Democracy In America. Alexis de Tocqueville 1831
In the eleven years that separated the Declaration of the Independence of the United States from the completion of that act in the ordination of our written Constitution, the great minds of America were bent upon the study of the principles of government that were essential to the preservation of the liberties which had been won at great cost and with heroic labors and sacrifices. Their studies were conducted in view of the imperfections that experience had developed in the government of the Confederation, and they were, therefore, practical and thorough.
When the Constitution was thus perfected and established, a new form of government was created, but it was neither speculative nor experimental as to the principles on which it was based. If they were true principles, as they were, the government founded upon them was destined to a life and an influence that would continue while the liberties it was intended to preserve should be valued by the human family. Those liberties had been wrung from reluctant monarchs in many contests, in many countries, and were grouped into creeds and established in ordinances sealed with blood, in many great struggles of the people. They were not new to the people. They were consecrated theories, but no government had been previously established for the great purpose of their preservation and enforcement. That which was experimental in our plan of government was the question whether democratic rule could be so organized and conducted that it would not degenerate into license and result in the tyranny of absolutism, without saving to the people the power so often found necessary of repressing or destroying their enemy, when he was found in the person of a single despot.
When, in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to study Democracy in America, the trial of nearly a half-century of the working of our system had been made, and it had been proved, by many crucial tests, to be a government of “liberty regulated by law,” with such results in the development of strength, in population, wealth, and military and commercial power, as no age had ever witnessed.
De Tocqueville had a special inquiry to prosecute, in his visit to America, in which his generous and faithful soul and the powers of his great intellect were engaged in the patriotic effort to secure to the people of France the blessings that Democracy in America had ordained and established throughout nearly the entire Western Hemisphere. He had read the story of the French Revolution, much of which had been recently written in the blood of men and women of great distinction who were his progenitors; and had witnessed the agitations and terrors of the Restoration and of the Second Republic, fruitful in crime and sacrifice, and barren of any good to mankind.
He had just witnessed the spread of republican government through all the vast continental possessions of Spain in America, and the loss of her great colonies. He had seen that these revolutions were accomplished almost without the shedding of blood, and he was filled with anxiety to learn the causes that had placed republican government, in France, in such contrast with Democracy in America.
De Tocqueville was scarcely thirty years old when he began his studies of Democracy in America. It was a bold effort for one who had no special training in government, or in the study of political economy, but he had the example of Lafayette in establishing the military foundation of these liberties, and of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, all of whom were young men, in building upon the Independence of the United States that wisest and best plan of general government that was ever devised for a free people.
He found that the American people, through their chosen representatives who were instructed by their wisdom and experience and were supported by their virtues – cultivated, purified and ennobled by self-reliance and the love of God – had matured, in the excellent wisdom of their counsels, a new plan of government, which embraced every security for their liberties and equal rights and privileges to all in the pursuit of happiness. He came as an honest and impartial student and his great commentary, like those of Paul, was written for the benefit of all nations and people and in vindication of truths that will stand for their deliverance from monarchical rule, while time shall last.
A French aristocrat of the purest strain of blood and of the most honorable lineage, whose family influence was coveted by crowned heads; who had no quarrel with the rulers of the nation, and was secure against want by his inherited estates; was moved by the agitations that compelled France to attempt to grasp suddenly the liberties and happiness we had gained in our revolution and, by his devout love of France, to search out and subject to the test of reason the basic principles of free government that had been embodied in our Constitution. This was the mission of De Tocqueville, and no mission was ever more honorably or justly conducted, or concluded with greater eclat, or better results for the welfare of mankind.
His researches were logical and exhaustive. They included every phase of every question that then seemed to be apposite to the great inquiry he was making.
The judgment of all who have studied his commentaries seems to have been unanimous, that his talents and learning were fully equal to his task. He began with the physical geography of this country, and examined the characteristics of the people, of all races and conditions, their social and religious sentiments, their education and tastes; their industries, their commerce, their local governments, their passions and prejudices, and their ethics and literature; leaving nothing unnoticed that might afford an argument to prove that our plan and form of government was or was not adapted especially to a peculiar people, or that it would be impracticable in any different country, or among any different people.
The pride and comfort that the American people enjoy in the great commentaries of De Tocqueville are far removed from the selfish adulation that comes from a great and singular success. It is the consciousness of victory over a false theory of government which has afflicted mankind for many ages, that gives joy to the true American, as it did to De Tocqueville in his great triumph.
When De Tocqueville wrote, we had lived less than fifty years under our Constitution. In that time no great national commotion had occurred that tested its strength, or its power of resistance to internal strife, such as had converted his beloved France into fields of slaughter torn by tempests of wrath.
He had a strong conviction that no government could be ordained that could resist these internal forces, when, they are directed to its destruction by bad men, or unreasoning mobs, and many then believed, as some yet believe, that our government is unequal to such pressure, when the assault is thoroughly desperate.
Had De Tocqueville lived to examine the history of the United States from 1860 to 1870, his misgivings as to this power of self- preservation would, probably, have been cleared off. He would have seen that, at the end of the most destructive civil war that ever occurred, when animosities of the bitterest sort had banished all good feeling from the hearts of our people, the States of the American Union, still in complete organization and equipped with all their official entourage, aligned themselves in their places and took up the powers and duties of local government in perfect order and without embarrassment. This would have dispelled his apprehensions, if he had any, about the power of the United States to withstand the severest shocks of civil war. Could he have traced the further course of events until they open the portals of the twentieth century, he would have cast away his fears of our ability to restore peace, order, and prosperity, in the face of any difficulties, and would have rejoiced to find in the Constitution of the United States the remedy that is provided for the healing of the nation.
De Tocqueville examined, with the care that is worthy the importance of the subject, the nature and value of the system of “local self-government,” as we style this most important feature of our plan, and (as has often happened) when this or any subject has become a matter of anxious concern, his treatment of the questions is found to have been masterly and his preconceptions almost prophetic.
We are frequently indebted to him for able expositions and true doctrines relating to subjects that have slumbered in the minds of the people until they were suddenly forced on our attention by unexpected events.
In his introductory chapter, M. De Tocqueville says: “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” He referred, doubtless, to social and political conditions among the people of the white race, who are described as “We, the people,” in the opening sentence of the Constitution. The last three amendments of the Constitution have so changed this, that those who were then negro slaves are clothed with the rights of citizenship, including the right of suffrage. This was a political party movement, intended to be radical and revolutionary, but it will, ultimately, react because it has not the sanction of public opinion.
If M. De Tocqueville could now search for a law that would negative this provision in its effect upon social equality, he would fail to find it. But he would find it in the unwritten law of the natural aversion of the races. He would find it in public opinion, which is the vital force in every law in a free government. This is a subject that our Constitution failed to regulate, because it was not contemplated by its authors. It is a question that will settle itself, without serious difficulty. The equality in the suffrage, thus guaranteed to the negro race, alone – for it was not intended to include other colored races – creates a new phase of political conditions that M. De Tocqueville could not foresee. Yet, in his commendation of the local town and county governments, he applauds and sustains that elementary feature of our political organization which, in the end, will render harmless this wide departure from the original plan and purpose of American Democracy. “Local Self-Government,” independent of general control, except for general purposes, is the root and origin of all free republican government, and is the antagonist of all great political combinations that threaten the rights of minorities. It is the public opinion formed in the independent expressions of towns and other small civil districts that is the real conservatism of free government. It is equally the enemy of that dangerous evil, the corruption of the ballot-box, from which it is now apprehended that one of our greatest troubles is to arise.
The voter is selected, under our laws, because he has certain physical qualifications – age and sex. His disqualifications, when any are imposed, relate to his education or property, and to the fact that he has not been convicted of crime. Of all men he should be most directly amenable to public opinion.
The test of moral character and devotion to the duties of good citizenship are ignored in the laws, because the courts can seldom deal with such questions in a uniform and satisfactory way, under rules that apply alike to all. Thus the voter, selected by law to represent himself and four other non-voting citizens, is often a person who is unfit for any public duty or trust. In a town government, having a small area of jurisdiction, where the voice of the majority of qualified voters is conclusive, the fitness of the person who is to exercise that high representative privilege can be determined by his neighbors and acquaintances, and, in the great majority of cases, it will be decided honestly and for the good of the country. In such meetings, there is always a spirit of loyalty to the State, because that is loyalty to the people, and a reverence for God that gives weight to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
M. De Tocqueville found in these minor local jurisdictions the theoretical conservatism which, in the aggregate, is the safest reliance of the State. So we have found them, in practice, the true protectors of the purity of the ballot, without which all free government will degenerate into absolutism.
In the future of the Republic, we must encounter many difficult and dangerous situations, but the principles established in the Constitution and the check upon hasty or inconsiderate legislation, and upon executive action, and the supreme arbitrament of the courts, will be found sufficient for the safety of personal rights, and for the safety of the government, and the prophetic outlook of M. De Tocqueville will be fully realized through the influence of Democracy in America. Each succeeding generation of Americans will find in the pure and impartial reflections of De Tocqueville a new source of pride in our institutions of government, and sound reasons for patriotic effort to preserve them and to inculcate their teachings. They have mastered the power of monarchical rule in the American Hemisphere, freeing religion from all shackles, and will spread, by a quiet but resistless influence, through the islands of the seas to other lands, where the appeals of De Tocqueville for human rights and liberties have already inspired the souls of the people.
Hon. John T. Morgan
Nearly two-thirds of a century has elapsed since the appearance of “Democracy in America,” by Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, born at Paris, July 29, 1805.
Bred to the law, he exhibited an early predilection for philosophy and political economy, and at twenty-two was appointed judge-auditor at the tribunal of Versailles.
In 1831, commissioned ostensibly to investigate the penitentiary system of the United States, he visited this country, with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, travelling extensively through those parts of the Republic then subdued to settlement, studying the methods of local, State, and national administration, and observing the manners and habits, the daily life, the business, the industries and occupations of the people.
“Democracy in America,” the first of four volumes upon “American Institutions and their Influence,” was published in 1835. It was received at once by the scholars and thinkers of Europe as a profound, impartial, and entertaining exposition of the principles of popular, representative self-government.
Napoleon, “The mighty somnambulist of a vanished dream,” had abolished feudalism and absolutism, made monarchs and dynasties obsolete, and substituted for the divine right of kings the sovereignty of the people.
Although by birth and sympathies an aristocrat, M. de Tocqueville saw that the reign of tradition and privilege at last was ended. He perceived that civilization, after many bloody centuries, had entered a new epoch. He beheld, and deplored, the excesses that had attended the genesis of the democratic spirit in France, and while he loved liberty, he detested the crimes that had been committed in its name. Belonging neither to the class which regarded the social revolution as an innovation to be resisted, nor to that which considered political equality the universal panacea for the evils of humanity, he resolved by personal observation of the results of democracy in the New World to ascertain its natural consequences, and to learn what the nations of Europe had to hope or fear from its final supremacy.
That a youth of twenty-six should entertain a design so broad and bold implies singular intellectual intrepidity. He had neither model nor precedent. The vastness and novelty of the undertaking increase admiration for the remarkable ability with which the task was performed.
Were literary excellence the sole claim of “Democracy in America” to distinction, the splendor of its composition alone would entitle it to high place among the masterpieces of the century. The first chapter, upon the exterior form of North America, as the theatre upon which the great drama is to be enacted, for graphic and picturesque description of the physical characteristics of the continent is not surpassed in literature: nor is there any subdivision of the work in which the severest philosophy is not invested with the grace of poetry, and the driest statistics with the charm of romance. Western emigration seemed commonplace and prosaic till M. de Tocqueville said, “This gradual and continuous progress of the European race toward the Rocky Mountains has the solemnity of a providential event; it is like a deluge of men rising unabatedly, and daily driven onward by the hand of God!”
The mind of M. de Tocqueville had the candor of the photographic camera. It recorded impressions with the impartiality of nature. The image was sometimes distorted, and the perspective was not always true, but he was neither a panegyrist, nor an advocate, nor a critic. He observed American phenomena as illustrations, not as proof nor arguments; and although it is apparent that the tendency of his mind was not wholly favorable to the democratic principle, yet those who dissent from his conclusions must commend the ability and courage with which they are expressed.
Though not originally written for Americans, “Democracy in America” must always remain a work of engrossing and constantly increasing interest to citizens of the United States as the first philosophic and comprehensive view of our society, institutions, and destiny. No one can rise even from the most cursory perusal without clearer insight and more patriotic appreciation of the blessings of liberty protected by law, nor without encouragement for the stability and perpetuity of the Republic. The causes which appeared to M. de Tocqueville to menace both, have gone. The despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of majorities, the absence of intellectual freedom which seemed to him to degrade administration and bring statesmanship, learning, and literature to the level of the lowest, are no longer considered. The violence of party spirit has been mitigated, and the judgment of the wise is not subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.
Other dangers have come. Equality of conditions no longer exists. Prophets of evil predict the downfall of democracy, but the student of M. de Tocqueville will find consolation and encouragement in the reflection that the same spirit which has vanquished the perils of the past, which he foresaw, will be equally prepared for the responsibilities of the present and the future.
The last of the four volumes of M. de Tocqueville’s work upon American institutions appeared in 1840.
In 1838 he was chosen member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. In 1839 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He became a member of the French Academy in 1841. In 1848 he was in the Assembly, and from June 2nd to October 31st he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. The coup d'état of December 2, 1851 drove him from the public service. In 1856 he published “The Old Regime and the Revolution.” He died at Cannes, April 15, 1859, at the age of fifty-four.
Hon. John J. Ingalls