Summary of Chapter III: Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans
The Anglo-Americans in the northern part of America (New England) were democratic in their character from the first. The only aristocracy there was one of intellect. In the south, however, landed proprietors, through slave labor, had a more aristocratic society, although it was not a European aristocracy, for it was a short-lived way of life. The estates had no tenants, and there was no patronage.
Tocqueville claims that the law of inheritance is more than a civil law; it has a political consequence. It can cause an aristocracy overnight by vesting property in a few hands, or the law of inheritance can distribute and divide property among all the children.
If the property is divided, with each death of an owner there is a “revolution in property” (p. 48). The shares become smaller and smaller, and large fortunes are destroyed. Primogeniture, however, where property is passed only through the eldest son, promotes a family feeling on the land because the estate is maintained. The law of equal distribution strikes at the root of landed property. In France, this destruction of the great estates was going on, and Tocqueville looked to the United States to see where this tendency would lead.
After only sixty years of American government, the great estates have been broken up, he says, because of the inheritance laws, and the sons of citizens must become professionals to earn their livings. Hereditary rank is destroyed. There is wealth in America, but “wealth circulates with inconceivable rapidity” (p. 51). Wealth is not passed on to another generation by primogeniture. Western settlements on the frontier exhibit the utmost limit of democracy where everything has to be started from scratch, and there is no inherited society.
In America, there are few ignorant people, but at the same time, few learned people. Everyone is able to get some education but few become specialized in knowledge. Likewise, there are few wealthy Americans; all must take professions to have money. There is no aristocracy to support the leisure for intellectual pursuit and honor: “A middling standard is fixed in America for human knowledge” (p. 52). Yet, Americans are found more equal than in any other country.
Equality must thus become political, from both good and bad motives of the human heart. One motive is the wish to progress and be successful. There is also a depraved motive to reduce others to a lower standard, to level the field. Thus, liberty is really not the chief motive of Americans; “equality is their idol” (p. 53).
In the state of equality where no one person can protect his independence, the people must join together to protect their liberty. Very few nations could be successful in this attempt, but the Americans have escaped domination by tyranny through “their morals to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people” (p. 54).
Commentary on Chapter III: Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans
Tocqueville is trying to assess democracy objectively to understand how the democratic drive in his own country will play out. Though the Puritan Americans in the north came with democratic principles, and the southerners seemed to be the potential aristocrats, within a few generations, the leveling tendency had become dominant in all of American society due to the laws of inheritance.
By not allowing the great estates to continue through the law of primogeniture, as traditionally in Europe, where only the eldest son could inherit and maintain the family fortune, America allows distribution of inheritance among all the children. Thus, the estates are broken up after every death, and all the heirs are obliged to work and take professions to maintain themselves.
As an aristocrat who had enjoyed the benefit of class and rank, and who now sees the great estates and families of France breaking up, Tocqueville registers a bit of shock as he looks at the consequences of equality in America. There is less possibility of cultural excellence, for one thing, he notes. Americans are not ignorant, but neither is there the leisure for great learning or art because all must earn their own livings. Most are not poor, but neither are there the very wealthy families or estates to create leadership and tradition.
This situation of leveling everyone has both good and bad effects. Naturally, everyone wants the legitimate and natural opportunity to advance. There is also the selfish motive of wanting to reduce the power of others to the lowest common denominator. Making everyone equally smaller and weaker could also be dangerous politically in making everyone vulnerable to tyranny. The Americans, somehow, due to their moral vision and combining their political interests, have established a way around this, in order to maintain the sovereignty of the people as a whole.
Summary of Chapter IV: The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People of America
In most countries the will of the people is abused by despots or concealed from view. In America, the sovereignty or will of the people is openly recognized and proclaimed by law. In colonial days this principle ruled secretly in the provincial governments. Once the American Revolution happened, the principle became law, voted on even by the men who stood most to lose power. Ironically, the state of Maryland, founded by men of rank, was the first to proclaim universal suffrage.
Tocqueville notes that once the right to vote is extended, it must expand more and more to others who demand the right, “for after each concession the strength of the democracy increases” (p. 57). Sovereignty of the people can be exercised as in Athens where the laws were made by all the people, or there can be a representative government chosen by universal voting, as in the United States. In the U.S., “society governs itself for itself” (p. 57). All power resides in the whole.
Commentary on Chapter IV: The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People of America
Tocqueville insists, “The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe” (p. 58). This analogy aptly expresses the reverent and almost religious respect for the idea of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as Lincoln expressed it. Americans accept this primary principle as a natural condition, for as Tocqueville mentions, as soon as some rights are granted to some people, more and more rights are demanded by more and more people. This has been verified by American history as successive groups claim the right to be included in the principle of sovereignty: slaves, various ethnic groups, and women, for example. Democracy thus feeds on itself.
Contemporary events in the world seem to substantiate Tocqueville’s observations from 176 years ago. More and more countries seem thirsty for democratic sovereignty and are willing to protest and die to get such rights. As he foresaw, it is a phenomenon that spreads and cannot be stopped. That is why he wants to discover its laws to keep this momentum from creating chaos.
Summary of Chapter V: Necessity of Examining the Condition of the States Before the Union at Large
The Constitution of the United States has two distinct governmental levels, almost separate and independent: the state governments, formed first, and the federal government, formed last. The state government is the rule, and the federal government the exception.
The township, Tocqueville claims, is such a natural organization it “seems to come directly from the hand of God” (p. 60). Townships are formed locally by the manners of the people, “self-produced” (p. 60). Municipal institutions are thus “the strength of free nations” (p. 61).
He studies the New England township in particular, where the people are the source of power, and there is not a system of representation but direct democracy. This is very different from the French system, where there is one ruling mayor in a town. In America, the administrative power is vested in elected “selectmen” who carry out the popular mandate. There are many local offices so power is shared. Every individual has an equal stake and chance to participate.
Individuals submit to this form of government not out of a sense of inferiority, but to associate with others to assure their freedom. They are only responsible to God for themselves, and are the best judges of their own interests. Society only may stop them if they threaten the common welfare.
The township is in the relationship of an individual to the central government. Townships do not get power from the central government but give up a portion of power to the government for protection and certain administrative necessity. The state has no right to interfere with a local government’s internal affairs. The New England towns created a tremendous public spirit in the citizens because power was distributed, so everyone had a vested interest.
There are two ways to create order: limit the power of society or distribute power all through society. Distributing power could create anarchy in some places, but it does not in America, which is marked by a love of law and order. America is a land of law, but the law is vested in many hands to uphold it. There is nothing hierarchical or centralized in American constitutions.
There is a division of power in terms of function as well: administrative, judicial, and legislative. These powers need to be balanced, each forming a check on the other.
The farther south one goes in the country, the less the township has influence, and the more the power of the county and magistrate take over. Yet both town and county work on the same principle of popular sovereignty; they take care of their own interests. Everywhere the administrative function is kept in check by the judiciary.
Each state government has a Senate, a legislative body with some executive and judicial power (nominations and judicial trial) and a House of Representatives, a legislative body that has no share in administration and very small judicial power (except impeachment). The elected state governor represents the administrative power of the state and does not embody that power. He has the right of veto on legislation and is the military commander.
In the United States there is no centralized administration as practiced in Europe; local and state authority are more important than national authority. There is no large standing army to intimidate the citizens.
Commentary on Chapter V: Necessity of Examining the Condition of the States Before the Union at Large
Tocqueville in his time most admired America for its local government at the town and state level, where democratic principles first arose and were most fiercely practiced by the people themselves. He thought America was highly de-centralized and thought that was what fostered democratic participation.
American government has changed significantly since he made his observations, with the federal government having much more power in our own time, and the American military has become the strongest in the world. The debate between states’ rights and federal government increased in the years after Tocqueville’s visit, over the issue of slavery, leading eventually to the Civil War.
He points out the good results of the township method, and then goes on to the structure of state government. The American legislature has two houses, but unlike the European system, which makes one house aristocratic and the other elective and democratic, America divides the legislative power in two houses, solely as an internal check on factional politics. He discusses the principle of the checks and balances in American government, showing how the administrative, legislative, and judiciary keep order by watching over each other. Power is both shared and divided, so tyranny is avoided.
He spends a lot of time discussing the principle of centralization of government and whether it is good or bad. There are two kinds of centralization—legislative centralization where the laws apply to everyone, and administrative centralization where the government has a coercive power and resides in one place. When there are the two kinds together as in the reign of Louis XVI of France, there is injustice.
Centralization of administration produces order but can suppress progress. Too much de-centralization, on the other hand, produces neglect, as the author did notice in America with not enough administrative attention on problems. However, even so, “In no country in the world do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal” (p. 91) such as in education, public worship, and maintenance of roads. If the power in America is “somewhat wild” it is “at least robust” (p. 92). Local participation makes democracy alive, and that is more important, in his mind, than efficiency.
When Tocqueville observed the American system, it was still weak in its administrative arm, something that was to change drastically, for the central administrative power of government continued to grow, especially in times of war and emergency, and became the strongest branch in the twentieth century. In 1835, however, the author felt that America’s protection from tyranny lay in its “provincial institutions” (p. 95), in its checks and balances, and in its de-centralized administrative power.