Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Toqueville's Democracy in America

Alexis de Toqueville. Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve. New York: Knopf, 1994 [1835 & 1840] )

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Originally published in two volumes, Toqueville's Democracy in America was based on the French nobleman's observations of his travels throughout the United States in the early 1830s. Toqueville, while a conservative, is somewhat unique in that he clearly acknowledges the importance of social classes in society. Despite this insight into modern politics and society, Toqueville was very much on the opposite side of the barricades in 1848 from the European revolutionaries.

Toqueville posited that the American democratic republic maintained itself largely for three reasons. American uniqueness, the laws, and the manners and customs practiced by the Americans were responsible for the success of the United States a little more than half a century after the American revolution. At the time of his writing, the historical track record of democracies did not lend itself to a belief that the long-term viability of the American republic was a certainty. In fact, Toqueville believed that with a population of 100 million in the near future of the United States “the continuation of the Federal government can be only an accident.”

In his role as Cassandra he saw a United States of 150 million ruling the seas in the same way that the Roman empire had once ruled the world. This together with his prophetic musings that it was the United States and Russia that would one day be the two hegemonic powers in the world are cited as examples of his insight into the future. It should be noted that he was wrong clearly more than he was right in his historical prognostications. For example, he averred that if the “Negroes of the South” were granted their freedom they would “before long abuse it.” Further, he posited that attempting to make the sexes equal could only result in “weak men and disorderly women.”

Like others of his epoch, and beyond, Toqueville feared that one of the great obstacles to a stable democracy was preventing the tyranny of the majority. Despite all evidence to the contrary the bogeyman of an envious majority conniving to separate the wealthy minority from their property seems to be ubiquitous in the conservative reading of history. Ever the specter of “class warfare” looms on the horizon.

Despite these and other shortcomings Democracy in America is worth reading for Toqueville's insights into the American character. Although Toqueville was kinder than Charles Dickens was in writing of his visit to America, he was still critical when provoked. The Americans were a serious bunch who “appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise.” This sobriety could verge, in Toqueville's view, on the boorish. “It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.”

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