Equality and Democracy: De Tocqueville 2

Alexis de Tocqueville was more than a writer. He was an active participant in the political affairs of France. Over the course of his life, he engaged in French politics and served in the French government. He believed that Europe had entered a new, democratic phase of its history, an historic movement that was irreversible. His interest in America was, therefore, motivated by an interest in what could be learned from the character of American democracy that might aid the development of democratic institutions in France and in the rest of Europe.

As previously indicated, by the time that de Tocqueville wrote his book, the American Revolution was seen as successful, while the French Revolution was seen as a disastrous failure. The Reign of Terror and the rise and fall of Napoleon had plunged France into economic, political and military disaster, and the years following the restoration were troubled. The battle cry of the French Revolution was, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” In the end, what France experienced was dictatorship, continued inequality, and social disintegration. It was natural that de Tocqueville would be interested in the way in which liberty and a sense of equality developed in America. [1]

Freedom and Liberty

The major emphasis of Volume 2 of Democracy in America is an analysis of the requirements of political freedom as they coordinate with human equality. [2] His analysis is important for us, because the relationship between equality and political freedom is no less important today than in the 19th Century. He begins Volume 2 of Democracy in America with this observation:

Everybody has remarked that in our time, and especially in France, this passion for equality is every day gaining ground in the human heart. It has been said a hundred times that our contemporaries are far more ardently and tenaciously attached to equality than to freedom, but as I do not find that causes of the fact have been sufficiently analyzed, a I shall endeavor to point them out. [3]

It is fair to say that the entirety of Volume 2 of Democracy in America is a long commentary on this statement.

The struggle of the French Revolution had been to accomplish two goals: political freedom and enfranchisement and equality for the people of France. In order to understand de Tocqueville’s interest in the problem of equality, it is important to look briefly at the circumstances that gave rise to the French Revolution. Pre-Revolutionary France was characterized by extreme social inequality. The monarchy was absolute and supported by an aristocracy that controlled most of the land and wealth of the nation. This aristocracy controlled the affairs of the nation, but did not pay a proportionate share of the cost of supporting the national ambitions of France. The French Revolution thus set out to create political and social equality, which by the time of de Tocqueville’s death had led to an interest in socialist alternatives, which he opposed.

De Tocqueville begins his analysis of the situation in France and America by noting that it is perfectly possible to have equality without freedom in the political sense of that word. [4] In addition, since the benefits of equality are more readily and easily seen than the benefits of freedom and political liberty, there is always a danger that the drive for equality will end up destroying freedom. Thus, de Tocqueville notes:

I think our democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom, and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. [5]

In writing these words, de Tocqueville saw himself as issuing a warning of the danger that an emphasis on equality posed to a functional democracy.

Conflict between Freedom and Equality as Social Goals

There is an inherent potential conflict between freedom and equality as social goals. Freedom by its nature allows individuals to pursue their own personal goals, economic, political and otherwise. The results of freedom are not immediately apparent in any area of life. For example, if I am free to begin a business, the results of that business may be a long time in developing. If I am free to begin a new political party, that new political party may be a long time in growing. If I am free to proclaim a religious or moral belief that religion or belief may take a long time to gain a following. If my views are correct, it may take a long time for them to be implemented.

The benefits of equality, on the other hand, are more immediately felt. To the extent the government redistributes wealth and I am a beneficiary, I immediately feel the improvement in my economic situation. If I am a member of a disadvantaged group and the government takes steps to create equality, I immediately feel the improvement in my situation. This leads, de Tocqueville believes, to a preference for equality over freedom that can result in a loss of freedom. Thus, the passions of the people can inadvertently destroy the freedom they have sought through creating democratic institutions.

Conflict between Individualism and Community

De Tocqueville goes on to show that there is also a conflict between Individualism, which is the inevitable result of freedom and a sense of community, which is the ground of any form of true and voluntary equality:

Our fathers were only acquainted with …selfishness. Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of a community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with this family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.  [6]

In other words, for most people there is a tendency to use freedom, even an unselfish freedom, to create a “personal social space” in which most people prefer to spend their lives. In this personal space, it is easy to forget the political connections that make freedom to have this social space possible. Under these conditions, despotism of one kind or another, was a danger. [7]

How America Overcame the Dangers of Equality and Selfishness

There were several important aspects of American society, which de Tocqueville believed worked to limit the dangers of the kind of descent into despotism that France had experienced. Among the most important were:

  1. Federalism. By the maintenance of many interlocking and interdependent governmental levels from townships and local communities to the states and national government, democratic social life and responsibility were present at all levels of social organization. [8]
  2. Public Associations. Beyond the existence of federal political institutions, more than any other nation, 19thCentury Americans bound themselves together with a variety of private associations, institutions that were and are private, public, economic, social and religious that encourage social bonds, pursuance of common objectives, respect for others, and which maintain and develop public interest. These are what are elsewhere called, “mediating institutions.” [9]
  3. Media. The newspapers of de Tocqueville’s day, like the media of today, allowed persons of common views to “meet daily” and develop common bonds. In addition, the media allowed persons holding views to have these views disseminated and to impact public discourse. [10]
  4. Political Associations. Among the private associations that American form are political associations, not just political parties but associations designed to influence government in a particular course of action or to solve various political issues. These associations give private citizens, who would be individually powerless the ability to influence the course of democratic government.
  5. Religious Associations. As indicated last week, and which will be the subject of the next blog, the absence of an established religion and the resulting cooperation and competition among these institutions is also a democratic mediating institution that gives stability to American democracy and which tends to limit human selfishness and isolation. [11]
  6. Democratic Economic Activity. This element is hard to put into this summary format, but de Tocqueville recognizes that the centralization of wealth in Europe, and the relative poverty of the mass of citizens, worked to divide people and create an aristocracy that enjoyed the privileges of wealth without the necessity to work. In America, however, everyone rich and poor sought the physical well-being that wealth can provide, and interestingly this did not injure the political stability of American democracy. Thus, the search for wealth is not necessarily contrary to creation of a sound democratic social order. [12]


I am going to bring this week’s blog to a close here—though there is great deal more that might be said. Next week, I am going to deal with de Tocqueville’s views on the role of religion in American democracy, indeed on any form of stable polity. This series of blogs began with, and intends to end with, a discussion of religion in public life in our largely secular, multi-cultural society. De Tocqueville’s views will be surprising to some, but they are still relevant today.

This week we focused on an enduring problem for democratic societies: how to balance individual freedom with a measure of social equality. De Tocqueville believed that one danger to American democracy was the way in which a desire for equality can actually damage the human need for freedom and end in a kind of democratic despotism. He also felt that the America of his day had found a way around this danger because of the structure of certain of its social institutions. Many of the institutions he mentions either do not exist today or exist in a much different way than he experienced in early 19th Century America. It is our challenge of find ways to create mediating institutions in our day that can protect our democracy from decay.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] De Tocqueville believed that the French Revolution was ruined by an over-reliance on the abstract revolutionary philosophy of the French Enlightenment and the attempt to arbitrarily alter ling established institutions without practical experience on the part of the revolutionaries. De Tocqueville’s last work was “The Old Regime and the Revolution” in which he analyzed the failures of the French Revolution.

[2] 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).

[3] Id, at Volume 2, Chapter 1, page 201.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 204.

[6] Id, at 205.

[7] Id, Book 2, Chapter 4, at 210ff.

[8] Id, at 211-213.

[9] Id, at Book 2, Chapter 5, pp 214-219.

[10] Id, at Book 2, Chapter 6, pp 220-223.

[11] Id, at book 2, Chapter 9, pp 231-233; Chapter 12-13, p .240-246.

[12] Id, Book 2, Chapters 11, pp 237-239.

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