Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) authored one of the most profound discussions of American democracy in the 19th century.
He was particularly impressed by the role of freedom of association in underpinning collective action, freedom of the press in serving as a watchdog for the people, and religious freedom in sustaining the beliefs that define the American character.
Tocqueville visited America to study democracy
In May 1831, de Tocqueville arrived in the United States from France for a visit that would last until February 1832. The announced purpose of his trip was to collaborate with his colleague and friend Gustave de Beaumont on a study of penal reform in the United States.
As is well documented in letters exchanged between the two men, their real purpose was a much larger project — a study of the new American republic. By examining U.S. democracy, they hoped to gain insight into the democratic direction that Europe was rapidly moving toward in replacing the still-prevalent but decaying aristocratic regimes on the continent. The two friends would eventually separate and publish individual accounts of their experience.
De Tocqueville sought to find the secret of American democracy
De Tocqueville’s journal record, “Journey to America,” became the cornerstone for his enduring, two-volume masterpiece, Democracy in America. In it, he seeks to answer the political puzzles of the era: Why was it that democracy flourished in America? What was the secret of American success and could it be brought home to France?
Through his descriptions, analysis, critiques, and prophecy, de Tocqueville reveals almost every aspect of the uniqueness of being American. The principal themes of Democracy in America are that the United States illustrated the possibility of a more-or-less orderly democracy, and that, consequently, conservative and the radical European views of democracy required revision.
De Tocqueville believed that the movement toward democracy was the great overriding theme of the historical evolution of the West and perhaps even of the entire world.
De Tocqueville looked at American liberty, apathy
In volume one, de Tocqueville provides an overview of the geography of the United States, the origins of its most relevant characteristic — democracy — and the unique sovereignty of the people in dealing with the tempering effects of pluralism to combat possible tyranny of the majority.
De Tocqueville, a Frenchman, was steeped in the knowledge of the adverse effects of pure democratic rule. Impressed by the patriotism and civic-mindedness of Americans, he expresses an optimism that liberty and equality can coexist.
In the second volume, which has a darker tone than the first, he offers an analysis of democracy, attributing to it a dangerous tendency toward political apathy. De Tocqueville identifies this tendency as the greatest threat to liberty because of the possibility of such apathy leading to tyranny.
De Tocqueville perceived the United States as egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property loving, and lightly governed.
De Tocqueville looked at First Amendment freedoms
Americans’ 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.
De Tocqueville acknowledged pluralistic press
Although critical of American journalists because of the proliferation of newspapers contributing to the dilution of journalistic acumen and excesses in commercial advertising space at the expense of substantive content, de Tocqueville, nevertheless, acknowledged the existence of a pluralistic press, which meant that the press found it difficult to act in a unified manner.
Such plurality allows the press to perform its watchdog and gate-keeping functions as reporters of facts, thereby enabling citizens to make individual decisions on political and other issues. De Tocqueville ranked the press as being second in power, after the people.
De Tocqueville analyzed free speech
The issue of free speech is embedded in de Tocqueville’s analysis of freedom of religion, political association, and freedom of the press.
His comments concern safeguards against a tyranny of the majority by the exercise of universal suffrage whereby individuals may march toward a common goal but march along different paths to the goal. Consequently, they sacrifice none of their political will and reason, but rather apply them to a common undertaking.
This article was originally published in 2009. William W. Riggs was a Professor at Texas A&M International University.