Saturday, 6 January 2007

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville was a young French nobleman, whose aristocratic sympathies had been brought into conflict with intellectual liberalism. He had become convinced that the new phenomenon, Democracy, was neither a sickness contracted from mis-government , nor a curtain lifting to reveal Utopia, but simply a change in the spirit and framework of society. It occurred to him that instead of hysterically welcoming or deploring it, it would be of more service to the countries of Western Europe which had somehow to accommodate it, and especially to his own, which was already in the throes of its arrival, if he were to examine and dissect it carefully and become acquainted with its true nature.

For this purpose, he turned to a living specimen which had been developing unnoticed for the last fifty years in almost clinical isolation. Beyond the damp mists hanging over the Atlantic, and beyond the great winds howling on the face of the swelling waters, the forest’s edge was rolling back at a rate of seventeen miles a year. Far removed from the European turmoil of toppling thrones and raging philosophies, safe from adulteration by lingering traditions or outworn institutions, the society of the future was being hacked into its pure and physical form. de Torqueville therefore arranged for the authorities to send him to America, nominally to observe the prison system there.

He arrived in 1831, when he was twenty-six, and during the nine months allowed for the completion of his task, toured through all the states east of the Mississippi. He then returned to France and produced one among the most remarkable books of the century. It was a full sociological study, embracing all aspects of American government; it was at once a quarry of minutest observation and a grand display of broad coherent trends. Apart from a native haughtiness the author could not quite conceal – as, for example, when he stated that political corruption being inevitable, he would sooner be cheated by gentlemen than by crude democrats – the work was wholly dispassionate. It was so levelly balanced that during the debate on the English Reform Bill of 1867, two speeches for and against the bill on two successive nights were both based on de Tocqueville.

The modern reader of Democracy in America is bound to wonder how so young a man could fasten in so short a time upon the permanent characteristics of Americans, or rather of Anglo-Americans, as he felt strictly speaking they should be designated. The very chapter headings remain provocative in the present day:

“The example of the Americans does not prove that a democratic people can have no aptitude and no taste for Science, Literature or Art.”

“The trade of Literature.”

“Of the taste for physical well-being in America.”

“Why some Americans manifest a sort of fanatical spiritualism.”

“Why the Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity.”

Why among Americans all honest callings are considered honourable.”

“Why the Americans show so little sensitiveness in their own country and are so sensitive in Europe.”

He also made a series of startling predictions, arrived at purely by a process of reasoning from his own observations. He foretold the abolition of slavery in the South, and the attempt by the South to break the Union; he also remarked that abolition would tend to increase the repugnance of the white population for the black. He foretold the emergence of America as the industrial emporium of the West, and as the greatest naval power in the world. He foresaw the general tendency in the world towards omnipotent central governments minutely inquisitive about personal affairs, and assuming more and more power to control private undertakings by special enactments. His conclusions, stated precisely and without hesitation, has all the solemnity of prophetic vision:

“There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations…

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth… The Anglo-American relies upon personal interests to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single man. The principle instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, 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.”

The Life of JS Mill by Michael St John Packe 1954

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