“Democracy in America” by Alexis De Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville begins his volume with a detailed description of the geography of North America, with his focus on the “external form.” He speaks to the most important features of the region, the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies, as well as the Mississippi River and its valley. Tocqueville describes the scenes of the first Europeans landing on the shores of America, and how “grave, serious, and solemn: it seemed created to be the domain of intelligence.” The author waxes poetically about the maple and birch trees, climbing plants, immense deserts, and more. He begins to speak on the original inhabitants of the country, noting that they appear “rude and uncivil” because of the “daily contact with rich and enlightened men.” However, Tocqueville states that “although they are ignorant and poor, [they] are equal and free.” There are remains of previous, intelligent civilizations that were around earlier than even the Native Americans could remember, so nothing is known about them. Tocqueville ruminates on this, as well as the lack of possessions that the Native Americans have over the land they occupy. He finishes out the chapter announcing the subject of his diatribe: the “attempt to construct society upon a new basis… to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.”
The next section of the text focuses on the origin of the Anglo-American. The key premise of this section of Tocqueville’s assumption that people always feel the effects of their origins. With America, there is an opportunity to study the effect of the “point of departure of a great people.” He takes note of the similarities in culture and language between the colonies but takes interest in the stark differences between the North and the South. The Southern culture was affected from the beginning by the “influence of slavery”. The North has been greatly marked by religious turmoil, and Tocqueville comments that Puritanism “was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” He points out that individuals who came to America for freedom of religion had since imposed their own beliefs quite strictly on others. He then makes an important distinction about the difference between the laws of the English and the laws of the American, that “in America it is the poor who make the law, and they usually reserve the greatest social advantages to themselves.”
How it works
Chapter Three of Democracy in America focuses mainly on the social conditions and the economy of the country. The author emphasizes that the preceding social condition of the Anglo-Americans is that of the democracy, present at the beginning of the country and emerges even stronger today. He determines that the law of inheritance was a significant step towards equality for the American people. Instead of inheritance of a single domain, the law of equal distribution makes it difficult for families to amass and maintain large amounts of wealth: “[depriving] them of the inclination to attempt it, and [compelling] them in some measure to co-operate with the law in their own extinction.” In this section the author also declares that he knows “of no country… where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” even though most them began poor.
In the next section the author details his views that the sovereignty of the people is neither “barren of concealed,” as it is in many other nations. Instead, it is written into the laws of the country and appreciated by the society. Tocqueville states that popular sovereignty was the “fundamental principle” of the colonies, having been rooted in the townships and municipalities. After the Revolution, it became the law of the land.
In Chapter Five, Alexis de Tocqueville finally begins to analyze the American government in practice, discussing the township, the state, and the union at large. He determines that it is necessary to examine t union as “two distinct social structures… encased one within the other.” According to the author, township society is prevalent everywhere in the world and throughout history. In America, it he sees it as most apparent in New England and especially in Massachusetts. In the townships he examines, the representatives of the people are selectmen who are elected annually. Essentially, in the day to day workings of the American government, the township is the primary governing body, collecting taxes and providing resources. The power of the township comes entirely from the people. Next, Tocqueville focuses on the county. His primary observation here is that of the justice and the court, and how they take part in ensuring that the townships and local officials make the correct decisions. He also again explains the power of the people when it comes to officials, as they can only stay in power so long as they are elected. Tocqueville also comments on the American government at the state level. He finds it interesting that state governors, who have the most power over the state, are only indirectly involved with the townships and the people. Tocqueville believes that this method of distributing power is an advantage for America. He says, regarding the difference between the American and European people, that “Often the European sees in the political official only force; the American sees in him right. One can therefor say that in American man never obeys man, but justice or law.
Next, the author touches on judicial power in the United States. The most important factor is the ability for the Supreme Court to determine whether a law is unconstitutional and prevent it from being put into action. This power, as we know, is an important part of our judicial system, and prevents any major power shifts in the federal government. In the next section, Tocqueville examines how the American government has institutions that were created to prevent abuse of power from the federal government, noting important factors such as the impeachment process.