Summary of Chapter I: Exterior Form of North America
North America is divided into two major regions, north and south. In the north, great rivers intertwine, and there are great lakes. In the southern half, there are two parallel mountain chains, the Allegheny and the Rockies. In between them is the great Mississippi River valley, with its plains and fertile land.
American Indians are wild and independent and ignorant of riches. They are mild-mannered in peace but fierce in war. They have “unshaken courage” and a “haughty spirit” (p. 23). They believe in God but are a “primitive people” (p. 24) compared to the mysterious mound builders, a vanished civilization on the Mississippi who left the great earthen mounds but no legacy.
Commentary on Chapter I: Exterior Form of North America
This chapter is very interesting because it introduces a visual image of America before it was settled. Far from being objective in his description, however, Tocqueville echoes European prejudices and attitudes, found in all the early European writers in America.
Europeans had a habit of describing the vast land as empty, discounting the Indians’ right to be there. Tocqueville explains, “The Indians occupied without possessing it [the land]. It is by agricultural labor that man appropriates the soil, and the early inhabitants of North America lived by the produce of the chase” (p. 25). Tocqueville mentions the tribes are courageous and impressive in many ways, but they are, after all, “savages” who roam around on the land rather than owning it or developing it.
The fundamental misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for Native American religion persisted until the late twentieth century. The Europeans only knew ownership, cities, and farming as a relationship with the land. The Indians revered the land as a sacred mother and tried to live lightly on it. There was so much game that originally Indians were willing to share with the whites and did not understand why the Europeans wanted to fence off the land for their own selfish use.
Tocqueville echoes the romantic nineteenth-century rationale of the disappearing American Indian, the noble savage who nevertheless deserved to disappear because of “implacable prejudices, their uncontrolled passions, their vices, and still more, perhaps, their savage virtues, “ all of which “consigned them to inevitable destruction.” (p. 25). It is Providence, he says, which allowed the Indians to enjoy America “for a season,” waiting for “civilized man” to come and supersede them (p. 25).
This view sounds heartless and chauvinistic but was the commonplace view about American Indians until the 1970s. Indians were seen as an obstacle to progress, and their time had passed. They had their chance with the land, and now they had to step aside for civilization. Tocqueville neglects to mention that the Indian “season” on the land as caretakers had lasted for thousands of years. Who could have predicted that the civilized men coming could actually exhaust the resources of the “inexhaustible Mississippi valley” in less than two hundred years?
The mysterious mound builders Tocqueville mentions were the prehistoric civilizations from about 3000 BCE to 16th century CE in the Mississippi valley that made giant earthen mounds but left no clues to their identity.
Summary of Chapter Two: Origin of the Anglo-Americans, and Importance of the This Origin in Relation to their Future Condition
The Anglo-American settlers all spoke the same language and were born in a country (England) that had been agitated by different factions for centuries. Consequently, the English had to rely on the protection of their laws to give them freedom, of which they knew more than other European countries. The settlers brought with them the idea of freedom under the law and the township system, and the idea of sovereignty of the people introduced by the Tudor monarchy. During the European religious wars of the Reformation many English sought to purify their moral life by seeking a new home in America.
The French and Spanish too took with them the germs of democracy in that, when one left the mother country, one was on an equal footing with other emigrants in the New World. Even though some of the emigrants tried to promote an aristocracy on American soil, “the soil of America was opposed to a territorial aristocracy” (p. 29). This is because it took hard and personal work to clear and develop the land. The land was also broken into small pieces for individual use, not into estates. All of the British colonies seemed to foster the middle and lower classes, not the upper classes.
There were differences, however, depending on whether Anglo-Americans settled in the north or south of North America. The first colony was in Virginia in 1607; the motive for settling was wealth, and slavery was soon introduced. Slavery “dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress” (p. 30). This life was characteristic of the southern states.
The English of the North, however, in New England, brought the basis of the social theory that fostered the future government of the United States. New England boasted of founders from the more independent classes of England who came with their families for a better life. “It was a purely intellectual craving” (p. 31) that called them from the mother land, not wealth. These Puritans had not only religious convictions but also political ideas such as democracy and republicanism. They wanted to worship God in freedom. Tocqueville quotes from the Puritan political compact of 1620 which immediately bound all participants at Plymouth to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick” with “just and equal laws” for the “general good” (p. 35).
The English colonies had more freedom and political independence than other European colonies. New England colonies “exercised the rights of sovereignty” “as if their allegiance was due only to God” (p. 37). The self-governments of such colonies were heavily based on Biblical codes, with the main ideas being “orderly conduct and good morals” (p. 38).
If one looks to the history of Europe at the same time (1650) one would find the triumph of absolute monarchy everywhere. Meanwhile, in an unobserved corner of the world, an “obscure democracy” was taking root (p. 42). These Americans combined their pursuit of religion, politics, and prosperity with equal gusto. The human spirit was free to explore, and thus, the political institutions “seem malleable, capable of being shaped and combined at will” (p. 43).
Commentary on Chapter Two: Origin of the Anglo-Americans, and Importance of the This Origin in Relation to their Future Condition
Tocqueville defines different forms of government. Absolute monarchy, or the rule of a king with absolute authority in the land, was the norm in Europe at the time America was founded. A republic (Latin, res publica, or public affair) is a government controlled by the people, especially through established law. A democracy (rule by the people) is a type of republic, in which all people have an equal say in the government and in which everyone is equal before the law.
Of all the European countries, England seems to have contributed most to the democratic drive in the New World. Tocqueville cites the contribution of the Tudor monarchy, by which he means King Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) promotion of modern nationalism and national sovereignty by breaking with the Pope in Rome and establishing his own English Church (1534). Henry made his own law and precedent outside the domain of Catholic law, decentralizing the Church’s influence during the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648). The Protestant trait of honoring individual conscience over authority was important in the development of modern democracy.
Tocqueville further shows the germ of American democracy as springing primarily from the Puritan settlers of New England. Their ideas of self-government were brought with them from England and applied to the New World. They were the middle classes, and even when some settlers tried to establish a new aristocracy, as happened primarily in the south, it did not work. Aristocracies arise, says Tocqueville, where great families own large tracts of land and pass estates on through inheritance. America became a land of small farms where individuals worked their own land.
At the same time, the money motive that contributed to the southern colonies was a subordinate motive in the north. The Puritans came to practice freedom of religious principles. Their idea of democracy infused with morality was key to the idealism of American government.
Tocqueville discusses the pros and cons of the Puritan form of democracy, which became the basis of American democracy. The Puritan settlers focused on morality but unfortunately were missing the principle of religious tolerance, for they often persecuted other sects and even one another. They wrote up “fantastic and oppressive laws” voted on democratically by the whole community (p. 39). One thinks here of Puritan Boston in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, where a democracy of the majority turns into a tyranny towards the minority through religious oppression.
On the other hand, the great modern constitutional principles were all laid down in the societies of New England; for instance, in the participation of people in public affairs; in the voting on taxes and public office; and in the trial by jury. The colonies also raised their own militia with its officers (prototype of the National Guard).
Above all, the New Englanders developed the township model of self-government, in which the town was the nucleus of collective rights, shared responsibility, and public discussion and decision-making. There were intelligent and educated men who governed and wrote laws with knowledge of advanced theories. Towns made roads and established records. They also instituted compulsory public education, nurturing civil freedom.