Five Reasons
to Read Tocqueville's
Democracy in America

by Clay Jenkinson
© 1995 - All rights reserved


Why do we still read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America?

If a classic is, as Mark Twain quipped, a "book which people praise and don't read," Democracy in America suffers from double jeopardy. In addition to being venerable and extremely long, Tocqueville's nineteenth-century classic bears a title that makes it sound tediously sociological. Unfortunately, Democracy in America shares the fate of such wonderful but intimidating and seldom read works as St. Augustine's City of God, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all fat books, all worth the herculean effort required to get through them.

The purpose of this essay is to encourage you to read Democracy in America, either in its unabridged splendor (e.g., the translation by J.P. Mayer [New York: 1969]), or in one of the useful abridgements (e.g., the 1956 edition edited by Richard D. Heffner), and to offer some comments that may help to illuminate the text.

Even a slight encounter with Democracy in America is a rewarding experience. The English man of letters A.L. Rowse was once asked to name the best book ever written in America. He thought for a minute and replied, "The Education of Henry Adams." Tocqueville's Democracy in America may well be the best book ever written about America.

Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to the United States with his friend Gustave Beaumont in 1831-1832. He was 26 years old. The French aristocrats and friends came ostensibly to study the American penal system. Tocqueville and Beaumont spent nine months in the United States, during which they ventured not merely to such comparatively accessible places as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., but also to Detroit, Green Bay, Memphis, and New Orleans. They observed and interviewed citizens in the heart of American cities and at the farthest western reaches of the frontier in Wisconsin. They did jointly write a book about American prisons (1833), but their great work was to examine not just a single institution, but the entire culture. Beaumont eventually published a study of slavery and the American character, thinly fictionalized in a book called Marie, or Slavery in the United States (1835), and Tocqueville went on to publish his massive Democracy in America (1835-1840). Beaumont's novel is largely forgotten; Democracy in America continues to be one of the seminal texts on life in the New World.

I can think of five good reasons to read Democracy in America.

First and most important, it is a pleasure to read. Almost every page contains an insight, an interesting observation, a compelling anecdote, or a clever turn of phrase (even in translation). Tocqueville's reader is constantly looking up from the page in delight, in exasperation, or meditation on the nature of things, then or now, in America. If the purpose of writing is to combine pleasure with instruction, Tocqueville provides both in great abundance. It is hardly surprising that such a book--praised and studied for a century and a half on both sides of the Atlantic--should contain much useful matter, but it is remarkable that Tocqueville's writing is so delightful to read.

Take, for example, his famous description of American restlessness:

An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest; he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere with his changing desires. . . . Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.

One reads such a passage with a shock of recognition. A foreign visitor from before the Civil War has seen into the unchanging heart of the American character. Others may have noticed American mobility and restlessness, but only Tocqueville found the metaphors to give his analysis classic status. What makes this a particularly memorable passage is the delicacy with which Tocqueville introduces the theme of futility in the Americans' pell mell search for the grail of happiness. Among other things, this passage provides a wonderful ironic commentary on Thomas Jefferson's spare phrase, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

One of the points I wish to make is that Democracy in America is always much more interesting than the analyses and commentaries that have been written about it. The best introduction to the book is to serve up dollops of Tocqueville's prose. Strange as it may seem, the best reason to encounter Democracy in America is that it is a great read.

Second, Tocqueville wrote about America as an outsider and, as he reminds us many times in the course of his study, outsiders frequently see things that those who live within a culture fail to observe. In particular, an outsider is more likely than a native to recognize the paradoxes, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies of a civilization. Things we take for granted, things too familiar to seem significant, often strike a visitor as important cultural indicators. Besides, the fact that an outsider attended to us in such detail is flattering. Virginia Woolf said one reads one's diary from earlier in life with a kind of guilty fascination. Similarly, we read others' descriptions of us with a kind of breathless narcissism, hoping to be admired, or at least recognized, fearing to be exposed for our limitations. The British journalist Clive James visited the United States in the 1980s. In his final dispatch for a London newspaper he described California as "Paradise with a lobotomy." One needn't agree with this satirical portrait of America's land of the Lotus Eaters to recognize the insight. Because Clive James is a European who made a relatively brief visit to the United States, we are free to dismiss his observations or take them to heart. So it is with Tocqueville. We read Democracy in American in large part because he is talking about us, and we find his observations fascinating even when we disagree with them. A few examples will illustrate my point.

With the license and penetration of a generous but skeptical outsider, Tocqueville writes, "I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men's hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property." [54] This is remarkably prescient. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (ca. 1990), Americans from all ranks have cited the mantra, "Marx was simply wrong and he has taken his place on the ashheap of failed ideas." The fundamental premises of Marxism are never seriously discussed in America; they are merely derided. Most Americans would be dismayed to learn that even Thomas Jefferson hinted that redistribution of property would some day be necessary if we wished to preserve the natural right to equality in America.

Tocqueville writes:

Once the American people have got an idea into their head, be it correct or unreasonable, nothing is harder than to get it out again. [186]
And:

The most outstanding Americans are seldom summoned to public office. [197]

The people feel more strongly than they reason. [223]

Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. [237]

I know no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America. [254-55]

It is hard to give an impression of the avidity with which the American throws himself on the vast prey offered him by fortune [i.e., the West]. [283]

The passions that stir the Americans most deeply are commercial and not political ones. [285]

The Americans almost always carry the habits of public life over into their private lives. With them one finds the idea of a jury in children's games, and parliamentary formalities even in the organization of a banquet. [305]

Such examples proliferate in Democracy in America.

Third, Tocqueville is often wrong, but he is interesting even when--sometimes especially when--his predictions have proved to be biased or mistaken. In fact, one definition of a classic is that it is useful even in its errors. For example, Tocqueville argues that democracy is largely immune to bribery because no single man is wealthy enough to buy all of a legislature. This not only provides an insight into the theory of democracy--that if you spread authority widely there will be no dangerous accumulations of power in the few--but it indicates how much industrial capitalism has changed the world. Tocqueville worried that our principle of rotation in office would make our representative institution too volatile. He had, in short, no inkling of the marriage that would be made between money and incumbency in American political history. Tocqueville believed that the American presidency was so weak an institution that there would never be any danger of serious abuse in the executive branch! Most depressing of all, Tocqueville could not predict a time where there would be permanent inequality of conditions in the United States. He could not envision what is now being called the permanent underclass.

One of the most interesting chapters of Democracy in America is entitled "The Three Races that Inhabit the United States." It is worth reading through Democracy in America to be able to encounter this essay in context. Tocqueville's exploration of the relations of white Europeans, black Africans and red Native Americans is brilliant, thought-provoking, troubling, and insightful. "Chance," Tocqueville writes, "has brought them together on the same soil, but they have mixed without combining, and each follows a separate destiny." [317] Tocqueville predicted extinction for the American Indian and race wars between black and white Americans: "I think that the Indian race is doomed to perish, and I cannot prevent myself from thinking that on the day when the Europeans shall be established on the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, it [i.e. the Indian race] will cease to exist." [326]. Tocqueville believed that white Americans might eventually emancipate their African-American slaves, but he predicted permanent racial inequality: "I do not believe that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere." He predicted that emancipation "would increase the repugnance felt by the white population toward the Negroes." [357]

Tocqueville's predictions about the other two races that inhabit America (for his primary interest was white Anglo-European civilization) are extraordinarily insightful, even if they are not quite accurate. His meditation on slavery and its legacy is as good an introduction to the racial heritage of the United States as exists. We can listen to Tocqueville because he is critical without being judgmental, and because he speaks to us as a well-meaning and enlightened outsider. It is impossible to improve upon his insight about American Indian policy, "It is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity," or his conclusion that "slavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable." Virtually every one of Tocqueville's meditations on an important feature of American life might serve as a springboard to a long national conversation.

Fourth, Democracy in America is a compendium of extraordinarily perceptive analyses of American manners and institutions. It contains, for example, the best explanation of the electoral college ever written. Anyone who wants to understand the complicated social, legal, and racial background to the Civil War will find an outstanding explanation of it in Tocqueville. Democracy in America offers a superb and slightly comic portrait of the mediocrity of American politicians.

Tocqueville is also valuable because he asks questions about things we take for granted. He was not, like most of us, automatically enamored of democracy, at least as a mythic term. Coming as he did from Europe, representing the enlightened aristocracy, and thoroughly committed to the finer things of culture, he looked on what he considered the inevitable rise of democracy ("the democratic centuries which lie before us") with considerable apprehension. He believed that democracy can work only if certain restraining mechanisms remain in place; otherwise, he believed, democracy was likely to end in anarchy, class warfare, the tyranny of a mostly poor majority, and redistribution of wealth downward. So what, Tocqueville asked, are the restraining mechanisms in America democracy? He named several in the course of Democracy in America, the most important of which are religion and family, both of which he found flourishing in the United States in 1831. This is intriguing, and troubling. We do not reflect much on restraining mechanisms nowadays, but if Tocqueville was right, it would appear that we are in serious trouble as a people. Although a surprisingly large number of Americans consider themselves at least nominally religious in the late twentieth century, few sociologists are willing to argue that family and religion are as integrated and integral in American as they were a century ago, and many cultural scientists see the hyper-secularized dysfunctional family as the Charybdis of our civilization.

One of the services Tocqueville provides is to remind us how fragile democracy is. We think of democracy as the best and most stable of all possible worlds, but Tocqueville was under no such illusion. He saw democracy as inevitable, but not automatically desirable. In particular, Tocqueville worried that the individualism of the American character would spin out of control and fracture the commonwealth. In one of his most insightful passages, he wrote:

Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may shut up in the solitude of his own heart.
It is difficult to determine whether television, the automobile, and suburban detached houses have exacerbated this fundamental problem, or merely given it unmistakable expression. What is clear is that these technologies have weakened the effect of the free associations that Tocqueville celebrated as one of the most important counterweights to radical individualism.

Democracy in America is also a persuasive invitation for us to re-evaluate America. Like the Federalist Papers Tocqueville's text is a kind of primer of America civic life. Tocqueville provides a remarkable commentary on the vision of the Founding Fathers and the application of that vision in the first generations of our national life. At every page, almost at every paragraph, we are invited to ask ourselves: do the qualities that Tocqueville praised in us in 1835 still characterize us at the end of the twentieth century? Have the problems he pointed to been solved? Are the weakness of our system and of our national character more or less pronounced in 1995? Have his predictions come true or not? What would Tocqueville make of our habits of the heart today?

Furthermore, one of the greatness of Tocqueville is that, when reading Democracy in America, we instantly assent to analytical arguments that we have never heard before and would never have thought of ourselves. Thus Tocqueville argues that the United States did not, like other countries, develop slowly and painfully from barbarism to enlightenment: in America "democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society." [39] At a time when the idea of enlightened juries is widely satirized, we can learn a great deal about the function of juries--as a civics education program, as the average America's most significant connection to the democratic process, as a counterpoise to the more arbitrary mechanisms of justice in the Old World--from the sensitive account of the judicial process in Democracy in America. The foreigner Tocqueville thought more carefully about our institutions, and the dynamics of democracy, than we natives do.

Fifth, it is impossible to read Democracy in America without feeling a powerful sense of loss. We are not quite the self-starting, decentralized, and enterprising people in 1995 that we were in the age of Andrew Jackson. When the roads are beset with potholes and the school burns down, we do not any longer gather spontaneously at the scene to take matters into our own hands and make things right. Our government is no longer so small and unobtrusive as to seem--as it did to an astonished Tocqueville--virtually non-existent. American Indians did not become extinct, as Tocqueville lamentingly prophesied, but hundreds of non-human species have been ground to powder by urban and industrial development. The game, the pristine streams, the infinite forests of America, and what Tocqueville refers to again and again as the immense solitude of the continent--all these are gone. Gone is the sense that the United States has some special, albeit slightly hard to define, destiny to fulfill on the American continent and in the eyes of the whole world. Gone is the pervasive self-sufficient pastoralism that Jefferson, Creveceour and Tocqueville found so compelling in American life. The equality of conditions that Tocqueville considered the most remarkable feature of American society--that is, the absence of a class hierarchy, the absence of large numbers of the very rich and the very poor, the absence of widespread cultural achievement or widespread ignorance, and a virtual infinity of opportunity--is now American mythology rather than an accurate demographic portrait. Perhaps most important, gone forever is the sense--everywhere present in Democracy in America--that the United States is a young lusty republic characterized chiefly by promise and possibility. The whole world was watching us then, because we were--to them--the future being played out on a landscape of the present. That is what brought Alexis de Tocqueville to America in 1831. We were admired and feared not for diet Coke and Air Jordan and MTV, but for the principles of our Constitution.

There is a kind of dark irony in the fact that Tocqueville and his companion Beaumont came to the United States in 1831 to study our penal system, which was then considered the most enlightened and humane in the world. Nothing indicates more tellingly the difference between Tocqueville's America and ours than the decline of our penitentiary ideals. Once the model of a civilized penal system, our style of crime and punishment is now characterized by the heartless and indecorous metaphor of "three strikes and you're out," and by the fact that we are virtually alone, among enlightened nations, in our commitment to capital punishment.

A sense of loss is not in itself a reason to read Democracy in America, but if we can devise a way to come to terms with that loss, we owe a debt of gratitude to our former French guest. The humanities at their best are always a kind of historical therapy. I can think of three possible responses to the haunting sense of loss that comes with an encounter with Tocqueville's text.

It is at least possible that we might respond to a reading of Democracy in America by struggling to reinvigorate our civic institutions, to reassert democracy, and to think hard about the claims of equality. This is, of course, not very likely, and Tocqueville, who believed that human history was driven by inexorable forces, would probably smile at the notion that a people might begin to recover by reading a great book. Or, we might--after pondering the sheer weight of evidence in Democracy in America that pro Or, perhaps Tocqueville can help us put the past in its place. One cannot read through Democracy in America without concluding that we are no longer the nation of our founding or the early national period. The America Tocqueville describes lives on--in a modified form--in out of the way rural places, in the villages of the heartland, but the nation at large resembles the Britain--the industrial urban hierarchical state--of Democracy in America. Tocqueville's great book is still a useful guide to live in Bend, Oregon, and Rhame, North Dakota. But Minneapolis and Los Angeles and Portland belong to a different world. If we pay attention to Democracy in America's dizzying array of implied contrasts between the worlds of Andrew and Michael Jackson, perhaps we can overcome our irritable nostalgia for the values and constitutional principles of the Founding Fathers. Or, perhaps a thoughtful encounter with Democracy in America can simply help us to grieve for the nation that we might have been.


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