Alexis de Tocqueville’s Observations on American Society
Old-Thinker News | March 31, 2008
By Daniel Taylor
Written in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America discusses in depth the political, social and governmental aspects of American society from an outsiders perspective. Tocqueville observes the human nature that still remains today which allows for deception through ideas that are “…precise even though false,” as well as the tendency even in the earlier days of America to rely on “…ready-made opinions” rather than our own.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French Historian and political thinker. While I don’t necessarily agree with every one of Tocqueville’s positions, Democracy in America is an important book that can be used as a guide to measure change that has taken place since its writing, as well as to gain perspective on what has always been.
When reading through this book it is difficult not to see parallels between American society in the 1800’s and the America of today. However, there are glaring differences as well. Already existing negative tendencies in human nature have been exacerbated by social engineers that have attempted to alter and guide society according to their own visions. Power and authority are now largely trusted and seen as sources of protection by a large portion of the population rather than threats to personal liberty and freedom, though this is changing. True community is becoming increasingly rare. Government has expanded exponentially.
All of these changes have an impact on how much freedom we enjoy – and how much freedom can be taken away without much resistance.
Tocqueville points out possible weaknesses in our system of governance, stating that if Americans abandoned the republic, “…they would move quickly to despotism without tarrying for long in monarchy.” He observed even in his day a trend away from “that virile candor, that manly independence of thought, that often distinguished Americans in earlier times…”
Tocqueville’s insight into the world of America 170 years ago provides an important perspective and path to introspection for present day Americans.
Below are some interesting excerpts from Democracy in America:
Americans rely on authority only when they cannot do without it
“Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it. This first becomes apparent in the schools, where children play by their own rules and punish infractions they define themselves. One encounters the same spirit in all aspects of social life. An obstruction blocks a public road, interrupting the flow of traffic. The neighbors immediately set up a deliberative body. Out of this improvised assembly comes an executive power that will remedy the ill before it occurs to anyone to appeal to an authority…” (p. 215)
Enlightenment disseminated throughout the country
“The United States has no capital. Enlightenment, like power, is disseminated throughout this vast country. Hence the beams of human intelligence do not all emanate from a common center but crisscross in every direction. Nowhere have the Americans established any central direction over their thinking, any more than they have established any central direction over affairs of state.” (p. 210)
The intelligence of ordinary Americans
“Nothing makes me admire the common sense and practical intelligence of the Americans more than the way in which they avoid the countless difficulties arising from their federal constitution. Seldom have I met an ordinary American who could not distinguish with surprising ease between obligations stemming from laws passed by Congress and obligations originating in the laws of his state…” (p. 187)
Ready made opinions
“In the United States, the majority takes it upon itself to provide individuals with a range of ready-made opinions and thus relieves them of the obligation to form their own.” (p. 491)
An idea that is clear and precise…
“Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.” (p. 186)
Rise of aristocracy
“What can be foreseen right now is that if the Americans did abandon the republic, they would move quickly to despotism without tarrying for long in monarchy. Montesquieu said that there is nothing more absolute than the authority of a prince who succeeds a republic, because the indefinite powers once fearlessly entrusted to elected officials would then be placed in the hands of a hereditary leader. This is true in general, but particularly true of a democratic republic. In the United States, officials are not elected by a particular class of citizens but by the majority of the nation; they directly represent the passions of the multitude and are entirely dependent on its will. They therefore inspire neither hatred nor fear. Thus, as I noted earlier, little care has been taken to limit their power by circumscribing their action, and the range of arbitrary discretion left to them is vast. The habits fostered by this way of ordering things could outlast it. American officials could keep their indefinite power yet cease to be answerable to anyone, and it is impossible to say where tyranny would then end.
There are some among us who expect to see an aristocracy arise in America and who are already predicting exactly when it will seize power.” (p. 460) [emphasis added]
That virile candor…
“Among the droves of men with political ambitions in the United States, I found very few with that virile candor, that manly independence of thought, that often distinguished Americans in earlier times and that is invariably the preeminent trait of great characters wherever it exists.” (p. 297)
Distinguished men shun careers in politics
“While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.” (p. 227)
An immense tutelary power…
“I therefore believe that the kind of oppression that threatens democratic peoples is unlike any the world has seen before. Our contemporaries will find no image of it in their memories. I search in vain for an expression that exactly reproduces my idea of it and captures it fully. The old words “despotism” and “tyranny” will not do. The thing is new, hence I must try to define it, since I cannot give it a name.
I am trying to imagine what new features despotism might have in today’s world: I see an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal, endlessly hastening after petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is virtually a stranger to the fate of all the others. For him, his children and personal friends comprise the entire human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he lives alongside them but does not see them. He touches them but does not feel them. He exists only in himself and for himself, and if he still has a family, he no longer has a country.
Over these men stands an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing their pleasure and watching over their fate. It is absolute, meticulous, regular, provident, and mild. It would resemble paternal authority if only its purpose were the same, namely, to prepare men for manhood. But on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them in childhood irrevocably. It likes citizens to rejoice, provided they think only of rejoicing. It works willingly for their happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances. Why not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and the difficulty of living?
Every day it thus makes man’s use of his free will rarer and more futile. It circumscribes the action of the will more narrowly, and little by little robs each citizen of the use of his own faculties. (p. 818) [emphasis added]
Reduced to timid and industrious animals…
“The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.” (p. 819)
In absolute governments…
“In absolute governments, the high nobles who surround the throne flatter the passions of the master and voluntarily bend to his whims. But the masses of the nation are not inclined toward servitude; often they submit out of weakness, habit, or ignorance, and occasionally out of love for royalty or the king. It is not unknown for a people to take pleasure and pride of a sort of sacrificing their will to that of the prince, thereby marking a kind of independence of soul in the very act of obedience. In such nations degradation is far less common than misery. There is a great difference, moreover, between doing what one does not approve of and pretending to approve of what one does: one is the attitude of a man who is weak, the other a habit that only a lackey would acquire.” (p. 296)
The people maintain sovereignty…
“As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.” (p. 61)
In closing I think that it is worthy to again mention Tocqueville’s comments on education in America, for schooling is one of the most obvious methods of molding society. Tocqueville writes,
“Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it. This first becomes apparent in the schools, where children play by their own rules and punish infractions they define themselves.”
Having been released at last from my 12 year prison sentence in public school a short time ago, memories of what I was taught – but mostly what I was not – are still fresh. Anyone who has been through public school knows that they no longer operate the way Tocqueville describes them. At the time of Tocqueville’s writing, most schools were still free from the great managerial system that would eventually swallow the nation. The Rockefeller family and other interests had yet to fully seize control of the school system and begin molding the minds of generations.
In 1839, echoing many of Tocqueville’s observations of American society, Orestes Brownson wrote “In Opposition to Centralization” that,
“A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here . . . because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here, the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. This fundamental difference between the two countries [United States and Prussia], we apprehend, has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters.”
The “new” oppression of an immense tutelary power that Tocqueville struggles to define is here and now. We must remember where we came from. We must re-discover the wisdom of our ancestors.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York, NY: Library of America, 2004.