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SOCB42 - Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy In America

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University of Toronto Scarborough
Dan Silver

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America Democracy as a Way of Life (Author’s Agenda) Author’s Introduction (p. 3-15)  Equality of conditions had an enormous influence on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirits, a certain turns to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed  In France, right of command passes from generation to generation by inheritance. There was only on origin of power – landed property  Political power of the clergy comes to be founded and soon spreads. The clergy opens its ranks to all; equality penetrates through the church to the heart of the government  As society becomes more civilized and stable, the need for civil law makes itself keenly felt, the influence of money begins to make itself felt in the affairs of the state, trade becomes a new source opening the way to power and financiers become a political power that is scorned and flattered o Value of birth declines  As soon as citizens began to own land other than by feudal tenure, and transferable wealth was recognized, and could in its turn create influence and give power, discoveries in the arts could not be made, nor improvements in commerce and industry be introduced, without creating almost as many new elements of equality among men o The most superficial passions of the human heart as well as the most profound, seem to work in concert to impoverish the rich and enrich the poor  The Crusades and the wars with the English decimate the nobles and divide their lands; the institution of townships introduces democratic freedom into the heart of the feudal monarchy; the discovery of firearms equalizes the battlefield, etc. – America presents a thousand new routes for fortune and delivers wealth and power to the obscure adventurer  The gradual development of equality of conditions is a providential fact, and it has the principal characteristic of one: it is universal, it is enduring, each day it escapes human power; all events serve its development  Democracy has been abandoned to its savage instincts; it has grown up like those children who, deprived of paternal care, rear themselves in the streets of our towns and know only society’s vices and miseries  The democratic revolution has taken place in the material of society without making the change in laws, ideas, habits, and mores that would have been necessary to make this revolution useful  Society is tranquil not because it is conscious of its force and well-being, but on the contrary, because it believes itself weak and infirm; it fears it will die if it makes an effort Chapter 2: On the Point of Departure and its Importance for the Future of the Anglo- Americans (p. 27-45)  This chapter provides the germ of all that is to follow  Immigrants to America all shared a common language. In addition, the English heritage provided them with the knowledge and experience of local self-government, and the idea of sovereignty of the people was deeply rooted in the Tudor monarchy o Because of religious influences, the people had chaste mores  The land in America is not suitable for aristocracy because it is too difficult to handle and not fertile enough to provide enough support for both a landlord and a tenant. As a result, a large middle class formed  There are two branches of colonies: the South and the North o The South began with Virginian settlers who were in search of gold and profit. These settlers had generally low moral standards, and almost immediately established slavery. These factors explain the mores and social conditions in the South o In the North, all the immigrants came from educated classes. They left the comforts of home because of their belief in Puritanism, which is not just a religious doctrine but also contains the most absolute democratic theories. The Pilgrims established an orderly society immediately upon landing in 1620, and the colony grew rapidly because of continued immigration  It was a society homogenous in all its parts, the most perfect democracy that ever existed  The English government encouraged the colonists and was actually glad that they left England because they were seen as potential revolutionaries. o The colonies enjoyed great internal freedom o The settlers did not deny England’s rule, but they did not take their internal ruling power from England o They organized themselves independently  Criminal law in New England was based on Biblical moral codes. The laws were extremely strict and invasive. However, these were self-imposed and freely agreed upon o The people’s mores were even more strict than their laws  The political laws were well ahead of their time, and included such features as participation of the people in public affairs, individual freedom, trial by jury etc. There was almost perfect equality of wealth and intellect among the citizens o While the state was officially a monarchy, local independence flourished, and each township was organized as a republic  The laws demonstrated great knowledge of advanced social and political theory o Include provisions for the poor and public education (on the grounds that ignorance is an ally of the devil). In this way, the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom were combined o In the sphere of morality everything was absolute, but in the sphere of politics everything was open to debate  As a result, religion and political freedom mutually supported one another  Religion is better off if it gains support without state coercion, and political freedom is strengthened by religion because it helps to create and maintain good mores, which are necessary for the responsible use of freedom  One needs to distinguish between elements of Puritan origin and elements of English origin. There are some laws in America which does not seem to fit their ideology, but which are simply a result of English influence. Such laws provide a slight aristocratic element Chapter 3: Social State of the Anglo-Americans (p. 45-52)  The social state is the primary cause of most laws, and in America the social state is the “eminently democratic.”  There was a high degree of equality among immigrants, and people were respected on the basis of intellect and virtue  The South has rich landowners and slaves, but is not quite an aristocracy because there are no aristocratic privileges  The laws of inheritance in America yielded the final advance of equality. If inheritance law requires equal sharing of property among the children, the land will be continually broken up and great landed fortunes will be nearly impossible to sustain o The connection between the land and the family name which exists when there are laws of primogeniture is eradicated o As a result, wealth circulates in American with great rapidity  There is not only equality in wealth, but also equality in education o None are totally ignorant and few are highly educated o There is no class with both the taste and leisure for intellectual pleasure o This state of affairs creates a “middling standard” o There is no aristocratic element in the society  For equality in the political sphere, either every citizen or no citizen can have rights. The passion for equality often overrides the desire for freedom; consequently people often surrender freedom for the sake of equality Chapter 4: The Principle of Sovereignty of the People in America (p.53-55)  The sovereignty of the people is recognized by both mores and laws in America  In the colonies, this principle spread secretly within the provincial assemblies  With the advent of the Revolution, the dogma of sovereignty of the people took possession of the government and was coded into law  The upper classes complied to this principle in order to gain the goodwill of the people and enacted legislation which strengthened it  Voting qualifications were progressively eradicated. In America, the people really do rule Chapter 5: Necessity of Studying What Takes Place in the Particular States before Speaking of the Government of the Unions (p.63-65)  The township has independence and power over its own sphere  Because of its power and strength it wins the affection of its inhabitants o Taking away this local self-governance will give a country docile subjects but not citizens  People are unwilling generally to work for matters that do not affect their private interest. As a result, few are willing to try for high government offices which are hard to get and which are out of direct sphere of personal interests o Since practical service is necessary to maintain patriotism, giving people the responsibility to govern areas directly related to their interest is necessary for the fostering of a sense of civic duty  In the townships, the government really emanates from the governed, so people are proud of and respect it. This practice of governing in the township acts as civic education, giving citizens clear ideas of duties and rights Preface to Part 2 (p. 165)  Above all the institutions and outside all the forms resides a sovereign power, that of the people, which destroys them or modifies them at its will  “it remains to me to make known the ways by which this power, dominant over the laws, proceeds; what are its instincts, its passions; what secret springs drive it, slow it down, or direct it in its irresistible advance; what effects its omnipotence produces, and what future is in store for it” Preface to Volume 2: Notice (p. 399-400)  The Americans have a democratic social state that has naturally suggested to them certain laws and political mores, giving birth to a multitude of sentiments and opinions among them that were unknown in the old aristocratic societies of Europe  Equality is not the sole cause for this change, different causes, distinct from equality, would be encountered in Europe and would explain a great part of what is taking place there Chapter 8: General View of the Subject (p.673-676)  The general influence of growing equality on mankind is remarkable. Never in the past have conditions been more equal.  There are fewer grand and heroic virtues or individuals, but life in general is more comfortable and mores are more humane and gentle  Everything tends towards the middle. The growth of equality is inevitable, but people do have the power to shape the effects of that equality for better or worse Democratic Societies and Democratic Politics (Distinguishing Level of Analysis) Chapter 6: What are the Real Advantages That American Society derives From the Government of Democracy (p.220-235)  The defects of democracy are obvious, but the advantages can only be seen in the long run. Laws in America “are often defective or incomplete.”  Democracy’s laws tend toward the good of the greatest number, but an aristocracy is much more skilled in legislation  Democracy’s lack of skill is not fatal, however, because mistakes are retrievable  The people keep watch on the actions of their legislators and make sure they are not deviating from the public interest. Legislators may not be highly skilled, but they will never pursue aims hostile to the majority  There are two types of patriotism: one type stems from an instinctive love, based on feeling rather than reason, and is often ephemeral. The other is a more rational and lasting patriotism, engendered by enlightenment and mingled with personal interest o The best way to promote this more stead patriotism is to make people take a personal interest in their country’s fate by giving them a share in government o This is what the United States has done, and the result is that Americans are extremely patriotic  Rights are absolutely essential for a cohesive and prosperous society. In America, because everyone has some sort of property, all recognize the right of property in principle o Likewise, the democratic government makes the idea of political rights penetrate right down to the last citizen  A moral and religious conception of rights seems to be disappearing; therefore it is absolutely essential to link the idea of rights to personal interest. o America has been able to do this by giving people political rights from the beginning, but in other countries it may be difficult to extend political rights because, having been deprived of rights for so long, the people may use them unwisely  Giving the people a part in lawmaking can result in a lower quality of legislation but also can give the laws greater moral strength o In America, people have a personal interest in obeying the laws, even laws which they disagree with, because they know at some point they will share the opinion of the majority and will want the minority to follow the law as well o While the rich may often be in the minority, their discontent is not dangerous because their wealth makes breaking the law too risky  The rush of political activity always present in the United States is remarkable. There is always people calling for reform, lobbying for a cause, or expressing some concern  The American’s greatest pleasure comes from talking about and taking a hand in the government of society. These habits are a great guard against despotism  While the people may not manage public affairs well, it is good for society anyway because taking responsibility for government broadens people’s concerns beyond their own interests and makes them care for society at large  Things may not be done well, but many things are accomplished because of the extraordinary amount of political energy and activity.  Democracy does not engender great virtue or nobility, but it also lessens the number of great crimes and increases general well-being Chapter 7: The Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and its Effects (p.235-249)  The essence of democratic government is the sovereignty of the majority’s will o Americans want their legislators to be elected directly and to serve short terms in office so that the people have more chances to exert their influence o The legislature is also the most powerful branch of the government. In some states, even the judges are elected by majority vote  The moral authority of the majority stems from “the theory of equality applied to brains” that is, since everyone’s opinion is of equal worth, the best opinion must be the opinion of the majority o The majority’s authority is further strengthened by the idea that the interest of the greater number should take precedence over that of the lesser number  These ideas have not created class antagonisms in the United States because most colonial settlers were already relatively equal in status, wealth and education. In addition, most people support the rights of the majority because the hope one day to profit from them  The vices of democracy increase with the growing power of the majority. For instance, legislative instability plagues the United States, because the legislative power is most influenced by the will of the majority’s sovereign o As a result, American laws have an extremely short duration, and execution of the laws is unstable as well o The public easily becomes impassioned to fight for certain causes, but when achieving goals require patience and tenacity, they quickly give up  Justice places boundaries on the will of the majority. If a single person can abuse authority against his adversaries, a majority can do the same against a minority o For a society to function, it is necessary to have some social power superior to all others, but that power is dangerous when there is no obstacle to restrain and moderate it  The biggest problem with the democratic government of the United States is not its weakness but its overwhelming strength, and the shortage of guarantees against tyranny  There is no one to whom a person can turn if has suffered injustice, because everything is controlled by the majority o The fact that America has not yet fallen into this tyranny of the majority is due not to its governmental institutions or laws but to its mores  The majority allows the magistrates to have a large amount of arbitrary power because it knows that they are constantly under its supervision o It treats them as a master treats his servants if, always seeing them under his eyes, he could direct or correct them at any moment  Control of public though is the most complete from of tyranny. In America, once the majority’s opinion has be pronounced, no one contradicts it o There is extremely little independence of mind and freedom of discussion o People who disagree with the majority have no other power to who they can resort for help, because the majority is the sole authority and source of strength o This control extends over writing as well as speech  There may be no official restrictions on writing, but if a person challenges the opinion of the majority, all doors professionally and socially are shut to him  In democratic republics, tyranny leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul. This tyranny of the majority is the reason for the lack of literary genius in America, because great writers need freedom of spirit o Right now the power of the majority is well-used, because mores are good, but it may not always be so  The rareness of outstanding politicians in America is due to the despotism of the majority o In democracies the temptation to live off one’s passions is much greater than in monarchies or aristocracies, and the result is that standards of conduct in general are lowered  When speaking to people in private one finds that their opinions differ and that they may criticize the government, but in public everyone seems to be of one mind  Politicians in the United States are of such poor quality because they are the flatteners of the majority and have submitted themselves to its tyranny in order to gain power  The power directing society in a democracy may be unstable, but is extremely strong o America thus has to fear tyranny much more than anarchy, and if anarchy comes about it will be the result of tyranny driving the minority to desperation  Tocqueville quotes Jefferson, who writes that it is necessary “to guard one part of society against the injustice of the other part,” and that “the tyranny of the legislature is the most formidable dread at present” Chapter 5: On the Political Effects of Administrative Decentralization in the United States (p.82-93)  As one goes farther from New England, one sees the diminishing power of the township and the increasing power of the country  The main governing principle that underlies the organization of the township and country is that each is the best judge of his own interest and is best able to provide for his own needs  Tocqueville summarizes his description of municipal government in America by stating: “election of administrative officers, irremovability from office, absence of administrative hierarchy, and the use of judicial weapons to control secondary authorities are the chief characteristics of American administration from Maine to the Floridas”  The most striking feature of the government is its decentralization Chapter 3: Freedom of the Press in the United States (p.172-180)  Freedom of press is necessary because the only real alternative to it is complete despotism o Especially in a society where the people are sovereign, censorship would be inherently contradictory to the overriding societal principles  The press has less power in the United States than it does in France, because attacking existing laws in the United States is not revolutionary; in fact it is perfectly acceptable  The force of the press is also lessened because freedom of the press is not a novelty in the United States, it is decentralized, and the people tend to react passionately to anything that does not affect their material interests  Decentralization has particularly strong effects – it prevents people from being unified by a single current opinion, but it also tends to result in poor journalism because there is an excessive number of papers and not enough talented journalists  Recognizing the lack of journalistic competence, the people generally do not take the journalists’ opinions seriously, but simply focus on the facts  The power of the press is immense simply because it allows all people to remain informed about politics  People in America tend to stubbornly stick to their opinions, simply because they chose them  So many opinions are floating about that people tend to distrust all of them, and end up focusing mostly on tangible, material interests Chapter 4: Political Association in the United States (p.180-186)  Americans use the right of assembly more frequently and effectively than anywhere else in the world  The right of association is related to the freedom to write, but associations are more powerful than the press  Political associations can become extremely powerful, even dangerously so. While freedom of press is the constitutive element in freedom and therefore cannot be limited, the freedom of association may have to be limited  In America, however, there are no limitations. Its danger has been seen already, however, in the nullification crisis South Carolina  Yet in spite of the danger, unlimited freedom of association is good in the United States because it is a guarantee against the tyranny of the majority  Association is natural to human beings, and is therefore an inalienable right  In the United States, as opposed to Europe, associations are primarily peaceful and use legal means, precisely because they know that such means can indeed have an effect  Universal suffrage is perhaps the best guarantee against the violence of political associations in the United States, because no association can claim to represent a majority  It is obvious that association represent only a minority, and thus their moral force is diminished Chapter 8: What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States (p.250-264)  While America is highly centralized governmentally, its administration is very decentralized. o As a result, the majority, though it often has a despot’s tastes and instincts, still lacks the most improved instruments of tyranny  The central government operates only within a limited sphere, and consequently the tyranny of the majority is limited to that small sphere as well o In addition, the majority does not have the administrative ability to enforce its will everywhere  Lawyers act as an aristocratic class, tempering the negative effects of democracy o From their studies, lawyers derive a taste for order and formalities, and a dislike for the whims and passions of democracy o Lawyers’ knowledge also makes them a somewhat privileged class, and their common profession provides a common link among them o Lawyers love order above all, and as a result they are conservative and supportive of authority  In a democracy, lawyers are especially able to gain political power because they step into the place that the rich and nobles would occupy in an aristocracy  The people do not dislike lawyers because they come from among their own ranks. They therefore have a unique capability to mingle an aristocratic element into a democracy  The aristocrat element in lawyers is due not only to their knowledge but also to the type of laws that exist in the United States. o Because laws are often founded on precedent, it is difficult for the common people to follow them on their own o Where laws are all simply written out, as in France, lawyers are not needed as much and are not respected as highly  For the most part, lawyers and judges influence democracy through the courts. Laws diminishing judicial power, especially making judges elected officials and subjecting them to frequent re- election, are extremely harmful to a democracy  The influence of lawyers can be seen in that while political laws are constantly changing, civil laws over which lawyers have great influence have changed so little that they are practically outdated  Even beyond its official powers, the laws influence spreads out into all areas of political life o Legal language is often used, and most publi
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