Democracy in America
By Alexis De Tocqueville
Translated by George Lawrence
Harper Perennial, Harper Collins Publishers, 1988
Pamela A. Chaiet
When was the last time you heard the French say something good about the United States? Alexis De Tocqueville did in his applauded book, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. De Tocqueville was born Alexis Charles Henri Clerel De Tocqueville in Paris, July 20, 1805. His aristocratic family championed the defense of liberty. During the French Revolution both his parents were imprisoned and his grandfather sent to the guillotine. Considering De Tocqueville’s birthright and circumstance it was no wonder that he chose to study democracy.
De Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont came to American in May of 1831, ostensibly to study the United States prison system. His real intent is best described by himself, “ I sought there the image of democracy….in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.” De Tocqueville proved to have unparalleled powers of observation and intuitive analysis. In eighteen months he produced a comprehensive two-volume book that defined the American scene and summarized the national character. The first volume focuses on the country’s physical dimensions, its government and the origin of the population. Despite any seated critical European bias held by the author, he could not control his delight at Americans’ unshakable love of freedom. His second book is written as a collection of vignettes. They deal with De Tocqueville’s prime passion, “equality,” and how it shapes the actions, thoughts and feelings of the citizens in a democratic government.
There was some criticism of De Tocqueville in his own day. It was said that in his proclivity for the use of “intuitive generalizations,” he often made indistinguishable the differences between what he saw as an extension of European heritage and the principles that were uniquely representative of American democracy. Today we can see additional flaws in his observations. He felt that the American presidency held little power. He would not live to witness the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and many others. He would not see the global changes being orchestrated by American Presidents in the post-modern era.
De Tocqueville did not overlook the importance of education. He knew that if Americans were to remain masters of their own fate it was essential that each citizen be able to express his free will guided by a good education.
However, the author was not remiss in his observation that Americans have a love of wealth. He felt that strong economic aspirations were the driving force in a growing inclination for commerce and industry over agriculture. He felt that due to their intellectual and moral qualities Americans had made their method of trading heroic. Their ships ran more cheaply, regardless of formidable circumstances. He further clarified his view saying that American ambition regarding money was positive because it did not polarize society nor spread poverty. Today’s reader may question that assumption but De Tocqueville allows one to see that whatever problems arise, democracy excels at finding solutions. He saw the American character as enterprising, adventurous and innovative.
He noted that Americans were lead by a system of beliefs rather than the grandeur of any one individual, and that they choose to create associations to accomplish their goals rather than have them fall as a responsibility of the federal government. He thought that this willingness to rely on the motivations of personal interest stemmed from the underlying trust that “the people” would use common sense. He saw a decentralized federal government as a benefit to maintaining freedom. The issue of state government vs. federal government as the seat of authority is still with us today.
De Tocqueville did not overlook the importance of education. He knew that if Americans were to remain masters of their own fate it was essential that each citizen be able to express his free will guided by a good education. He marvels when he declares, “..ask an American about his own country and his thoughts will become clear and precise. He will tell you that he knows the customs of the political world, he knows about administrative regulations and the mechanisms of law.” He felt that Americans were “…aware of the past, curious about the future and ready to argue about the present.”
His thoughts on patriotism are still on-target to this very day. Americans, according to De Tocqueville, are laid back about their government in times of peace but in times of war they unite to the man. He felt that the power of the people had its roots in their shared opinions on moral issues, the jury system and a free press. He analyzes the American view of work, family and the role of the sexes. He says that the growing power of the nation is due to the superiority of its women. (Yet De Tocqueville was not always flattering. He thought Americans had a high opinion of themselves and that they were sure that they were the only enlightened free people in the world.)
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA is as important now as it was when it was written. The conditions of mankind are changing and a our destiny awaits. The present global spread of democracy invites the reader to share DeTocqueville’s view that “the gradual progress of equality is something fated” and that American democracy will lead the way.