Democracy in America: Metaphor Analysis

The Nation as a Child, Person, or Body


The “body politic” was an old political metaphor used frequently by Tocqueville. This metaphor used by Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers compared a country to a human body with the king as the head and the people as the limbs. This metaphor was frequently used to describe America by writers such as Thomas Paine in revolutionary pamphlets, insisting the American colony was a child of the mother country, who was growing up and needed independence.


Tocqueville speaks of the lush landscape of America as “the abode of a great nation yet unborn” (Chpt. I, p. 25). He continues the metaphor in Chapter II. He says as in discovering the personality of a man, if one wants to discover the qualities of a nation, one needs to go back to its infancy. America is the only modern country where “the natural and tranquil growth of society” is observable from childhood to maturity.  He wants to understand “the national character” by observing the country’s childhood and origin, including the parents (Chpt. II, p. 27). Democracy itself is a child that must be educated, for it has “been abandoned to its wild instincts, and it has grown up like those children who have no parental guidance, who receive their education in the public streets” (Intro, pp. 7-8).


American democracy is thus a collective person. He uses the same metaphor for the majority. A majority is a collective person, and, like a king, a majority can become a despot. However, “nations do not grow old as men do” (Chpt. V, p. 94) and can be rejuvenated through each new generation of people. Education is the key.


America as a Paradise or Desert


Tocqueville uses other familiar metaphors for America. The New World for instance, was not really any newer than Europe, but it was felt by Europeans to be relatively untouched, in some cases compared to a paradise, and in others, to a desert. In Chapter I, Tocqueville mentions that Europeans first came to the West Indies and South America, which seemed like a tropical paradise to them, but with death and disease hidden underneath, as the snake spoiled Eden for Adam and Eve. Later they found North America, a very different and vigorous place with turbulent ocean shores, woods, and forests, filled with game and native tribes. Tocqueville indulges in other European stereotypes in his characterizing South America and the West Indies as a sort of voluptuous but lazy and deadly paradise, while North America “seemed created to be the domain of intelligence, as the South was that of sensual delight” (Chpt. I, p. 21). 


He describes the valley of the Mississippi as “the most magnificent dwelling-place prepared by God for man’s abode; and yet it may be said that at present it is but a mighty desert” (Chpt. I, p. 19). The Europeans frequently found America to be “one great desert” (Chpt. I, p. 25) and this image carries a lot of philosophical weight. In the first place, the Europeans thought of the country as “deserted,” because the Indians did not count. They were nomads who had not tamed or claimed the land; therefore it did not belong to them. They had not cultivated it nor made a civilization. They were therefore savages.


Another meaning of “desert” is vast. For the pioneer traveling by wagon over the continent, it appeared as a wasteland with no civilization and little hospitality. The plains with their chest-high grasses were like unbroken oceans stretching out. America with its coasts “so admirably adapted for commerce and industry; those wide and deep rivers; that inexhaustible valley of the Mississippi . . . seemed prepared to be the abode of a great nation” (Chpt. I, p. 25). But that nation, the taking and cultivating the land, was the act that made it into a permanent home or garden, and the only way to make the desert into a true paradise. 


These Biblical images of America as a promised land, a paradise, or the desert wilderness where the Children of Israel wandered, profoundly influenced the way the Europeans viewed the country and its potential. Tocqueville sometimes reverts to images of wild wilderness as when he talks about the pioneers and the West. Sometimes he paints paradisal pictures, as in Chapter XVII, when he describes a deserted cabin he came across in the woodlands of New York with its “delightful solitudes” and “luxuriant vegetation” and “deep silence” (p. 295). Such a place is a “refuge” (p. 296) and bodes well for a nation of liberty where anyone is allowed to carve out of piece of paradise.




Tocqueville introduces the idea of democracy as a sort of wild but natural force unleashed by the Creator to bring justice to more of humanity. Yet, like many Europeans of the time, he was afraid of such unleashed power in the hands of ignorant people. He demonstrates by his metaphors that democracy is a political force that must be understood and controlled as it inevitably floods the world. The only way democracy will be useful is if it is dammed or funneled, made into something like a hydro-electric plant, not left to run its own course.


Tocqueville speaks of his impression of Americans as constantly moving and their politics as turbulent. A presidential election, for instance, is a “storm,” like a “river, which had nearly broken its banks” and then after the election, sinks to its usual level again (Chpt. VIII, p. 136). Liberty, however, is “generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms” (Chpt. XIV, p. 247). He refers to the fact that most democracies have been established through bloodshed and revolutions, something still documented in the televised violent protests in the Middle East. 


His purpose is to show how Americans have harnessed this raw and wild power of democracy. It has to be controlled to be of any use, or else tyranny, a sort of storm of destruction, will be the result. America, through law, has established checks to the majority. He calls the local government of townships, for instance, “breakwaters” for “the tide of popular determination” that could be unleashed by a national majority (Chpt. XVI, p. 272).


He notes that John Winthrop (1587-1649), Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, defined two kinds of liberty: natural freedom, as common with beasts, and civil or moral freedom, “a covenant between God and man” (Chpt. II, p. 42). Raw freedom or democracy would be bestial, like the wild river he speaks of. Tocqueville admires American democracy because it has a moral dimension to it, supplied by religion. Winthrop describes freedom as connected to religion because a civil state has to be a moral compact with God in order to be just. In America religion and politics supported one another. Winthrop distinguishes this theocracy, or God-based democracy, as superior to a democracy that is merely freedom of license to do as one pleases. Freedom with a moral check is ingrained in American ideas of democracy.