H105, American History I

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835 first French edition; 1840 first American edition).

Volume II

Section I, Influence of Democracy on the Action of Intellect in the United States....

Chapter 2, Of the Principal Source of Belief among Democratic Nations

....When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows and to place himself in contrast with so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness.  The same equality that renders him independent of each of his fellow citizens, taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater amber.  The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence.

In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.  Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust....

Section II, Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of Americans

Chapter 13, Why the Americans are so Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity

In certain remote corners of the Old World you may still sometimes stumble upon a small district that seems to have been forgotten amid the general tumult, and to have remained stationary while everything around it was in motion.  The inhabitants, for the most part, are extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light.

In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.

The chief reason for this contrast is that the former do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess.  It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.

A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them.  He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications....

The equality of conditions leads by a still straighter road to several of the effects that I have here described.  When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies.  But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience.  The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires.  Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive.  They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position.  When men are nearly alike and all follow the same track, it is very difficult for any one individual to walk quickly and cleave a way through the dense throng that surrounds and presses on him.  This constant strife between the inclination springing from the equality of condition and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind....

To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances.  Complaints are made in France that the number of suicides increases; in America suicide is rare, but insanity is said to be more common there than anywhere else.  These are all different symptoms of the same disease....

Chapter 14, How the Taste for Physical Gratifications Is United in America to Love of Freedom and Attention to Public Affairs

....There is, indeed, a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic people.  When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education and their experience of free institutions, the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint at the sight of the new possessions they are about to obtain.  In their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune they lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all.  It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.  The discharge of political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their occupations and business.  If they are required to elect representatives, to support the government by personal service, to meet on public business, they think they have no time, they cannot waste their precious hours in useless engagements; such idle amusements are unsuited to serious men who are engaged with the more important interests of life.  These people think they are following the principle of self-interest, but the idea they entertain of that principle is a very crude one; and the better to look after what they call their own business, they neglect their chief business, which is to remain their own masters.

As the citizens who labor do not care to attend to public affairs, and as the class which might devote its leisure to these duties has ceased to exist, the place of the government is, as it were, unfilled.  If at that critical moment some able and ambitious man grasps the supreme power, he will find the road to every kind of usurpation open before him.  If he attends for some time only to the material prosperity of the country, no more will be demanded of him.  Above all, he must ensure public tranquillity:  men who are possessed by the passion for physical gratification generally find out that the turmoil of freedom disturbs their welfare before they discover how freedom itself serves to promote it.  If the slightest rumor of public commotion intrudes into the petty pleasures of private life, they are aroused and alarmed by it.  The fear of anarchy perpetually haunts them, and they are always ready to fling away their freedom at the first disturbance.

I readily admit that public tranquillity is a great good, but at the same time I cannot forget that all nations have been enslaved by being kept in good order.  Certainly it is not to be inferred that nations ought to despise public tranquillity, but that state ought not to content them.  A nation that asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart, the slave of its own well-being, awaiting only the hand that will bind it.  By such a nation the despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual.  When the bulk of the community are engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs.  At such times it is not rare to see on the great stage of the world, as we see in our theaters, a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd:  they alone are in action, while all others are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country, and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall....

Section 3, Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly so Called....

Chapter 15, Of the Gravity of the Americans, and Why It Does Not Prevent Them from Often Doing Inconsiderate Things

....In aristocratic communities the people readily give themselves up to bursts of tumultuous and boisterous gaiety, which shake off at once the recollection of their privations.  The inhabitants of democracies are not fond of being thus violently broken in upon, and they never lose sight of themselves without regret.  Instead of these frivolous delights they prefer those more serious and silent amusements which are like business and which do not drive business wholly out of their minds.

An American, instead of going in a leisure hour to dance merrily at some place of public resort, as the fellows of his class continue to do throughout the greater part of Europe, shuts himself up at home to drink.  He thus enjoys two pleasures; he can go on thinking of his business and can get drunk decently by his own fireside....

Chapter 17, How the Aspect of Society in the United States Is At Once Excited and Monotonous

It would seem that nothing could be more adapted to stimulate and to feed curiosity than the aspect of the United States.  Fortunes, opinions, and laws are there in ceaseless variation; it is as if immutable Nature herself were mutable, such are the changes worked upon her by the hand of man.  Yet in the end the spectacle of this excited community becomes monotonous, and after having watched the moving pageant for a time, the spectator is tired of it.

Among aristocratic nations every man is pretty nearly stationary in his own sphere, but men are astonishingly unlike each other; their passions, their notions, their habits, and their tastes are essentially different:  nothing changes, but everything differs.  In democracies, on the contrary, all men are alike and do things pretty nearly alike.  It is true that they are subject to great and frequent vicissitudes, but as the same events of good or adverse fortune are continually recurring, only the name of the actors is changed, the piece is always the same.  The aspect of American society is animated because men and things are always changing, but it is monotonous because all these changes are alike.

Men living in democratic times have many passions, but most of their passions either end in the love of riches or proceed from it.  The cause of this is not that their souls are narrower, but that the importance of money is really greater at such times.  When all the members of a community are independent of or indifferent to each other, the co-operation of each of them can be obtained only by paying for it:  this infinitely multiplies the purposes to which wealth may be applied and increases its value.  When the reverence that belonged to what is old has vanished, birth, condition, and profession no longer distinguish men, or scarcely distinguish them; hardly anything but money remains to create strongly marked differences between them and to raise some of them above the common level.  The distinction originating in wealth is increased by the disappearance or diminution of all other distinctions.  Among aristocratic nations money reaches only to a few points on the vast circle of man’s desires; in democracies it seems to lead to all.

The love of wealth is therefore to be traced, as either a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do; this gives to all their passions a sort of family likeness and soon renders the survey of them exceedingly wearisome.  This perpetual recurrence of the same passion is monotonous; the peculiar methods by which this passion seeks its own gratification are no less so.

In an orderly and peaceable democracy like the United States, where men cannot enrich themselves by war, by public office, or by political confiscation, the love of wealth mainly drives them into business and manufactures.  Although these pursuits often bring about great commotions and disasters, they cannot prosper without strictly regular habits and a long routine of petty uniform acts.  The stronger the passion is, the more regular are these habits and the more uniform are these acts.  It may be said that it is the vehemence of their desires that makes the Americans so methodical; it perturbs their minds, but it disciplines their lives....

Section 4, Influence of Democratic Ideas and Feelings on Political Society

Chapter 3, That the Sentiments of Democratic Nations Accord with their Opinions in Leading Them to Concentrate Political Power

If it is true that in ages of equality men readily adopt the notion of a great central power, it cannot be doubted, on the other hand, that their habits and sentiments predispose them to recognize such a power and to give it their support.  This may be demonstrated in a few words, as the greater part of the reasons to which the fact may be attributed have been previously stated.  As the men who inhabit democratic countries have no superiors, no inferiors, and no habitual or necessary partners in their undertakings, they readily fall back upon themselves and consider themselves as beings apart.  I had occasion to point this out at considerable length in treating of individualism.  Hence such men can never, without an effort, tear themselves from their private affairs to engage in public business; their natural bias leads them to abandon the latter to the sole visible and permanent representative of the interests of the community; that is to say, to the state.  Not only are they naturally wanting in a taste for public business, but they have frequently no time to attend to it.  Private life in democratic times is so busy, so excited, so full of wishes and of work, that hardly any energy or leisure remains to each individual for public life.  I am the last man to contend that these propensities are unconquerable, since my chief object in writing this book has been to combat them.  I maintain only that at the present day a secret power is fostering them in the human heart, and that if they are not checked, they will wholly overgrow it.

I have also had occasion to show how the increasing love of well-being and the fluctuating character of property cause democratic nations to dread all violent disturbances.  The love of public tranquillity is frequently the only passion which these nations retain, and it becomes more active and powerful among them in proportion as all other passions droop and die.  This naturally disposes the members of the community constantly to give or to surrender additional rights to the central power, which alone seems to be interested in defending them by the same means that it uses to defend itself.

As in periods of equality no man is compelled to lend his assistance to his fellow men, and none has any right to expect much support from them, everyone is at once independent and powerless....