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


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.

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.

The Chestertonian (Sarah G)

Five reasons you really might want to consider reading Democracy in America:1. You were assigned it for a political theory class. Yes, in this circumstance, I would definitely recommend reading it. This should not need elaboration. 2. You just love beautiful writing. Congratulations. The introduction alone will be a literary feast worth the price of the book. (Note that this might vary by translation; mine is the Mansfield and Winthrop translation.)3. You feel unlearned, inferior, left out, and Left Behind because everybody talks about what an amazing book it is, and you've never read it. Well, you haven't exactly missed the Apocalypse, but you're definitely missing something. Not the most noble reason in the world, but read it. 4. You want to understand the roots of American culture/society/institutions a bit better than you currently do, and you want to see their significance in a broader context. Perhaps you want to think a little outside the box of modern American politics. You'll be getting more than you bargain for, but go ahead and read it.5. You want to have your thoughts turned in directions you never imagined, you want to reexamine things you thought plain, you want to have something very deep inside of you stirred and torn in different directions, and you want to be terrified by freedom and love it more than you ever did before. In fact, you want to look on things very near the center of human existence, and find in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke: "You must change your life." If you are open to it, all of that might happen to you, but somewhere along the way, it will cease to be about "you." It's just that kind of book.


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).


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

Natalie Wickham

One of the most widely quoted books on the topic of American history and society, Tocqueville’s book truly is a masterpiece. Not only is it insightful, it is also a literary gem. I found myself captivated by the author’s eloquent and vivid presentation of the subject matter from the first sentence of the introductory chapter. And in addition to learning a great deal about the early years of our nation, I was equally inspired to further develop my own writing as an art form.The work is far too vast to do it justice in a brief review, so suffice it to say that I found much of it to be as pertinent to our present state of affairs as it was when it was written in the early 1800s. This was quite eye-opening and certainly broadened my understanding of some of our current issues and crises. Tocqueville draws stark contrasts between aristocratic and democratic forms of government, in particular, and gives his thorough analysis of the benefits and dangers of each. Truly a fascinating read that would be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in American history and government.

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).


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.

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.


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.


Even for the modern reader, de Tocqueville’s message is germane and enlightening, and at times feels prophetic. Though one may not agree with every facet, his arguments are consistent and fair glimpses of his perspective of the unique American culture (I say “American” instead of United Statesian - not because I don’t understand the vast topography of the Americas, and that the United States is but a portion of the Americas – but because Statesian isn’t a word. I choose culture instead of democracy, because we all know we’re a Democratic Republic. Right? Good.) I loved the clarity of his discourse, and found it flowed gracefully.There were many quotes which stuck out for me, including:"The settlers … possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time … Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation or to increase their wealth; it was a purely intellectual craving that called them from the comforts of their former homes; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile their object was the triumph of an idea."and "Centralization easily succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue and forget the deity it represents."But my greatest delight was Chapter XI, "Of The Spirit In Which The Americans Cultivate The Arts." If I could, I would have included the entire section in this review. I thought de Tocqueville’s observations regarding the creation of arts and the ethos of New World artisans most fascinating!"Democratic nations… will therefore cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.""When, on the contrary, every profession is open to all—when a multitude of persons are constantly embracing and abandoning it—and when its several members are strangers to each other, indifferent, and from their numbers hardly seen amongst themselves; the social tie is destroyed, and each workman, standing alone, endeavors simply to gain the greatest possible quantity of money at the least possible cost. The will of the customer is then his only limit.""… In democracies there are always a multitude of individuals whose wants are above their means, and who are very willing to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires.""When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones: few are now made which are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with greater rapidity a quantity of imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.""When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a considerable number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were built after the models of ancient architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely one which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind."By no means is this difficult or dry reading. For the student of political science, it is a must.


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.)

Alan Marchant

Exploring the New World ...... of Sociology.I had expected that deTocqueville's classic would be a study of political technique, like an expanded version of The Prince or The Art Of War. Instead Democracy in America (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) is an original and powerful exploration of Sociology (generations before Max Weber).deTocqueville draws on his experiences touring the United States in 1830 to make observations and speculations about the influence of social ideals (especially equality and liberty) on all sorts of human institutions and behaviors: religion, culture, industry, government, war, education, culture, etc. Along the way, he paints a comprehensive picture of life in America and Europe in the early 19th century.The theme of the book is that the U.S. experiment with Democracy has many (positive and negative) lessons for Europe. deTocqueville's ideas are not always convincing or consistent. But they are always clearly presented and frequently provocative. So the book is valuable both as history and social science.A secondary theme, not well enough appreciated in our day, is the inherent tension between equality and freedom. The book's global relevance is proven by its final paragraph:"The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst. But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness."

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.


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.

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