Closer Readings Commentary

Democracy in America: Alexis de Tocqueville's Introduction

Alexis Charles Henry de Tocqueville
Photo caption

Theodore Chasseriau, Alexis Charles Henry de Tocqueville, Representant du Peuple, 1848. Lithograph, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

In 1831 an ambitious and unusually perceptive twenty-five-year-old French aristocrat visited the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville’s official purpose was to study the American penal system, but his real interest was America herself. He spent nine months criss-crossing the young country, traveling mostly by steamboat, but also sometimes on horseback and by foot. He visited the bustling Eastern cities, explored the wilderness on the northwestern frontier, and had several adventures on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He even stayed in a log cabin. Throughout, he spoke to Americans of every rank and profession, including two presidents and Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Tocqueville’s sojourn in America did lead to the writing of a book on the American penal system, but its much more important result was the reflection on equality and freedom known as Democracy in America. This great book remains arguably one of the two most important books on America political life, the Federalist Papers being the other one.

Democracy in America is a large book in two volumes (published five years apart, in 1835 and 1840). Volume One describes and analyzes American conditions and political institutions, while Volume Two examines the effect of American democracy on what we would call culture (literature, economics, the family, religion, etc.). The reason for Tocqueville’s interest in these themes is explained in a general Introduction to the whole work. There we learn that although Tocqueville was an aristocrat, he believed that the world was undergoing a “great democratic revolution,” that it is inevitably and irreversibly becoming more and more democratic. And this belief is what motivated his deep interest in America, for his visit convinced him that America had achieved in a peaceful and natural way almost complete “equality of conditions.” By understanding America, he thought that we could not only understand what democracy means, but in a way even glimpse the world’s future. “I confess,” he wrote, “that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.” This feature examines Tocqueville’s argument that the “great democratic revolution” is inevitable and irresistible.

Part of A Long Tradition

Alexis de Tocqueville is part of a long tradition of well-educated Europeans who traveled to America and published books or diaries about their experiences in the “new” world. Unlike most of the others, however, the book Tocqueville wrote has proved over the years to be a lasting source of information and insight into both America and democracy. Democracy in America is now widely studied in America universities, and it has been quoted by Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and Congressmen. Humbler instances of its influence abound; for example, the name for the most generous category of giver to The United Way is the “Alexis de Tocqueville Society”.

When Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was President. It was in this period that the United States first surpassed Europe in per capita income. It was also during Tocqueville’s visit that Black Hawk, the leader of the Sauk and Fox Indians, agreed to move across the Mississippi River to a reservation in Iowa, and that Nat Turner led an uprising of slaves in Virginia.

The current popularity of Democracy in America in the United States might have surprised Tocqueville himself, because he wrote the book primarily for a French audience. The first volume was published forty-six years after the French Revolution. That great upheaval had destroyed the “ancient regime” — the political order comprised of divine right monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and peasants — but France had still not found political stability. As Tocqueville points out in the Introduction, many leading Frenchmen were unwilling to accept that equality had come to stay: looking to the past with regret some foolishly ignored the fundamental changes taking place around them; others found themselves caught in various unnatural and unhealthy moral and political confusions. It was first and foremost for such people that Tocqueville wrote the book. He hoped that by showing them in detail what democracy was they would be able better to guide France’s own transition to democracy. In so doing, however, he gave the world its richest, most various, and deepest reflection on democracy. But why was Tocqueville so certain that democracy was inevitable and irresistible? His argument for this opinion is the main theme of this book’s introduction.

Note on the text of Democracy in America. Several translations of Tocqueville’s text are available in English. The page numbers and quotations used in this feature refer to the translation done by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (the University of Chicago Press, 2000). This is one of the most recent and highly regarded translations, but it is not available online. Therefore, for those who wish to use an online text, the links provided are to the 1899 revision of the Henry Reeve translation. The two translations differ in many ways, but it should not be difficult to find the parallel passages.

How to Teach Tocqueville’s Introduction

Use the following activities and worksheets to help students understand what specific developments and events in history contribute to the advancement of greater equality in society and which ones Tocqueville regarded as most important.

Suggested Homework Assignment

Have the students read pp. 3–7 and 12–15 of Democracy in America the night before the reading is discussed in class ("Tocqueville Reading A” in the reading packet). Each student should draw up a numbered list of the different things that Tocqueville says contribute to equality in society (Link to Equality Worksheet). They should also define the following words: generative, clergy, Providence, enlightenment, feudal, haphazardly, arsenal (Link to Definitions Worksheet). The class can have two, or if there is time, three parts. The most important part is the second activity below and the most time should be spent on it.

Activity 1. “Equality of Condition”

Have a student read out loud the first three paragraphs of the Introduction. Follow this with a brief discussion of this passage, beginning with the question, what is it about America that most impressed Tocqueville? This is of course something he calls the “equality of conditions.” Tocqueville does not say much about this here; he doesn’t even define it or tell us what it is. But he does describe in broad strokes how important it is, and the students should get some appreciation of this. Ask them what the equality of conditions is responsible for in America. Students should be able to say several things about this, but one thing they should notice is that it is not the same thing as democracy. According to Tocqueville, equality of conditions shapes laws and otherwise influences government, but it also “creates opinions” and “gives birth to sentiments” in society more broadly. It is the “primary fact” about America, the “generative fact” from which all other facts seem to issue, and the “central point” at which all of Tocqueville’s observations come to an end. Equality of conditions influences and may give rise to democracy, but it is something deeper and more powerful than any particular form of government

Activity 2. “A great democratic revolution is taking place among us”

Tocqueville then shifts his attention to France (and more generally, to Europe) and announces that “a great democratic revolution is taking place among us.” The problem is that there is an important division of opinion in France about what this revolution means. Is it something new and accidental that can be stopped, or is it something deep and old, indeed, “the most permanent fact known in history”? To answer this question, Tocqueville gives us a thumbnail sketch of French history over the past seven hundred years. The core of the lesson is what Tocqueville says in this history in the next two and a half pages. For most of this passage, each paragraph elaborates a different thing that has contributed to the advancement of equality. Have students read and discuss this passage. Students should understand how the thing Tocqueville is discussing (e.g., the development of a taste for literature, struggles between king and nobles, etc.) worked to promote equality. Students will have their lists to consult and the teacher may want to develop a running list on the blackboard or whiteboard.

Since Democracy in America was published in 1835, Tocqueville’s history begins in approximately 1100 CE. The first paragraph of the history gives a brief sketch of Europe at that time, before the great movement towards equality began. Because Tocqueville’s statement is very brief and mentions only the most essential points, help the students understand what he is saying. For example, Tocqueville says that a few families had a monopoly on political power. Moreover, their power is a certain kind, being tied to the possession of land (feudal estates) and passing from one person to another in the same family only by inheritance. These arrangements guarantee that only a very few people have a share of political power — the king and the nobles or aristocrats (warriors); all the rest are peasants or serfs working the land. There is absolutely no equality between a king and a noble, on the one hand, or between a noble and a serf, on the other.

In the paragraphs that follow, Tocqueville describes the important developments and events (usually one for each paragraph) that gradually undermined the feudal system and transformed Europe in the direction of social equality. After having a student read a paragraph, have the class discuss it, asking how the development or event fostered or encouraged equality. For example, the first step is the development of the “political power of the clergy”. Americans are so used to thinking that church and state should be separate, that we might wonder how it can be a good thing (i.e., how it can favor equality) for clergymen to have political power? Tocqueville suggests two answers. First, when the clergy got political power, it introduced into feudal Europe a new route to political power, a route based on the church rather than on inherited land. To put it bluntly, if you can get power through the church, you don’t need land. This did not make everyone in society equal, but it does mean that there were now more ways to get political power and that more people had access to political power than before; and anything that extends access to political power, favors equality. Second, because of the Christian idea that all men are equal before God, anyone — serf, peasant, or lord — could become a clergyman. In other words, inside the church there is a principle of equality, and when the clergy gained political power, this principle began (gradually) to influence politics.

Work through each of the paragraphs, discussing how each of the developments Tocqueville mentions favors equality and therefore democracy. Tocqueville lists four main developments, each of which established a new route to political power: the clergy, law and lawyers, money and trade, enlightenment or the taste for literature and the arts. Then in several paragraphs, he elaborates on various aspects of these four. Finally, he explains that almost all the major events in the past seven hundred years benefitted equality. There are many surprising things in Tocqueville’s brief history and students should begin to get a sense for his view that every development and major event in European history, promoted equality, including a great many that had no intention of so doing. Having worked through the passage, students should have a much better appreciation for the many social, economic, intellectual, and religious changes that help to support democracy because they help to maintain equality in society.

When the class has worked through these three pages, the teacher may want to look at the list and ask which one of the developments the students think was most important for promoting equality. There is no “right” answer to this question, but the paragraph on p. 5 that begins “Once works of the intellect had become sources of force and wealth” is very important (“Tocqueville Reading B” in the reading packet). This passage highlights how important the human mind is for democracy, for it points out that the great intellectual and creative talents of humanity are distributed seemingly at random, without any thought for rank or power or class. And it is precisely these talents that, according to Tocqueville, reveal “the natural greatness of man.” Moreover, their products, especially literature, are “an arsenal open to all, from which the weak and the poor came each day to seek arms.” It seems to be Tocqueville’s view that the development of the human mind fosters and goes naturally together with equality and democracy.

To examine in more detail Tocqueville’s description of equality in specifically American conditions, read Part One, chapters 1-3.

Activity 3. “Providential Fact” or “Force of Nature”?

By this point, it should be clear to the students that of the two opinions about the “great democratic revolution” summarized in the fifth paragraph of the Introduction, Tocqueville himself adheres to the second one, namely that it is “irresistible because ... it seems the most continuous, the oldest, and the most permanent fact known in history.” The lesson could end here, but if there is time and interest, the teacher may have a further discussion of how Tocqueville evaluates or judges the brute, if irresistible fact he has just described. What is his attitude towards it?

The crucial passages to answer this question appear on pages 6–7 (from the paragraph that begins “Everywhere the various incidents in the lives of people.” to the paragraph that ends “... takes us backward toward the abyss” (“Tocqueville Reading C” in the reading packet). Draw the attention of students to the many references or allusions to God, human power (the weakness of it), Providence, “religious terror,” “the usual course of nature,” and the Creator. What is revealed about Tocqueville’s view when he speaks about the movement towards equality in such highly charged theological language? Does this mean that equality and democracy are not just inevitable and irresistible, but also good? If that is what Tocqueville means, why does he regard this irresistible revolution with a “sort of religious terror”? Finally, ask students to reflect on the significance of the two images Tocqueville uses in this passage: the reference to the creation of the stars and to men floating backwards down a rapidly flowing river (both on p. 7).

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