Questions about the troubled spirit and ailing institutions of contemporary democracy. The following remarks on a famous work by Alexis de Tocqueville - were presented as a lecture to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Scholars Program at the University of Sydney, 24th April, Its daring conjectures, elegant prose, formidable length and narrative complexity make it a masterpiece, yet exactly those qualities have together ensured, through time, that opinions greatly differ about the roots of its greatness. More often, the text is treated as a brilliant grand commentary on the decisive historical significance for old Europe of the rise of the new American republic, which was soon to become a world empire. Some observers, very often American, push this interpretation to the limit.
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He is best known for his works Democracy in America appearing in two volumes, and and The Old Regime and the Revolution In both, he analysed the improved living standards and social conditions of individuals as well as their relationship to the market and state in Western societies.
Democracy in America was published after Tocqueville's travels in the United States and is today considered an early work of sociology and political science. Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy — and then during the Second Republic — which succeeded the February Revolution.
The failure of the Revolution came from the inexperience of the deputies who were too wedded to abstract Enlightenment ideals.
Tocqueville was a classical liberal who advocated parliamentary government and was skeptical of the extremes of democracy. Tocqueville came from an old Norman aristocratic family. Under the Bourbon Restoration , Tocqueville's father became a noble peer and prefect.
Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy — , began his political career in From to , he served as member of the lower house of parliament for the Manche department Valognes. He sat on the centre-left ,   defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade while supporting the colonisation of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe 's regime. In , he sought to found a Young Left Jeune Gauche party which would advocate wage increases, a progressive tax ,  and other labor concerns in order to undermine the appeal of the socialists.
According to one account, Tocqueville's political position became untenable during this time in the sense that he was mistrusted by both the left and right and was looking for an excuse to leave France.
In , Tocqueville obtained from the July Monarchy a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in the United States and proceeded there with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont. While he did visit some prisons, Tocqueville traveled widely in the United States and took extensive notes about his observations and reflections. In and , he traveled to Algeria. He went as far as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists and the Arabs through the implementation of two different legislative systems a half century before implementation of the Indigenous code based on religion.
In , Tocqueville made a journey through Ireland. His observations provide one of the best pictures of how Ireland stood before the Great Famine — The observations chronicle the growing Catholic middle class and the appalling conditions in which most Catholic tenant farmers lived. Tocqueville made clear both his libertarian sympathies and his affinity for his Irish co-religionists. After the fall of the July Monarchy during the February Revolution , Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly of , where he became a member of the commission charged with the drafting of the new Constitution of the Second Republic — He defended bicameralism and the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage.
As the countryside was thought to be more conservative than the labouring population of Paris, universal suffrage was conceived as a means to counteract the revolutionary spirit of Paris. A few days after the February insurrection, he believed that a violent clash between the Parisian workers' population led by socialists agitating in favour of a "Democratic and Social Republic" and the conservatives, which included the aristocracy and the rural population, was inescapable.
As Tocqueville had foreseen, these social tensions eventually exploded during the June Days Uprising of Led by General Cavaignac , the suppression was supported by Tocqueville, who advocated the "regularization" of the state of siege declared by Cavaignac and other measures promoting suspension of the constitutional order. His proposals underlined the importance of his North American experience as his amendment about the President and his reelection.
During the troubled days of June , he pleaded with Interior Minister Jules Armand Dufaure for the reestablishment of the state of siege in the capital and approved the arrest of demonstrators. Tocqueville, who since February had supported laws restricting political freedoms, approved the two laws voted immediately after the June days which restricted the liberty of clubs and freedom of the press.
This active support in favor of laws restricting political freedoms stands in contrast of his defense of freedoms in Democracy in America.
According to Tocqueville, he favored order as "the sine qua non for the conduct of serious politics. Against this image of Tocqueville, biographer Joseph Epstein has concluded: "Tocqueville could never bring himself to serve a man he considered a usurper and despot. He fought as best he could for the political liberty in which he so ardently believed—had given it, in all, thirteen years of his life [ He would spend the days remaining to him fighting the same fight, but conducting it now from libraries, archives, and his own desk".
A longtime sufferer from bouts of tuberculosis , Tocqueville would eventually succumb to the disease on 16 April and was buried in the Tocqueville cemetery in Normandy. Tocqueville's professed religion was Roman Catholicism. In Democracy in America , published in , Tocqueville wrote of the New World and its burgeoning democratic order.
Observing from the perspective of a detached social scientist, Tocqueville wrote of his travels through the United States in the early 19th century when the Market Revolution , Western expansion and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life. According to Joshua Kaplan, one purpose of writing Democracy in America was to help the people of France get a better understanding of their position between a fading aristocratic order and an emerging democratic order and to help them sort out the confusion.
Tocqueville was an ardent supporter of liberty. He wrote of "Political Consequences of the Social State of the Anglo-Americans" by saying: "But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom".
The above is often misquoted as a slavery quote because of previous translations of the French text. The most recent translation from Arthur Goldhammer in translates the meaning to be as stated above.
Examples of misquoted sources are numerous on the internet,  but the text does not contain the words "Americans were so enamored by equality" anywhere. His view on government reflects his belief in liberty and the need for individuals to be able to act freely while respecting others' rights.
Of centralized government, he wrote that it "excels in preventing, not doing". Tocqueville continues to comment on equality by saying: "Furthermore, when citizens are all almost equal, it becomes difficult for them to defend their independence against the aggressions of power. As none of them is strong enough to fight alone with advantage, the only guarantee of liberty is for everyone to combine forces.
But such a combination is not always in evidence". Tocqueville explicitly cites inequality as being incentive for the poor to become rich and notes that it is not often that two generations within a family maintain success and that it is inheritance laws that split and eventually break apart someone's estate that cause a constant cycle of churn between the poor and the rich, thereby over generations making the poor rich and the rich poor.
He cites protective laws in France at the time that protected an estate from being split apart among heirs, thereby preserving wealth and preventing a churn of wealth such as was perceived by him in within the United States. Tocqueville's main purpose was to analyze the functioning of political society and various forms of political associations, although he brought some reflections on civil society too and relations between political and civil society.
For Tocqueville, as for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx , civil society was a sphere of private entrepreneurship and civilian affairs regulated by civil code. According to political scientist Joshua Kaplan, Tocqueville did not originate the concept of individualism, instead he changed its meaning and saw it as a "calm and considered feeling which deposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of family and friends [ When individualism was a positive force and prompted people to work together for common purposes and seen as "self-interest properly understood", then it helped to counterbalance the danger of the tyranny of the majority since people could "take control over their own lives" without government aid.
Others such as the Catholic writer Daniel Schwindt disagree with Kaplan's interpretation, arguing instead that Tocqueville saw individualism as just another form of egotism and not an improvement over it. Egoism springs from a blind instinct; individualism from wrong-headed thinking rather than from depraved feelings. It originates as much from defects of intelligence as from the mistakes of the heart. Egoism blights the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtue.
In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge with egoism. Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism.
In contrast, a despotism under a democracy could see "a multitude of men", uniformly alike, equal, "constantly circling for petty pleasures", unaware of fellow citizens and subject to the will of a powerful state which exerted an "immense protective power".
Tocqueville's penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American political life. In describing the American, he agreed with thinkers such as Aristotle and Montesquieu that the balance of property determined the balance of political power, but his conclusions after that differed radically from those of his predecessors.
Tocqueville tried to understand why the United States was so different from Europe in the last throes of aristocracy. In contrast to the aristocratic ethic, the United States was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.
Tocqueville writes: "Among a democratic people, where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living. Legislatures abolished primogeniture and entails , resulting in more widely distributed land holdings. This was a contrast to the general aristocratic pattern in which only the eldest child, usually a man, inherited the estate, which had the effect of keeping large estates intact from generation to generation.
In contrast, landed elites in the United States were less likely to pass on fortunes to a single child by the action of primogeniture , which meant that as time went by large estates became broken up within a few generations which in turn made the children more equal overall.
As Tocqueville understood it, this rapidly democratizing society had a population devoted to "middling" values which wanted to amass through hard work vast fortunes. In Tocqueville's mind, this explained why the United States was so different from Europe. In Europe, he claimed, nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money and many were virtually guaranteed wealth and took it for granted.
At the same time in the United States, workers would see people fashioned in exquisite attire and merely proclaim that through hard work they too would soon possess the fortune necessary to enjoy such luxuries. Despite maintaining that the balance of property determined the balance of power, Tocqueville argued that as the United States showed, equitable property holdings did not ensure the rule of the best men.
In fact, it did quite the opposite as the widespread, relatively equitable property ownership which distinguished the United States and determined its mores and values also explained why the United States masses held elites in such contempt. Beyond the eradication of old-world aristocracy, ordinary Americans also refused to defer to those possessing, as Tocqueville put it, superior talent and intelligence and these natural elites could not enjoy much share in political power as a result.
Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power and claimed too great a voice in the public sphere to defer to intellectual superiors. This culture promoted a relatively pronounced equality, Tocqueville argued, but the same mores and opinions that ensured such equality also promoted mediocrity. Those who possessed true virtue and talent were left with limited choices. Tocqueville said that those with the most education and intelligence were left with two choices.
They could join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society, or they could use their superior talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector. He wrote that he did not know of any country where there was "less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America".
Tocqueville blamed the omnipotence of majority rule as a chief factor in stifling thinking: "The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution.
A career in politics is closed to him for he has offended the only power that holds the keys". Uniquely positioned at a crossroads in American history, Tocqueville's Democracy in America attempted to capture the essence of American culture and values. Though a supporter of colonialism, Tocqueville could clearly perceive the evils that black people and natives had been subjected to in the United States. Tocqueville devoted the last chapter of the first volume of Democracy in America to the question while his travel companion Gustave de Beaumont wholly focused on slavery and its fallouts for the American nation in Marie or Slavery in America.
Tocqueville notes among the American races:. The first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power and in happiness, is the white man, the European, man par excellence; below him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate races have neither birth, nor face, nor language, nor mores in common; only their misfortunes look alike. Both occupy an equally inferior position in the country that they inhabit; both experience the effects of tyranny; and if their miseries are different, they can accuse the same author for them.
Tocqueville contrasted the settlers of Virginia with the middle class, religious Puritans who founded New England and analyzed the debasing influence of slavery:. The men sent to Virginia were seekers of gold, adventurers without resources and without character, whose turbulent and restless spirit endangered the infant colony.
No lofty views, no spiritual conception presided over the foundation of these new settlements. The colony was scarcely established when slavery was introduced; this was the capital fact which was to exercise an immense influence on the character, the laws and the whole future of the South.
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA
Lithograph, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Wikimedia Commons. In an ambitious and unusually perceptive twenty-five-year-old French aristocrat visited the United States. He spent nine months criss-crossing the young country, traveling mostly by steamboat, but also sometimes on horseback and by foot.
Alexis de Tocqueville
He is best known for his works Democracy in America appearing in two volumes, and and The Old Regime and the Revolution In both, he analysed the improved living standards and social conditions of individuals as well as their relationship to the market and state in Western societies. Democracy in America was published after Tocqueville's travels in the United States and is today considered an early work of sociology and political science. Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy — and then during the Second Republic — which succeeded the February Revolution. The failure of the Revolution came from the inexperience of the deputies who were too wedded to abstract Enlightenment ideals.