."
"On the one hand, the most settled dynasties shaken or overthrown; the people everywhere escaping by violence from the sway of their laws, abolishing or limiting the authority of their rulers or their princes; the nations which are not in open revolution restless at least, and excited, all of them animated by the same spirit of revolt; and, on the other hand, at this very period of anarchy, and among these untractable nations, the incessant increase of the prerogative of the supreme government, becoming more centralized, more adventurous, more absolute, more extensive, the people perpetually falling under the control of the public administration, led insensibly to surrender to it some further portion of their individual independence, till the very men who from time to time upset a throne and trample on a race of kings bend more and more obsequiously to the slightest dictate of a clerk."
Egalitarian passions are viewed perceptively by Tocqueville as the primary social lever available to those who would use government to gain despotic powers. The pursuit of equality justifies ever greater government powers, because only government has the ability to reduce the wealthy to the general level.
"The foremost or indeed the sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it. Thus, the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a single principle."
"From one end of Europe to the other the privileges of the nobility, the liberties of cities, and the powers of provincial bodies are either destroyed or are upon the verge of destruction."
"My object is to remark that all these various rights which have been successively wrested, in our time, from classes, guilds, and individuals have not served to raise new secondary powers on a more democratic basis, but have uniformly been concentrated in the hands of the sovereign. Everywhere the state acquires more and more direct control over the humblest members of the community and a more exclusive power of governing each of them in his smallest concerns."
Almost all charitable work in Europe has been taken on by government. "The state almost exclusively undertakes to supply bread to the hungry, assistance and shelter to the sick, work to the idle, and to act as the sole reliever of all kinds of misery." Education and even religion fall increasingly under government control in Europe. It controls the banks and extends loans to the politically influential.
"Thus men are following two separate roads to servitude; [political apathy] withholds them from taking a part in the government, and their love of that well-being forces them to closer and closer dependence upon those who govern."
In Europe, revolutions - political and physical - were brought about by people seeking freedom from aristocratic subjugation so they could gain an equality of conditions with the previously privileged classes. As they settle into this new state of social equality, however, their individual weakness makes it increasingly difficult to remain free from government intrusion on all aspects of their lives.
Tocqueville presciently explains the smothering impacts of the centralized administered welfare state despotisms that democratic peoples appear insensibly to wish upon themselves.
The totalitarian despotisms of the 20th century are foreseen by Tocqueville - but not their viciousness. The great centralization and concentration of power in the governments of modern democracies leaves nations vulnerable to the absolute control of all aspects of life, but Tocqueville only once hints at the possibilities for viciousness if that control were to be seized by "irresponsible" persons or parties.
He thus foresees benevolent socialist and welfare state types of despotisms rather than the fascist and communist despotisms that plagued the world a century later. He presciently explains the smothering impacts of the centralized administered welfare state despotisms that democratic peoples appear insensibly to wish upon themselves.
Like Madison, Tocqueville obsesses on the techniques available to prevent this slippage from democracy to despotism. Majoritarian desires for benefits from the public treasury provide the leverage for the establishment of a welfare state despotism. Thus, powerful centralized democratic government ruling a weak egalitarian population must somehow be prevented "from abusing its aptitude and its strength."
In essence, he endorses the central features of the American system of government. He endorses:
- The federal format and subsidiarity of government in the U.S. that prevents the total concentration of powers in its Federal government; and,
- The penchant for associations with which citizens empower themselves in the U.S. and that act as counterweights even to the centralizing powers of its Federal government; and,
- The freedom of the press - which is "the chief democratic instrument of freedom" - and which alone provides means for aggrieved individuals to address and seek support from their community or the nation as a whole; and,
- A Judiciary sufficiently independent to protect private rights and interests from arbitrary government abuse; and,
- Constitutional, statutory, and administrative procedures and due process that provide the "forms" that people disdain but that are vital to prevent government agencies from acting in arbitrary and capricious ways that impact private interests.
"Public utility" and "public necessity" are doctrines used to trample on individual rights and interests.
It is a natural and extremely dangerous tendency of governments in democratic nations to "despise and undervalue the rights of private persons." The "general execution of its designs" seems so much more important than the rights and interests of any few individuals.
"Public utility" and "public necessity" are doctrines used to trample on individual rights and interests. Vigilance in the sustenance of private rights and individual interests is essential for the maintenance of political freedom and individual liberty.
However, free men gain a taste for independence and an impatience with regulation. In their multitudes and individual near-invisibility they happily undermine administered solutions in a thousand ways. These are tendencies that Tocqueville optimistically points to as boding well for the future liberty of mankind.
The foundations of freedom:
The foundations of the freedom that has survived and prospered in the U.S. for over two centuries and that produced the vibrant nation Tocqueville observed almost half a century after the Revolution can be in large part observed in the lives of the primary founding fathers and in the history of the drafting and adoption of the nation's Constitution. Setting forth this material has been the purpose of the FUTURECASTS "Foundations of Freedom" series.
Self-interest and ideals were tempered in America by acknowledgement of the weaknesses of democratic systems and a determination to find pragmatic institutional remedies for those weaknesses.
"Because men are not angels!"
Democracy isn't easy. "Perfect" and utopian forms of democracy are doomed to failure. Blatantly self-interested forms will lack broad support. Failure has indeed been frequent in the history of the world's democracies, and many are in difficulty even today. However, the constitutional republic of the U.S. continues to prosper now well into its third century.
It is well to keep in mind the many factors that have permitted success for "Democracy in America" as we contemplate the difficulties of other types of democratic systems in other nations. Self-interest and ideals were tempered by acknowledgement of the weaknesses of democratic systems and a determination to find pragmatic institutional remedies for those weaknesses. An absence of many of these factors can invariably be found in the histories of failed democracies and in those that struggle with instability today.
Below is a list of predominant characteristics of those foundations of freedom and the most prominent of the founding fathers who played major roles in their development.
- Over a century of experience with local self governance and parliamentary systems: The American people and all the founding fathers.
- Civil society concerned with the general welfare and the commerce of the people: Benjamin Franklin.
- Entrepreneurial and innovative free market economic activity: Benjamin Franklin.
- Diplomacy in the national interest: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay.
- Civilian control of the military: George Washington.
- Peaceful and regular transfers of military and political power: George Washington.
- Popular expectation of trustworthy governance: George Washington.
- Commitment to westward expansion: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson.
- The ideals of political freedom and individual liberty: Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison.
- Partisan party politics: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison.
- Restoration of the nation's credit and financial stability: Alexander Hamilton.
- Rule of law: John Adams, John Marshall.
- The Supreme Court as a coequal branch of government: John Marshall, James Madison.
- Reconciliation with Great Britain as basis of 19th century foreign policy: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Monroe.
- Constitutional republic: John Adams, James Madison, John Marshall
- A strong federal government in a dual sovereignty federal system: James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall.
- Limits on power of government: Thomas Jefferson, James Mason, James Madison - and the host of anti-federalist skeptics.
- A willingness to compromise and accommodate major competing interests: All the founding fathers.
- Institutional safeguards - checks and balances - inhibiting factional power: James Madison - "Because men are not angels!"
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Copyright © 2006 Dan Blatt