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

Brian

De Tocqueville was Nostradamus with regards to his predictions for America to date. He foresaw the rise of America as a world leader economically, militarily, and culturally. He saw that the greatness of America was not due to our superior class of citizens, but rather that the average American citizen was empowered to take action to improve conditions for himself, his family, and his community and did not rely on decisions to be made for him by a distant authority. The American citizen was empowered by liberty and actively participated in self-government. He also foresaw the inevitable decline of America due in part to some of the same things that made us great: that is our equality and pursuit of our own self-interests. Democracy in America is a well-written account of our country within 50 years of it's founding. More than a "history" book, this a living, breathing, documentation of things as they were at this time and De Tocqueville does a masterful job of pulling you into that time. Read this book to get a feel for how our country was intended to operate. Rediscover that by becoming personally involved in the civic life of your community, state, and country, your best interests are served and you can ensure we maintain our equality and liberty. Get involved!

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.

Jeremy

My biggest reservation about this is that Tocqueville seems to be using such broad strokes. Even in the middle of the 1800's I find it hard to believe that there is a definitive American character which you can just codify and examine at will. That being said, he does make some really smart observations about the problems of individualism versus collective action and how Americans tend not to really examine the sorts of hypocrisies which both of these kinds of action and belief entail. I think it's important to keep in mind that while some of these themes definitely creep up today, often in really sinister ways, it's important to remember that the America he's writing about isn't a place that most of us would recognize as being 'ours' if we were suddenly placed down in it.

Rachel

My father always described this book as the most quoted least read book. It's true that during election seasons, candidate speeches are peppered with phrases from DIA. But the book's value is that at the birth of our nation, a Frenchman recognized the sanctity and greatness of the democratic dream, but also the hypocrisy and err with which we practice.This is not a book to sit and read one weekend. It's a book I've been picking up and flipping through for a decade. I've re-read the beginning probably a dozen times, and always find something new to think about.The author himself seemed wary and sometimes confused about the country's direction. It seems there were issues, like free speech for the masses, that he didn't disagree with outright, he just couldn't imagine all of it working. Instead of adopting or disputing Tocqueville's opinions, an interested reader may find themselves contemplating government, freedom and equality with increasing depth and passion.

Richard

Have to eventually read this, of course.Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […]  The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea.— [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage. Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country.

Maureen

Did you have to read this book for Political Science 101? I did, and I still have my copy of it. In this election year, it would be worth taking a look at this book again. It seems to me that, particularly in the past eight years, we have strayed off the path of the ideals that this book represents. Anyone interested in democracy, equality, and the role of the military in government should own a copy of this book. Make sure it is the unabridged one.

Jason Pettus

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. 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!)

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.

Karey

Update: My brother just told me that Kurt Vonnegut says that anyone who hasn't read Democracy in America is a wimp. So I guess that makes me almost not a wimp. Well! Post from a few weeks ago: I've been wanting to read de Toqueville's, Democracy in America for some time, and I've finally bit the bullet. The translation is beautifully done. De Toqueville's sentiments are eloquent and thought provoking. Wonderful. How's that for summer reading! Part of me wishes we still talked like pilgrims.

Teguh Puja

Alexis de Tocqueville was great. The comments that he made while he was writing all the thesis he had about the practice of Democracy in America. Through the book, you'll be able to see what actually made America as big as today. There are a lot of good explanation that I can quote and I can get from the book. “The town is the first element of the societies out of which peoples take form; it is the social molecule; if I can express myself in this way, it is the embryo that already represents and contains the seed of the complete being.” - p. 100“Without town institutions, a nation can pretend to have a free government, but it does not possess the spirit of liberty.” – p. 102“The town institutions of New England were the first to reach a state of maturity. They present a complete and uniform whole. They serve as a model for the other parts of the Union and tend more and more to become the standard to which all the rest must sooner or later conform.” – p. 103“In the town as everywhere else, the people are the source of social powers, but nowhere else do they exercise their power more directly. In America, the people are a master who has to be pleased to the greatest possible degree.” - p. 104“The largest part of administrative powers is concentrated, however, in the hands of a small number of individuals elected annually who are called selectmen.” – p. 105“The selectmen are elected annually in the month of April or May. At the same time the town meeting chooses a host of other town magistrates, appointed for certain important administrative tasks..” – p. 106To understand the idea of Democracy in America, it's a must for you to read this.

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).

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.

Jake

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.

Mike (the Paladin)

I'm going with 4 stars here, it isn't always the easiest book to read, but worth it. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, a lot of insight. While history hasn't borne out all his predictions, there have been enough. Sadly also, it looks as though more of the things he said may still prove to be true. In today's atmosphere, the thoughts here compared to the reality we live in and that "may" be coming to pass....well, it's worth some thought. When America broke away from the "branch" so to speak it was a new thing in the world. No colony had ever done what was done here and it was an idealistic experiment even a dream that was watched by the world. Europe was...somewhat worried and England in particular was very unhappy about the implications. Had the War of 1812 gone differently on this side of the Atlantic we all still might be drinking tea more than coffee as it could have changed everything. But when you say "the War of 1812" in Europe their minds go to battles and events other than here in North America. They think of the Napoleonic war. But back to the subject. The American Revolution raised questions worldwide and things began to percolate. In France things boiled over not long after they did here. It's notable that many in the academic community are far more enamored with the French Revolution than with the American. You see it was "supposed to be" a "rational Revolution" it was a Godless revolution with all the clergy and God Himself rejected by the leaders and much of the movement (the clergy was seen as close to the royals you see). Unfortunately the French Revolution spun out of control into a rein of terror and then into a military dictatorship. In the wake of all this a young man (Alexis de Tocqueville) spent 9 months touring the "new" United States and when he returned to France he wrote this book commenting on the social and governmental "situation" and implications. He was torn between hopeful and...well, not so hopeful. So I recommend the book. It's interesting, thought provoking and somewhat sobering. I leave you with one quote from said book:“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.” ― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America Think about it.

Camille

De Tocqueville pretty much sums up why I love America and our Constitution so much!

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