Alexis de Tocqueville

"The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money." - TocquevilleAlexis de Tocqueville was a French political thinker and historian. His most famous works are Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. He championed liberty and democracy.Tocqueville was born Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville in 1805, at Verneuil-sur-Seine (Île-de-France). His parents were Herve-Bonaventure Clerel de Tocqueville and Louise Le Peletier de Rosanbo, and he had two older brothers.Tocqueville was originally destined for a life in the military, but decided to study the law instead. He was appointed an assistant magistrate at Versailles in 1827. The results of the investigation were published in 1832, becoming the precursor to Tocqueville's greater work, Democracy in America, for which he was awarded the Montyon Prize by the French Academy in 1836.Democracy in America, based on his travels in the United States, is frequently used in U.S. That advocacy has often been admired by conservatives and classical liberals, particularly in the late-20th and early-21st centuries.Tocqueville married Mary Motley, an Englishwoman, in 1835. They had no children.In 1839, Tocqueville was elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, aligning himself with the opposition to King Louis Philippe. He continued to write.Tocqueville was a major observer and philosopher of democracy, which he saw as an equation that balanced liberty and equality. He accurately predicted that democracy would increase and eventually extend its rights and privileges to women, natives, and Africans.Tocqueville died in Cannes, France, in 1859, and is buried in the village of Tocqueville near Normandy.

See also U.S. Supreme Court.

Alexis de Tocqueville on the Dangers of Presidential Elections

Kevin M. Cherry is an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond. His areas of expertise include classical and American political thought. He is the author of Plato, Aristotle, and the Purpose of Politics.

Nearly two hundred years ago, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described America&rsquos presidential election in this way:

For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present

Tocqueville appropriately calls this upheaval &ldquoa national crisis.&rdquo To find a description from 1835 of what we experience today may be comforting perhaps divisive elections are nothing new. But he also concludes that after the election, these passions recede and calm is restored. That description seems not to align with the continuous, hyper-partisan, polarized politics we see today. What has changed?

To be sure, the American population has changed dramatically in the last 180 years. And there are certainly new ways&mdashsuch as televised debates&mdashfor presidents to make their case directly to the American people or, more troublingly, to only a certain portion of it.

Tocqueville, however, calls our attention to a different kind of change. Presidential elections in the 19 th century were merely a cause of &ldquoagitation,&rdquo rather than of &ldquoruin,&rdquo because although the choice of president mattered &ldquoto all citizens,&rdquo it mattered &ldquoonly moderately.&rdquo

The coronavirus pandemic may have reminded us of the importance of state and local governments in making decisions about whether to close businesses or require masks, but the attention paid to the various events of the presidential campaign&mdashfrom the debates to the president&rsquos infection with COVID-19&mdashmakes clear that the president has unquestionably become the central figure in contemporary American politics. The national government today is far more important than it was in Tocqueville&rsquos time, and the president seems to have the most power within that government. As a result, the choice of president still matters to each citizen, but it no longer matters only &ldquomoderately.&rdquo Tocqueville&rsquos analysis suggests that this change would make presidential elections more contentious.

When a president is of moderate importance, Tocqueville observes, the various &ldquofactions&rdquo are less likely to pursue that office fervently. Democratic republics are better served by having numerous positions of power, not simply for the sake of checking abuses but also because it limits the importance of any particular office. When power is more widely dispersed, parties are more willing to accept temporary defeat, secure in knowing that they can gain influence elsewhere, such as in the national legislature or the various offices in the several states.

A moderated presidency, moreover, does not attract &ldquodesperate characters,&rdquo ambitious individuals willing to stir up &ldquodangerous popular passions&rdquo for the sake of victory. Tocqueville feared that because most democratic people lack great ambition, democratic nations will lack adequate institutional safeguards against those few who do, in fact, want to abuse their power. Anticipating contemporary concerns about the erosion of democratic norms, he feared a loss of &ldquopolitical morality&rdquo among candidates if elected offices offer too much power.

Although institutional changes over the past century may have exacerbated the problem, Tocqueville suggests that our contested elections have a deeper cause. Democracies, he argues, tend toward the &ldquomoral empire of the majority,&rdquo the belief that the majority has, and ought to have, the right to govern. Presidential candidates serve as symbols of the party&rsquos beliefs, and a victory serves not only to gain office but also as proof that these doctrines are supported by the majority. It may be necessary, therefore, both to moderate the importance of the president as well as to temper our desire to have our own political beliefs affirmed.

Tocqueville&rsquos fears about presidential elections are a timely reminder that the amount of power we give to the presidency does not come without costs. A democratic nation, he writes, that is governed by a president will inevitably suffer &ldquoa profound disturbance&rdquo when it is time for that president to be elected. The task is to learn precisely how much of a disturbance we can tolerate, something he suggests is best learned by experience.

The Old Regime and the Revolution

Just as Democracy in America is not a history of the United States, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is not a conventional history of the French Revolution. Tocqueville did not call the book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution Française because the “revolution” to which he referred was the leveling of social conditions that had taken place all over Europe since the early Middle Ages it was not a uniquely French phenomenon. In his preface to Democracy in America, Tocqueville calls the march of equality a “providential fact.” In the Old Regime, he demonstrates this by questioning the revolutionary character of the French Revolution. In contrast to contemporaries who claimed that the French Revolution swept away deeply entrenched class distinctions, Tocqueville explains how kings, noblemen, bourgeois, and the people had all played an unwitting part over many centuries in the production of equality.

Considering the case of France, Tocqueville discusses how and why France had trouble moderating or directing this equality revolution, and how “Bonapartism” or bureaucratic despotism is one of its logical outcomes. Bureaucratic tyranny is as “democratic” a result of the great “revolution” as the democratic and successful United States. Tocqueville nonetheless hopes Frenchmen might yet direct the equality revolution in their country. He points to the region of Languedoc, which had retained some autonomy and resisted Parisian centralization, as an example of how habits of self-government might be retained despite centralization. It is, however, by no means clear that Tocqueville believes it is possible or desirable to decentralize France and restore political power to its regions. Tocqueville rather hopes to awaken something of the “spirit” of independence, both intellectual and liberal, in his readers. Unlike the New England township, which Tocqueville lauds and believes has been a great source of American strength, Languedoc is a more ambiguous case. This reflects Tocqueville’s generally despondent view of the political history of France.

De Tocqueville’s Message For America

Accordingly, in this space which is ordinarily reserved for reviews of current books, AMERICAN HERITAGE in this issue turns to a consideration of Tocqueville and his message—a message which is as relevant today, in the time of this nation’s maturity, as it was when it was first written. This article was written by J. A. Lukacs, author of The European Revolution and professor of history at Chestnut Hill and La Salle Colleges, Philadelphia.

Alexis de Tocqueville died a hundred years ago, on April 16,1859, after years of increasing suffering, with his gloomy neurotic wife at his side, in a villa on a hill above Cannes. At that time Cannes and the Riviera were not yet fashionable places. The Tocquevilles had gone there from the foggy brume of Normandy, to profit from the Mediterranean air. It was of no use. His chest was ravaged beyond repair. Thus he succumbed, to be buried quietly in an unpretentious tomb tight against the wall of the parish church in the tiny village of Tocqueville, on the road from Valognes to Cherbourg, a couple of miles inland from the English Channel. The Marble has already grayed and some of the letters are hardly legible now.

One mile to the east lies the Tocqueville château. It is a very French château, with a very Norman courtyard. At least part of one wing, holding a tiny chapel, goes back to the fifteenth century. There is an enormous square pile of concrete, an abandoned German bunker, in the middle of the fields. The château was headquarters for a German military command, and the bunker is a leftover reminder of Hitler’s Atlantic “wall.” The cost of its removal would be exorbitant. Ahead of the courtyard there is a partly weedy pond, and the main part of the château is gutted by fire. Four years ago, when the present Comte de Tocqueville, a lateral descendant, was making some repairs, a blowtorch started a blaze and the central part burned out.

Yet the best room in the château, Alexis de Tocqueville’s erstwhile library, was saved in a miraculous way. It is a dark, big room, with a magnificent tapestry, packed full to the top with books and papers and folders almost incredibly, that very mass of tightly packed papers somehow refused to catch fire. The flames stopped at the doorway it is as if they had hesitated, blowing and licking around that portal until they turned their fiery wrath elsewhere.

So the library stands there now, nearly intact, with Tocqueville’s own books, with perhaps the only portrait of their master on the wall. There are a few bills and accounts and some correspondence relating to the Tocqueville papers on the desk still used on occasion by Alexis’ descendants. I felt a faint sense of latent life in the dark room. It was as if the master of the room had been away, on a long and perilous journey but, still, perhaps on his way back…

This is a personal impression of a personal feeling. Yet it is symbolic in at least one sense. It is symbolic of Tocqueville’s century-long round trip in the memory of mankind

A hundred years ago his death stirred not many people. By 1859 Tocqueville had already been near the end of what amounted to a decade of almost complete retirement from public affairs. A few weeks after his death a great European crisis flared up into war not very far from Cannes. In the United States, too, the rumblings of that tragic year 1859 were not conductive to philosophic contemplations about Tocqueville. Most of his American friends were dead by that time. Thus the decline of his reputation continued.

For at least sixty years Tocqueville was largely forgotten. In the United States the two heavy volumes of Lord Bryce on The American Commonwealth over-shadowed Tocqueville’s reputation. In the thirty years after its publication, thirty American editions of Democracy in America had appeared in the next sixty years their number falls to thirteen. In England the respective numbers are seven and three in France, thirteen and four.

This was consequent to the political atmosphere of late Victorianism. Between 1865 and 1914 liberalism and industrial democracy grew rapidly throughout the Western World. The prevailing bent of thought was pragmatic. The prevailing political categories were still “liberal” and “conservative,” but the very meanings of these words had begun to change.

Somehow Tocqueville did not fit into either of these categories. How could he be a liberal, he who had warned people so often against putting too much faith into optimistic concepts of sinless human nature, and who had expressed many doubts about such concepts as evolution or industrial progress? And was he a “true” conservative, he who had warned people that they would do better to understand and acquiesce in democracy since, in one form or another, it was here to stay?

At times, when he was not forgotten at all, Tocqueville was regarded as an archaic, aristocratic, sententious thinker, a “conservative liberal” or a “liberal conservative” of the receding past. A few decades after his death, the author of a Parisian comedy, Le monde ou l’on s’ennuie , made the audience smirk as the stiff and ambitious little provincial wife introduced one of her statements with the words: “ comme disait M. de Tocqueville ”—“as M. de Tocqueville said.”

Yet there were exceptions. They stand out today, in retrospect. Our generation has begun to rediscover not only Tocqueville but Acton and Burckhardt and Dicey and Dilthey and Droysen among the greatest historical thinkers of the past hundred years it is significant that during their lifetime all of these men, independently of each other, discovered and admired Tocqueville. His name crops up, here and there, from their notes. Acton, who at first frets uneasily about Tocqueville, ends up by jotting down: “One cannot find fault with him. He is as just as Aristides.” Thirty-odd years ago a lonely and brooding Frenchman, M. Antoine Redier, began to be intrigued by Tocqueville he read his books, looked into his papers, traced the last years of his life, and arrived at the, at first, astonishing conclusion that here was perhaps the greatest thinker of the past three or four centuries. Appropriately enough, he entitled his little book Comme Disait M. de Tocqueville .

The book is out of print now. It still failed to stir many people in France in the 1920’s. It was from the hot ashes of German ruin that Tocqueville’s memory began to rise again during our own lifetime. The spectacle of a Hitler coming to power largely through the democratic process belatedly awakened many minds to the realization that here was something new—or, rather, that it was the very danger that Tocqueville had first described: the tyranny of the majority, a democratic possibility that the accepted liberal categories of thought had refused to admit at all.

Meanwhile, in America the intellectual enthusiasm generated during the first period of the New Deal was wearing thin as many liberals themselves learned how the vulgar exploitation of majority sentiment may prove to be a great danger to free democracies. It is for this reason that, ever since the end of the last war, Tocqueville has gained a new American reputation. An excellent full edition of Democracy in America was published in 1945 the next thirteen years saw perhaps a dozen new editions and paperbacks, not only of Democracy in America but also of the Recollections and of the Old Regime and the Revolution . Nowadays there is hardly a month in which one of our more serious columnists or commentators on public affairs does not cite some pertinent Tocquevillean passage. Meanwhile in France, with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, the first complete edition of Tocqueville’s collected works has begun under the editorship of a devoted scholar, J. P. Mayer.

Of course, the Tocquevillean heritage is a very large one. The full edition of his papers may run to more than twenty volumes, most of it correspondence, and very valuable letters these are indeed. There is hardly a dull page in them. For one thing, they deal with an extraordinary variety of themes: religion, politics, philosophy, race, economics, literature, the tendency of manners, sexual morality, Asia, Russia, India.…For another matter, Tocqueville was a superb stylist. He furnishes us with a potential mine of quotations. It would be easy to string some of them together, taking them from Democracy in America alone, to impress every reader with the pertinent wisdom of a great prophet.

For Tocqueville predicted not only the possibility of majoritarian tyranny but almost every one of its actual and potential dangers. He predicted, among other things, the Civil War, the extinction of the Indians, the lasting character of the Negro problem, the future population of the Union, the coming shape of American public education, juvenile delinquency due to the loosening of parental authority, the future of American Catholicism, the coming ascendancy of America and Russia over most of the world.

It is always tempting to quote all of that now famous paragraph which concludes the first volume of Democracy in America , about a future America and a future Russia, one standing for freedom, the other for servitude “their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

Now consider only how this country has changed since 1831. When Tocqueville was here, he saw a powerful but still limited republic, at the edge of the Western World, its energies directed away from Europe, still committed to the toleration of slavery, with a uniquely limited federal bureaucracy, without much of a standing army, with a population that was almost exclusively Protestant and the overwhelming majority of which had come or descended from the inhabitants of the British Isles (Tocqueville called them AngloAmericans throughout). Today this country has become the most powerful nation in the world, ready to conquer the moon, with military bases in fifty countries throughout the globe, carrying a principal voice in the affairs of Europe, committed against slavery, maintaining military establishments to the amount of about fifty billion dollars a year, with a governmental bureaucracy of enormous proportions, a nation whose population is no longer predominantly Anglo-Saxon in its origins, and where there is even a tendency toward a Catholic majority.

The contrast is tremendous. How come, then, that almost everything Tocqueville wrote about Jackson’s America in 1831–1832 is still so true about this very different America today? How come that we may open Tocqueville’s book, written 125 years ago, at virtually any page and find passages that are directly and clearly pertinent to the problems of the United States today?

The answer, I think, lies in a quality of Tocqueville’s which has been seldom mentioned at all. It is that Tocqueville fully recognized what may be called a change in the texture of history. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the first historian of the democratic age. For we must consider that though proclamations of the ideals of political democracy are marked on crucial milestones in the history of the past four or five centuries, the full extent of majority rule did not effect the nations of the Western World until almost our very lifetime. Jacksonian America was an early example of such a national society. And the task which Tocqueville had set for himself was “to penetrate beneath accidental history to soled history, or beneath history to the physiology of peoples.”

This is how his ungenerous critic, Émile Faguet, put it sixty years ago but Faguet was critical of that self-imposed task. Yet this is why the value of Tocqueville’s work is so permanent. Contrary to the general assumption, his purpose was not a book about America but about this new kind of democracy, for the sake of France and of Europe. And there is, for once, a seldom-cited passage from Democracy in America which our statesmen in Washington would do well to ponder today: Those who, after having read this book, should imagine that my intention in writing it was to propose the laws and customs of the Anglo-Americans for the imitation of all democratic communities would make a great mistake they must have paid more attention to the form than the substance of my thought. My aim has been to show, by the example of America, that laws, and especially customs, may allow a democratic people to remain free. But I am very far from thinking that we ought to follow the example of the American democracy and copy the means that it has employed to attain this end for I am well aware of the influence which the nature of a country and its political antecedents exercise upon its political constitution and I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were to exist all over the world under the same features.

For Democracy in America is, in more than one sense, a still unexplored book. Especially the second volume, filled with daring generalizations, is seldom being read through its implications have seldom been studied with any great effort of concentration. Nor is our knowledge of Tocqueville the man very extensive.

Except for the brilliant short introductory biographies by Redier and Mayer, little has been written about his life. True, his personal history may not have been exceptionally dramatic: his wife, a middle-class Englishwoman, was not very attractive he never belonged to a cohesive political group his public career was spasmodic he spent the last part of his life in self-imposed retirement from the world he died at the age of 54. We have few pictures of him there is no photograph or daguerreotype. There is the drawing by Chassériau, showing a serious aristocratic mien, a delicate expression combined with a strong look from those exceptionally perceptive eyes. the oil portrait in the chateau is rather poor. We know that he was a small, bony man, suffering from a pulmonary disease. An American visitor at the Paris Embassy once made fun of the sudden agitation of his English speech, which seemed so inconsistent, coming out with so much fire from the mouth of this little Frenchman.

Even though a renewed interest in Tocqueville has now taken place, our knowledge and our understanding of him may still be superficial. We have only begun to recognize the rich depth of his writings and our understanding is still hindered by the automatic application of inadequate categories to his thought. He is regarded a sociologist when, in reality, he was a historian—but a new kind of historian. If this is not evident from Democracy in America , where his treatment is, of course, not chronological, it should be certainly evident from his Old Regime and the Revolution . People regard him as an aristocrat who criticized democracy when, in reality, he was critical of many aristocratic pretensions and he saw the will of God in the coming democratic age.

“I have always said,” he wrote in one of his finest personal letters, “that it is more difficult to stabilize and maintain liberty in our new democratic societies than in certain aristocratic societies of the past. But I shall never dare think it impossible. And I pray to God lest He inspire me with the idea that one may as well despair of trying.”

Tocqueville’s greatness is latent in this very condition: he transcends categories. He was neither an academic sociologist nor a professional historian. Nor it is possible to solve the problem by assigning him into ambiguous categories of a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative. The very temperament of this man was such that he could never rest content with mere compromise, with moderation for moderation’s sake. Tocqueville, therefore, is not in the middle of these categories. He transcends both.

From Democracy in America alone we should grasp the enduring truth that its author was neither a skeptical aristocrat nor an academic sociologist nor a defeatist conservative but, as Edward Everett put it long ago, the sincerest foreign friend this democracy has yet had. Nor is there any reason to revise now, 120 years later, what perhaps the first American reviewer of Tocqueville’s book wrote in the American Monthly Magazine . In tracing the causes of American liberty, this anonymous reviewer wrote in 1838, “in examining how far they continue to influence our conduct, manners, and opinions, and in searching for means to prevent their decay or destruction, the intelligent American reader can find no better guide.”

De Tocqueville looked at First Amendment freedoms

Americans&rsquo egalitarianism sprang from being comfortable with the presumption of the moral equality of every citizen. De Tocqueville discusses the First Amendment freedoms of assembly, speech, press, and religion in detail. He compares the connection between equality and the collective power that average Americans acquire through unlimited political association to that of the European aristocracy, which possessed power based on birthright.

De Tocqueville notes that it is the unlimited freedom to associate for political goals that prevents tyranny of the majority, because in a country where associations are free, secret societies are unknown although there may be factious persons, there are no conspirators.

Religious toleration and the idea of a spiritual nation without a state religion befuddled de Tocqueville. Church and state remained separate but seemed concurrently to prevent the religious persecution that historically had led to divisiveness within nations.

Alexis de Tocqueville : Democracy in America (1835)

Strangers can often observe with greater clarity that with which we are too familiar, and throughout their history Americans have been fascinated by the comments of foreign travelers. Moreover, those comments have often highlighted aspects of American culture and society that Americans themselves had not previously noticed. Of the many travelers who visited America and wrote down their impressions, none proved as perceptive as Alexis de Tocqueville, and none of their works has had such an enduring impact, not only on explaining Jacksonian America to the Old World, but to the New as well.

De Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, both French aristocrats, were sent by the French government in 1831 to study the American prison system. They arrived in New York in May of that year, and spent nine months traveling around the United States, taking notes not only on prisons, but on all aspects of American society, its economy and its unique political system. After they returned to France in February 1832, the two men submitted their penal report, and Beaumont wrote a novel about race relations in the United States.

But it would be de Tocqueville’s work, which went through innumerable editions in the nineteenth century, that became a classic. American politics fascinated him, and he caught the sense–so alien to the Old World–of the dedication of common people to the political process. He came when Andrew Jackson was president and political parties were undergoing a major transformation, from small organizations dominated by local elite caucuses to mass membership bodies devoted to electing officials at the local, state and national level. As he noted with amazement, “No sooner do you set foot upon American ground, than you are stunned by a kind of tumult. . . . Almost the only pleasure which an American knows is to take a part in the government, and to discuss its measures. To give but one example of this enthusiasm, at a great outdoor gathering at Auburn, New York, Senator Rivers of Virginia addressed the audience for three and a half hours! After the crowd took a brief stretch, Senator Legar&egrave of South Carolina went on for another two and a half hours!”

“Democracy in America” is acclaimed for its author’s perception, but it has also been criticized by recent scholars for its glaring gaps as well. The aristocratic de Tocqueville chose not to see many things, including poverty in the cities and the plight of slaves. But his account of Jacksonian America captures the energy of the young nation and, above all, how intensely people made democracy work.

For further reading: Whitney Pope and Lucetta Pope, Alexis de Tocqueville: His Social and Political Theory (1986) Richard Reeves, American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America (1982).

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier. Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years. During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return. The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life. It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson. I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes. The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.” But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him. His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh. He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

Share this:

Like this:

Part of A Long Tradition

Alexis de Tocqueville is part of a long tradition of well-educated Europeans who traveled to America and published books or diaries about their experiences in the “new” world. Unlike most of the others, however, the book Tocqueville wrote has proved over the years to be a lasting source of information and insight into both America and democracy. Democracy in America is now widely studied in America universities, and it has been quoted by Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and Congressmen. Humbler instances of its influence abound for example, the name for the most generous category of giver to The United Way is the “Alexis de Tocqueville Society”.

When Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was President. It was in this period that the United States first surpassed Europe in per capita income. It was also during Tocqueville’s visit that Black Hawk, the leader of the Sauk and Fox Indians, agreed to move across the Mississippi River to a reservation in Iowa, and that Nat Turner led an uprising of slaves in Virginia.

The current popularity of Democracy in America in the United States might have surprised Tocqueville himself, because he wrote the book primarily for a French audience. The first volume was published forty-six years after the French Revolution. That great upheaval had destroyed the “ancient regime” — the political order comprised of divine right monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and peasants — but France had still not found political stability. As Tocqueville points out in the Introduction, many leading Frenchmen were unwilling to accept that equality had come to stay: looking to the past with regret some foolishly ignored the fundamental changes taking place around them others found themselves caught in various unnatural and unhealthy moral and political confusions. It was first and foremost for such people that Tocqueville wrote the book. He hoped that by showing them in detail what democracy was they would be able better to guide France’s own transition to democracy. In so doing, however, he gave the world its richest, most various, and deepest reflection on democracy. But why was Tocqueville so certain that democracy was inevitable and irresistible? His argument for this opinion is the main theme of this book’s introduction.

According to Tocqueville, the power of the majority arises from the fact that in a democracy every individual is, politically, the equal of every other individual. In this situation, the greatest power will always be the largest number of individuals who combine their strength to act together: normally, a majority. In monarchial societies, the majority has little or no power but independent centers of power such as the aristocracy, the church, and the rising merchant class can resist and even oppose each other and whoever rules.

In a monarchy, for example, the majority would be made up of peasants their opinions are of little consequence and they cannot impose their will because the king may be wealthier than all of them put together. In an aristocracy, the nobles may consists of well-trained soldiers, whereas the peasants are unarmed: in this situation, no one group, not even a majority, can easily impose its will. Other bodies that have an independent political existence in nondemocratic societies might be the church or towns or even occupational guilds. Such groups do exist in democracies, but they do not have an independent political position. There are, for example, no seats in the United States Senate reserved for representatives of the church.

Now, according to Tocqueville, these “intermediary” institutions that exist in aristocracies serve as a “dike” against the force of the majority. Because democracy lacks such intermediary institutions, it has “no lasting obstacles” in the way of the opinions, prejudices, interests, and passions of the majority. He does not mean that the majority in a democracy always does act tyrannically, only that nothing can prevent it from so doing. He further argues that tendency to accept the rightness of majority opinion has negative long-term consequences on national character and culture. Once the majority draws the “formidable circle of thought” around a subject, individuals fear to step outside.


The presidential election contest of 1840 marked the culmination of the democratic revolution that swept the United States. By this time, the second party system had taken hold, a system whereby the older Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties had been replaced by the new Democratic and Whig Parties. Both Whigs and Democrats jockeyed for election victories and commanded the steady loyalty of political partisans. Large-scale presidential campaign rallies and emotional propaganda became the order of the day. Voter turnout increased dramatically under the second party system. Roughly 25 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in 1828. In 1840, voter participation surged to nearly 80 percent.

The differences between the parties were largely about economic policies. Whigs advocated accelerated economic growth, often endorsing federal government projects to achieve that goal. Democrats did not view the federal government as an engine promoting economic growth and advocated a smaller role for the national government. The membership of the parties also differed: Whigs tended to be wealthier they were prominent planters in the South and wealthy urban northerners—in other words, the beneficiaries of the market revolution. Democrats presented themselves as defenders of the common people against the elite.

In the 1840 presidential campaign, taking their cue from the Democrats who had lionized Jackson’s military accomplishments, the Whigs promoted William Henry Harrison as a war hero based on his 1811 military service against the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe. John Tyler of Virginia ran as the vice presidential candidate, leading the Whigs to trumpet, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” as a campaign slogan.

The campaign thrust Harrison into the national spotlight. Democrats tried to discredit him by declaring, “Give him a barrel of hard [alcoholic] cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” The Whigs turned the slur to their advantage by presenting Harrison as a man of the people who had been born in a log cabin (in fact, he came from a privileged background in Virginia), and the contest became known as the log cabin campaign . At Whig political rallies, the faithful were treated to whiskey made by the E. C. Booz Company, leading to the introduction of the word “booze” into the American lexicon. Tippecanoe Clubs, where booze flowed freely, helped in the marketing of the Whig candidate.

The Whig campaign song “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” (a) and the anti-Whig flyers (b) that were circulated in response to the “log cabin campaign” illustrate the partisan fervor of the 1840 election.

The Whigs’ efforts, combined with their strategy of blaming Democrats for the lingering economic collapse that began with the hard-currency Panic of 1837, succeeded in carrying the day. A mass campaign with political rallies and party mobilization had molded a candidate to fit an ideal palatable to a majority of American voters, and in 1840 Harrison won what many consider the first modern election.

Section Summary

American culture of the 1830s reflected the rise of democracy. The majority exercised a new type of power that went well beyond politics, leading Alexis de Tocqueville to write about the “tyranny of the majority.” Very quickly, politicians among the Whigs and Democrats learned to master the magic of the many by presenting candidates and policies that catered to the will of the majority. In the 1840 “log cabin campaign,” both sides engaged in the new democratic electioneering. The uninhibited expression during the campaign inaugurated a new political style.

Watch the video: Éric Zemmour - Cest quoi le clivage Gauche Droite aujourhui? (January 2022).