American Democracy According to Tocqueville

America is one country I have not visited yet, which might surprise many. Well, it just so happens that I was never inclined to visit the US, even though I have friends there, both from college in Delhi and those known to my family.

I told myself that if I ever do visit the United States, it would be because my work takes me there. So far, I haven’t had the occasion to do so. However, that doesn’t mean I am not curious about the country and its people, or that I haven’t read enough about America and its great cities. Thanks to America’s soft power, delivered to us in the so-called Third World through books, cinema, music and – for many Indians – fast food, one is swamped by American popular culture, like it or not.

Alexis de Tocqueville by Theodore Chasseriau at Versailles; Image: Wikimedia Commons

I had also read enough about America, including about its civil rights movement, to know that it is not the land of freedom it is touted to be. However, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is one book that I have wanted to read for many years, and I finally downloaded a scanned copy of it through Google Books. Needless to add, the usual rider about its authenticity applies in this case as well. Strangely enough, I couldn’t find the first volume online, so ended up reading the second volume first. I don’t think it hampered my reading and understanding in any way, since the two volumes deal with quite distinct aspects of American democracy.

For the purposes of this article, I shall, of course, start with the first volume. But not before I have mentioned the confusion in the first volume regarding the editions and the years. The first and most important feature of Democracy in America is that it is entirely the observation of a Frenchman looking at America and how it works, and constantly comparing it with what he knows of France and its aristocracy. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French diplomat who travelled to America in the early part of the 19th century and Democracy in America is his book about what he observed of the country and its democratic systems. It is written through the lens of understanding America’s path to democracy as compared to the French and the British routes, and as a reader one ought to always bear this in mind. The other feature, of course, is that the few specific details or examples that Tocqueville provides are dated, since much has changed in America since the time the book was written.

He begins the first volume with his preface in which he compares France’s struggle to shake off monarchy with America’s independence, and notes that the US had not had a single revolt. Considering the book was written in 1831, Tocqueville could not have anticipated the American Civil War that took place three decades later. Despite his great prediction skills regarding the Revolution of 1848.

Throughout the book, he is struck by the general equality of the people in the United States. This is obviously in reference to the huge inequalities that he would have seen back home in France and even in England. However – and this deep flaw in the book cannot be overstated – his lens is so trained in the Anglo-American way, that barely a mention is made of the native Indians who occupied the land, and of the African slaves who were brought into the country. Barring a short chapter at the end of Volume I, they remain erased through most of the book, and are completely absent from Volume II which deals with the social and cultural aspects of American democracy.

Volume I is focused on the territorial and political structure of American democracy. Here, Tocqueville deals with all the main facets of American democracy in detail, from the American Constitution and the rights enshrined in it, to the individual’s strong sense of those rights, the decentralized government and more. His main point in the book is that democracy survives in America because of the reasons mentioned above and also because of education and manners.

In telling us about these fascinating aspects of America, he also gives us the historical background of early British and European settlers in America, how the Puritans from Britain set up townships and counties in what came to be known as New England, and how Anglo-American life came to be organized in a new country. He also mentions that Mexico tried to copy the Constitution of America for themselves and that it failed to work.

Page 1 of the American Constitution; Image: US National Archives and Records Administration on Wikimedia Commons

“The Constitution of the United States resembles those fine creations of human industry which ensure wealth and renown to their inventors, but which are profitless in other hands. This truth is exemplified by the condition of Mexico at the present time. The Mexicans were desirous of establishing a federal system, and they took the Federal Constitution of their neighbors, the Anglo-Americans, as their model, and copied it almost entirely. But, although they had borrowed the letter of the law, they could not introduce the spirit and the sense which give it life. They were involved in ceaseless embarrassments by the mechanism of their double government; the sovereignty of the States and that of the Union perpetually exceeded their respective privileges, and came into collision; and to the present day, Mexico is alternately the victim of anarchy and the slave of military despotism.”

When I read this passage, I was reminded of the book, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in which they cite a comparison of Mexico and America about which I have written before on my blog.

By manners, he means the moral and political philosophy of America, that is the culture of the people as it evolved. Tocqueville doesn’t merely give us his observations, he often theorises about them, trying to either justify them, or to explain how they might have come about. For example, when he writes about education and intellectual life in America, he tends to base its origins in the Puritans of New England, from whence they travelled elsewhere. Or when he writes about the plantations of the South, he writes of them as an aristocracy obviously comparing them with those in industry in the North of the country.

Most of all, Tocqueville reasons that democracy is truly an empowering and equalizing force in the US because of its historical background and that thanks to the Constitution, all individuals – American citizens – are aware of and exercise their rights. There was never any history of aristocracy there to care and provide for the masses, no patronage, and therefore, no strict hierarchy in society. Individuals studied, worked hard, and learned to fend for themselves. Tocqueville attributes the average American’s strong sense of individuality, their materialistic instincts and practical sense to the same historical reasons: that Americans learnt to create a new life for themselves in a new land, with nothing to depend on.

In Democracy in America, we also learn a great deal about American federalism and why government is decentralized to such a great extent. In a chapter on Federal Constitution, Tocqueville discusses the merits and demerits of small states versus large states. He writes:

“If we would learn why great nations contribute more powerfully to the increase of knowledge and the advance of civilization than small states, we shall discover an adequate cause in the more rapid and energetic circulation of ideas, and in those great cities which are the intellectual centres where all the rays of human genius are reflected and combined…

In time of peace, the well-being of small nations is undoubtedly more general and complete; but they are apt to suffer more acutely from the calamities of war than those great empires whose distant frontiers may long avert the presence of the danger from the mass of the people, who are therefore more frequently afflicted than ruined by the contest…

The Federal system was created with the intention of combining the different advantages which result from the magnitude and the littleness of nations; and a glance at the United States of America discovers the advantages which they have derived from its adoption.”

Tocqueville also writes of American democracy as truly representative, with the American government directly addressing the individual American citizen, not the states. It is the American citizen who directly elects representatives, and to ensure that they do their jobs, they are elected to their offices almost every year. He also marvels at how aware the average American is of what laws pertain to their state and those that apply to the Union, as well as of their individual rights.

Tocqueville also observes that the American does not have an aptitude for general ideas, preferring the particular. And even though he draws a distinction between the British and the American, the former being even less attracted to general ideas than the latter, he is of the view that on political matters, the French are the most given to general ideas. I think Tocqueville might be on slightly slippery ground here as he tries to explain the differences between the three peoples, since he also tends to contradict himself elsewhere in the book.

Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, US; Image from History of Pilgrims & Puritans, Their Ancestry and Descendants by Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons

This can especially be seen in Volume II when he writes of the American’s taste for science, art and literature. Tocqueville seems to be of the view that in aristocracies, science tends to be theoretical, general and pursued for its lofty ideals. While in democracies, science has a practical side, an immediacy, for offering a way to improve lives and increase income since science in the latter affects everyone, including the working classes. Here, he writes that the American’s approach to science and education is led by its immediate commercial value.

“But at the very time when the Americans were naturally inclined to require nothing of science but its special applications to the useful arts and the means of rendering life comfortable, learned and literary Europe was engaged in exploring the common sources of truth, and in improving at the same time all that can minister to the pleasures or satisfy the wants of man…

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. 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.”

One can’t read Democracy in America without feeling that Tocqueville is completely overawed by his observations of the country. He can’t seem to see anything flawed or wrong in America, so dazzled is he by its beacon of democracy. To the extent that he refuses to see the plight of the American Indians and the African-Americans. He tries so hard to explain the reasons for many of his observations, though not by providing any empirical evidence or facts. Perhaps his role as diplomat constrains him as a writer and critical observer, forcing him to write a kind of hagiography of America, the promised land.

Like I said earlier, most of the observations are valid – if that – only when tested against aristocracies such as France and Britain at the time the book was written. With the additional knowledge gained over five decades of my life, I know better than to be swayed by such glowing descriptions. In fact, as I write this, American democracy is being severely tested. Just in the past year, several states have changed their voting laws to make it even more difficult for people of colour to vote. The GOP still goes about claiming the last election was stolen. The seat of America’s democracy, the Capitol, was attacked by insurgents. Hate crime against Blacks and other people of colour is on the rise.

And general equality, does it even exist? Or perhaps, since the converse – general inequality – isn’t yet all-pervasive, it proves the axiom.

The featured image at the start of this post is of George Washington presiding over the signing of the American Constitution on September 17, 1787, by Howard Chandler Christy on Wikimedia Commons. Also seen in the foreground (L to R) are Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.

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