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A Century After Tocqueville

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

Today there is a very animated debate among the public men of two continents over the value and prospects of democracy as a system of government. Our latter-day Caesars especially are disposed to moralize and generalize upon the “decadence” of the democratic societies. Since international relations have taken on more and more the color of the legendary Davy Crockett’s power politics, to shoot first and consult afterwards, there is obviously some advantage of initiative in the new-old fascist diplomacy.

But in America we are not a defeated country; we are not short of land and raw materials; we are not going to put on shirts or uniforms, abandon representative and local government, jury trials, freedom of press and religion and speech, in order to shoot our way into foreign markets which cannot pay us for our wares. Here the debate usually goes on under other terms, often confusing, often not a little amusing.

It is our domestic problems that engross us chiefly; can we cope with them by means of our traditional democratic processes? There are bitter cries from people who discover themselves to be “Jeffersonians”—now that Jefferson has been dead these hundred years. Let us pass them by. Let us also pass over quickly the gloomy warnings of decline and fall uttered by certain groups among us who find that the tax rate now bears more heavily upon them than before. Forty-three years ago they as solemnly prophesied the arrival of communism when Congress enacted an infinitely light income-tax law, which the Supreme Court promptly nullified.

The more valid criticisms of the present national administration’s program are those voiced by our syndicated philosophers of the morning newspapers. Championing the doctrines of the classic economic libertarianism, which former President Hoover characteristically propounds, they sound the alarm at the widening encroachments of the national government upon the field of private business, at the government’s financial imprudence, and at its slow, steady drift toward what was long called state capitalism, but is nowadays dubbed by them fascism and communism at once. The essence of anti-government argument from the libertarian quarter is that democracy arose out of the need for the free market. Remove or regulate the free market, as the New Deal seems to their eyes to be doing, and human rights and liberties into the same dark gulf will tumble.

A further ground of fear has been the manner in which the presidency, the executive power, in the hands of a popular and forceful political leader who does not fear to break precedents, has gained a marked advantage over the other parts, legislative and judicial, of our traditionally divided government power. Moreover, the national government has pushed further into the oft-disputed ground where State and federal authority meet, especially in its efforts to enact labor and welfare legislation. These developments have alarmed not only conservative property-owners but Democrats of the traditional type.

It is a curious thing, however, that when Mr. Hoover’s government pursued its not too classical economic policies several years ago, we felt, most of us, the most melancholy apprehensions for the future of our democratic system. Now that his successors move perceptibly, if gradually, toward a measure of state capitalism, increasing centralization and even a vastly augmented bureaucracy, there is certainly a less spooky atmosphere abroad in the land. Mr. Roosevelt, in self-defense, and also, like other modern political chieftains, joining in the contemporary ideological debate, has simply told us that he was trying to “make democracy work.” When there is questioning of the future of democracy, what happens in the United States is relatively of vast importance. The American tradition of popular self-government is already rich and long-lived. Among the great modern nations ours is one of the oldest democracies; and its experiments in a broad-based popular rule were admittedly flourishing over a century ago when only a small fraction of the people of England and only one per cent of the people of France enjoyed the right of suffrage. At that point in our history, when our Constitution was half a century old, the Italians were ruled by the police of a foreign power; the Germans were to wait even longer before suffrage in highly limited form would be conferred upon them by an “Iron Chancellor” rather than fought for and won by them.

A hundred years ago the young American republic had an aspect of liberty and vigorous radical experiment that was unique in the world—then seemingly plunged in blackest reaction. The novelty, ingenuity, and strength of our political institutions won the admiration of learned travelers who came here to measure our social progress, not to mention those who came in flight from injustice or poverty.

Few men in those days, which were shadowed by the figure of Prince Metternich, thought that we might come to abandon our own system and adopt the contemporary European institutions. In 1829, when President Jackson took office, we might, if we had chosen, have imported some of their kings, together with the priests, their valued advisers, who confessed them, and who often formed a most active arm of the kind of government directed by Metternich. We might also have brought over their standing armies, their swarms of police spies, their Jesuit agents, their dungeons for political opponents, even their Inquisitions, which were revived in Spain and Italy after Waterloo. But instead of borrowing these age-old devices of rulership, Americans looked impatiently at Europe and wondered when her peoples would cease to fear, hate, and destroy each other, and when they would begin to imitate the examples of American political genius and invention. For this democracy was then held to be not “decadent” but politically the most advanced of governments.

Then. But will our famous political resourcefulness continue to serve us well today? We have tormenting internal problems to solve in the shape of massive “dislocations,” “lags,” social disparities, and even monstrosities, as President Hoover’s Commission on Social Trends defined them in 1932, problems inherited from three generations of heedless, unparalleled material expansion. We need only glance at the contrasting circumstances, let us say, of the time of Franklin Roosevelt and that of General Jackson to measure the scope of our difficulties. What we realize at once by such a retrospective glance is that we have passed, probably forever, from a rather innocent, untrammeled type of society into an industrial environment that is infinitely more complex, organized, and massive in character. The question that haunts us—a sort of “squaring of the circle”—is whether we can carry over the virtues and advantages of democracy from an earlier, simpler social organization into our own more elaborate and highly organized Machine Age.

Yet before we seek to carry on with democracy we ought to determine for ourselves what were the characteristic; traits and conditions of the democratic system in its happiest phase. Knowing this, we may judge better if it would be feasible to preserve or, if need be, to revive these qualities.


It is just a century since Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated treatise, “Democracy in America,” was published in Boston. Rereading this lucid and brilliant work, both as a compte rendu of the young republic of the 1830’s and as a piece of reasoned political philosophy, one finds it an excellent yardstick with which to measure or interpret the newspapers of today, “Recent Social Trends,” or “Middletown in Transition.” Tocqueville, disembarking here in 1831 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, viewed an America of which cultivated Europe knew little or nothing. It was the time when the political systems of Andrew Jackson and Prince Metternich represented diametrically opposite extremes. In Europe the rulers of society trembled at the nightmare of renewed popular revolutions, and their policies were completely dominated by this obsession. Not only suffrage but education was carefully restricted. In France a popular uprising, that of the “July Days” of 1830, had just been betrayed.

Now Tocqueville was no liberal or democrat by disposition, but an offspring of the old aristocracy, attached to the cause of the Bourbons. More than one of his ancestors, such as the great Malesherbes, had been guillotined in the terror of ‘93. His family fortunes suffered above all from the instability of dynasties; there had been six sweeping upheavals since 1789. Tocqueville, “born between two worlds,” as he said, unlike most of his fellow aristocrats, became convinced that the Old Order was dying. The supplanting of the Bourbon Charles X by the bourgeois monarchy of the Duke of Orleans, Louis Philippe, was but a superficial change; the really decisive forces at play were the underlying, resistless “tides of democracy.”

Meanwhile, after some fifty years, the young republic of the West was assuredly a success—for all of John Quincy Adams!—and might be said to have touched one of the peaks of human progress. Blessed with unrivaled opportunities and resources, triumphant over foreign invaders, its citizens, save for the Negroes, enjoyed an unprecedented equality of rights and privileges. While fear of the vengeance of the masses still haunted the rulers of Europe, the American people knew no fear of each other, lived, worked, and prospered at peace. The traveler saw few police, felt no spies at his back.

What was the nature of the American success? What were the secrets it discovered, the new social institutions it had created? This was what the young Tocqueville had come to learn for himself and for the sake of his own people in the “new Atlantis.”

“Democracy in America,” when it arrived, was one of the most influential books of the whole nineteenth century, and served more than perhaps any other work to crystalize liberal convictions concerning the inevitability of political equality and democratic self-government. The author’s reservations or prejudices against certain aspects of democracy made his work seem all the more objective; and if it resembled Montesquieu’s writings in its formalism and its highly deductive approach, it also rivaled the work of the earlier philosopher in its depth and its brilliance of formulation. Today Tocque-ville’s book is most valid (in a retrospective sense) for tracing the orientation of our democracy — and much of its judgment still seems to apply more accurately than, let us say, Andre Siegfried’s “America Comes of Age,” dated only ten years ago.

Reading “Democracy in America,” we recall the real features of the new, growing society which young Tocqueville explored in all directions, just as they actually were at the time. But this experience may be enjoyed even more vividly in the new study by Professor George W. Pierson, “Tocqueville and Beaumont in America,” which in giving us the raw materials and notes of Tocqueville’s travels, offers more useful and suggestive evidence than the famous treatise with its generalizations in afterthought from the Paris study. Tocqueville’s private letters from America were available only in the old French edition of his works; only some fragments of his travel sketches of the frontier had been translated. Professor Pierson has gathered these and added to them a mass of unpublished letters, diaries, and notes of conversations with leading American contemporaries, taken during the tour of observation in America. All this, buried these hundred years at the chateau of the Tocquevilles and now skilfully presented both as biography and as social history, has the effect of suddenly opening a forgotten door upon the past.

Not only may we follow the young Tocqueville’s sociological explorations up and down the new country in the detailed and fascinating narration of his modern biographer, but we have in addition a kind of intellectual feast provided by the informal living talk of men like Gallatin, Edward Everett, William Ellery Channing, John Quincy Adams, Chancellor Kent, Jared Sparks, Francis Lieber, and many others, who answer and discuss Tocqueville’s eager questions, and confide to us unguardedly their own anxieties concerning the present and the future—our time. No less useful than these men of light are the innkeepers, laborers, settlers, and river boatmen who add their testimony.

For our traveler, preoccupied with his attempt to analyze (decomposer) the new world into which he has penetrated, the spectacle of an unprecedented social equality overshadows everything else. “There are no chateaux in this country,” he writes to his mother in one of his first letters from the neighborhood of New York, “the fortunes are too limited.” And from the banks of the Hudson River he observes that “there reigns an air of prosperity, activity, and industry which delights the eye.” As he investigated them, he found these two striking facts to be profoundly interconnected. The very first introductory words of “Democracy in America,” the weightiest of all, would echo this impression, sounding the central theme of his treatise:

Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.

Equality, he believed, gave form to all the ways of the governing powers and the habits of the governed. It was, he added, “the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which my observations constantly terminated.”

To this aristocrat, all America seemed leveled down into one triumphant middle class. He was entertained by members of the Livingston and other families having goodly wealth and even amusing pretensions; but he noted that the rich dressed simply and avoided arrogance in their manners toward persons of inferior fortune. “Here you must be polite toward everybody,” Edward Livingston explained to him, “since all have political rights.” “All classes are constantly meeting. . . . Everybody shakes hands,” Tocqueville makes a mental note, this giving the effect of “an unbelievable outward equality in America.”

In Kentucky Tocqueville and his companion approached the rude log cabin of a settler. Appealing for a night’s shelter, they were received with the dignity and simplicity of a great gentleman who, though clad in skins and resembling a French peasant, engaged them eagerly in discussion of politics and world affairs.

Whereas in France birth still formed an insurmountable barrier between individuals, and people were still classified according to the professions they followed, in America it seemed but a small distinction to be born of an “old” family; birth created “neither right nor incapacity, no obligations toward the world or toward oneself.” Meanwhile, it struck him, as his letters show, that “this people is one of the happiest in all the world, that it owes its immense prosperity less to its special virtues, less to the superiority of its form of government, than to the special [favoring] conditions which have brought about a harmonization of political structure with social needs.”

A most widely disseminated education, apparently available to every man, was one striking development of the republic which seemed to contribute powerfully to the rapid and relatively equal distribution of wealth. There was, to be sure, little genuine culture—save perhaps in Boston— but men grasped at newspapers, books, and technical learning, in a practical spirit, in order to advance themselves. Tocqueville still clung to his inherited aristocratic prejudice, which saw in education a dangerous stimulant to the masses. Did not the advance of education, when acquired by a man of inferior rank, make him envious or discontented so that he would “trouble the state”? Did not universal free education make for citizens who hoped (as in Europe) to rise above their class, but lacked the means to do so?

But in America it was otherwise. Nature was abundant and offered endless opportunity of which men could avail themselves better with education to improve their state, certainly at the least to win security for themselves. Nature offered “a sustenance so immense to human industry” that nobody bothered over pure theories or general principles. “Everybody works” (my italics) and “acquires rapidly that which makes existence happy.”

“There is not one country in the world,” soliloquized de Tocqueville, “where man more confidently reaches toward the future, where he feels with so much pride that his intelligence makes him master of the universe, that he can fashion it to his liking.”

After all, what was it that made men “restless spirits” who troubled the peace, but the difficulty of creating a happy existence for themselves by ordinary effort? But here in this egalitarian “paradise,” land was cheap, and a man might buy an acre with a day’s wage. “Not a man but may reasonably hope to gain the comforts of life; not one who does not know that with love of work his future is certain.”

Pausing along the banks of the Ohio, Tocqueville found an incredible bustle pervading the new “metropolis” of Cincinnati, with its streets half paved, unaligned, and building material lying all about. “Society grows faster than man,” he remarked in a notable letter of December, 1831. Not only new cities, but a new State was being erected at top speed—one which, his informants said, in its new constitution broke all existing precedents for radical egalitarianism.

Yet in this vast country, with climates and sections so diverse, men so restless and ambitious, for all its jumble of English, French, German, and other races or language groups, there was order, there was an uncommon “respect for law” rather than internal friction and conflict. Society seemed to march of itself with little visible guidance, command, or policing. What was the prime mover, and what was the tie that bound the whole society together? It was interest—”the interest of the individual is never opposed to the whole,” he commented.

Truly the people here had learned to govern themselves. The brilliant Francis Lieber, a “Jacobin” exile from his native Germany, told Tocqueville, as did Jared Sparks, that the Americans had an instinct for self-government.

The republic is everywhere, in the streets as in Congress. If an obstacle embarrasses the public way, the neighbors will at once constitute themselves a deliberative body; they will name a commission, and will remedy the evil by their collective force, wisely directed. . . . The people has the Republic to the marrow of their bones.

With his insatiable curiosity and his searching queries, Tocqueville pushed everywhere, into the wilderness of Northern Michigan (then the farthest frontier), to the capital, to cultivated Boston. To Jared Sparks he addressed a whole series of questions concerning local or town government in New England. Did not the effects of too general education show themselves in unrest and discontent? No, replied Sparks proudly:

Our ablest men, best statesmen and truest patriots have been those who have arisen from the humblest ranks of society and made their way by the force of their talents, enlightened and guided by a good education. In a republic ignorance is the germ of factions. Security rests in the intelligence of the mass. . . . And when they understand the nature of their political rights and the manner of exercising them for their own benefits, it is a difficult matter to enlist them in a cause of disorganization which they see must redound to their injury.

But how, for instance, could a large body of men, a whole township, take action upon “delicate matters”? And was it not true here that “the poor have a secret envy of the rich so that the former class, always the majority, will sometimes oppress the latter, and exclude them in elections from public affairs?”

Sparks explained that tradition and necessity (from the earliest colonial times) had combined to encourage direct self-government, distinguished by great self-discipline. For the rest, he continued:

Human nature is the same here as in other countries, and of course similar passions will exist . . . to a certain extent. But these will everywhere be modified by the condition of society. In New England the number of the class that may be called rich is exceedingly small, except in the cities and large commercial towns. Almost every inhabitant owns in fee simple the farm upon which he lives. The system of tenantry and rents hardly exists, and the law of entails is unknown. Hence there can be no rich families, and nearly all the richest men in the country have arisen from small beginnings and made their own fortunes. . . . Although wealth gives them influence, it seldom excites jealousy, lie-sides, wealth procures no political privileges and no exemption from the duties of a citizen.

To sum up briefly the report which Tocqueville brought back of American democracy in flower, the essential determining condition which he emphasized was first and last the almost unexampled equality ruling there. To this circumstance as well as to the freedom of education and press, and freedom of worship, he attributed the broad prosperity of the country. “The middle classes have shown themselves capable of governing a state,” lie was convinced. The moving force of the society appeared to be enlightened self-interest, which was given free reign.

“Here all the material needs of man are satisfied,” Josiah Quincy, President of Harvard, had exclaimed to him. This was perhaps the most important sense in which Americans of Jackson’s time understood political equality.

Tocqueville never ceased to marvel at the intelligent interest which Americans evidently gave to their rather elaborate, and to him even a little arbitrary and artificial, system of government. The government structure rested upon an ingenious relationship of local and federal powers, the range or limit of which a surprising number of Americans appeared to be thoroughly familiar with. Complex as the system was, numerous us its elections and officials were, the people nevertheless participated actively in its processes and made it work.

The most vital and important part of the governing system in his account at the time appeared to have been the local bodies, town governments, and State assemblies, offering so strong a contrast to over-centralized France. To Tocqueville, the New England town meeting, which he celebrated in his book, was the very fountain of our democracy. The discipline, the moderation, which the citizens showed in the exercise of their direct democracy of the town, made the base of the system all the stronger, and gave the masses “an understanding of public affairs, a knowledge of laws and precedents, a feeling for the best interests of the nation. . . .” Tocqueville here too contributed much to the typical axiom of liberalism, that hope of social progress lies in the ever extended participation of citizens in government affairs.

The young French philosopher certainly ignored much that was evil and idealized somewhat that which he saw. Rut we must allow for the fact that he arrived from a Europe gripped by implacable reaction. Some held then, as they do now, that the reaction would last forever, that liberal and Jacobin principles were dead.


Recollection of the simple agrarian-mercantile republic of the 1830’s, a veritable “millennium” of democracy, afflicts us with something like nostalgia. Naturally no “millennium” is perfectly free of a modicum of inconveniences and injustices; and a careful observer could have revealed more evils than those of slavery, which Tocqueville lamented, more corruption, more chicanery, political demagogy, and wirepulling than he noticed. But though a little manufacturing existed, which some, like Jefferson, held to be an evil, some eighty per cent of the people were owners of property, and approximately seventy-five per cent were farmers.

By 1850 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the paradise of small producers was being changed into the paradise of captains of industry and masters of money. One of Tocqueville’s informants, a rich Quaker jurist, Roberts Vaux of Philadelphia, had prophesied such a development, saying, “I regard manufacturers as a social necessity, yet as a harmful necessity. They deprave the population and often expose it to frightful want. The introduction of the industrial system in a country as completely democratic as ours is especially to be feared.” The Quaker feared that if the people were rendered desperate they could never be adequately controlled or policed as they were in old Europe.

And so the French philosopher, in the second volume of his treatise on American democracy, had given a qualified warning against the introduction of a “manufacturing aristocracy . . . one of the harshest which ever existed in the world.” Though the danger it offered seemed restricted to him—who could have foreseen all?—he advised the friends of democracy to keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction. For it would be through this channel that a “permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy” would return.

From the perspective of our own day, Tocqueville’s reflections illuminate the dilemma of democracy, and help us to judge both how much we have changed and how much we have not changed.

Those conditions which constituted the chief appeal or advantage of the Jacksonian democracy, especially equality, freedom of opportunity, and security, had become so altered that they might be considered non-existent in 1932. Who could now say (with Tared Sparks) that “wealth procures no political privileges”? Or that the wealthy of the 1920’s were socially responsible or mindful of their duties as citizens? The high promise of the early democracy seemed broken; its noblest traditions were all but abandoned. Moreover, so far as the underlying economics of our society went, the Unseen Hand no longer functioned very well in the free market of the American continent; the economy of individual self-interest, enlightened or not, no longer seemed co-ordinated with the welfare of the greatest number.

Now if our people were accustomed to submitting to the prods of the corporal’s stick—as it used to be said of the Prussians by the West Germans—then the social problem would be much simplified. Men could be induced to resign themselves meekly and patiently to inequalities, to insecurity of life, to a steadily lowered standard of living. But this is not the tradition by which most Americans have lived. They have shown, as Tocqueville reminds us, a passion for equality both militant and tenacious; the people have a deeply ingrained habit of managing in the end to intervene powerfully in the direction of public affairs. In clinging to the tradition of such popular action, local and national, it is remarkable that they have not changed. Silently, in the face of a misleading and scolding press, they seemed to know their minds at the polls, in 1932 and even more in 1936.

In the 1890’s, F. J. Turner wrote of the Populists that they halted and “turned to perceive an altered nation and changed social ideals”; that they saw fully the cruel contrast between their traditional idea of America and the existing America, so unlike the earlier ideal. This mood of disillusionment is even more true of the 1930’s, for the descendants of the pioneers and the Populists. In “Democracy in America” it was argued long ago that having gained one form of rights and equalities, men will not rest until they have extended these equalities to other grounds. “To conceive of men remaining forever unequal upon one single point, yet equal on all others, is impossible. . . .”

Thus it seemed inherent and inevitable, under the American political system and tradition, that whenever necessary men would struggle anew to extend the area of their rights, to win new frontiers of equality. This is perhaps the simplest frame in which we may locate the political issues and conflicts of today.

But the “revolutionary” movement of the 1890’s laid emphasis chiefly upon political reforms. Defeated in 1896, its tenacious pressure yet brought the enactment of virtually all the Populist program by 1913. Civil-service reform, direct primaries, and direct election of Senators were all designed to re-establish government as a true arbiter between competing interests in a free market. These measures, together with the first mild attempts at regulation of railroads and trusts, had no drastic social effects, and were mainly intended to strengthen the rules of the game, to see that they were not changed through capture of the machinery of government by privileged groups.

But the libertarian reforms of yesterday are instinctively felt to be antiquated by the sons of the Populist farmers who demonstrated against the fall of grain prices in 1932, who refused to pay taxes and obstructed foreclosures. And they seem clearly inadequate to the city workers who rebel at the stoppage of giant industrial plants. It is too late; it is unthinkable to return to the economy of small-scale production. And meanwhile the very frivolity and unpatriotism of the minority of wealth have suffered economic inequalities to grow too massive and implacable for half-measures. Nor did this “industrial aristocracy,” whose emergence the philosophers of a century ago feared, give such examples of patriotic self-sacrifice as to induce the majority of the public to bear heavier sacrifices in turn, in accepting a harsh program of budgetary economy, higher mass taxation, and meager doles for the unemployed. The inevitable trend is toward some native form of state capitalism, in which opponents of the present administration see fascism or tyranny, but which to the majority offers definite hope of an extended economic democracy.

The “revolutionary” character of the times is indicated by the shifts now slowly taking place in the fundamental relations between individuals and national government, between the local and federal powers. Certain typical “liberties” will vanish: the right to employ children in a factory, or to pay female laundry-workers five cents an hour because you live in a certain sovereign State may be soon lost. Will such surrender of local powers mean that we have abandoned democracy and started down the fatal slopes of tyranny and fascism?

The significant history of this country is marked by successive stages in the relinquishment of parts of the State power to the federal authority. The charter of 1788 embraced the first important concessions won by the national union, yet the vitality of the local governments remained the distinguishing feature of our system. Later, in 1861, great numbers of Americans honestly believed that liberty and democracy would vanish unless the States retained their sovereign power to secede from the Union. Yet though this privilege was also surrendered, men do not thereby feel themselves less free today, and the principles of local government which even a Lincoln cherished have persisted firmly enough. It is conceivable that in the future those who are jealous of States’ rights will even become reconciled to the functioning of a National Labor Relations Board and yet not feel themselves the worse off.

The successive modifications of State power have removed neither the tradition and weight of local government nor the geographic need and convenience of it. No great nation is so peculiarly a federal nation as we are. “Dictatorial” though he is reputed to be by his critics, the reigning President has not dreamed of merging Kentucky and Ohio, or eliminating the forty-eight States, which is what a fascist ruler would no doubt begin with. What strikes us is the vigor of the local governments and the frequency with which today they serve to check the centralizing force of the New Deal. Regional sentiments and differences still work with intense force in the national party system. What is remarkable is how little we have changed, after a century, in this respect.

Whatever form of economic rationalization and bureaucracy the future may hold for us, it will most likely be strongly qualified by the action of the underlying local governments, by State differences and particularities. Our social police will continue to be well-known local figures rather than satraps sent out from Washington. The process of administration may be more cumbersome, more wasteful, and even more corrupt under our dual system. But those of us who have come to believe that local-government activity and intervention in the federal scheme is part of the genius of our American democracy, and that it contributes to our system a sensitiveness and vitality superior to that of other representative governments, would rather bear its attendant losses or delays than dispense with it altogether.


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