The book was written in French, and its title is actually On Democracy in America, although we commonly leave off the initial preposition.
That author was Alexis de Tocqueville, born in 1805 into a family of Norman aristocrats who had survived the French Revolution, had lived in exile in England, and had returned to Napoleonic France. In 1831, at age 26 already a deputy in parliament, he had persuaded the French government to send him to examine prisons and penitentiaries in America. He produced a report on his findings, then published, in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Democracy in America, which centered on the question of why republican representative democracy was succeeding in the United States while failing in so many other places, including his native France.
Writing as a detached social scientist, he wrote of an America still raw and new, already half a century after independence, but in the midst of transformation by Jacksonian democracy, and by the industrial and financial revolution, and by the continuing influence of the moving frontier. He discusses the “habits of mind” of the American people, including: township democracy; laws; the tyranny of the majority; religion; the family; individualism; associations; self-interest, and materialism.
There is no room here to summarize this book. Suffice it to mention a few of Tocqueville’s most trenchant insights:
- Tocqueville saw democracy as a balance between liberty and equality, between concern for the individual and concern for the community. He believed that individuals need to be able to act freely while respecting others’ rights, and needed to work together if they were to defend their independence against the aggressions of power.
- Tocqueville saw that Americans were able to function independently of the state both by forming associations for a common purpose, and by withdrawing into their chosen circle of family and friends. He saw individualism as a way of thinking that sometimes led to a willingness to work together, and sometimes led to the alienation and isolation that many have come to experience in modern life.
- When individualism prompted people to work together for common purposes, it helped to counterbalance the danger of the tyranny of the majority, a tyranny to which American society is particularly susceptible. He said he did not know of any country where there was “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America”. He lamented the state of the arts in America, not anticipating what one historian famously called The Flowering of New England that was about to burst upon the American literary scene in the 1840s, including Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, etc. (But then, how could he, or anyone, have anticipated it?)
- Equitable property holdings did not ensure the rule of the best men. In fact, it did quite the opposite. Americans refused to defer to those possessing superior talent and intelligence, and so these natural elites could not enjoy political power. Ordinary Americans claimed too great a voice to defer to intellectual superiors. Those with the most education and intelligence could only join limited intellectual circles or they could use their talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector. They could not, by and large, attain political power. Thus the same mores and opinions that promoted equality thereby promoted mediocrity.
- “The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution. A career in politics is closed to him for he has offended the only power that holds the keys.”
- A serious problem in political life was not that people were too strong, but that people were “too weak” and felt powerless; the danger is that people felt “swept up in something that they could not control.”
- Tocqueville saw (what many white Americans could not bear to realize) that the racial problem in America could not be solved by deporting free blacks to Africa. Since the government “could not remove as many men in a year as are born upon its territory within that time, it could not prevent the growth of the evil which is daily increasing in the states. The Negro race will never leave those shores of the American continent to which it was brought by the passions and the vices of Europeans; and it will not disappear from the New World as long as it continues to exist.”
- In one of his more startling predictions, he foresaw developments then more than a century in the future: “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”
Written by a French aristocrat in his twenties, on the basis of nine months’ travel that commenced in May, 1831, Democracy in America remains, after more than 16 decades, one of the most readable and often startling studies of democracy, and of America, ever written. The author’s insights continue to illuminate causes and effects that continue today, often unrecognized.