U.S. Political Thought

Lecture 7

October 19, 1995
Joseph Boland

As I mentioned in class on Tuesday, this lecture takes the form of a series of questions and answers about de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Who is Tocqueville’s American?

It is the independent white male farmer. Sometimes it is more specifically the “Anglo-American.” Women do not belong in the public sphere. Free negroes are prevented from participating not by law but by pervasive racism. Workers are so degraded by the repetitive, narrowly focussed nature of their occupations that they lack the capacity to participate intelligently in public affairs; besides, they exist in a state of “necessary dependence.” Native Americans will be exterminated because they resist civilization.

It is worth noting here that Tocqueville defines his majority in a way which both confirms this and makes its political consequences apparent:

“No one has yet found a political structure that equally favors the growth and prosperity of all the classes composing society.” When either the rich or the poor rule, the interests of the other are always in danger. “The real advantage of democracy is not, as some have said, to favor the prosperity of all, but only to serve the well-being of the greatest number” (233).

Only if we accept his premise that white (agrarian) women are included under their husbands might this be a majority. In any case, he is saying, in effect, that this majority’s well-being may well come at the expense of the groups that he has marginalized in his own discourse.

What is the primary concern that animates Tocqueville’s examination of American society?

He believes that the historically fated spread of equality holds hidden dangers to the existence of human freedom, and he wishes to alert his readers to this in order that the loss of liberty may be averted.

Are equality and liberty defined by Tocqueville in such a way that they are essentially dependent on each other?

Initially, one must answer no. On the one hand, he remarks that freedom can be found at different times and in different forms (504); on the other, he asserts that democratic peoples “want equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery. They will put up with poverty, servitude, and barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy” (506).

However, in America these two values are deeply intertwined, because that is how Americans experience and understand them. Thus when Tocqueville writes that citizens are torn by the “need of guidance” versus the desire “to stay free”, and imagine that they have resolved this by creating a “government which is unitary, protective, and all-powerful, but elected by the people,” he is talking about the tension, even the antagonism, between liberty and equality. Americans, in his view, cannot accept one without the other.

Moreover, says Tocqueville, “I maintain that there is only one effective remedy against the evils which equality may cause, and that is political liberty” (513).

In America, then, Tocqueville sees a hidden dialectic at work: equality is pursued in ways which may preserve the forms of liberty, but the actual capacity to act freely is in danger of being restricted and diminished.

What are some of the major social and political features and problems of equality of conditions as Tocqueville describes and analyzes them?

Responding to this could obviously generate a very long list. These are a few:

Universal suffrage: “I have previously mentioned that all the states of the Union have adopted universal suffrage” (196). In the most substantial earlier discussion Tocqueville states that “Once a people begins to interfere with the voting qualification, one can be sure that sooner or later it will abolish it altogether. . . . The further the limit of voting rights is extended, the stronger is the need felt to spread them still wider; for after each new concession the forces of democracy are strengthened, and its demands increase with its augmented power. The ambition of those left below the qualifying limit increases in proportion to the number of those above it” (59-60).

Poorly informed and hasty judgments: While he grants that “the mass of the citizens very sincerely desires the country’s good,” they lack the leisure time and skill necessary to make wise decisions. Their circumstances push them towards hasty judgments based on prominent characteristics. “That is why charlatans of every sort so well understand the secret of pleasing them, whereas for the most part their real friends fail in this” (198).

Poor choice of leaders: Tocqueville approaches this from several directions. He remarks that “the people have. . . little goodwill toward [the higher classes] and are careful to keep them from power; they are not afraid of great talents but have little taste for them.” By the same token, men of distinction shy away from the constraints and the “cheapening” of themselves entailed by political power (198-199). In this context he praises indirect election (to the Senate) for its refinement of the popular will.

Later he expands on this in discussing the “courtier spirit in America.” Due to the “constant mingling of public with private life”, “one finds many more people seeking to gamble on . . .[the sovereign’s] weaknesses and live off his passions than would be found under absolute monarchies. . . . Consequently there is a much more general lowering of standards” (257-258). This explains the “rareness . . . of outstanding men” in politics. Under these conditions, “very few men . . . showed that virile candor and manly independence of thought which often marked the Americans of an earlier generation and which, wherever found, is the most salient feature in men of great character” (258).

Related to this, “The statesmen in democracies are poor, with their fortunes to make” (220). “So while the rulers of aristocracies sometimes seek to corrupt, those of democracies prove corruptible.” Democratic rulers “thus provide dangerous examples to still-struggling virtue and furnish glorious comparisons for hidden vice” (221).

The (positive) general tendency of the laws: “In general, the laws . . . tend toward the good of the greatest number, for they spring from the majority of all the citizens, which may be mistaken but which cannot have an interest contrary to its own” (231-232).

The tyranny of the majority: Undoubtedly the most important item in this list, and it subsumes some of the others.

“The absolute sovereignty of the will of the majority is the essence of democratic government, for in democracies there is nothing outside the majority capable of resisting it” (246).

Tocqueville notes the in the federal Constitution “we have seen that the lawgivers of the Union strove in the opposite direction. . . . But the federal government is hardly concerned with anything except foreign affairs; it is the state governments which really control American society” (246 fn.).

Speaking primarily of the states, he says “The American wanted the members of the legislatures to be appointed directly by the people and for a very short term of office so that they should be obliged to submit not only to the general views but also to the passing passions of their constituents. . . . Having constituted the legislature in this way, almost all the powers of government were concentrated in its hands” (246).

The Americans take the same few of the majority as the French did of the king under the old monarchy: it can do no wrong.

Against this, Tocqueville defends a right of civil disobedience. Because justice is a principle that has been adopted by a majority of all men, “Justice therefore forms the boundary to each people’s right. A nation is like a jury entrusted to represent universal society and to apply the justice which is its law” (250). “Consequently, when I refuse to obey an unjust law, I by no means deny the majority’s right to give orders; I only appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of the human race” (250-251). This argument obviously suffers from two problems: how does one know what that majority considers just; and why should its current standards be taken as final or decisive?

The interests of the majority are in conflict with those of a minority, and “ I will never grant to several that power to do everything which I refuse to a single man” (251). Moreover, he dismisses the classical republic conception of mixed government, “since in any society one finds in the end some principle of action that dominates all the others.” But this heightens the need for minority protections. “What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny” (252). This leads him to reprise the kernel of Madison’s argument (strategy of legislative represent, checks and balances).

The majority’s conformitarian effect on thought in America: “ . . . while the majority is in doubt, one talks; but when it has irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and friends and enemies alike seem to make for its bandwagon. . . . I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom on discussion than in America” (254-255). He speaks of social ostracism as the punishment for independence of mind, and seems to think that informal censorship abounds: “The American majority’s sway extends much further [than the Inquisition’s] and has rid itself even of the thought of publishing such books. One finds unbelievers in America, but unbelief has, so to say, no organ” (256).

Equality is that of a mass of acquisitive, isolated individuals: Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (506).

“. . .individualism at first only dams the spring of public virtues, but in the long run it attacks and destroys all the others too and finally merges in egoism. . . . Individualism is [a vice] of democratic origin and threatens to grow as conditions get more equal” (507).

Among democratic peoples “All a man’s interests are limited to those near himself” (507). “Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries” (508). Moreover, “Despotism, by its very nature suspicious, sees the isolation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence. So it usually does all it can to isolate them. Of all the vices of the human heart egoism si that which suits it best” (509). “Thus vices originating in despotism are precisely those favored by equality” (509-510) (i.e., individualism).

The concentration of power in the state: Tocqueville argues that people preoccupied with their private affairs are ““Not only ... by nature lacking in any taste for public business, but they also often lack the time for it. “Love of public peace is often the only political passion which they retain, and it alone becomes more active and powerful as all the others fade and die. This naturally disposes the citizens constantly to give the central government new powers, or to let it take them, for it alone seems both anxious and able to defend them from anarchy by defending itself” (671-672). This is doubly true of war, which requires great centralized effort. (Mention Bourne’s “war is the health of the state”).

He also argues that each person’s independence is troubled by experiences of weakness and isolation, and “In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement.” Each person wants, as an exception, the state’s help in some special matter. Thus, “the sphere of the central government insensibly spreads in every direction, although every individual wants to restrict it” (672).

What are some of the political and social features of America by which the ill-tendencies of equality are or can be combated?

Self-governance: “When the public governs, all men feel the value of public goodwill and all try to win it by gaining the esteem and affection of those among whom they must live. Those frigid passions that keep hearts asunder must then retreat and hide at the back of consciousness. Pride must be disguised; contempt must not be seen. Egoism is afraid of itself.”

Election of public officials: “It thus happens that ambition makes a man care for his fellows, and, in a sense, he often finds his self-interest in forgetting about himself” (510). Note the “happy dialectic” of this. “. . . the electoral system forges permanent links between a great number of citizens who might otherwise have remained forever strangers to one another.” Thus, “The Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality, and they have won” (510-511).

Social diversity and political decentralization: “each part of the land [has] its own political life”, providing “an infinite number of occasions for the citizens to act together and so . . . every day . . . feel that they depended on one anther” (511). And while it is difficult to induce a man to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state, he can see at once how small, local public matters bear upon his private interests.

Associations in civil life (or “secondary powers”): free associations “can resist tyranny without destroying public order” (676).

Unfortunately, “ . . .a great deal of intelligence, knowledge, and skill are required in these [egalitarian] circumstances to organize and maintain secondary powers and to create, among independent but individually weak citizens, free associations...” (676).

Yet associations are vital if the public virtues are to be nourished and an understanding of public interests developed. Government cannot take the place of associations because “it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands” (516).

“In democracies ignorance as much as equality will increase the concentration of power and the subjection of the individual” (676). Since the state will always be able to attract skill to itself, its administrative power constantly increases” (676-677).

The doctrine of self-interest properly understood: “It gives [the Americans] pleasure to point out how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state” (526).

“The doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not inspire great sacrifices, but every day it prompts some small ones; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous, but its discipline shapes a lot of orderly, temperate, moderate, careful, and self-controlled citizens” (527).

“One must . . . expect that private interest will more than ever become the chief if not the only driving force behind all behavior. But we have yet to see how each man will interpret his private interest” (527). Even religion, in Tocqueville’s view, is practiced for self-interested reasons.

The success of this depends upon education--the education of self-interest--but this means, in effect its social or discursive construction.

Strategic (& repressive) self-interest: “The philosophers who teach this doctrine tell men that to be happy in life they must watch their passions and be careful to restrain their excesses, that lasting happiness cannot be won except at the cost of a thousand ephemeral pleasures, and finally, that one must continually master oneself in order to serve oneself better” (528).

A free press: Because each man is isolated, he can only appeal to the nation as a whole or to humanity at large, and “For this reason freedom of the press is infinitely more precious in a democracy than in any other nation” (697).

The judicial power is also very important. It is “always . . . at the disposal of the humblest when they solicit it. However weak a man may be, he can always compel a judge to listen to his complaint and give him an answer” (698).

Formalities, which men in democratic times have an “instinctive contempt” for, “serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak . . .hold[ing] back the one while the other has time to take his bearings” (698).

Individual rights: Another natural, and dangerous, instinct of democracies is “a tendency to despise individual rights and take little account of them.” Moreover, this “scorn for individual rights” is often matched by the extension and consolidation of the “rights of society” (699).

One could also include here all such things as abundant rich land, lack of urban concentration, and no reason to fear war.

What is the nature of the democratic despotism to be feared?

“if a despotism should be established among the democratic nations of our day, it would probably have a different character. It would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them” (691).

“Taking into consideration the trivial nature of men’s passions now, the softness of their mores, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, their steady habits of patient work, and the restraint which they all show in the indulgence of both their vices and their virtues, I do not expect their leaders to be tyrants, but rather schoolmasters” (691).

“Such old words as ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ do not fit.”

Over these men, each “withdrawn into himself”, and bonded only to “his children and his personal friends . . . stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle.” It “only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

As to the restrictions on the exercise of free choice, “Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial” (692).

“It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform. . .” (692). “It does not break men’s will,” but “softens, bends, and guides it.”

“I have always thought that this brand of orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery which I have just described could be combined, more easily than is generally supposed, with some of the external forms of freedom, and that there is a possibility of its getting itself established even under the shadow of the sovereignty of the people” (693). Tocqueville sees citizens torn by the “need of guidance” versus the desire “to stay free”, and imagine that they have resolved this by creating a “government which is unitary, protective, and all-powerful, but elected by the people. Centralization is combined with the sovereignty of the people. . . Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it” (693). “However important, this brief and occasional exercise of free will will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, so that they will slowly fall below the level of humanity” (694). “It is really difficult to imagine how people who have entirely given up managing their own affairs could make a wise choice of those who are to do that for them” (694).

What are some ways that Tocqueville’s claims and arguments would have to be altered or inverted were the conditions of those groups that he marginalizes (women, slaves, free Negroes, urban workers) made central to his narrative?

[1] Tocqueville argues that if there were distinct classes of citizens in the United States, minorities “would not easily submit to its laws. But as mean equal among themselves came to people the United States, there is as yet no natural or permanent antagonism between the interests of the various inhabitants . . . , and all the parties are ready to recognize the rights of the majority because they all hope one day to profit themselves by it” (248). But there are distinct classes of people in the U.S.

[2] Tocqueville states that “Once a people begins to interfere with the voting qualification, one can be sure that sooner or later it will abolish it altogether. . . . The further the limit of voting rights is extended, the stronger is the need felt to spread them still wider; for after each new concession the forces of democracy are strengthened, and its demands increase with its augmented power. The ambition of those left below the qualifying limit increases in proportion to the number of those above it” (59-60). But in fact, the franchise was not extended to African-Americans until after the Civil War, and it was effectively rescinded after Reconstruction. And women did not gain the suffrage until 1920. For that matter, 18 year-olds were not given the right to vote until 1971. Thus if this is progress, it has been very slow and uneven.

[3] Tocqueville claims that “the majority of all the citizens, . . . may be mistaken but . . . cannot have an interest contrary to its own” (231-232). This is patently false once it is recognized that “minorities”, defined fundamentally by power, not numerically, may well have interests fundamentally contrary to that of the majority (recall that Tocqueville’s argument concerns the non-existence of any “natural or permanent antagonism between the interests of the various inhabitants . . . , and all the parties are ready to recognize the rights of the majority because they all hope one day to profit themselves by it” (248)).

[4] His defense of a right of civil disobedience based on “the sovereignty of the human race” doesn’t consider the problem of social systems which deny the basic humanity of some (slaves, American Indians)--for whom, thus, this right does not exist.

[5] His statement that the judiciary is “always . . . at the disposal of the humblest when they solicit it” certainly didn’t apply to slaves, free negroes, American Indians, to workers in many instances, to the poor, and often not to women.

[6] His dominating attitude toward nature is not only antithetical to the Native American view, it also (if Merchant is accepted) is at odds with the perspective of many American farmers during the pre-commercial period.

Additional Questions to Ponder:

What are some of the prominent liberal aspects of Tocqueville’s thought?

What are some republican themes in Tocqueville?

What bearing does Democracy in American have on contemporary issues and problems?

What is Tocqueville’s view of nature and ecology?

Miscellaneous Notes on Tocqueville

The equality which for him is the fundamental and novel feature of American democracy is the equality of yeoman farmers within an expanding commercial economy. One of the problems with Democracy in America is that Tocqueville briefly considers and rejects the prospect of an industrial transformation of society (Notes 16). Yet this transformation rather quickly demolished the social and economic basis for the equality he describes. Moreover, even within agrarian America, the commercialization of agriculture engendered not equality, but greater disparities of wealth and influence.

This indicates a second difficulty with Tocqueville’s account: his portrait of this primarily agrarian middle-class is excessively rosy, at least with respect to its economic prospects and internal homogeneity. Compare, for example, his account of westward migration with that of a contemporary historian. First Tocqueville:

Tocqueville notes that westward migration is undertaken largely by Americans, not European immigrants, because “One cannot clear the wilderness without either capital or credit, and before a man ventures into the forest his body must be accustomed to the rigors of a new climate” (281).

The consequences of a vast westward movement are dramatic and fundamental. First, “industry is perpetually short of manpower,” driving up wages so that “neither foreigner [who come to work in the settled regions] nor native [the son who “goes to seek his fortune in an empty land] suffers poverty” (282).

Now the same process discussed in “Society, Politics, and the Market Revolution,” by Sean Wilentz:

“Studies of migration suggest that rural northeasterners who could not make a go of it tried to avoid entering the urban wage-labor market; the largest single supply of urban workers . . . consisted of immigrants and their children . . . Native-born rural northeasterners, joined by migrants from the South, headed west instead, most of them hoping to reconstruct the independent yeoman communities that had crumbled back home.”

They faced numerous obstacles according to Wilentz: removal of Native Americans, chiefly accomplished by state and federal authorities; conflict with land speculators “eager to convert the virgin land to capitalist development”, and risky but usually unavoidable economic relations with speculators or bankers.

Wilentz concludes the dream of rural self-sufficiency quickly collapsed--the successful became large commercial farmers; the others either moved on or became agricultural wage-laborers (55-56).