Democracy in America:NovelSummary

Text: De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. The Henry Reeve Text, As Revised by Francis Bowen, Now Further Corrected and Edited, with Introduction and Notes by Phillips Bradley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.


Summary of Author’s Introduction


Tocqueville says the main thing that struck him about his visit to America and study of American democracy was “the general equality of condition among the people” (p. 3). This central fact of equality affects both public attitudes and the making of laws in the country. Equality is thus both political and social. 


Tocqueville wants to make a study of democracy because “the great democratic revolution” (p. 3) is happening now in Europe and around the world. It may seem to be an accident, but as the author looks back on French history for the last seven hundred years, he sees how conditions have systematically changed towards producing democracy. 


Once government depended on a few families whose power was derived from property handed down from one generation to another. Force was the only way one could rule or change things. Then, eventually the power of the clergy opened its ranks to all classes and equality began to penetrate the government. Ministers could rise through the Church from the common people.


Business opened more opportunity for the middle classes, who began to get rich. With the eighteenth-century enlightenment, literature and the arts became an avenue for an intellectual aristocracy to advance to governmental power. High birth no longer became necessary for governmental office. The nobles lost their power, and the king often kept them in check by advancing commoners. Personal property began to have as much weight in society as hereditary land and titles. 


Many events of the last seven hundred years have “promoted equality of condition” (p. 5). The Crusades decimated the noble classes, and then, municipal corporations, Protestantism, and the inventions of firearms, printing, and the postal service proclaimed equal opportunity for all. Consequently, the noble classes have gone down the ladder, and the commoner has gone up, and this leveling is going on everywhere in the Christian world. 


We must assume, therefore, he says, that these changes are due to God’s Providence. It seems to be a “universal” phenomenon and “lasting” (p. 6). The drive for equality does not seem likely to stop now, so it will be good to understand where this democracy is going, so it can be guided in the right direction. The danger is that the democratic revolution is happening without the necessary preparatory changes in laws and ideas and morals. There were limits to the tyranny of kings, and the classes learned to cooperate with each other in a long historical tradition, but what will serve as the checks to tyranny in a democracy?


In a democracy, rank is done away with, and the barriers between people fall. Property is divided; power is shared, and education spreads. Society is not stationary but progressive. There might be less splendor than with an aristocracy, but there will also be less misery. Yet, we have destroyed the families, guilds, and classes that once held power in check. Liberty “cannot be established without morality” (p. 12). 


Tocqueville deplores the political chaos in France since the French Revolution. There is one country, however, that seems to know how to handle democracy, “reaping the fruits of the democratic revolution which we [France and Europe] are undergoing, without having had the revolution itself” (p. 13). The European emigrants coming to America came prepared with democratic ideas and left their old political loyalties to king and nobles behind; thus, they did not need to go through the democratic revolution Europe is now experiencing. Democracy bloomed directly in the New World.


Tocqueville does not want to judge anything about democracy; he just wants to study it. He has investigated the American safeguards in their political system, and he presents his conclusions objectively to the reader.


Commentary on the Author’s Introduction


Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who was sent to America at the age of twenty-six by the French government in 1831 with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, to study the American penal system. They were young French lawyers and liberal noblemen in the middle of painful democratic political change in their own country. They wanted to see a successful democracy in action in America. 


Tocqueville makes it clear in his introduction that he wants to present an objective view of democracy. He calls for a “new science of politics” (p. 7), believing that humans should be able to guide political change by knowing the principles behind it. He was qualified to make an objective study by being a lawyer, a French magistrate, and a student of the French enlightenment, those philosophers who had prepared the way for the French Revolution with their rational ideas.


Tocqueville is celebrated for his clear style, and his introduction is admirable for its simplicity and order. He lays out his reasons for writing and his assumptions. He singles out democracy as an important historical force, summarizing significant changes in French and European society in the last seven hundred years. He speaks of the rise of the middle class and the moveable wealth created by business. He talks of inventions spreading power to all, and even the ideas of Protestantism that circumvent the authority of the Catholic Church. 


Though Tocqueville claims an objective observer position in documenting democracy, he does make a beginning assumption about all of this democratic change going on in the world. He reverently announces that democracy seems to be a providential force from God to relieve and support the bulk of the human race with a more comfortable and equitable life. He claims democracy is not going away, and so one had better take notice of it.


Tocqueville’s book is an outsider’s view of American government, and the author makes some uncanny criticisms. He is duly impressed with democracy in America, but not overimpressed. He is not like Americans who regard democracy as a sort of religion. One must understand Tocqueville’s own historical background to understand his caution. The French Revolution had been far messier than the American Revolution; Tocqueville had seen plenty of mistakes in France as it tried to incorporate democratic ideas. 


He mentions that democracy is a social or political movement, but it often lacks the necessary institutions, ideas, and morals in the hands of reformers. This is the exact point being made today as people in Muslim countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc.) try to throw off dictatorships and fight for democracy without any historical experience and institutions of their own to bring the change they need. 


Tocqueville thus studies America as an experiment for the rest of the world, but he constantly mentions the differing circumstances of place. He knows that each country will have to adapt to its own style of democracy, depending on its history. Americans seemed lucky that they had a revolution without going through a real revolution of lifestyle. They brought democratic ideas with them and did not have to go through a painful adjustment.


He tries to understand a central new underlying principle for any democracy to work. The people have to co-operate with each other out of mutual self-interest, and this replaces the authority of the aristocracy.