Alexis De Tocqueville

The Frenchman Tocqueville was an avid writer and exposed the inner workings of American political culture.  Do you think an American would have had the same unbiased views?
The Frenchman Tocqueville was an avid writer and exposed the inner workings of American political culture. Do you think an American would have had the same unbiased views?

Democracy in America is a book written by Alexis De Tocqueville after he was sent from France to study democracy in America and the political culture that allowed it to be successful. Tocqueville discussed the structure and institutions that help to maintain democracy in American society. He explains what he sees as the effects of the democracy on society as a whole. Tocqueville points out some of the positives and shortcomings of democracy which are, the love of freedom, drive for equality and possibly tyranny of the majority, individualism and people’s need for material possessions. Tocqueville set out to examine democracy in the New World and although he saw that some people were richer or poorer and except for those enslaved, Americans were driven toward equality for all. The opportunities for their futures in America were equal and open from the very beginning. The poor were driven to be rich with the desire to be equal. Alexis De Tocqueville discusses the effects of inheritance laws and how they cause a cycle of turnover between the rich and poor. He states, “Wealth circulates with inconceivable rapidity and experience shows that it is rare to find two succeeding generations in the full enjoyment of it”(Tocqueville, 6). Another aspect Tocqueville was amazed with was the vast number of associations in America. Americans formed groups or associations to deal with almost any aspect of their lives such as, public order, industry, morality, religion, and politics. American political associations promoted their causes through the liberty of writing and the power of meeting. The power of the association helped spread American democracy and develop the political culture. One of the things that bothered Tocqueville about democracy was that when the citizens of a society are equal, the majority has absolute sovereignty. Tocqueville felt that a majority where everyone is equal, that majority could abuse it’s power. It would be like there was a single absolute ruler. Tocqueville did not feel this was the case at the time in America but that it could happen in the future with anarchy being the result.

This piece, written by the French "liberal politician and writer" expressed his general observations of American Society.  Does this document serve as a doctrine for American political culture? Why?
This piece, written by the French "liberal politician and writer" expressed his general observations of American Society. Does this document serve as a doctrine for American political culture? Why?

Tocqueville’s Life
Alexis De Tocqueville was born in 1805 into an aristocratic family. He studied law and became a judge in France. Tocqueville was convinced, due to political events in the early 19th century, the aristocratic government in France would soon be replaced by a democratic one. Tocqueville and de Beaumont planned a trip to America to learn about how democracy worked and the behaviors of the citizens. He spent nine months traveling across America gathering information. Tocqueville returned to France to write Democracy in America.

Tenets of Democracy in America:

Property, Wealth, and the Hierarchy of Power

The death of every proprietor brings about a kind of revolution in property; not only do his possessions change hands which in itself brings about a revolution of the property and material wealth, but the nature of them is altered. Since they are divided up into shares, they become smaller and smaller with each and every division. this means that money is power. When one person has it, he or she is to be respected. But, when multiple people are granted a portion of that money, the power is redistributed and the power is not as strong collectively. The divisions create weaknesses as the power is no longer in an organized and uniform central power.
In the olden days, land was power, but now when it is divided to multiple parties, the one estate is no longer a symbol of power but a price in which the highest bidder can pay. People are now willing to sell their land for capital in disregard for the history the one undivided piece of land contained and the power in which it emanated. As Tocqueville states, “The family represents the estate, the estate the family; whose name, together with its origin, its glory, and its power and virtues, is thus perpetuated in an imperishable memorial of the past, and a sure pledge of the future.”
Also Tocqueville illustrates that the “equal partition” of property is established by the law, and once the business transaction is complete, all of the “intimate connection” is destroyed between the family feeling and no longer is the estate being preserved in its most natural and powerful state. Tocqueville says that what is said to be called family pride is often founded upon an illusion of self-love. He also went on to say that once land is divided, it never returns again to the state in which it flourished with power and influence. People are in favor of selling, as “floating capital produces higher interest than real property,” and because money is so readily available and produces greater interest than property itself.
Tocqueville says that wealth circulates with an unknown path and rate and that according to his experience and endeavors, two generations in succession of each other do not generally reap the benefits and the full enjoyment of the wealth.

Social Condition and Essential Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville believed that a social condition is commonly the result of circumstances, sometimes of the law, and more often when theses two factors combine. But, he said, wherever it exists, it may justly be considered the source of all laws, interpretations of the law, and ideas that dictate the conduct of nations. Furthermore, Alexis stated, “whatever it does not produce, it modifies.” He later says that the social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; so that “their character was at the foundation of the colonies, and is still strongly marked to this day.” Emigrants were said to have settled on shores of New England with great equality and the “seed of aristocracy” had not been planted. After numerous struggles with the mother-country, democratic tendencies were awakened in America as they sought independence. Tocqueville went on to say that the influence of individuals gradually ceased to be felt and custom and law were united together to produce the same effect. Politicians are not only the symbol of American political culture, but also a nation’s condition as they exercise an incredible influence upon its social state. Politicians, he says, have a uniform manner of operating in society in which can affect future generations.

Public Opinion

Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that in modern times, public opinion is weighed and measured on a continuous basis, primarily through the use of public opinion polls. Many polls are conducted by news organizations, academic researchers, commercial polling firms, or political and campaign institutions. He says that polls can easily be manipulated and mismanaged, but can provide a snapshot or very broad picture of Americans’ views on a variety of subjects. But, he goes on to say, American political culture is extremely hard to amount. He says that conclusions and analyses are likely to be filled with “assumptions and over-generalizations,“ and often neglect the views of the minorities and subcultures. Later, he states Alexis mentions that Americans might have a tough time identifying common sets of beliefs and trends in government and politics. So, the best way to understand American political culture, he believes, is to see ourselves through the eyes of people from other cultures.

Political Associations
Tocqueville believes that the principle of association has been the most successful and most applied to our culture than any other country. There are not only permanent associations that are established by law, there are another vast number of other associations formed and maintained by the private citizen. Kids are taught to rely on his own abilities and to only rely on assistance when he or she is unable to shift without it. In the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. “ An association consists simply in the public assent which a number of individuals give to certain doctrines... When an opinion is represented by a society, it necessarily assumes a more exact explicit for”(9-10). Associations unites the efforts and minds which tend to diverge into a single channel that urges people towards one single end. Another right of association is that people have the power to meet with each other. Alexis de Tocqueville believes that associations are important to the way America works.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the principle of equality may be established in a civil society, without prevailing in the political world. He is saying that in a civil society equality can be reached even if men do not have all the same say in the government. A kind of equality may even be established in the political world if a man is a master of all without distinction and selects equally through his agents of power. “Political liberty bestows exalted pleasures, from time to time, upon a certain number of citizens.” He is saying that not everybody can share the same pleasures and that political liberty does favor some people. “Men cannot enjoy political liberty unless it has been purchased by some sacrifices, and they never obtain it without great exertions.” He is saying that in order to get advantages with political liberty you need to make sacrifices and work hard to get ahead of people. Alexis de Tocqueville believes that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom cherish the freedom they do have but always seem to want more. He is saying that when people get freedom they always want even more even if it is not possible for society to function with more freedom.

Review Questions

1)Where was Alexis De Tocqueville originally from?

2)What was the purpose of his trip to America?

3)What was one negative Tocqueville saw in democracy?

4)By what method did Alexis de Tocqueville conclude measured public opinion?

5) What country did he feel that associations played the biggest role in its society?

Vocabulary words

Tyranny- a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.

Associations- an organization of people with a common purpose and
having a formal structure.

Sovereignty- supreme and independent power of authority in

Anarchy- a state of society

Further Reading

Where to buy

1) France
2) He was sent from France to study democracy in America and the political culture that allowed it to be successful.
3) Possibly tyranny of the majority
4)Public Opinion Polls
5)United States