Summary of Chapter XIV: What Are the Real Advantages Which American Society Derives From a Democratic Government
Tocqueville says he does not think that the American Constitution is the only one for a democracy or even the best one. It is not always easy, however, to describe what are the healthy influences of a democracy, though the defects of American democracy are obvious. When the laws are made to promote the greatest good for the greatest number, democracy tries to do more for humanity than an aristocracy does. Aristocracies, however, are more skillful in legislation, with more far-reaching design. Here he gives England as an example of enlightened government, yet the interests of the poor have often been sacrificed.
The public in America keeps the country on course despite the mistakes in choosing elected officials. It is vigilant in pursuing its own needs. There is no political form that can favor all the people at the same time, so a democracy simply tries to care for the majority. America is successful in this, despite its blundering ways.
There are two kinds of patriotism, the instinctive attachment to a place, which produces emotion, and the thoughtful kind, which grows by the exercise of civil rights. It is the second kind of patriotism that ought to be encouraged by making citizens partakers in the government. In America, even the lower orders look upon the public fortune as their own.
There can be no great nations without an idea of the right. The way to inculcate right in a people is to endow them with certain political rights. Now that religion is declining in influence, the idea of the right has to be coupled with individual interest. A democracy is an “apprenticeship of liberty” (p. 247) where the citizens grow strong in right by exercising their own rights. Americans have a great respect for the law because they have helped to make it.
Commentary on Chapter XIV: What Are the Real Advantages Which American Society Derives From a Democratic Government
Though Tocqueville does not necessarily think the American structure is the best or right for everyone, he wants to point out advantages to living according to democratic principles, which support the interest of the greatest number of people. Because the influence of religion to make people good seems to be declining in the modern world, he sees democracy as a way to promote virtue by giving everyone a stake in the public welfare. People will support a law and order that they have helped to create. Although Americans are not always skillful in executing laws or in administration, they seem to keep on course due to the vigilance of the public will.
Tocqueville is amusing in his description of the “bustle and activity” of a free country like America where “amelioration and progress are the topics of inquiry” (p. 249). Americans are very busy trying to fix things, and they get the whole community involved. There are societies and organizations for every topic; everyone is involved in “the pursuit of happiness” (p. 250). Though the people conduct public business badly, he thinks, even the lower classes are informed and take part. This gives everyone a feeling of self-respect.
There is a great commercial activity, and though democracy does not carry out all its plans, it seems to produce more than a system of despotism would. It creates “a superabundant force, and an energy” (p. 252), even though the results may seem to be mediocre compared to the glorious designs of a great civilization.
In the past few chapters Tocqueville constantly compares a democracy to an aristocracy, thinking of the pros and cons for France. As an aristocrat, he applauds the great aristocratic minds that contributed so much to civilization in the past, and he lays the two choices before the reader. At the end of this chapter, however, he admits that France may not have a choice of government, for “some power superior to that of man already hurries us” (p. 253). There is always the sense that the author has mixed emotions about democracy but feels it is inevitable for France and for Europe, an unstoppable force.
Summary of Chapter XV: Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, And Its Consequences
Tocqueville repeats that the main premise of democracy is the absolute sovereignty of the majority, but he wants to show in this chapter that rule by the majority also has great danger.
The legislature is the institution most easily swayed by the majority, and the one that holds most of the authority. At the time he observed the country, the three branches of American government were not equal in power. The judiciary and executive branch lagged behind the legislature, and so the checks and balances were not fully operating. Voters often imposed on legislators certain programs they wanted fulfilled, making the majority rule “irresistible” (p. 255).
The idea that the majority in America has a moral authority as well as a political one, he says, is based on the notion that there is more intelligence in a group than in an individual. This is like the old French maxim that the king could do no wrong. There is also another assumption that the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.
The rule of majority has many dangers for the future. First, the quickly changing laws create instability. There is no long-term interest in projects or laws because the legislators are constantly replaced. A majority is not the last word, because it is only like the opinion of another individual. There is a higher moral appeal from the majority of a country to the “sovereignty of mankind” (p. 259). A majority is not always right and therefore needs checks on its power. No human government should have absolute power, and the most dangerous condition in America is not the liberty of the people but the “inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny” (p. 260).
In his opinion, the branches of government need to be more balanced with a stronger executive and judiciary to check the legislature. Tyranny can be exercised even through the law, and he fears “the legal despotism of the legislature” (p. 262).
Another danger is the majority rule through public opinion. Discussion of issues seems to stop as soon as a law is passed, and then there is silence with a feeling that nothing more may be said without violating patriotism or authority. There is a lack of free discussion in America, no great intellectual depth of continued reflection on the direction of the country. There is a danger of tyranny in public opinion that is more paralyzing than a physical tyranny. America has as yet no great writers and there can be none without freedom of opinion. Development of individual genius cannot thrive in this circumstance. If minorities do not have more freedom, rule by majority could lead to new revolutions.
Commentary on Chapter XV: Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, And Its Consequences
This is one of Tocqueville’s most famous predictions about American democracy: the danger of majority rule. He points out that Americans feel that the majority is almost omniscient and cannot make mistakes, but it can. There can be many conflicting groups in a country, and the rights of the minorities must be addressed.
He also points out the tyranny of majority opinion and how that silences discussion in the nation, a phenomenon that many Americans themselves have complained of. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, one of the great American writers that had not yet appeared by Tocqueville’s time, in his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” speaks of the right of the individual to speak out against wrong as “a majority of one,” if his opinion is more right than his neighbor’s. America had been founded on the right of individual conscience, but that right is often overshadowed by the majority opinion. Tocqueville saw clearly the power of majority opinion to crush individual initiative.
The branches of American government did become more balanced in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with both the judiciary and executive branches assuming more power to check the legislature. In fact, as Jefferson had warned, the executive branch later became a matter of concern as presidents assumed more and more powers in crises. The legislative branch has since lost stature.
Summary of Chapter XVI: Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States
Tocqueville finds that local government is still the best check on possible majority tyranny on the state or national level. In townships, the municipal bodies and counties, tyrannical laws would not be carried out, for the local habits would take over.
He also goes into a long discussion of how the legal profession is a counterbalance to tyranny, because it represents a learned and conservative force. Lawyers are like the aristocracy of a democracy, upholding law and order. They are a “privileged body in the scale of intellect” and “masters of a science which is necessary” (p. 273). In the absence of nobles or literary men, the lawyers form the highest political class in America. Judges have the ability to declare laws unconstitutional, thus forming a check on the legislative majority.
Trial by jury is also one of the great checks against tyranny. It is a form of the sovereignty of the people, assuring that everyone may have a trial with a jury of peers. It is both a political and judicial institution, which, like voting, is extended to all citizens so they may participate in enforcing and modifying the law. It is a way for people to become educated in the practice of democracy.
Commentary on Chapter XVI: Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States
Tocqueville points out that the local bodies of government form a check on the state or national majority. Local governments can be lax enforcing laws that do not conform to local custom. The people thus vote with their feet, as well as on paper. He mentions that laws are unstable unless they are founded upon the customs of a nation.
Tocqueville rightly notes the influence of lawyers in American politics. Even now it is often lawyers who run for office. They are the aristocrats, Tocqueville says, who uphold law and order, the conservative force in American society. In a monarchy it is the aristocratic class that is a check on king and nobles, upholding tradition. Of course there are lawyers who may have radical as well as conservative ideas, but he means that lawyers in general will try to create change lawfully and with regard to traditional wisdom and precedent.
Lawyers still hold a place of respect in American life; however, there is now an extended intellectual class of professors, doctors, scientists, journalists, and literary writers, missing in Tocqueville’s time, who regularly weigh in and influence or check majority politics with their professional knowledge.
Another interesting fact he points out is the difference between the British/ American system of law, based on precedents, and French law, based on reasoning. American law, and therefore, American democracy, is based on past experience. This conservative nature of the law is a good check on the potentially wild and uninformed liberty of a majority.