De Tocqueville's Observations of American Democracy

 

Tocqueville regarded the United states a country in which liberalism and political equality were dominant. Sovereignty of the people had been achieved, in contrast to European countries.

He was impressed with the the level of egality prevailing in society: looking at the family as a reflection of society at large, but also relations between wealthy people and their servants, even military organizations were conceptualized egalitarian and liberally. Although subordination could be observed, it was done only for a limited time and happened by free will, which preserved the equality between two sides.

Equality

As factors for the maintainance of liberal democracy Tocqueville named three factors: special outer circumstances, the institutions, and political culture. The first two were only marginally described. Political culture seemed to be the more decisive point. Consequently he only noted a few observations about the first two, such as the special economic conditions. Possession of land was widely spread in the States and fostered liberalism. He noted several ideas on institutions, for example how the federal system and decentralization affected the way citizens paricipate in democracy. Political culture, however, was considered to be highly relevant. Tocqueville noted the consense over the republican structure in America, a strong sense of public responsibility, although public and individual interests were partially considered as affiliated. Religion can be included in the description of political culture, as he saw its function in contributing to political order more than the meanings of strong beliefs. The Frenchman admired the high level of political education at the time, the common knowledge about public affairs. As mentioned before, he deemed this factor a decisive prerequisite for maintaining a working democratic system, since he had seen the democratic experiment fail in France before largely because of a lack of responsible citizenry.

Three Factors
of Stability

When examining the emphases that Tocqueville, but also Lieber chose to document in their reports, one has to consider that both were biased in a way that they were actively looking for certain aspects that were according to their personal convictions, and also that they were dissatisfied with aspects of the systems in their home-country, just like many other European travellers and emigrants who came to the United States.

In France and Germany political discussion was preoccupied with the controversy about election laws, freedom of press and (in France) the educational system much more than with that about the civil right of free formation of associations. In the Declaration of Civil and Human Rights of 1789 the latter is not even mentioned. The individualist and centralist ideology which constituted the source of this neglect, explains some differences to the American democratic system which formed later on.

European
Perspective


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This document was last updated on 01/24/98.