To this day, though America has changed in size, shape, demographics, and technology, “Democracy in America” remains the single finest description of the American experiment. Introducing his work to the world, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that nothing struck him more than the pervasiveness of the idea of equality in the United States.
Alexis de Tocqueville and his best friend, Gustave de Beaumont, traveled through the eastern United States, 1831-1832. Everywhere they went, they interviewed Americans: black, white, Indian, male, female, rich, poor. It was, even by the standards of modern transportation, an impressive journey. Additionally, Tocqueville and Beaumont took copious notes about every aspect of American society. They had assured the French king that they were coming to America to study her prison system (then regarded as the most humane in the world). In reality, though, they were studying democracy, democratic institutions, and especially the soul of it all, equality. It must be additionally noted that Tocqueville was only 2 months shy of his 26th birthday, when he landed in America, May 1931. Beaumont was three years older than Tocqueville.
Upon returning to France in 1832, Tocqueville compiled his notes into the two volumes, now known to us as Democracy in America. Volume 1 was published in 1835; volume 2 in 1840. To this day, though America has changed in size, shape, demographics, and technology, Democracy in America remains the single finest description of the American experiment.
Nothing, Tocqueville wrote, introducing his work to the world, struck him and Beaumont more than the pervasiveness of the idea of equality in the United States.
Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the march of society; it gives a certain direction to the public mind, a certain turn to the laws; to those governing, new maxims, and particular habits to the governed. Soon I recognized that this same fact extends its influence far beyond political mores and laws, and that it has no less dominion over civil society, than over government: it creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests customs and modifies all that it does not produce (4).
Thus, the only counterpart in the history of the world to democracy and equality (Tocqueville often and confusingly used these two words as synonyms) was the Christian religion. Only religion had played such a powerful role in and on men’s minds, shaping, molding, and delimiting culture, economics, law, and society. Now, however, the idea of equality was rising everywhere in America, itself a sort of religion to replace Christianity.
Such feelings, though, were not confined to America, but rather were birthed there and made diffuse through the rest of the Western world. “A great democratic revolution is taking place among us; everyone sees it, but not everyone judges it in the same way,” Tocqueville continued. “Some consider it as something new and, taking it for an accident, they hope still to be able to stop it; while others judge it irresistible, because it seems to them the most continuous, oldest and most permanent fact known in history” (6). All democratic and equalitarian impulses “are progress toward universal leveling” (9).
Though God’s will is his own, Tocqueville believed, His will moved the world toward democracy. “It isn’t necessary for God himself to speak in order for us to discover sure signs of his will; it is enough to examine the regular march of nature and the continuous tendency of events; I know, without the Creator raising his voice, that the stars in space follow the curves traced by his fingers” (14) Yet, one can be certain of God’s introduction of democratic thought and feelings and manners.
Everywhere you saw the various incidents in the lives of peoples turn to the profit of democracy; all men aided it by their efforts: those who had in view contributing to its success and those who did not think of serving it; those who fought for it and even those who declared themselves its enemies; all were pushed pell-mell along the same path, and all worked in common, some despite themselves, others without their knowledge, blind instruments in the hands of God (10).
In some mysterious way, every act of free will on the part of man has only served God’s interest and moved the world according to His will.
Yet, everywhere man sees the results of his choices and God’s will.
Poetry, eloquence, memory, mental graces, fires of the imagination, depth of thought, all these gifts that heaven distributes at random, profited democracy, and even when they were in the possession of democracy’s adversaries, they still served its cause by putting into relief the natural grandeur of man; so democracy’s conquests spread with those of civilization and enlightenment, and literature was an arsenal open to all, where the weak and the poor came each day to find arms (9).
As to why Tocqueville has been called upon to express the will of God is as perplexing to the author as it is to his readers.
The entire book that you are about to read has been written under the impression of a sort of religious terror produced in the soul of the author by the sight of this irresistible revolution that has marched for so many centuries over all obstacles, and that we still see today advancing amid the ruins that it has made (14).
In writing the two volumes of Democracy in America, Tocqueville believed he was doing God’s will.
By making His will known—as Tocqueville understood it—God was offering the peoples and nations of the world a choice. They could either choose to progress democratically, or they could fight Him, His nature, and His will. If they chose to progress, they could choose two paths. One path of equality will lead toward mediocrity, in which all follow the lowest common denominator and level things toward a thin gruel. Or the peoples of the world could choose the path of a leavening equality, one that recognizes superior spirits and talents and allow them, through justice, to flourish in community.
Yet, it is not enough for one man, no matter how brilliant and convicted, to shout about the coming of democracy. Rather, men must create a “new political science,” for the world’s forthcoming democracy—while in the works for hundreds of years—needs a means to promote the good. After all, at this point, much remains unknown.
The result was that the democratic revolution took place in the material aspect of society without happening in the laws, ideas, habits and mores, the change that would have been necessary to make this revolution useful. We therefore have democracy, minus what must attenuate its vices and bring out its natural advantages; and seeing already the evils that it brings, we are still unaware of the good that it can give.
This, Tocqueville thought, men understand and develop.
Author’s note: Several years ago, I read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and offered here at The Imaginative Conservative seventeen separate essays (observations) on that grand work. I now propose—over the course of the next half year—to do the same with Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterwork, Democracy in America. I will be reading it from page one and proceeding through both volumes. If you’d like to follow along, I’ll be using the two-volume 2012 Liberty Fund edition, available in a print edition as well as (free) in a download PDF/ebook edition.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a detail from “Election Day in Philadelphia” (1815) by John Lewis Krimmel (1787-1821) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.