Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

Any course on American political history and philosophy is likely to require you to read portions of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I recently endeavored to sit down and read Volume 2 of this work, and quickly discovered why they only require you to read portions of it in most classes. It is long, and often discusses issues that are only of slight importance today (if they ever were important.) For instance, Book I, Chapter XVIII is called “Why American Writers and Orators Often Use an Inflated Style”. This chapter claims that American writers are “pompous” in their writing style, and attempts to explain that this (dubious) observation can be explained by reference to the nature of “democratic communities”. This Chapter illustrates one of the chief flaws with this book, namely, that de Tocqueville tends to make sweeping generalizations, but provides little evidence to back up many of the generalizations. (Hopefully, what I write will not prove him right about American writers.)

I am not the only one to have noticed this flaw in DIA (“Democracy In America”), because the edition that I have contains a historical essay regarding the work, written by Phillips Bradley of Queens College, Flushing, New York, in 1944. In that essay, he quotes John Stewart Mill as having said: “It is perhaps the greatest secret of M. de Tocqueville’s book, that, from the scarcity of examples, his propositions even when derived from observation, have the air of being mere abstract speculations.” (Democracy in America, Appendix II, Pg. 421, Copyright Alfred A. Knopf, 1945, Vintage Books, Phillips Bradley of Queens College, Flushing New York in 1944, quoting John Stuart Mill, “M. de Tocqueville on Democracy in America,” Edinburgh Review (1840)).

I have only read the first 2 books, and the first quarter of the third book, of Volume 2. After I skimmed over the rest of Book 3 and Book 4, I decided that they were not of sufficient value to read at the present. Since I wanted to write on the importance of what I had read, without wasting my time with what I consider to be unimportant portions, I decided to inform the reader of this review of that fact. Now that I am again looking at the last Book –Book IV, “Influence of Democratic Ideas and Feelings on Political Society”- I must say that its chapter headings look more interesting than Book III’s, but I will review that book separately, if I later decide to read it.

With all of that said, this is basically a European’s view of American political and social attitudes as they existed in the 19th Century. The author’s general theme seems to be something like this: What is American Democracy, what are its political-philosophical origins, and how is it different from European politics and society? De Tocqueville confirmed that he wanted to explore the implicit American philosophy early on. In Chapter I of Book I, he says:

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States…Yet it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States use their minds in the same manner, and direct them according to the same rules; that is to say, without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules, they have a philosophical method common to the whole people.” (DIA, First Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Action of Intellect in the United States”, Chapter I, “Philosophical Method of the Americans”.)

What is this “philosophical method common to the whole people” of America? It is to:

…evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance –such are the principal characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans.”(DIA, First Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Action of Intellect in the United States”, Chapter I, “Philosophical Method of the Americans”.)

To me, this is a definition of “individualism”: look to the facts of reality and use your own mind to reason from, and in reference to, those facts; and use your own mind to improve your circumstances in life because your life is important to you. In other words, the essence of America for de Tocqueville is that it is a nation of individualists. (I agree completely.) But, de Tocqueville doesn’t seem comfortable with the notion of individualism: “Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart.”(DIA, Second Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans”, Chapter II, “Of Individualism in Democratic Countries”.) I regarded this analysis of American individualist philosophy, and what it means in practice, to be one of the most valuable aspects of the First and Second Books of the Second Volume of DIA. These portions of his work demonstrate that contemporary negative connotations associated with the concepts of “egoism” and “individualism” pre-date the 20th Century.

Although he doesn’t seem to like it, de Tocqueville believes that America is a nation infused with the idea of rational egoism:

The doctrine of interest rightly understood is not new then, but among the Americans of our time it finds universal acceptance; it has become popular there; you may trace it at the bottom of all their actions, you will remark it in all they say.”(DIA, Second Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans”, Chapter VIII “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood”.)

These observations on American individualism and rational egoism by de Tocqueville illustrates that political scientists and philosophers of the 19th Century were wrestling with the issue of what should be the relationship of the individual vis-à-vis society? Does society exist because it is in the interests of the individuals that comprise it (individualism), or do individuals exist to serve society (collectivism)? De Tocqueville seemed uncomfortable with American individualism for religious reasons: “I do not believe that self-interest is the sole motive of religious men…”(DIA, Second Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans”, Chapter IX “That the Americans Apply the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood to Religious Matters”). He also seemed to assert at times that religion was necessary to maintain the social order, which I believe is a common belief today: “…I find that dogmatic belief is not less indispensible to him in order to live alone than it is to enable him to co-operate with his fellows.”( DIA, First Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Action of Intellect in the United States”, Chapter II, “Of the Principal Source of Belief Among Democratic Nations”.)

The issue of religion raises another major criticism I have of de Tocqueville’s work. His discomfort with the secular trend of his era clearly comes through in the book: “The chief concern of religion is to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive taste for well-being that men feel in periods of equality…”( DIA, First Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Action of Intellect in the United States”, Chapter V, “How Religion in the United States Avails Itself of Democratic Tendencies”.) De Tocqueville clearly has an agenda in Democracy in America, which is to protect religion in a post-Enlightenment era. But, de Tocquevill recognizes that American religion has been secularized:

Not only do the Americans follow their religion from interest, but they often place in this world the interest that makes them follow it. In the Middle Ages the clergy spoke of nothing but a future state; they hardly cared to prove that a sincere Christian may be a happy man here below. But the American preachers are constantly referring to the earth, and it is only with great difficulty that they can divert their attention from it. To touch their congregations, they always show them how favorable religious opinions are to freedom and public tranquility; and it is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.”(DIA, Second Book, “Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans”, Chapter IX “That the Americans Apply the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood to Religious Matters”.)

De Tocquville’s commentary regarding American religion confirms for me what I had heard 20th Century atheists, especially Ayn Rand, say, but had never found confirmation of, from a theist. Namely, that American religion is not like the religion of the Middle Ages. It is a secularized version, that is more concerned with worldly welfare than with any sort of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The fact that de Tocqueville, a French Aristocrat and devout Catholic, would say this provides strong evidence for the proposition that American religion is a largely secularized institution. I consider this “independent” confirmation to be a major value of Democracy in America.

Democracy in America, despite its flaws, is important because it captured the essence of America (individualism) at a particular moment in time (the 19th Century), and preserved that snapshot for future generations of America to learn about, no matter how far they may have strayed from that essence today.

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dean

I am Dean Cook. I currently live in Dallas Texas.

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