Democracy in America No. 1

After the Federalist Papers, there is not a more important early document relevant to the American Constitution or American political philosophy than Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. [1] The book is all the more remarkable because it was written by a young French lawyer at the very beginning of his career, who demonstrates a remarkable ability to observe, analyze, and explain that would be unusual in a person of twice the age and experience. It is sometimes referred to as the premier work of political philosophy of the 19th Century, especially where democracy is the subject. I will be spending several weeks on this book.

In 1831, a twenty-six-year-old French aristocrat trained as a lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont, De Tocqueville, was asked by the French government to examine the American prison system. With a friend, he traveled throughout the new United States meeting prominent Americans, observing its culture, and researching both his analysis of American prisons and this larger goal of analyzing American democracy to explain its success to his European readers. [2]

His trip took him through New York to Michigan and Wisconsin, into Canada, to Massachusetts and Boston, to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Baltimore, then to back to Pennsylvania and Pittsburg and Ohio to Cincinnati, then through Tennessee to Nashville and Memphis, down the Mississippi River to Louisiana and New Orleans then north through the South Eastern United States of Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to Washington Dc and from their back to New York and home. He returned to France where he wrote Democracy in America, which became a success in Europe and especially in Britain.

The Purpose of Democracy in America

De Tocqueville began his Preface to the 12th edition with words that summarize his intentions, the condition of Europe in his day, and perhaps America in our day (speaking of himself):

His work was written fifteen years ago, with a mind constantly occupied by a single thought—that the advent of democracy as a governing power in the world’s affairs, universal and irresistible, was at hand. Let it be read over again and there will be found on every page a solemn warning that society changes its forms, humanity its conditions, and that new destinies are impending. [3]

De Tocqueville was a believer in democracy and in the historic emergence of democracy during the 18th and 19thcenturies. He felt that Europe was entering a democratic era. His plan was to analyze why the American democratic experiment succeeded while the French Revolution had failed and ended in terror and dictatorship. De Tocqueville wanted to look at the most successful and complete democratic experiment to see why it succeeded in hopes of influencing what he felt would be the future development of democracy in Europe. The book was a success all over Europe, but especially in England and France.

The Importance of the Book

Like De Tocqueville, the blogs of the past almost two years now have a single purpose: To think through a way of preserving the American democratic experiment in another generationOur democracy today faces its most serious threat since the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The changes in our society and in our government since the Second World War, and the accommodations that were made to face the Great Depression and the threats of Nazism, Communism, and radical terrorism, have both created and disclosed deep problems in our society. These problems need to be wisely and lovingly addressed.

We live in a dramatically different society than that of our founders and the America of the early 19th century. At the time of the founding and through the Civil War, America was an agrarian society. Today we live in a post-industrial culture, having already lived through the dramatic changes of the Industrial Revolution. We cannot just “go back to our Golden Age.”

In order to meet the political and economic challenges caused by the changes of the last three centuries, our government has grown large, with a large bureaucracy that De Tocqueville foresaw and warned against. The Presidency has moved from being the second most important branch with limited powers to being the head of a huge administrative state. The House of Representatives has also developed a huge staff, and the role of money in politics has resulted in a state of constant office-seeking and the need to placate large givers. The Senate has moved from being the representative of sovereign states appointed by them to being a popularly elected body, largely independent of state government. Our national courts have powers that the founders never dreamed that they would have.

American industrialization, and the emergence since the Second World War of a largely service economy driven by technological innovation, is far different from the agrarian society that gave birth to our freedoms. America has moved from being a colonial outpost far from the center of world civilization to being the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. Our economy is nearly a quarter of the world economy and our currency, the dollar, is the world’s reserve currency. The power of American culture is felt throughout the globe.

The emergence of large technologically sophisticated companies that control most of the media both national and local has changed the complexion of American political life dramatically. The materialism and sensualism of our national culture is far different from the culture of the founding generation and the pre-Civil War United States. A new destiny is impending as it always is in human history, but it is no longer certain that the emergence of a new destiny will not be a new Dark Age rather than the democratic age that De Tocqueville envisioned and for which he hoped. The future of America and of Western democracy lies in our hands and will be determined by the decisions we make as a nation and the actions we take.

Fundamental Causes of success of American Democracy

De Tocqueville identified three fundamental causes that he believed importance to the maintenance of American democracy:

  1. The geographic situation of the United States,
  2. The laws by which the United States is governed, and
  3. The manners and customs of the people. [4]

Each of these factors is either no longer clearly applicable, changing decaying, or under attack.

The Peculiar Situation

For a long time, in fact until after the Second World War, the United States was blessed to be far from both Europe and Asia, free of the worry of attack and free from what Washington called the “entangling alliances” of European life. The United States might choose to become involved in a foreign conflict, but was under no geographic necessity to do so. As De Tocqueville put it:

The Americans have no neighbors and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or conquest to dread, they require neither great taxes, nor large armies, nor great generals, and they have nothing to fear from a scourge with is more formidable to republics than all these evils combined, namely military glory. [5]

As a result of the Second World War, the development of nuclear weapons, advances in other military technologies and the development of a truly world economy, none of these benefits to American democracy are still in place. Missiles and planes from adversaries can reach our shores. Our economy is intertwined with the economies of most of the world, including those of our adversaries. We have the largest military establishment in the world, and since the Second World War have been embroiled in numerous military conflicts all over the world from Viet Nam, to Kosovo, to the Middle East. We have high taxes, and are vulnerable to economic dislocations from a number of sources.

The Laws by Which we are Governed

Democracy in America contains a close analysis of the Constitutional structure of our government. He was clear that De Tocqueville was not of the view that the exact structure of American democracy would be wisely implemented in Europe, but he did believe that the kind of laws by which America was governed were important to its democratic success. The America of the 19th Century was decentralized. De Tocqueville considered three legal aspects of American democracy as important to the stability of its democracy:

  1. The federal form of government which provided the security of a small government with the power of a great republic
  2. The local political institutions in towns and cities which limited the potential for abuse of power and trained citizens in the skills of free government.
  3. The way in which the American judicial system, local, state and federal, was empowered to check the impulses of the majority and prevented excesses.

De Tocqueville notes the importance of local townships and “town meetings” in forming a basic democratic impulse and capacity among the American people. [6] In America, before and after the American Revolution, the states were the ultimate sovereign entities, with only a weak attachment first to England then to the New United States. The states themselves were not intrusive governments and many, if not most decisions were made at the local level, a level at which every citizen could participate. Under these conditions the people developed local habits of democratic decision-making, including compromise and decision on basic issues.

After the Revolution, at the time of De Tocqueville’s visit, the states were still very strong and a sense of the limitations on the federal government was strong. In fact, De Tocqueville was not worried about the national government becoming the sole source of power, so much as he was interested in and concerned about the way in which the powers of the states might weaken the union.

In the past century the federal government gained dominance, and the development of huge cities made the use of local institutions to train citizens in democracy more difficult. This is another area in which today’s America looks very different than De Tocqueville’s. Today, few Americans live in small towns. The center of American life are large metropolises that have populations greater than anything imagined by the founders. Both the state and national governments are larger and more intrusive into local matters than was the case in the America of the early 19th Century. These developments present a challenge in allowing people to develop at a local level the kind of skills and social solidarity which De Tocqueville believed was at the root of the success of the American experiment. If his analysis is correct, it will be necessary to create a 21st Century replacement for the town meetings of 18th and 19th Century New England.

One of the principles of a workable democracy that we can draw from a reading of De Tocqueville is an understanding of the organic, relational roots of a functional democracy. In order to accomplish this, our national and state governments will have to encourage the development of the habits of democracy in neighborhoods and other smaller geographic and societal units.

Social Customs Underpinning of Effective Democracy [7]

Anglo-American Culture. De Tocqueville begins his analysis of American democracy by noting social factors that underpinned its effectiveness. The vast majority of immigrants, and the leaders of the nation shared what might be called an “Anglo-American culture.” The leadership of the nation was formed by the centuries of development of English common and constitutional law. There was a shared sense of personal and national destiny in the new world. This sense of shared society and destiny was made more effective by the experience of the colonies in self-government before the American Revolution.

Common Language. The fact that English was spoken from the East to the West and from the North to the South of America was important to De Tocqueville. In Europe the same space was characterized by numerous language groups, French, German, Dutch, English, Italian, Spanish and the Eastern European languages. This common language meant that there was also a common culture inheritance upon which a democracy might be built and have stability.

Common Religious Faith. De Tocqueville appreciated the way in which Christianity provided a unifying moral and spiritual life for the nation. [8] He was interested in the way in which Protestants, Catholics, and others worked together to support the democratic impulses of the people. He was particularly drawn to the way in which the Catholic faith, in which he was a participant, acted as an agent of democracy in America unlike its role in France. He believed that the way in which American society encouraged religious groups to live together under the assurance that no one group would become established, freed faith groups to form the morals and character of people without the danger of being coopted by power. This aspect of his thought is so important that it will require a separate treatment to do justice to the depth and significance of his thinking in this area.

Freedom of the Press. One area in which America was different than in France was the role of the press. In addition, the way in which the press was supported in America (advertising) was very different than the way the press was financed in Europe. In America, the First Amendment enshrines a kind of journalistic free for all with participants free to express opinions, and any opinion, provided the advertising revenue needed to support publication is present. De Tocqueville admitted that he was not an uncritical supporter of the situation and saw its dangers: [9] The press in America was no less inclined towards sensationalism and misstatement than that of France. It was no more accurate in recording the facts. The American press was perfectly capable of enhancing the passions of the masses: however, as De Tocqueville observes it can only enhance, not create passions. [10]

Freedom of the press is, as De Tocqueville notes, a correlative of majority rule: the formation of a majority requires a free press so that many views might be heard, however misguided or misstated they might be. In America, without the history of European control of the press was accustomed to this freedom—and aware of the way in which the need for advertising revenue and readership pushed the press in the direction of sensationalism.


As I look at this blog, I am aware that I have failed to adequately summarize the fullness of De Tocqueville’s argument. Perhaps more than any author I have covered, he needs to be personally read to get the full impact of his reasoning. This is why there are to be two or three more of these blogs on Democracy in America.

At the end of his Preface, De Tocqueville De Tocqueville gives his readers advice that is profoundly applicable to us today:

Let us look to America, not in order to make a servile copy of the institutions that she has established, but to gain a clearer view of the polity that will be the best for us, let us look there less to find examples than instruction; let us borrow from her the principles, rather than the details, of her laws. The laws of the French republic may be and indeed ought to be in many cases different from those which govern the United States, but the principles of order, of the balance of powers, of true liberty, of deep and sincere respect for rights are indispensable to all republics, they ought to be common to all; and it may be said beforehand that wherever they are not found the Republic will soon have ceased to exist. [11]

If I were to speak to the leaders of our own nation today, I would repeat to all them, left and right, of whatever party the same advice: If we want to wisely confront the problems of our nation today, let us look to our past, not in order to make a mere copy of the institutions that our founders established, but to gain a clearer view of the polity that will be the best for us.  Let us look our history to find instruction of basic examples of a wise democratic polity. Let us borrow from her the principles, rather than the details of her laws. The laws of a modern American republic may be and indeed ought to be in many cases different from those which governed us in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, but the principles of order, of a balance of powers, of true liberty protected by the laws and the courts, of a sincere respect for the rights of our fellow citizens—these are indispensable to all republics, they ought to be common to all; and it may be said beforehand that if they are not found our republic, it will soon cease to exist.

There is a lot more that might be said, which is why it will take several weeks to exhaust the importance of this book for an understanding of our democracy and of the stresses it faces even today. Stay tuned for more.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America tr. Henry Reeve, abridged by Patrick Renshaw (Herefordshire, UK: Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 1998), hereinafter “Democracy in America.” This is a one volume abridgement of the original two volume set published in 1835 (vol. 1) and 1840 (vol. 2).

[2] De Tocqueville did make a report on the American prisons of the early 19th Century.

[3] Democracy in America, Author’s Preface.

[4] Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 15, at 113.

[5] Id, at 113-4.

[6] Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 4, at 32.

[7] De Tocqueville uses the word customs in a way different from our ordinary use of the term. He uses the term to refer to the mores of a people, of the “habits of the heart” that characterize a particular society. Id, at 117.

[8] De Tocqueville spends a significant amount of his book writing about religion. Rather than try to cover the impact of religion in this blog, I am going to do another blog specifically on this aspect of his work.

[9] Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 10, at 78-79.

[10] Id.

[11] Democracy in America, Preface at 5.

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