Excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

Author’s Introduction

AMONG the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.

de TocquevilleI soon perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less effect on civil society than on the government; it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.

I then turned my thoughts to our own hemisphere, and thought that I discerned there something analogous to the spectacle which the New World presented to me. I observed that equality of condition, though it has not there reached the extreme limit which it seems to have attained in the United States, is constantly approaching it; and that the democracy which governs the American communities appears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe.

Hence I conceived the idea of the book that is now before the reader.

It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going on among us, but all do not look at it in the same light. To some it appears to be novel but accidental, and, as such, they hope it may still be checked; to others it seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency that is to be found in history. …

There is one country in the world where the great social revolution that I am speaking of seems to have nearly reached its natural limits. It has been effected with ease and simplicity; say rather that this country is reaping the fruits of the democratic revolution which we are undergoing, without having had the revolution itself.

The emigrants who colonized the shores of America in the beginning of the seventeenth century somehow separated the democratic principle from all the principles that it had to contend with in the old communities of Europe, and transplanted it alone to the New World. It has there been able to spread in perfect freedom and peaceably to determine the character of the laws by influencing the manners of the country. . It appears to me beyond a doubt that, sooner or later, we shall arrive, like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of condition. But I do not conclude from this that we shall ever be necessarily led to draw the same political consequences which the Americans have derived from a similar social organization. I am far from supposing that they have chosen the only form of government which a democracy may adopt; but as the generating cause of laws and manners in the two countries is the same, it is of immense interest for us to know what it has produced in each of them.

It is not, then, merely to satisfy a curiosity, however legitimate, that I have examined America; my wish has been to find there instruction by which we may ourselves profit. Whoever should imagine that I have intended to write a panegyric would be strangely mistaken, and on reading this book he will perceive that such was not my design; nor has it been my object to advocate any form of government in particular, for I am of the opinion that absolute perfection is rarely to be found in any system of laws. I have not even pretended to judge whether the social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous or prejudicial to mankind. I have acknowledged this revolution as a fact already accomplished, or on the eve of its accomplishment; and I have selected the nation, from among those which have undergone it, in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences and to find out, if possible, the means of rendering it profitable to mankind. I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.

In the first part of this work I have attempted to show the distinction that democracy, dedicated to its inclinations and tendencies and abandoned almost without restraint to its instincts, gave to the laws the course it impressed on the government, and in general the control which it exercised over affairs of state. I have sought to discover the evils and the advantages which it brings. I have examined the safeguards used by the Americans to direct it, as well as those that they have not adopted, and I have undertaken to point out the factors which enable it to govern society.

My object was to portray, in a second part, the influence which the equality of conditions and democratic government in America exercised on civil society, on habits, ideas, and customs; but I grew less enthusiastic about carrying out this plan. Before I could have completed the task which I set for myself, my work would have become purposeless. Someone else would before long set forth to the public the principal traits of the American character and, delicately cloaking a serious picture, lend to the truth a charm which I should not have been able to equal.1

I do not know whether I have succeeded in making known what I saw in America, but I am certain that such has been my sincere desire, and that I have never, knowingly, molded facts to ideas, instead of ideas to facts.

Whenever a point could be established by the aid of written documents, I have had recourse to the original text, and to the most authentic and reputable works. I have cited my authorities in the notes, and anyone may verify them. Whenever opinions political customs, or remarks on the manners of the country were concerned, I have endeavored to consult the most informed men I met with. If the point in question was important or doubtful, I was not satisfied with one witness, but I formed my opinion on the evidence of several witnesses. Here the reader must necessarily rely upon my word. I could frequently have cited names which either are known to him or deserve to be so in support of my assertions; but I have carefully abstained from this practice. A stranger frequently hears important truths at the fireside .

The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America

It dominates the whole of American society.  How the Americans applied this principle even before their Revolution.  Its growth as a result of the Revolution.  Gradual and irresistible lowering of voting qualifications.

Any discussion of the political laws of the United States must always begin with the dogma of the sovereignty of the people.

The principle of the sovereignty of the people, which is always to be found, more or less, at the bottom of almost all human institutions, usually remains buried there.  It is obeyed without being recognized, or if for one moment it is brought out into the daylight, it is hastily thrust back into the gloom of the sanctuary.

“The will of the nation!” is one of the phrases most generally abused by intriguers and despots of every age.  Some have seen the expression of it in the bought votes of a few agents of authority, others in the votes of an interested or frightened minority, and some have even discovered it in a people's silence, thinking that the fact of obedience justified the right to command.

But in America the sovereignty of the people is neither hidden nor sterile as with some other nations; mores recognize it, and the laws proclaim it; it spreads with freedom and attains unimpeded its ultimate consequences.

If there is one country in the world where one can hope to appreciate the true value of the dogma of the sovereignty of the people, study its application to the business of society, and judge both its dangers and its advantages, that country is America.

I have already said that from the beginning the principle of the sovereignty of the people was the creative principle of most of the English colonies in America.

But it was far from dominating the government of society then as it does now.

Two obstacles, one external and the other internal, checked its encroachments.

It could not be ostensibly proclaimed in the laws, as the colonies were then still bound to obey the motherland; it had therefore to lie hidden in the provincial assemblies, especially that of the township.  There it spread secretly.

American society at that time was by no means ready to swept it with all its consequences.  In New England, education, and south of the Hudson, wealth, as mentioned in the last chapter, long exercised a sort of aristocratic influence which tended to keep the exercise of social power in a few hands.  It was far from being the case that all public officials were elected and all citizens electors.  Everywhere voting rights were restricted within certain limits and subject to some property qualification.  That qualification was very low in the North but quite considerable in the South.

The American Revolution broke out.  The dogma of the sovereignty of the people came out from the township and took possession of the government; every class enlisted in its cause; the war was fought and victory obtained in its name; it became the law of laws.

A change almost as rapid took place within society.  The law of inheritance succeeded in breaking down local influences.

Just when all could see this effect of the laws and the Revolution, democracy's victory had already been irrevocably pronounced.  Circumstances put power into its hands.  It was not even permissible to struggle against it any longer.  So the upper classes submitted without complaint or resistance to an evil which had by then become inevitable.  They suffered the usual fate of fallen powers; each followed his own selfish interests; as there was no longer a chance of snatching power from the people's hands, and as they did not detest them enough to take pleasure in flaunting that their only thought was to gain their goodwill at any price.  Consequently the most democratic laws were voted by the very men whose interests they impaired.  In this way the upper classes aroused no popular passions against themselves, but they themselves hastened the triumph of the new order.  This had the singular result that the impulse toward The state of Maryland, which had been founded by great lords, was the first to proclaim universal suffrage and introduced the most democratic procedures throughout its government.

Once a people begins to interfere with the voting qualification, one can be sure that sooner or later it will abolish it altogether.  That is one of the most invariable rules of social behavior.  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 am 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.  Finally the exception becomes the rule; concessions follow one another without interruption, and there is no halting place until universal suffrage has been attained.

In the United States in our day the principle of the sovereignty of the people has been adopted in practice in every way that imagination could suggest.  It has been detached from all fictions in which it has elsewhere been carefully wrapped; it takes on every possible form that the exigencies of the case require.  Sometimes the body of the people makes the laws, as at Athens; sometimes deputies, elected by universal suffrage, represent it and act in its name under its almost Immediate supervision.

There are countries in which some authority, in a sense outside the body social, influences it and forces it to progress in a certain direction.

There are others In which power is divided, being at the same time within the society and outside it.  Nothing like that is to be seen in the United States; them society acts by and for itself.  There are no authorities except within itself; one can hardly meet anybody who would dare to conceive, much less to suggest, seeking power elsewhere.  The people take part in the making of the laws by choosing the lawgivers, and they share in their application by electing the agents of the executive power; one might say that they govern themselves, so feeble and restricted is the part left to the administration, so vividly is that administration aware of its popular origin, and so obedient is it to the fount of power.  The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe.  It is the cause and the end of all things; everything rises out of it and is absorbed back into it.  …

Tyranny of the Majority

How the principle of the sovereignty of the people should be understood.  Impossibility of conceiving a mixed government.  Sovereign power must be placed somewhere.  Precautions which one should take to moderate its action.  These precautions have not been taken in the United states.  Result thereof.

I regard it as an impious and detestable maxim that in matters of government the majority of a people has the right to do everything, and nevertheless I place the origin of all powers in the will of the majority.  Am I in contradiction with myself?

There is one law which has been made, or at least adopted, not by the majority of this or that people, but by the majority of all men.  That law is justice.

Justice therefore forms the boundary to each peoples right.

A nation is like a jury entrusted to represent universal society and to apply the justice which is its law.  Should the jury representing society have greater power than that very society whose laws it applies?

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.

There are those not afraid to say that in matters which only concern itself a nation cannot go completely beyond the bounds of justice and reason and that there is therefore no need to fear giving total power to the majority representing it.  But that is the language of a slave.

What is a majority, in its collective capacity, if not an individual with opinions, and usually with interests, contrary to those of another individual, called the minority?  Now, if you admit that a man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not admit the same concerning a majority?  Have men, by joining together, changed their character?  By becoming stronger, have they become more patient of obstacles?  For my part, I cannot believe that, and I will never grant to several that power to do everything which I refuse to a single man.

It is not that I think that in order to preserve liberty one can mix several principles within the same government in such a way that they will be really opposed to one another.

I have always considered what is called a mixed government to be a chimera.  There is in truth no such thing as a mixed government (in the sense usually given to the words), since in any society one finds in the end some principle of action that dominates all the others.

Eighteenth-century England, which has been especially cited as in example of this type of government, was an essentially aristocratic state, although it contained within itself great elements of democracy, for laws and mores were so designed that the aristocracy could always prevail in the long run and manage public affairs as it wished.

The mistake is due to those who, constantly seeing the interests of the great in conflict with those of the people, have thought only about the struggle and have not paid attention to the result thereof, which was more important.  When a society really does have a mixed government, that is to say, one equally shared between contrary principles, either a revolution breaks out or that society breaks up.

I therefore think it always necessary to place somewhere one social power superior to all others, but I believe that freedom is in danger when that finds no obstacles that can restrain its course and give it time to moderate itself.

Omnipotence in itself seems a bad and dangerous thing.  I think that its exercise is beyond man's strength, whoever he be, and that only God can be omnipotent without danger because His wisdom and justice are always equal to His power.  So there is no power on earth in itself so worthy of respect or vested with such a sacred right that I would wish to let it act without control and dominate without obstacles.  So when I see the right and capacity to do all given to any authority whatsoever, whether it be called people or king, democracy or aristocracy, and whether the scene of the action is a monarchy or a republic, I say: the germ of tyranny is there, and I will go look for other laws under which to live.

My greatest complaint against democratic government as organized in the United States is not, as many Europeans make out, its weakness, but rather its irresistible strength.  What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.

When a man or a party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn?  To public opinion?  That is what forms the majority.  To the legislative body?  It represents the majority and obeys it blindly.  To the legislative power?  It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument.   To the police?  They are nothing but the majority under arms.  A jury?  The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce judgment; even the judges in certain states are elected by the majority.  So, however iniquitous or unreasonable the measure which hurts you, you must submit.

But suppose you were to have a legislative body so composed that it represented the majority without being necessarily the slave of its passions, an executive power having a strength of its own, and a judicial power Independent of the other two authorities; then you would still have a democratic government, but there would be hardly any remaining risk of tyranny.

I am not asserting that at the present time in America there are frequent acts of tyranny.  I do say that one can find no guarantee against it there and that the reasons for the government’s gentleness must be sought in circumstances and in mores rather than in the laws.

Jeffersonian Home Jacksonian Home Economic Growth to 1860
Sage American Home Antebellum America Updated December 14, 2016