Democracy in America

ISBN: 089526160X
ISBN 13: 9780895261601
By: Alexis de Tocqueville Bruce Frohnen

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About this book

From America's call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system, Democracy in America—first published in 1835—enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. Philosopher John Stuart Mill called it "among the most remarkable productions of our time." Woodrow Wilson wrote that de Tocqueville's ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was "possibly without rival."For today's readers, de Tocqueville's concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His shrewd observations about the "almost royal prerogatives" of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.

Reader's Thoughts

Trashy Pit

Considered a must-read classic about US history and US political culture. In fact, the most over-rated book in all of history. Complete waste of your time. I'd give it zero stars if I could. Alexis spent all his time hanging with his plantation-owner buddies in the South who ran the US gov't at the time, then wrote a book about how great Democracy in the US was. Except for a couple of pages, he ignores all the main issues of US political and economic history: slavery, racism, exploitation, genocide, military expansionism, and the conflict between masses and elites. Of course, this explains why this book is so popular today (Newt Gingrich said it was the most important book about US history.) By the way, Alexis then went home (back to France) and opposed the political struggles for democracy there, reminiscing about the "good old days" of the landed aristocracy when the serfs knew their place. A real expert on democracy.


Caveat: I read the 320 page abridged version, so some of my complaints may be simple misunderstandings due to ignorance.I'll start by saying that I'm not sure what gives a 25 year-old rich French kid on a pleasure cruise through the New World the credibility to make completely unsupported assertions on the political and social climate of early America and have them accepted as gospel. After slogging through 300 or so pages, I'm exceedingly grateful that this abridged version exists, because I can't imagine ever wasting the time on the complete edition. I was interested in reading a book that has been perpetually hailed for its timeliness, foresight, and penetrating insight into early American democracy, but I was sorely disappointed on every single front. Tocqueville does occasionally make some interesting observations. In the beginning he spends a significant amount of time talking about the political power inherent in the townships (i.e. small, local groups), which is an incredibly important point, and one still relevant today. It was also particularly interesting to me after reading Hannah Arendt's On Revolution, where she heavily emphasizes the same. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Arendt's analysis of the beginning of our country and the formation of the Constitution -- it is much more penetrating than Tocqueville, mainly because she's insanely brilliant and had the benefit of hindsight.) Later in the book, there is a 2-3 page section in chapter 34 ("How An Aristocracy May Be Created By Manufactures") that I found particularly prescient, essentially describing the division and alienation of labor about a half-century before Marx popularized the idea. These two observations were about the extent of the positives. The rest is so mired in sweeping generalizations and arrogant condescension as to be virtually worthless. His analysis of the manners and temperament of the American people is completely irrelevant now, but couldn't have been much more relevant then since it was based on only one man's observation (and since he was clearly writing with an aristocratic chip on his shoulder). His predictions, which are hailed as so sage, are wrong at least half the time, making him about as wise as me. My favorite was when he talked about how unlikely it would be for the U.S. to experience a civil war, and this a whopping 25 years before civil war broke out. There are two huge oversights that led Tocqueville to severely miscalculate America's trajectory. One -- the rise of corporations and their near-invincible power -- was only hinted at in Ch. 34, but its omission is forgiveable since the phenomenon was not necessarily intuitive. In reality, Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority" is a red herring, because an elite oligarchy ended up controlling everything more or less by the beginning of the 20th century. His other oversight, however, was less pardonable. He spent shockingly little time talking about how easily manipulable by propaganda his tyrannical majority would be. This would essentially make them a tool of the wealthy elite. His only references to public opinion were oblique and clearly not indicating anything like the extent of the media manipulation that we started to see, again around the turn of the 20th century. His reference to a free press hints at it, but the omission of a deeper discussion is noticeable.I could give more examples, through quotations, of some of the generalizations I'm talking about, but I honestly don't want to waste the time. Instead, I'll give my favorite quote, from Ch. 48 ("Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare"). I like it because it is actually timely, describing pretty deftly what is going on right now in the U.S.: . . .When property becomes so fluctuating, and the love of property so restless and so ardent, I cannot but fear that men may arrive at such a state as to regard every new theory as a peril, every innovation as an irksome toil, every social improvement as a stepping-stone to revolution, and so refuse to move altogether for fear of being moved too far. I dread, and I confess it, lest they should at last so entirely give way to a cowardly love of present enjoyment, as to lose sight of the interests of their future selves and those of their descendants; and prefer to glide along the easy current of life, rather than to make, when it is necessary, a strong and sudden effort to a higher purpose.I must admit that overall I am glad to have gotten the general idea of what people are talking about when they refer to Tocqueville. After thinking two stars (based mostly on enjoyability and disappointed expectations), I have to go ahead with three, just because of the scope of the thing. It's darn impressive to pen a thousand page study of the political and social landscape of early America. Even if you're only right around half the time, it still takes some impressive nerve to give it a go. And I respect that.Cross-posted at Not Bad Movie and Book Reviews.

blue-collar mind

I love doing that time travel thing, when you find an author who can bring you to his or her time, and you are like Samantha in Bewitched talking to Benjamin Franklin in her 60s housewife clothes. I take this from my shelf every few years and stick it in my backpack and read my little copy of this book for a few minutes every other day or so, much like the religious read the bible I assume, although I always remember that mine was written by a youngish white European of no particular esteem who went to check out America, rather than a book of metaphors taken entirely too seriously, designed to start countless wars and cruelties.I enjoy hearing about the small townish lack of complexity of America, and its innate sense of exploration and innocence. Its belief in equality and forthright expression (albeit with a puritanical malevolence on the back edge) is charming, although I also wonder exactly when the last match was blown out on that country, and replaced with this massive regime.


I read selections this time around, as I did years Tocqueville toured and studied America not long after the French Revolution. He was hoping to glean ideas for his own country. I think what he found couldn't necessarily apply. He says we had no democratic revolution, because we began democratically. This makes sense, as our Revolution was simply an effort to keep that independent flavor, rather than lose it to our parent country.Among the many things he observes and analyzes, I was interested in his view of property inheritance and how that affects society. In the aristocratic countries, it traditionally went to the eldest male. Consequently, family formed a larger portion of a person's identity. You stick by family, you depend on family for your welfare, and when you're the head of the family, you have obligations.Here in America, that was not the law. Instead, land is divided among children. Because the land is divided and lots become smaller, it is easier to sell and move on. There is consequently less ties to the land and to the family. While he did make a point of saying "Anglo-Americans" I thought this analysis could have gone a little further and address the room which people felt they had to move to. That may have been in a section I didn't read. Many of his observations still hold true today, I believe.For example:"In the proudest nations of the Old World works were published which faithfully portrayed the vices and absurdities of contemporaries....Moliere criticized the court in plays acted before the courtiers. But the power which dominates in the United States does not understand being mocked like that. The least reproach offends it, and the slightest sting of truth turns it fierce; and one must praise everything, from the turn of its phrases to its most robust virtues."(Don't mock the president, Mr. Colbert. Wear your flag pin, Mr. Obama.)

Infame Descalzo

Uno de los libros políticamente más estimulantes que he leído

Russell Bittner

I don’t mind admitting that Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America is quite possible the most demanding piece of exposition I’ve read since Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. I suspect it’s one of those books — analogous, if you will, to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Melville’s Moby Dick, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Musil’s Man Without Qualities — that avid readers want to have read, but never have.I finally did.If you can find the time (and the quiet) to read fifty pages of this book a day, you can accomplish it in under three weeks. If you can devote yourself to more than fifty pages a day — and have the concentration necessary to make sense of what you’re reading — you’re a better (wo)man than I am.I couldn’t. In spite of my best efforts and virtually ideal conditions (most often in some secluded spot in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), I found myself having to read many sentences two and three times over. Democracy in America is no doubt more worthy of a dissertation than of a review. And I suspect that thousands of dissertations have been written on this oeuvre. The book is dense — with a capital “D” — and any sort of commentary on it could rival exegesis of the Torah.Dense it is. But also prescient — with a capital “P.” If you can’t find the time or the circumstances to devote yourself to a reading of the entire work, read just Chapter 10 of Part II, Volume One (“Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States”). And keep in mind that Volume One was published in 1835; the “Trail of Tears” (the expulsion of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to a circumscribed territory in Oklahoma) happened only three years later; and the Civil War was still relatively far off!But what of de Tocqueville’s observation at the conclusion of Volume One concerning Americans and Russians — ions before the start of the Cold War? Allow me to quote at length from pp. 475-476, as I don’t want to shortchange the man:"There are today two great peoples on earth, who, though they started from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.Both grew in obscurity, and while humanity’s gaze was focused elsewhere, they abruptly vaulted to the first rank among nations: the world learned almost simultaneously of their birth and of their grandeur.All other peoples seem close to achieving the limits traced for them by nature and henceforth need only to preserve what they already have; but these two are still growing. All the others have stopped, or move forward only with the greatest of effort. Only these two march with an easy and rapid stride down a road whose end no eye can yet perceive.The American does battle with the obstacles that nature has placed before him; the Russian grapples with men. One combats wilderness and barbarity; the other, civilization with all its arms. The American makes his conquests with the farmer’s ploughshare, the Russian with the soldier’s sword.To achieve his goal, the American relies on personal interest and allows individuals to exercise their strength and reason without guidance.The Russian in a sense concentrates all of society in the power of one man.The American’s principal means of action is liberty; the Russian’s, servitude.Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe."Just as prescient are de Tocqueville’s observations in Volume Two, Part II, Chapter 20 (pp. 649 – 652 in the Arthur Goldhammer/Literary Classics of the United States, © 2004 edition I’ve just read). In these four pages (titled “How Industry Could Give Rise to an Aristocracy”), de Tocqueville not only foresees the dangers of the industrial process known as “Taylorism” introduced decades later by the Ford Motor Company, but also adumbrates the condition of alienation between worker and owner/manager, haves and have-nots, into which we in the U. S. are now inexorably slipping. (Should you have any interest in understanding more about this latter development, I would respectfully refer you to Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, which I reviewed here at Goodreads at the end of last month.)And what of this concluding observation 150 years before the deluge of widgets and gadgets in which most of the current generation of digital addicts would appear to be drowning? “Habitual inattention must be regarded as the greatest defect of the democratic mind (last sentence on p. 718).” There are no doubt other good reasons for the seemingly constant state of distraction of so many young minds — and de Tocqueville carefully lays out his argument in the pages leading up to his conclusion. And yet, one has to wonder whether the “democratic mind” as it has come to be in these United States and elsewhere in the Western World at the beginning of the twenty-first century was the incubator or the egg in our so-called “high-tech (r)evolution.”Please allow me to return to p. 198 to conclude with one last citation, even if I could go on and on with others worth their aphoristic weight in gold. “Time no more stops for nations than it does for individuals. Both advance daily toward a future of which they know nothing.”“…(A) future of which they know nothing.” Scary stuff — but worthwhile (to say the least!) reading.RRB6/14/13Brooklyn, NY

Jerry Raviol

I read this in response to my frustration with what I saw as our inability to bring democracy to other places in the world. Chapters 1-42 and 55 - 57 are the most insightful. Others tend to drag. In 1830s de Tocqueville comes to America to figure our why a democratic revolution in France lead to anarchy and despotism, while a democratic revolution in America lead to freedom. What he finds is still relevant to our trying to bring or give democracy to others. Two things emerge- first there were many natural advantages that America had that the French or any other European nation would never have the good fortune to posses. Other places in the world seeking democracy similarly lacks these natural advantages today. Second and more to the point - regardless of your natural advantages - you cannot "give" democratic institutions to a society that has no practical experience with democracy. Democratic society must precede democratic governments if the institutions are to succeed. If you want to move to democratic governments you must begin with a government that provides order, and begin change on the social level.


Growing up I was thankful that nowhere in my liberal arts education was I assigned to read Tocqueville’s “(On) Democracy in America”. The idea that it was written by a Frenchman always worried me, not for any particular political reasons but more so because I was afraid the connection would not be made between the author's intentions and the translation produced. Of course, there is no way to determine if the author's thoughts are properly conveyed but the translation comes across clear and revealing. Another reason I always found myself put off by the possibility of reading this book is because of what I perceived to be the inherent datedness of the subject. Tocqueville wrote the book well over a century and a half ago and much has changed in America, and in our "democracy" for that matter, since then. However, to my pleasant surprise the work is timeless and not just in the sense that it provides theories on underlying premises that unite us all, but in that many of Tocqueville's observations on America are spot on and continue to be so. Safe to say, I'm now ashamed of my prior reservations and that nowhere in my Political Science education was Tocqueville required reading.

Jason Pettus

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called classics, then write reports on whether or not they deserve the labelEssay #35: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)The story in a nutshell:Although these days we take it for granted, for a long time democracy had been far from proven to be a viable, stable system of government; for example, just 15 years after the US established the peaceful democracy we now know and love, France tried doing the same thing, but in their case quickly leading to disaster, chaos, massive bloodshed and an eventual military dictatorship. That's why the French government sent 25-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville to the US and Canada in 1831, to study why this had gone so right there and so wrong in their own country, and especially when it came to the establishment of a fair and efficient justice system, of which France at the time was in dire need of an overhaul. de Tocqueville's eventual two-volume report, then, was essentially the first modern, sophisticated analysis of the democratic process ever written, and as such contained plenty of conclusions that came as big surprises -- that democratic stability in the US, for example, was mostly due to the intense ideological support of the system by the very rich who stood to lose a bit under one, that the reason religion is so important in the US is precisely because it is so separated from government affairs, that the assumption of innocence in criminal trials is not just some flighty liberal experiment but the very bedrock under which nearly all other aspects of a successful democracy are supported. The books were filled with dozens of such stunners, which made a lot of Europeans experience an entire sea change in the way they thought of democracies, a big part of what eventually led such government systems to become so popular over there too.The argument for it being a classic:The main argument for this two-book set being a classic seems to be the huge influence it's had on society -- it was not only an instant bestseller in both France and US from nearly the moment it came out, not only legitimized the budding academic field of political science in many people's eyes for the first time, but is the basis behind many of the economic theories driving our country to this day, as well as laying the blueprint for how modern secular justice systems work. And of course, let's not forget how prescient de Tocqueville was as well; he not only predicted the rise of the US and Russia as superpowers, using the constantly infighting nations of Europe as their pawns, not only predicted the coming civil war in the US over the issue of slavery thirty years before it actually happened, but also foretold the danger of American democracy causing the devolution of all aspects of culture to their lowest common denominator, through the combination of mob mentality and a materialistic middle class.The argument against:The main criticism of Democracy in America seems to be that it's simply not for everyone; far from the entertaining travelogue its title and origins suggest, these volumes are essentially more like textbooks, dry and obtuse most of the time and containing dozens upon dozens of pages of minutia concerning the wonky ins-and-outs of county-seat government services, the rules and hierarchies of municipal courts, &c. I mean, this is to be expected -- this is the entire reason the French government hired de Tocqueville to visit the US in the first place -- and without a doubt is important information that still continues to influence academes who study these subjects; but don't forget that we're defining "classic" here at the CCLaP 100 in terms of whether or not everyone should one day sit down and eventually read it, not just the professionals and historians who will benefit from it the most.My verdict:So let me admit, like so many of the pre-Victorian titles I've been reviewing for this essay series, I had a hard time simply getting through Democracy in America; because what its critics charge is definitely true, that this is much more like a schoolbook than an entertaining general-interest title, and as such contains entire chapters sometimes that come across more like census reports than something to sit down and read for pleasure from beginning to end. While that definitely makes it a must-read for anyone planning on entering a career in politics, economics or law, it also makes it a book more to be studied than enjoyed, and it seems pretty obvious to me that the actual reading of it is something that can be skipped by most people, in favor of reading a simple analysis which explains its most important insights in truncated form. It's a pretty cut-and-dried case as far as I'm concerned, which is kind of a shame for a book that still enjoys such a good reputation even 180 years after its original publication.Is it a classic? No(Don't forget that the first 33 essays in the "CCLaP 100" series are now available in book form!)

Lynn Beyrouthy

In the 1830s, the period during which this book was written, Europe was still straining under the social structures of The Old Regime (the Helvetian Confederation excluded) while a new democratic state had emerged, ever since its Declaration of Independence on July 4 1776, the United States of America, led by George Washington who seemed to be the modern American version of Solon or Pericles.Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and politician, fascinated by the democracy so easily established in America while his homeland still struggled to free itself from the manacles of social inequality, took advantage of a business trip to the United States with Gustave Beaumont for the purpose of studying the penitentiary system there while they truly intended to analyze the foundations of American society.Although not a panegyric of America as it would seem, this book exposes the pros and cons of the democratic system and the threat of the tyranny of the majority and provides an exhaustive study of republicanism, federalism, governmental and administrative decentralization and presidency in the United States. It also evokes the capital and indispensable role religion plays in politics while it is separated from political power. The importance of this oeuvre lies in its chilling prophecies. Tocqueville predicted more than a century earlier the rise of two giants on the global platform - America and Russia and thus heralded the development of the Cold War (1947-1991). He also broached the then-sensitive subject of slavery in America and alluded to the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865).


So damned important that I forced myself to read the whole thing. Important for the myths that it created about America as well as the truths it observes. Nothing necessarily radical or progressive here, but still hugely influential. Should be read because every asshole politician likes to cite it. The Penguin Classics version is the one you want because it is unabridged.

Claire S

Have heard about this forever, but was mentioned on TPM and it clicked: MUST READ NOW. Oh, and, this means both parts..


The evidence is mounting. I am a philistine.


This book is (of course) very dated now, but it gives the reader an excellent idea of how America came to be, and also shows how American "values" have not changed over time. Clearly Tocqueville is a bit enamored with the America that he sees, but he manages to do a thorough and not always positive review of what constitutes the country. Much of it is contrasting Americans of the time with the rest of the world. As an American, this is a valuable book to read for a better understanding of the beginnings of this country, and how the nation has improved itself since this was written.BEWARE: This is a very, very, very long book. Think of it more as a textbook than a simple nonfiction. You will not be able to read this book in ten "sittings." I recommend reading it in parallel with something lighter (or several lighter books over time). Or, focus on a part of the study that interests you, and read that part (as you might a textbook).

Brandon T.

De Tocqueville's opus was the first sociological account of the fledgling American culture, and was aimed in part at creating a road map for a Democratic government in France. The sheer impact it has had on the way the world views American society - and how we view ourselves - makes this a must-read.Democracy in America leaves no stone unturned. It systematically describes the governmental structure, from local to national. It weighs the effects of public education, freedom of the press, and extensive land availability on the attitudes and interactions of all levels of society. Despite being two centuries old, many of the observations hold significant relevance today.One of the most important themes to arise from de Tocqueville's analysis is that of what came to be known as associationalism: the ability of motivated groups to self-govern and fill societal needs that were, in Europe, handled by the state. This characterization of American culture was one which he touted as being one of our strongest attributes, and essential to the balance of power between the people and their rulers.There are, of course, biases and misperceptions in this account. Democracy in America does not pretend, however, to be the penultimate description. Rather, it's built as a template for further research - a purpose that it's served exceedingly well through its long lifetime.Pick this one up anywhere you can.

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