Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ is a ground breaking study on the nature of modern democracy. The two volumes combine to present a picture of the benefits and dangers of democratic systems, taking the United States as a basis but making conclusions that are universally applicable. The work is so important as it is one of the first to use scientific methods to analyse political and social institutions, an approach which would become increasingly popular in the twentieth century.
De Tocqueville’s life coincided with a period of great political and social change throughout the world. He was born shortly after the 1789 Revolution in his native France, a vital turning point in the history of democracy’s development. He lived through the rise and fall of Napoleon’s Empire, and then the founding of the French Republic. The spread of democracy was not limited to France. Democratic reforms were taking place throughout Europe, whether drastic revolutions led by popular unrest, as had happened in France, or government led gradual change, as in the United Kingdom. These democratic movements, and the various forms they were taking, were De Tocqueville’s inspiration for “Democracy in America”.
The repeated failed attempts at establishing democracy in France led De Tocqueville to study the USA, a nation he considered to have a stable and prosperous democratic government. He believed that the drive towards democracy was a universal one for all societies, but that this drive had gone the farthest in the USA. He wanted to study the American form of democracy in order to understand what made it so effective, to develop an understanding of how democracy was fostered that could be applied to other governments.
Compared to Europe, De Tocqueville believed the USA had an egalitarian and classless society. The country had no history of monarchy or nobility, unlike most European countries, and this allowed liberal ideas to dominate. Traditions of land ownership and family inheritance had not divided up the country into territories permanently linked to certain family names. Instead, people could settle in new locations and establish their own property. All of these combined to make America a society without class, poor immigrants from Europe, or children born into poor families, had the opportunity to become wealthy, preventing the creation of a permanent aristocracy. De Tocqueville believed that this egalitarianism in society was increasingly shaping the country’s politics.
De Tocqueville’s work should not be assumed to be a celebration of America, however. His study of the country also included harsh criticism when the author thought it was necessary. In one section the continued practice of slavery is condemned, on moral grounds, but also because of its economic inefficiency, which De Tocqueville explained in great detail. He even went as far as to predict its eventual abolition. He also criticised the treatment of North America’s indigenous population, the massacre and forced migration of which he viewed as a shameful mark on the identity of the USA.
Democracy in America focused on the institutions involved with American politics, as well as the American people themselves. The first two volumes, published in 1835, focused on the development of the political order from aristocratic to democratic, a transition De Tocqueville attributed to egalitarianism in American society. The final two volumes, published in 1840, looked at the effects of democracy. De Tocqueville analysed the institutions he thought needed to be improved in America, and warned of the constant threat that existed in the form of abuses of power, by either the head of state or the legislature.
The sheer scope of the book makes it a valuable study of American society in the nineteenth century, as well as vital political text on modern democracy, one with warnings and suggestions which remain relevant. De Tocqueville’s work looked at every element of what made the USA unique, and this serves as an interesting point of contrast for the modern reader. In one section he noted the severity of racial divides in America, while elsewhere he discussed religion, and in particular the prevalence of what he called “religious insanity”. Much has changed in America, but many of the questions De Tocqueville raised are still important today.
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Democracy in America
Vol. 1 of 2Vol. 1 of 2
by Alexis de Tocqueville