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By Fred Skolnik


The Montréal Review, May 2014


Alexis de Tocqueville by Honoré Daumier (National Gallery of Art)


In May 1831, at the age of 25, Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States as part of a commission of two to study the American prison system, returning to France nine months later to write up his report and start work on his famous Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique, 1835, 1840). Not far behind Tocqueville were two revolutions. One had yielded a short-lived republic, a reign of terror, a megalomaniac emperor, and a restoration of monarchy. The other had yielded an enduring democracy. Since Tocqueville believed that democracy was coming to France as well – and to all of Europe – he wished to see "what we have to fear and what we have to hope from its progress" (Preface; from the classic Henry Reeve translation). What the modern reader might wish to see, on the other hand, is how well he understood America, what America presented to him, what America hid from him, and how we ourselves may understand the future course of American history, as Tocqueville attempted to do in the 19th century, on the basis of what we understand about America today.

Tocqueville came from an old aristocratic family, with antecedents going all the way back to the Norman invasion of England. His staunchly royalist paternal grandfather had been executed along with other members of the family during the Reign of Terror while his parents had survived ten months in prison. After the Restoration, Tocqueville's father served as prefect of various departments, sent Alexis to law school and set him up as an unsalaried junior prosecutor (juge-auditeur).

What Tocqueville witnessed in France during these years, under a constitutional monarchy, was the often chaotic political struggle between the king sitting in the Tuileries or Grand Trianon and the old and new aristocracy, landed and moneyed, sitting in the Chamber of Deputies, which was itself divided between Liberal and Royalist factions. What Tocqueville witnessed in America was a democracy still in its infancy, though far-reaching changes had already occurred in its social, economic and political life. By 1830 the original 13 colonies had grown to 24 states, two of them west of the Mississippi (Missouri and Louisiana). The population of the United States at the time was 12,866,020, including 2,009,043 slaves and 96,757 settlers in the Territories of Michigan, Arkansas and Florida. The Indian population was estimated by the U.S. government at somewhat over 300,000. Ninety percent of Americans lived in rural areas and just seven cities had populations of over 25,000, with New York the biggest at 200,000.

Economically and politically, three distinct regions had emerged on the American continent: the commercial and manufacturing north, the agrarian south and the pioneer west, each with its own interests. The cotton-growing south wanted low tariffs in order to be able to import cheap manufactured goods from Europe; the north wanted a developed transportation system, a national bank, and high tariffs in order to protect its own manufactured goods from European competition; the west wanted cheap land. Politically, the country had only moved toward real democracy with the elimination of property qualifications for voters and office holders. This resulted from the pressure of disenfranchised western settlers and eastern tradesmen, culminating in the election of Andrew Jackson of Tennessee to the presidency in 1828. (The Founding Fathers had of course had no intention of allowing the reins of government to fall into the hands of the People.)

The first two volumes of Democracy in America describe America's democratic institutions, what brought them into being and their strengths and weaknesses. The last two volumes contemplate the influence of democracy on the ideas, feelings, manners and political society of the American people. Tocqueville's method is continually to compare democratic societies with aristocratic societies and the conditions of American democracy with the conditions of nascent European democracy, and all this with exemplary French logic, clarity and stylistic elegance. His method, too, is to generalize. Though his letters and journal entries record personal impressions, anecdotes and conversations, few make their way into the Democracy. Though he discusses American literature, philosophy, historiography, he does not mention a single writer by name. And though his subject is largely the American political system and its current state, he mentions President Jackson just twice in the entire work (as weak rather than strong in everything but the art of accumulating personal power and as totally unfit to govern).

The central idea in Tocqueville's understanding of American democracy was what he termed "equality of conditions," which he saw as "the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived." What this equality entailed for Tocqueville, in contrast to the inequalities of aristocratic societies, were the disappearance of classes, the division of property through American inheritance laws, the sharing of power, universal access to knowledge, and cultivation of the capacities of all people. However, equality in itself does not guarantee democracy, Tocqueville points out, for all men can be equal in status (and misery) under the iron hand of a tyrant. Nor does democracy, namely popular government or the sovereignty of the people, guarantee liberty, for the tyranny of the majority can quash the freedom of the individual.

What enabled freedom and democracy to flourish in America, Tocqueville writes, was a combination of objective circumstances and, most importantly, the character of the American people itself. For the American settlers arrived in America with a highly civilized heritage behind them and with an experience of freedom and popular sovereignty brought over from England. Therefore Americans did not start from scratch, underwent no crude infancy, arrived at equality without revolution causing resentment and division, were born equal instead of becoming equal. As such, the rude American farmer was anything but a peasant. He was the product of 18 centuries of civilization, spoke the language of cities, penetrated the wilds of America with "Bible, axe and a sheaf of newspapers" (though Henry Adams reminds us that the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the gentrified planters of the South all regarded the western pioneers as little more than savages). In any case, Tocqueville asserts, America's forefathers bequeathed to future generations of Americans "the customs, manners and opinions most conducive to the success of republican government." Even the Puritan religion was steeped in democratic and republican ideas, for the draconian laws of the Puritans were not imposed by absolute authority but by common consent, and while religion-based moral laws were harsh, political laws were ahead of the times in terms of suffrage, trial by jury, and the participation of the people in public life.

As for objective circumstances, first and foremost, in Tocqueville's view, was the nature of the American continent itself: boundless, fertile, open to American exertions and favoring prosperity among an advanced race. In addition, America had no neighbors and therefore no wars, no invasions to fear, no need for high taxes or big armies. These circumstances, the boundless and bountiful land, assuring prosperity, beckoning to the adventurous spirit, inspiring him forever to strike west toward new horizons, coupled with the civilized and freedom-loving traditions brought to the New World by the European settlers, were what assured the success of the democratic experiment in America.

In practice, Tocqueville goes on to say, the cornerstone of American democracy was local self-government, facilitated, we may add, by the distance of the mother country, which minimized interference in colonial affairs, at least under the early charters, thought the French and Spanish colonies in the New World enjoyed similar conditions but did not develop in the same favorable way. Tocqueville notes that, in America, independent townships originated before the counties, the counties before the states and the states before the Union, as opposed to Europe, where the body politic originated in the upper social ranks. Thus the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people filtered up from the townships to the states and from the states to the Union. In 1830, for example, there were 305 such townships in Massachusetts in 14 counties, with a population of 610,014, or around 550,000 excluding Boston, for an average of about 1,800 residents per township. This naturally made for a very intimate body politic (comparable to the Ancient Greek boule), which governed through town meetings and selectmen chosen from among themselves, thus promoting public spirit and providing a suitable outlet for political ambition. The selectmen, three in the smaller towns, nine in the larger ones, were the principal administrative officers. In addition, the town meetings appointed a number of lesser magistrates to manage local affairs, such as assessors, constables, town clerks, etc., and a variety of inspectors (for chimneys, fences, etc.). These townships were thus self-governing in everything that pertained to daily life and offered an equal share of power to its citizens, who were obliged to serve, "though almost all were paid so that poorer citizens might be able to give up their time without loss."

In this scheme, the county primarily administered justice, providing courts, sheriffs, jails, though going south from New England, the townships became less active, with the power of the elected officials growing and the power of the electors diminishing, and the county becoming the center of administration, though Tocqueville notes that regardless of whether the town or county was dominant, the same principle applied, namely that "everyone is the best judge of what concerns him alone." State powers, on the other hand, were legislative and executive, the latter embodied in the governor, who could veto or suspend legislation, while the justice of the peace, appointed by the state governor and sitting in a Court of Sessions, assured obedience to state laws. However, Tocqueville adds, the absence of administrative functions in the state impeded statewide activity while the local administration at the township level always concerned itself with local interests. In the American democracy, Tocqueville continues, local government also fulfills the function of the organized European aristocracy in resisting despotic power from above. The courts, on the other hand, repress "the excesses of democracy" and "check and direct the impulses of the majority." In this system, the federal power is relatively weak. Essentially its proper spheres were war and foreign affairs.

Tocqueville concedes that Americans might be better served administratively by a remote, unseen authority centered in a single arm of government capable of managing the country's resources more efficiently than local functionaries, but he also asserts that the political advantages of the American system are far more beneficial to the life of both society and the individual, for it promotes participation in one's own destiny and leaves one's life in one's own hands. In Europe, Tocqueville writes, the citizen is indifferent to his environment, which he considers "the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government," and therefore "folds his arms" (croise les bras) even when his life is in danger, waiting for the powers that be to come to his assistance. In America, on the other hand,

the interests of the country are everywhere kept in view; they are an object of solicitude to the people of the whole Union, and every citizen is as warmly attached to them as if they were his own. He takes pride in the glory of his nation; he boasts of its success, to which he conceives himself to have contributed; and he rejoices in the general prosperity by which he profits….

When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the cooperation of the Government but makes his plan known, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done.

Thus far, this is certainly an idyllic picture, fitting in very well with the popular notion of a lost America, an America of small towns and freedom-loving, independent-minded farmers, a Jeffersonian America, so that, not surprisingly, our own "libertarians" have been quick to claim Tocqueville as one of their own, including him in their pantheon of culture heroes (together with Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Jefferson, Madison, Robert Heinlein, H.L. Mencken, John Stuart Mill, and many, many others). But did such an America ever exist? Tocqueville himself, for all his enthusiasm, was not blind to certain dissonances in the young republic, for alongside what he termed "individualism" – a concept he virtually invented and believed to be unique to democratic societies, causing men to separate themselves from others and concern themselves with their own affairs – he also found "little independence of mind," in fact a society in which nonconformists were excised as in no other country on earth.

This conformity, he argues, derived from the equality of conditions itself and its leveling effect. Aristocracies, Tocqueville writes, create a chain of dependence. Consequently, strong men can act alone politically and socially, already having a following. In aristocracies, too, men are varied; they are individuals. In America, men may be individualists but they tend to be similar and while they may be independent in many respects they are also weak individually and politically. Unlike aristocracies, where the superior quality of a man is decisive, in democracies, where men are similar, numbers count for more and hence the formation of associations to achieve common goals. And whereas in aristocratic societies the mass of men defer to the beliefs of aristocrats, recognizing them as superior beings, in democracies the tendency is to place one's faith in a common fund of general ideas. Equality of conditions thus promotes similarity of thinking alongside a reluctance to defer to the opinions of other individuals, so that everyone is under the sway of the mass of opinion to which they attach themselves to offset their relative weakness as individuals under conditions of equality. Received, ready-made opinion therefore predominates, writes Tocqueville, and is apt to tyrannize as well, inhibiting, among other things, the emergence of outstanding leaders and causing politicians to pander to the masses, rarely displaying the "manly candor" and "masculine independence" of former times.

But why should nonconformists be excised? What was the threat they posed? Tocqueville did not write as a psychologist but as a political scientist and even a sociologist and therefore did not concern himself with the interior landscape of the American psyche but with its general or overall aspect insofar as it was manifested in political behavior or was a product of America's political system. What equality did actually engender among Americans was not simply adherence to ready-made opinions and a common fund of ideas but also adherence to a system of values that defined them and gave them their sense of worth in the absence of personal distinction. This need became more acute as more and more Americans recognized that there was a considerable distance between themselves and the individuals that society honored, for the elimination of social and, by extension, political classes does not eliminate the variety of human types. Men will still be divided by talent, character, ambition, will, and a host of other factors, and this will determine their status or station as surely as the old European classes did, though they cannot lay claim to such status by virtue of their birth but must earn it. Thus it is naïve to think that America in the 1830s was not already a stratified society, not only in a South dominated by wealthy planters but in the towns of the North as well, where some men were "successful" and the mass of men less successful, some rich and others less rich, some strong and others weak. In these towns there were always men whose opinions counted for more, men who set the tone, men who were respected for what they had achieved while others were not. But if one was not esteemed as a "leading citizen," one could still say that one was a good American, a churchgoer and a family man and a patriot, and that was enough to put one on an equal footing with one's neighbors. However, the subterfuge that was often required to sustain such an image of oneself could only produce a veneer that cracked open very quickly when under strain, especially when Americans were claiming virtues and values that were not always their own and which they had not really earned. The nonconformist challenged these values, defied the conventions, exposed and even ridiculed the hypocrisy, and in effect undermined the props that Americans used to construct their identities and fortify their self-esteem, and for this reason he was hated. America was turning out to be very hard on Americans.

Now Tocqueville arrives at the federal system. The circumstances favoring confederation in the United States, he writes, were common language, origins, interests and level of civilization, meaning, in Tocqueville's words, that there was less difference between the inhabitants of Maine and Georgia, 1,000 miles apart, than between those of Normandy and Brittany, separated by just a bridge. The framers of the Constitution, however, had not been appointed to constitute the government of a single people but to regulate an association of states. Nonetheless, by a master stroke (chef-d'oeuvre), the Union circumvented the states and placed itself in a direct relationship with private citizens. Therefore individuals and not states are taxed, and when the government acts juridically within the framework of the Constitution, it acts against refractory individuals rather than against the states. In fact the Constitution itself refers to "We the People" and not "We the States" as the constituting power, an argument, incidentally, that Lincoln used in denying the right of secession to the Southern states.

Federal functions are fewer and easier to define than state functions, so that, as all Americans are taught, all powers not explicitly vested in the federal government remain the domain of the states. But this divided sovereignty makes the Union weak as an arm of government and only able to survive in America because of the country's isolation. Such a system, Tocqueville believes, would be imperiled in Europe, where countries are crowded together and constantly at odds with each another. The public is also unequipped to assess the qualifications of national candidates and is taken in by mountebanks. In crises, however, better men are chosen, as was the case at the beginning of American independence. The House of Representatives is inferior in quality because it is elected directly by the people whereas senators are elected by state legislatures.

In its overall federal aspect, says Tocqueville, the most evident defect of American democracy is the inconstancy of its laws through shifting majorities and changing legislatures as a result of frequent elections, making America the land where laws last the least amount of time. Elections produce breaks in continuous rule, though this instability is felt less when the power of elected officials in limited. It is felt most of all in foreign policy, but the current simple relations of America with the rest of the world make this less felt too. Furthermore, were the government to enter secondary spheres, at the local level, its inability to enforce its will would act as a brake against arbitrary acts reflecting the tyranny and absolute power of a political majority, which is an even greater danger of democracy. However, there is also no tradition in the U.S. of blind obedience to despotic power, which is a further brake against tyranny. Frequent elections also invite revolutions by frustrated losers, says Tocqueville. The danger of the election of the president is that it excites the ambition of candidates and partisans who wish to share power. Hereditary monarchs and ruling families were more committed to the interests of the state. And while the single great advantage of democracy is that its laws benefit the greatest number of people as opposed to aristocracies, where the laws benefit the few, aristocracies produce more skilled legislators, exercise greater self-control and form lasting designs, though democracies have it in their power to correct their faults.

The Union is advantageous, Tocqueville writes, but not indispensable to the states. Were one to secede, the others would not act to prevent it. Furthermore, the states would prevail in a struggle with the Federal government. Even a strong Federal government would have difficulty overcoming states and imposing its will because of the distances involved and the dispersal of the population. (In the War of 1812, for example, Connecticut and Massachusetts had refused to supply militias.) However, it is improbable that such a struggle would ever be undertaken, Tocqueville reasons, for American interests maintain the Union as a source of collective strength. The commercial north is interested in union to maintain the maximum number of producers and consumers. The south and west benefit from the commercial resources of the north. The south needs the north for protection against its black population and the west needs the north so as not to be isolated from civilization.

Tocqueville's great bugbear was centralization, having seen what it had wrought in France in the Revolution and under Napoleon. Among the functions taken over by the central government in democratized Europe, notes Tocqueville, were charity, education, religion, and even the personal savings of individuals. Such a government "chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, facilitates their pleasure, manages their principal concerns …" This kind of modern despotism does not tyrannize but "compresses, enervates, extinguishes, stupefies," reducing the nation to a "flock of timid and industrious animals." In democracies, centralization increases in proportion to equality or ignorance, though it is desirable in war. Despotism is easiest to establish under equality of conditions because of the weakness of individuals. The independence of individuals vis-à-vis the masses as in aristocratic societies is not to be expected in democracies. The removal of the intermediate governing class (aristocracy) promotes excessive centralization.

In any case, small countries are better suited to republican government than big ones. Passions are more easily aroused in big countries because the stakes are higher and many millions of people are involved. Ambition and wealth are also greater. Clearly, though, America was destined to become a big country. Extrapolating from a population that had doubled in size every 22 years, Tocqueville estimated that the American population would reach 100 million in 1900, in 40 states. (Actually it reached only 76 million, but in 45 states.) Tocqueville therefore was skeptical about the duration of such an expanding Union, as he envisaged the gravitation of the center of Federal power and influence to the North with its commercial and industrial wealth and a decline in the power of the agrarian South and increasing secessionist sentiments. He also saw the future growth of the cities as a danger to security, unless the government created an independent army to control them. As an aristocrat, he was wary of the "rabble" (bas peuple), which he found in abundance in New York and Philadelphia.

But the most formidable threat to the Union was again the presence of the black population. If a revolution were to break out, he believed, it would be brought on by these black men. Thus, after emancipation, blacks and whites must either become racially mixed or part ways; the former was unimaginable and the latter involved too many people to be feasible, therefore a clash was inevitable, unless slavery was perpetuated. As for the Indians, in Tocqueville's view they would become extinct. (Today there are around 3 million full-blooded American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the United States.) What the Spanish failed to do by visiting on the Indians unparalleled atrocities, Tocqueville writes, the Americans achieved "tranquilly, philanthropically … without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world."

Tocqueville concludes the first two volumes of the Democracy with his most famous prediction, namely that of all the nations of the world, the United States and Russia each "seems destined in time to sway the destinies of half the globe" (semble appelé par un dessein secret de la Providence à tenir un jour dans ses mains les destinées de la moitié du monde).

This, in broad terms, was Tocqueville's understanding of the American political system as it appeared to him in 1831, a system whose salient feature was robust local government and a weak central government, and it is true that between Jackson and Lincoln the only U.S president who might be called strong was James Knox Polk, who led the country into the Mexican War. All this changed, as Tocqueville foresaw, with size and with America's involvement in world affairs, as well as with the shift of the population from rural to urban areas in a near reversal of the former ratio along with industrialization and unprecedented immigration.

At the same time, when Tocqueville spoke of equality of conditions, he meant equality of circumstances as much as equality of opportunity. He knew an America where wealth was fairly evenly distributed and, unlike aristocratic societies with their multitudes of poor people, there was a large population living under fairly comfortable circumstances, owning property and devoting all of its energies to improving its material condition. He did not imagine that America would become the country with the greatest gap between rich and poor in the Western world, though the signs were there. He also did not really grasp the effects of urbanization on the "ideas and opinions" of society, seeing these effects only in terms of the revolutionary agitation he knew in Paris, nor could he foresee or appreciate the effects of mass immigration. Not only did the urban experience undermine traditional values and reinforce the alienation from society that Tocqueville saw as the obverse or darker side of individualism, it also brought together men and women in a relatively free atmosphere, promoting the dissemination of new ideas. This, however, did not obviate conformity. Middle-class conformity grew to be as strong as smalltown conformity, and for the same reasons.

Paradoxically, however, with the passage of time and the transformation of America from an agrarian to an urbanized industrial society, conformity would ultimately undergo as significant a degree of erosion as old-style individualism. As farmers, Americans were their own men, but in an urban environment they became part of a system running on other people's clocks, cogs in a wheel. The paradox was that the city heightened the feeling of alienation and anonymity that allowed Americans who rebelled against middle-class respectability to break away from the stranglehold of conformity. However, both individualism and conformity would of course survive, the former mostly in the strong, the latter in the weak.

In the middle-class system, up through the 1950s and often beyond, men expected to be judged by how successful they were as breadwinners and many went to great lengths to create the impression that they were more successful than they actually were; women, on the other hand, expected to be judged by how successful they were as homemakers and, together with their husbands, by how successful they were at bringing up their children to conform to middle-class values, putting them forward as surrogates, hiding behind their good behavior and modest achievements, wanting to be judged by what their children were. However, the liberation of women and the breakdown of family life in America (one thing having nothing to do with the other) undermined middle-class conformity, throwing middle-class values into complete turmoil, so that when the class reemerged at the end of the Sixties, after the Sexual Revolution and a decade of social upheaval, it had thrown off certain restraints though it was still shackled to a merciless economic system. America had liberated itself to a large degree from Puritanism and many of its old social prejudices but not from the American dream itself.

In the final two volumes of the Democracy, Tocqueville turns to the American character, namely American "ideas and feelings" and American manners.

The greatest passion in America, he asserts, is indeed directed toward getting rich. Thus the most talented people go into business and the less talented into national politics. Business was the quickest route to material gratification, the enjoyment of life's bounty, and thus men were led from farming to commerce and industry for quick financial gains. In aristocracies, public involvement generally diverts attention from the accumulation of wealth. The high esteem in which Americans hold the desire for wealth is in marked contrast to medieval aristocrats, who held it in contempt as cupidity, while Americans consider medieval martial ardor barbarous, so that business can be said to have replaced war in America as the focus of ambition. Courage in American eyes thus meant braving adversity in business affairs rather than excelling at war. Consequently, bankruptcy is not dishonorable in America, since commercial boldness is a virtue. It is idleness that is frowned upon.

In aristocracies, wealth and poverty are taken for granted in the respective classes. But when rank and privilege are removed, everyone aspires to wealth, especially the middle class. However, while the taste for physical gratification does not lead to the same excesses in a democracy as in aristocratic societies, indulgence in what is permissible is nevertheless enough to enervate the soul. The restlessness that Tocqueville discerns in the American character springs from materialism, he believes, the haste to enjoy worldly goods as much as possible in the little time given to man on earth.

One the other hand, religious belief counteracts the democratic tendencies toward individualism and materialism by fixing the mind on higher things. though at the same time the Puritan origin of religion, along with commercial habits, discourages the pursuit of the arts and sciences. Moralists in America avow that self-sacrifice is not lofty but necessary and in one's own best interests, though Tocqueville points out that Americans also act altruistically.

Intellectually, he writes, there is in America a distrust of theory and precedent and in its place the pursuit of facts, or pragmatism. Despite the similarity of thinking in America, American philosophical method avoids accepted wisdom, seeking truth independently, where the ends override the means. Culturally, equality produces uniformity of language. And American democracy with its pragmatic bent diverts thoughts from ideal beauty. When Americans contemplate their own insignificant selves or the vastness of human society, their ideas tend to be either terse and clear or extremely general and vague, with nothing in between. Writers and poets use inflated language when describing the general. Historiography in aristocracies sees the influence of individuals; in democracy, it seeks general causes. And since equality weakens individuals, the press assumes greater importance. Newspapers unite people by disseminating ideas simultaneously to many individuals. However, the multiplicity of publications in America, and the absence of a center of authoritative opinion, diminishes the influence of the press, though its power remains immense, for "when a great number of organs of the press adopt the same line of conduct, their influence becomes irresistible; and public opinion, when it is perpetually assailed from the same side, eventually yields to the attack." In America, just as politics attracted the least talented men, so journalism attracted the least talented writers. American journalists are distinguished by an "open and coarse appeal to the passions of the populace" and character assassination.

As to manners, Tocqueville compares English reserve with American affability. In England, as the moneyed aristocracy impinges on the birth aristocracy, the boundaries of class become blurred and consequently suspicion grows and one's social position feels challenged. Aristocratic societies operate by codes of conduct and social conventions which it is hazardous to ignore, Classless societies lack fixed social rules; intercourse is easier, tolerance greater. In America, everyone is on an equal footing and thus the American manner is natural, frank and open. Abroad, Americans instantly become friends among themselves while the English are constrained, but Americans in Europe are also unsure of themselves.

The greater the equality the greater the disposition among people to oblige one another. Furthermore, relations between father and son are more intimate and affectionate and less authoritarian in democracies. Children too are ranked in aristocratic societies; in democracies, they are equal. Tocqueville notes the different tone of father-son letters in democracies and aristocracies. Democracy loosens social ties, binds natural ties, etc.

Young women are freer in America than in Europe, but married women are constrained. Arranged marriages engender illicit relations in aristocracies. Freedom of choice (and the constraints of religion) promote fidelity in democracies. Commercial values make men levelheaded in love and marriage. Whatever vices threaten marriage are censured more than in Europe.

The separate duties of men and women are in keeping with their natures, according to Tocqueville, with the man as head of the family. Women, however, are respected and seen as being of equal value. The prosperity and strength of America, Tocqueville asserts, are attributable to the superiority of its women.

Aristocrats with their assured station assume haughty disdain for petty concerns and a grand, lofty and dignified manner. In democracies, everyone is involved in petty affairs and manners are devoid of dignity. Though there are no codes of behavior, manners grow similar under equality of conditions. There is no need in America for models and imitation. At the same time, Americans do not descend to the coarseness of Europe's lower classes or indulge in the refined and intellectual amusements of the aristocracy. Americans prefer productive and substantial entertainment. They are themselves inordinately serious, which derives from pride and a sense of self-importance along with an unwillingness to reveal weaknesses. Habitually, Americans are occupied with personal or public affairs. and are hungry to hear America praised.

It is not without interest to note that another traveler to America, Charles Dickens, who spent half a year there in 1842, also found the Americans "frank, brave, cordial, hospitable and affectionate." Their greatest faults, he believed, were distrust, which, coupled with resentment, caused idols to be immediately pulled down; love of trade and unscrupulous business dealings; and a scurrilous and vicious press, which was the standard reading of the masses. He thought the Americans would do well to love the real less and the ideal more; the same with regard to gaiety and the love of beauty, for he found the Americans humorless, dull, gloomy, overly serious, all business, and of course full of conceit about American superiority (American Notes). These last traits, among many others, infuriated another well-known traveler to America, Mrs. Trollope (mother of Anthony Trollope), who arrived in 1827 and departed in 1831 to write her notorious Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) after finding "no fetes, no fairs, no merry makings, no music in the streets, no Punch, no puppet-shows" but instead, never a conversation "without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them."

All these characterizations notwithstanding, and though it is easy to see the lines that bind these early Americans to ourselves, it cannot be said, then or now, that America presents a single face. It accommodates the entire range of human types, including many that contradict its popular image. But in the end, as in all good democracies, the majority rules, that is, becomes, in modern times, the viewing audience that smooth talkers and other hucksters address, confident that by reading it correctly or telling it what it wants to hear they will be able to seduce or manipulate it into a response that is favorable to their designs. That they are able to do so with relative ease, though not without fierce competition among themselves, tells us how susceptible Americans are to messages that speak to their dreams and to their feelings of inadequacy. Ultimately, however, the problem of America is not the distance between the ideals and the realities of American life but the manner in which Americans accommodate themselves to this distance. It cannot be said that Americans have done so with any degree of success, for what exacerbates the conditions of American life and makes such an accommodation so difficult is the American ethos itself. Their aspirations are universal, their ideals are admirable, and the material wealth of the country is unparalleled, and yet Americans are less content, less decent, less connected to one another than they should be.

When politics step in, the die is already cast – the People are ready to be governed and the system is already in place. Inevitably, however, the People will not be governed well, partly, as Tocqueville noted in America's case, because politics attract the least talented men, or more precisely, politics attract men and women whose chief talent is the ability to win elections. It is true that as government expanded and offered greater opportunities to exercise power and enjoy prestige, it began to attract more talented individuals with successful careers behind them – businessmen, military men, even academics. However, these governed no better than their predecessors, bringing to government skills that were not especially suited to governing a nation, as well as appetites and ambitions that overrode the will to serve.

The reality of American life at the beginning of the 21st century is such that nearly half the population is totally alienated from political processes (that is, does not vote, whereas up to 80% voted in the 19th century) and nearly all Americans are completely cut off from centers of political power, though occasionally enjoying the spectacles created for them by their leaders. Nonetheless, despite their impotence, Americans have habituated themselves to believe that their ability to vote politicians in and out of office makes the American system exemplary and deposits ultimate power in the hands of the People, though the end result of the voting process is to elect representatives with whom the voters are invariably dissatisfied and who are held in very low esteem. Americans have in effect become very much like people living under aristocratic rule, "indifferent to their environment" and seeing the country as "the property of a powerful stranger called the Government." What began as an individualism capable of associating itself with others to achieve common aims has become, for most, what Tocqueville recognized as alienation from political life and preoccupation with private life at the expense of public or national life.

The American democracy has endured, but not in the way Tocqueville hoped it would. This hope could only have been realized if the government had left people alone and if people could still survive outside the chain of social and economic dependency that characterizes modern societies. But this cannot be the case and such societies can only move toward tighter control, however subtly administered, locking people into a technologically proceduralized system where the great mass of men and women live by other people's rules. At the same time, many will of course continue to vote, probably more than they really wish to, and that will be Western democracy, so that there will be a hundredth American president just as surely as there will be a fiftieth one and the same celebration of America's enduring political traditions, however devoid of substance they may be.

1984 will thus come to pass, a little tardily, though hopefully without the constant wars. Space and medicine will continue to be the great frontiers and social networking the great pastime, though at more sophisticated levels. Science fiction generally disappoints by depicting the future in terms of the present, that is, as more of the same, but in truth the future always is more of the same and so it has been throughout history, from Homo habilis to Steve Jobs. However, unlike the characters in certain works of science fiction, people living in a dehumanized environment will not feel that they have lost something precious, for the simple reason that they never really possessed it. Life will be better at the level we have become accustomed to. Even dreams and fantasies will remain intact, for a small minority will continue to be picked out of the great masses and elevated to podiums and stages from which they can look out at ordinary people with a clear sense of superiority and even be applauded if not idolized by those they leave behind.

As for Tocqueville, friend of democracy or not, he retained an aristocratic bias right up to the end. He believed that his own class was best suited to govern France and that a constitutional monarchy was best suited to maintain an ordered society in which liberty was the leading principle and all men were equal before the law. England was his model.

Tocqueville lived an active life. He married an Englishwomen who had been raised in France, but had no children. He sat in the Chamber of Deputies in the 1840s and even served as France's foreign minister for a few months in 1849. In 1852 he began his second great work, L'ancien régime et la révolution, setting out to show how the structures that were to turn the French Revolution into a nightmare were prefigured in the Old Regime, but only completed the first volume, dying of tuberculosis in 1859. Hugh Brogan's Life is the definitive biography.


Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of the novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books) and has published stories and essays in numerous journals, including TriQuarterly, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Literary House Review, Words & Images, and Third Coast.


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