Summary of Chapter XVII: Principal Causes Which Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States
The author has explained the past origin of the American democracy; now he will investigate how it maintains itself in the present time (1830s). He will discuss three areas: the fortunate situation of the American society; the laws; the manners and customs.
Americans are fortunate to have no neighbors to deal with or wars; they have no great capital city or large metropolises that dictate policies for the rest of the country. They are lucky to have Puritans for forefathers who brought religion with intellect and love of freedom. They are situated in a “boundless continent” (p. 291) so they can expand.
All the inhabitants have similar goals and engage in an incessant march, moving all over the land, searching for material prosperity. The laws favor division of property so everyone can have a share of wealth. Progress is rapid. Such restless activity would be viewed in Europe as dangerous to society, but here it ensures peace in the republic, for the Americans are industrious, and America represents a vast field for human effort.
Although Americans are adventurers, they also love order. Three things contribute to the maintenance of democratic order: the federal form of government which keeps the Union strong; the township institutions that limit central despotism; and the judicial power, which forms a check on the majority without stopping it.
The manners and habits of the people also contribute to the maintenance of democracy. The Protestant religion is a democratic and republican religion, shaking off the authority of the Pope. Protestantism fosters independence more than equality. The author finds that no religion in America is hostile to democracy. Sects are numerous but all preach the same moral law. The clergy generally do not participate in politics while directing the customs of the community. Family life is strong.
Though bold and enterprising innovators, Americans leave many things unfinished. While the law favors their boldness of action, their religion is a restraint on their manners. Therefore, Christianity and liberty are intertwined in their minds. In France, Tocqueville saw religion and freedom going in different directions, for religion seemed opposed to liberty, but in America religion and democracy go hand in hand, strengthened by the separation of church and state.
Although everyone has the chance for education, at this time there are no great writers or philosophers in America, because all are engaged in practical tasks. It is not like Greece and Rome with their great cultures. Yet even the simple log cabin of a pioneer contains a man who is cultivated with his Bible and newspapers. Americans tend to govern themselves through experience, not theory.
American laws and customs are the cause of their greatness. What is more significant is the universal feeling of democracy in each heart, that restless desire to succeed and be equal. Though Americans have not solved all the problems of democracy, they furnish useful data to those who would like to try the experiment.
Commentary on Chapter XVII: Principal Causes Which Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States
Tocqueville takes the lessons of America and applies them to France. He cites the policy of the separation of church and state in America as boosting the power of religion rather than diminishing it. He believes both religion and politics thrive by being in separate spheres but able to support each other. He gives for example what happened in France and Europe where church and state were intermingled for centuries. The Church went down with the old monarchies to which it was allied. The Church had become political and full of intrigue, and government was unduly influenced by the power of the Church. Consequently, for the eighteenth-century philosophers, the radical politics of freedom had to become disentangled from religion and became allied to unbelief. In America, however, one can have freedom and religion too. In America, politics is separate from, but informed by religion.
Tocqueville predicts if absolute power ever tried to come back to Europe it would take a new form since the old alliances of monarchies have been destroyed. People do not respect a king, and the old families have lost influence, so those who want to revive monarchy do not know what they are talking about. It is better to be leveled by democracy than by a despot, which is all you would get, not the sort of king that used to rule. This is an interesting warning, for France kept going back and forth from democracy to monarchy.
Tocqueville thinks that once the old mechanism of monarchy is broken down, it is dangerous to give power to an authority figure. He may have been thinking of Napoleon. This also predicts a Hitler or Mussolini. Tocqueville sees for Europe there is only “democratic liberty or the tyranny of the Caesars” (p. 329). The gradual growth of democratic institutions is the only solution. Without more democracy, there will be no freedom for either the middle class or aristocracy, or for the poor.
Summary of Chapter XVIII: The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States
There is not a pure state of democracy in America, for there is the racial problem of the Indians and the Negroes. The author has analyzed the culture of the Anglo-Americans, but the country is shared by three races, hostile to each other, and with insurmountable barriers between them. The Europeans have the superior power and civilization, and the Negroes and Indians suffer tyranny under them. The African descendents are treated like animals and have lost their human privileges. The Negroes do not live in families because violence has made them slaves. They are servile and degraded. The freed slaves are no better off, for freedom is a burden to those not accepted by society.
Indians are proud but savage and unyielding in their customs. The tyranny of the Europeans makes them more savage than they were because of the loss of their old way of life and the introduction of alcohol, firearms, and privation. Negroes try to adopt the way of the whites but are not accepted. Indians, on the other hand, will not adapt by learning white civilization, such as agriculture. They insist on their old hunting and nomadic ways. But many eastern tribes have become extinct.
The Europeans drive away the buffalo and other wild animals that were the staple food of the Indian. They are forced on migrations thousands of miles from their homes to relocate on reservations. Tocqueville says he himself witnessed their sufferings. He saw Choctaws on a forced march, dying, and yet they stoically made no cry.
The Europeans expel Indians from their lands through the law, for the purpose of white settlement. The author sees no remedy and believes the Indians will die out. Unfortunately, the Indians have come into contact with “the most grasping nation on the globe” (p. 347) from whom they can only expect “knowledge and oppression” at the same time (p. 347). Neither Negro nor Indian can compete with whites on their own terms.
The Indians and whites repel each other, but somehow, the black and white races are intertwined: “The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory” (p. 356). It is unfortunate that Christianity had once suppressed slavery and then brought it back in the sixteenth century.
Slavery in America is different from slavery among the ancients, for among Greeks and Romans it was not usually racial in character, and it had a limit. Slaves were often educated and became free in time. Slavery in America is permanent and based on skin color. Even if emancipated, Negroes can hardly participate in society. They are looked upon and treated as brutes. Laws alone cannot root out inequality when it remains in custom. Tocqueville predicts the whites and blacks will never mix with equality or even with civility.
When blacks get the vote, they are not allowed to use it. They have no legal remedy. They have separate schools and culture. Blacks are free in the north but not assimilated. In the south, they are slaves. There are only two choices for the future: blacks and whites must wholly part, or wholly mingle in society. Though the author does not believe the two races can live in equality, he believes they will mingle.
He sees the possibility of black and white racial conflict in the South in the future. The author does not think abolition of slavery will solve the racial crisis in the South. He sees possibilities of civil wars but does not see what can be done about slavery because it is not so easy to abolish once in place. He speaks of the experiment in Liberia where African slaves were sent back to Africa to found their own country. When Tocqueville views these situations and hears “the cry of humanity in its vain struggle against the laws” (p. 381), he is indignant towards those who revived the curse of slavery as an institution. Slavery is now confined to a single civilization (America), and it cannot long survive.
Tocqueville then goes into a long discussion of whether the Union will endure, because the Constitution of 1789 did not create one nation but an association of states. There are cases where federal law and state law overlap, and there could be a conflict. Some state might want to withdraw from the Union.
At the current time, the people seem more loyal to state government, and so if there were a conflict, the Union would probably be defeated. He speaks of the inherent differences of the North and the South, assuming the South will want the Union to continue to protect them from the blacks. He thinks the North will want the Union to continue for the sake of commerce. From the author’s point of view, the whole country appears to him as one nation with the common beliefs in the right to self-government and a faith in “the perfectibility of man” (p. 393).
One of the biggest dangers to the Union is the rapid growth of the nation, including the addition of more states and more diversity. He sees the federal power weakening. Tocqueville speaks of some of the current political issues, such as President Jackson using his power to destroy the Bank of the United States.
Jackson’s extension of presidential power represented the centralizing tendency of the federal government. On the other hand, the strategy of Nullification practiced by Southern states to veto federal laws they did not agree with, like the tariff, was a blow to the federal power. This state/federal tension was increasing in the country, and Tocqueville (correctly) predicted the Union was in danger of dissolution.
Commentary on Chapter XVIII: The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States
This long and interesting last chapter covers a lot of ground. From what he saw in the 1830s Tocqueville extrapolates what the coming problems will be for the country. He is not right in every single prediction, but his discussion as a whole is very prophetic, for he describes in detail the pre-Civil War pressures that eventually exploded in armed conflict. He sees correctly that the Union itself is in danger because of regional differences and racial tension. Slavery is a curse that is not easy to get rid of. It had been outlawed in Europe, and America was still holding out. The abolishment of slavery was inevitable, but no matter how it might be accomplished, it was obviously going to cause upheaval.
These pressures in turn impacted on the dual sovereignty question that was central with the founding of the country. Is America one nation, or is it a loose and voluntary association of states? Which is the supreme authority, the state or the federal government?
The Civil War (1860-1865) under Lincoln’s guidance settled the question once and for all that America was “one nation under God.” Tocqueville was betting that the Union was not strong enough to last and that the races could never get along or be on equal footing.
He candidly discusses the fact that the federal government could not protect the Indians from the settlers or from the states, and he himself witnessed the tragedy of the federal policy of Removal, forcing Indians onto reservations. Indians are treated as dependent and conquered foreign nations within the larger nation. It looked nearly impossible to him for the three races (and now there are more) to assimilate or co-exist in peace. The country has changed radically since that time from an Anglo-American dominance to a multicultural country.
In his discussion of slavery, he points out the negative influence of slavery on the slave owners who become lazy and morally corrupt. Those states free of slavery became more prosperous and successful than the slave-owning states. He gives a concrete example with Kentucky, a slave state, and Ohio, a free state right across the Ohio River from one another. In Kentucky, “society seems to be asleep” (p. 362) while Ohio is awake with industry. He points out the economic fact that slaves are more expensive to maintain than free workmen. One of the results of the equal division of property was the creation of a class of free laborers.
One thing Tocqueville could not foresee was the impact of the communication revolution. He was concerned that the country was expanding, the citizens constantly moving, and soon there would be at least forty small countries (states) to hold together under the Union. Communications (radio, TV, film, Internet, social media) have since rapidly united diverse groups through mass culture and mass media, extending democratic opportunities and a sense of shared identity, impossible to think of in 1835. This same revolution took the American continent that he saw as an island isolated from the rest of the world into the center of a global village, allowing American values to permeate world culture, and world cultures and world wars to impact America.
He predicts in this chapter that America will be a supreme power on the seas and talks about American competitiveness and heroism in industry. He knows Americans will be outstanding in world trade because they work harder than other nations and “must inevitably become one of the greatest nations in the world” (p. 403).
Finally, Tocqueville warns, a republic is more than rule by a majority. The power of the majority is not unlimited. Above it “in the moral world are humanity, justice, and reason, and in the political world, vested rights” (p. 416). The danger is that there are always tyrants who could try to manipulate the majority and pretend to speak in its name.
All eyes are on America now, and though Americans often act like they are playing a game of chance, “America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement” (p. 425).
Tocqueville’s conclusion famously predicts the future role of the Americans and the Russians as two great nations and potential models to watch: “each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe” (p. 434). Both nations have grown up unnoticed; one is dedicated to freedom, and the other rules with the sword.