Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French diplomat, historian, and scientist. In the 1830s he came to America to examine our prison system but traveled extensively to study America as a whole. His conclusions were printed in 1835 in two volumes called Democracy in America. I have had both volumes in paperback for a while and decided to read volume 2 first because it covers a more general list of topics from morals to manners.
The reading is fairly difficult and requires attention to the author’s train of thought. After all, he was a French diplomat and an educated man of the aristocratic nineteenth century. Tocqueville’s assessment of early America has been one of the standard reviews since it was written. He calls the young American democracy a democratic revolution and says in his preface, “I wish to speak of it with all sincerity. Men will not receive the truth from their enemies, and it is very seldom offered to them by their friends; on this account I have very frankly uttered it.” Much of his critique is a comparison of the aristocratic countries of Europe, especially France and Great Britain, and the democracy of America. In the former, the greater part of the citizens were poor and not free to express themselves and the higher class had no challenge to their position. This leads to traditional ways of thinking and doing. In America Tocqueville saw equality in citizens and government officials. He also saw a more humble people who treated one another with equal respect and were thankful for equal opportunity. He writes, “Thus, to comprise all my meaning in a single proposition, the dissimilarities and inequalities of men gave rise to the notion of honor; that notion is weakened in proportion as these differences are obliterated, and with them it would disappear” (p. 242). Also, “If, then, a state of society can ever be founded in which every man shall have something to keep and little to take from others, much will have been done for the peace of the world” (p. 252).
Quotes from this book:
“Elected magistrates do not make American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elective.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 105.Democracy on Democracy
“The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest defect of the democratic character.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 224.Alexis de Tocqueville on Change
“Democratic nations love change for its own sake, and this is seen in their language as much as in their politics. Even when they have no need to change words, they sometimes have the desire.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, p. 65 …Alexis de Tocqueville on America
“It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States, religion is therefore mingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force.” Alexis de To …