Democrats in America

Print Version

Colophon:

Europeans were among the first analysts of the US American democratic system. Today Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is still referred to as one of the most seminal observations of the American system, while other works tend to be forgotten. One contemporary of de Tocqueville was the German Francis Lieber who wrote books about related topics in the 1850's. He met de Tocqueville twice during his stay in the United States and continued to correspond during the ensuing years, exchanging views.

This site is intended to provide insight into European preconceptions of democracy by juxtaposing the biographical and political backgrounds of de Tocqueville and Lieber. If one considers the political conditions in Europe during the first half of the 19th century, it is easier to gain an understanding of both their European point of view in general, and of the America as it was perceived by these two individual travelers.

Departing from the table of contents, you are invited to either join a guided tour of this site, or to choose specific topics of interest.


AS @ UVA

This site is part of the de Tocqueville project created by the American Studies Group at the University of Virginia.


Liberty leads the people - E. Delacroix (1830)

France in the Early 19th Century
 

The French revolution did not result in government of the people by the people. After the overthrow of Napoleon I a constitutional monarchy was installed in France, and freedom of speech, press and religion was guaranteed as were legal equality and inviolability of property. However, these guarantees became increasingly restricted by special regulations. Catholicism became the state religion again and the freedom of press was curtailed.

Although common suffrage had been granted by the constitution of 1793 the consequent reign of terror led to a return to property restrictions on suffrage. There was a fear that any further entitlements of the population to political power would pose a threat on order. It would not be until 1848 that political equality was achieved through implementation of the principle of free elections.

Lack of Democracy in France after the Revolution of 1789
Liberty Leads the People

The restorative policy of the bourbony kings, particularly of Charles X (since 1824) who strived for the restoration of the Ancien Régime with ultra-royalist support, led to increased tensions within French society at the time. When Charles X decided to eliminate freedom of the press completely, to dissolve the recently elected chamber, and to further restrict election legislation, the monarchy was overthrown once more during a revolt in Paris (July 27-29, 1830). But since the rebellionists - workers, students and lower bourgeoisie - had not organized any leadership or worked out any political agenda it was the liberal majority in the parliament and the upper bourgeoisie who took advantage of the revolt.

Restoration and Revolts

The monarchy was preserved partially through the influence of general La Fayette who was 73 years old at the time and who had participated both in the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, and Talleyrand, the former minister of foreign affairs. Louis Philippe was proclaimed the next king of France. The constitution was modified in regard to the separation of power between the "Citizen King" and both chambers of parliament. The parliament eliminated the censoring of press and restricted the dominating influence of the catholic church. First steps towards thorogh democratization were taken, but strikes and revolts during the persuant years demonstrated that the people, especially the lower social classes, were still dissatisfied with their political and social conditions.

Preservation of Monarchy
Political Conditions in Germany
 

The founding of the German Federation in 1815 manifested the fragmentation of Germany into sovereign monarchies. The bourgeoisie possessed almost no constitutional rights, and production and trade were impeded severely by taxes and tariff restrictions on the individual states. In the countryside, the aristocratic power was still unrestricted. Oppositional initiatives were suppressed vigorously by restrictive censorship, which had been implemented by the Karlsbad Resolutions of 1819. During the 1830s however, the opposition developed to become a national movement, resulting in upheaveals throughout the country.

Situation in Germany
Barricades in front of a Berlin Town Hall

The rebellions, which spread over several German states, were facilitated by the French July Revolution of 1830. In October of the same year, Germans fought for social reform, freedom of press, abolition of tariffs and a reform of the constitution. Liberal citizens, craftsmen, peasants, students and workers joined to protest against censorship, intrusive power of the police and bureaucracy, demanding the founding of a unitarian German state. However, since there was a lack of organization, the upheavals occured mostly regionally.

Impact of French Revolution

In many states, the upper bourgeoisie allied with the aristocracy in order to defend the status quo, forming civil guard forces to repel rebelling workers and craftsmen. In a few states the protests lead to a partial lifting of censorship. In others, constitutional changes were achieved. The fact that no radical changes occured can be explained on the one hand with the local fragmentation of the movement. On the other hand the liberal bourgeoisie involved in the rebellions acted moderately, trying rather to reach compromises with aristocracy at early stages of the protests than to attain radical reforms.

In the following years social frictions deepened, as workers had to cope with extremely low wages and long working hours, and child labor. Industry replaced craftsmanship and forced many craftsmen into work as day laborers. Crop failures in 1847 led to famines which contributed to the build up of pressure necessary to provoke the European revolutions of 1848, which this time swept quickly from France to Germany.

Rising Pressure for Reforms
Biographical Information

Tocqueville   Lieber
Alexis de Tocqueville   Francis Lieber

Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805 in Verneuil, France. His ancestory posed a certain weight on his shoulders, as he was the descendant of an old aristocratic family. Malesherbes, his great-grandfather had bravely defended Luis XVI during the revolution. His parents had paid for their heritage with imprisonment in the infamous Bastille, and only survived because Robespierre had been overthrown before their execution. Alexis' great-grandfather and other relatives, however, were not as lucky.

His relation with Malesherbes on the on hand meant a background of loyalty to the king's family. On the other hand he was open for new political ide, as his great-grandfather had been the patron of Helvétius, a philosopher critical of the monarchy.

Family Background

Francis Lieber was born into a merchant family in 1798 in Berlin, Germany. Whe he was eight years old he watched French troops moving into Berlin, occupying the city after victorious battles of the Napoleonian army at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. This experience influenced his political conscience for life. In this time, Prussia's power had been crushed and the French army sweeping across Europe seemed invincible. Because of its defeat, Germany's national identity was in shambles. There was barely any 'German' identity in the first place, as the country at the time consisted of fractioned and fragmented regions, not a common national entity. Although the term 'national' was used frequently at the time, it was very vague and could signify a range of different views.

When his family talked of their 'national' orientation, they meant a desire to form a nation independent from France, an idea which gained in popularity during the time of French occupation. France extracted financial assets out of the conquered countries, levied heavy tariffs, and French soldiers had left the regions devastated. The feeling of humiliation arising from these factors constituted an essential unifying aspect in Germany at the time, leading to a national movement, which organized for example in the 'German Association', founded by Jahn, the father of gymnastics.

After studying law Tocqueville became a magistrate at Versailles in 1827. He did not feel fulfilled with his work and decided to additionaly study history. His interest was directed to finding a key to understand the human being through history.

Youth

Lieber joined this organization when he attended high-school after returning from battles against Napoleon, which had he had joined enthusiasticly in 1815. In the organization he was actively involved in the struggle for a freely governed nation. He experienced consistent repressions by the Prussian government, such as arrest and rejections from universities.

The overthrow of the Bourbon king in 1830 had impeded de Tocqueville's career perspectives. His father had held high positions during the period of restauration, which now became a handicap for the young magistrate. He contemplated quitting his job when the respect for his profession declined as the principle of unrestricted indepence of judges was questioned. Furthermore, when he started working for king Louis-Philippe - the "People's King" - tensions with his family arose. These factors contributed to Tocqueville's wish to leave the country for a long journey abroad which would give him the chance to wait and see how the unstable political conditions in his home country would develop. The opportunity to conduct a study of the American prison system for the French parliament was a welcomed reason to legitimate his journey.

There might have been a number of further reasons for his travel in 1831, which can be found when looking at the general perception of the United States in France at the time. The relation between the two countries had been close since the revolution in France, when many persecuted French found asylum in the States. Men, such as Talleyrand and Lafayette and also king Louis-Philippe were received in an open manner when they were not safe in their home country.

Some of Tocqueville's relatives had previously travelled abroad and told Tocqueville of the remote country. Also, Tocqueville had listend interestedly to the narrations of James F. Cooper who spent time in France between 1826 and 1833 and who frequented many salons.

Generally, the American political system was observed closely in France at the time. As the experiment with democracy was still young in both countries, it seemed interesting to evaluate whether political institutions were suitable only for a specific country or whether they could possibly be transferred under different political conditions.

Reasons for Travel
to the United States
Lieber joined the Greek liberation war against Turkish occupation because of his passion for the idea of liberty. An ensueing odyssy continued in the subsequent years over Italy back to Germany. After being persecuted by the police again he travelled to England, finally arriving at the United States in 1827. Although he did not feel that this country was the destination of his dreams, he settled in South Carolina. In the United States, he founded the academic discipline of political science later on, inspired partially by the dissatisfying conditions he found in especially in Southern society, which was far from the liberal concepts of democracy that he was fond of.

After both having made their way to the United States, de Tocqueville and Lieber met twice: the first time, Lieber was introduced to Tocqueville in 1831 in Boston. On May 19, 1844 they met again, this time in Paris. During the years in between, they kept up occasional correspondence.

De Tocqueville's Notion of Democracy  

De Tocqueville grew up in a time when the nation was ideologically split between loyaltists of the monarchy and anti-monarchists. Although liberals were marked as anti-monarchists in general, there was current of so-called Doctrinaires who Tocqueville felt affiliated to. This group proposed the idea of installing the constitutional monarchy as a compromise between monarchy and republic, while extending the census suffrage to the entire middle class and liberalizing the legislature. Furthermore, they propagated the extension of the education system, aiming at raising the general level of education among the people in order to mold citizens who could take the responsibility to vote.

Political Currents
in France

The socio-political circumstances in Tocqueville's life have to be considered when evaluating his use of the notion 'democracy' in his descriptions of the American political system. Does this term denote the levelling off of society? Does Tocqueville think of the reign of uncontrolled masses, or does he contemplate political equality in terms of common suffrage? Legal and political notions of democracy are opposed to each other. De Tocqueville uses the term in different connotations, but the French idea of democracy did not include the common notion of 'government of the people by the people'. In France the revolution had produced a democracy consisting primarily of elemination of privileges and class order of the Ancien Régime. Hence, most French perceived democracy as a new form of social order, which, compared with the old aristocratic order, could be characterized by the abolition of rigid hierarchic order with its typical traditional distribution of power and privileges. Although class differences persist within democracy, social mobility is one characteristic feature of democracy.

Democracy as
Egalitarian
Concept

Tocqueville's concept of democracy changed throughout the time. In 1830 he regarded democracy as a dynamic process, which required an 'equality of conditions'. In his view the democratic process - i.e. the change of social order - would come to a halt when all political priviledges were eradicated. Later, in his second volume of Democracy in America, which was published in 1840, a more negative image of democracy prevailed: that of a levelling power which would not be restricted to social order, but which would also challenge the right of material property. Furthermore, he saw the danger that democracy could level any intellectual or individualistic distinctions. The notion of 'tyranny of the masses' formed in Tocqueville's mind.

Tocqueville's
Notion of
Democracy

Beside this sociologic observation, liberty is a reocurring notion in Tocqueville's understanding of democracy. The way he uses this notion implies that he interprets liberty not only as protection from the abuse of governmental power, but more as a positivistic idea of liberty as an asset which each citizen is obliged to make active use of. On the other hand he sees the necessity to restrict individual liberty and to "regulate it by believes, mores and laws." This is meant when he talks about 'liberté modérée'. Tocqueville's liberalism is characterized by the defence of liberty against authority, but also by defence of authority against liberty. Moreover, Tocqueville favors the classic theory of representation, like his friend John Stuart Mill, who advised a system in which the citizens should elect the most capable among themselves to represent them. The problem for France was that the population did not consist of responsible citizens which were necessary for the desired liberal system. The French people had proved during the years after the revolution that it was not able to exert their democratic rights. Still Tocqueville believed it would be possible to educate the people to transform them into citizens and to change the political culture in France.

Notion of
Liberty
Lieber's Notion of Democracy
 

In his youth Lieber was a fanatic rebel dedicated to his fight for liberty and democratic sovereignty. Although he refrained from militant activism for this goal after his youth, he remained to be a passionate proponent of liberalism.

He postulated a classic notion of liberalism: "Liberty must grow and live, live in the heart of every one, not only as an ardent desire, or an indefinite though not exciting notion, but as a knowledge of our political obligations and profound reference for political morality" (Manual of political ethics, Boston 1838, 76). Furthermore he emphasized that the state does not grant certain rights, but rather that rights of the state are granted by society consisting of free individuals.

Lieber's Notion
of Liberalism

His theory was based on Aristotelan tradition of contemplation of the relation between moral and polity. The thinking human being - as opposed to animals - is able to exert self-discipline and consequently act in a moral way. This basic treat of character is applicable to every individual human being, which leads to the individualization of moral standards instead of any collective moral standards. Implications of this concept are both a life right based on existence and a duty to live according to individual ethic standards based on the human ability to reason.

Theoretical
Foundation

Out of this ethic understanding arises the idea of 'politics proper' which means an interpretation of general ethic ideas into solution specific political questions. This form of applied ethics, according to Lieber, should be taught to everyone.

Lieber maintained that liberty has to be realized in and by institutions. The national state seemed the natural vessel for liberty to prosper. In liberal thought the state's main function is to protect the individual's liberty. By being the ultimate instance to solve conflicts, the state's role reflects far-reaching tensions between liberty and equality, since pluralism is inclined to relativism. The idea of liberty always collides with demands for equality.

This conflict had already been realized by de Tocqueville who pointed out the perils of the ruling by the majority.

Implications

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
Lieber's Observations of American Democracy
 

In 1834, a few years after his emigration to the United States Francis Lieber published a book titled "Letters to a Gentleman in Germany". This book, written in the style of a travel narration, he expressed his impressions of political culture, in particular of political institutions in America.

Lieber regarded some aspects of the American democracy as exemplary for other nations, because here one could detect first pulsations of "those principles which underly any political society" (Letters to a Gentleman in Germany, 1834, 14). The advantage the United States had compared to most European nations was the reality of a society without privileged classes as found in the aristocratic societies in Europe. America presented to Lieber a functioning democratic system. Hence, he concluded that America would be the place where new political ideas could develop which would have significant influence on Europe and other societies. He pointed out the fast pace that could be observed in the States, and the progressive mentality, which he contrasted to that of different European societies.

Exemplary Character
of America

The friendship between Lieber and Tocqueville was the basis for a vivid exchange of ideas. Lieber's publication Americana became a resource for Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville's appreciation of Lieber shows in the Frenchman's diary entries of the days when they met at the home of Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis in Boston. Both men shared for example profound interest in the democratic structure of American society and the American prison system. While de Tocqueville was concerned with the latter in course of his study, Lieber's interest stemmed from harsh experiences in Prussian captivity as a political prisoner.

Inspiration for
de Tocqueville
De Tocqueville's Remarks about Lieber
 

De Tocqueville noted in his diary the following remarks about Lieber and his ideas: "We Europeans, we think to create republics by organizing a great political assembly. The Republic, on the contrary, is of all the governments the one that depends most on every part of society. Look at this country! The Republic is everywhere, in the streets as in Congress. If an obstacle embarrasses the public way, the neighbors will at once constitute themselves a deliberative body; they will name a commission and will remedy the evil by their collective force, wisely directioned. Does a public ceremony, a banquet, take place, you will likewise see a gathering, a deliberation, and an executive authority arising therefrom. The concept of an authority preceding that of the parties interested does not exist in any one's head. The people has the Republic to the marrow of the bones."

Democratic Behavior
in American Society

"Another time he said to us: How can a man who has seen America believe that it is possible to transplant its political laws to Europe, and especially at one fell swoop? Since seeing this country I can't believe M. de Lafayette in good faith in his theories; one can't deceive oneself so grossly. For my part, I feel myself inclined to believe every day more strongly that constitutions and political laws are nothing in themselves. They are dead creations to which the morals and the social position of the people alone can give life."

Lack of Egalitarianism
in European Societies


Resources for Study
  • Frank Freidel, Francis Lieber, Nineteenth-Century Liberal, (Baton Rouge: Luisiana State University Press: 1947).
  • Lewis R. Harley, Francis Lieber, His Life and Political Philosophy, (New York: The Columbia Press: 1899).
  • Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberties and Self-Government, 3rd ed., (Philadelphia: 1877).
  • Francis Lieber, Manual of Political Ethics. Designed Chiefly for the Use of Colleges and Students of Law, (Boston: 1838).
  • Francis Lieber, Letters to a Gentleman in Germany, Written After a Trip from Philadelphia to Niagara, Philadelphia 1834.
  • Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, (New York: 1958).
  • George W. Pierson, Tocquville and Beaumont in America, (New York: 1938).
  • C. B. Robson, Francis Lieber's Nationalis, in: The Journal of Politics 8 (1946), 57 ff.
  • Tocqueville Feature Site on C-Span: http://www.tocqueville.org/

This site was created by Stefan Pollklas.
This document was last updated on 02/18/98.