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.

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."


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!


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.


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


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.

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

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!)

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.

Frank O'donnell

A comprehensive analysis of the American legal and political systems. The first volume surveys the organisation of government, and makes two particularly interesting claims. The first is that vigorous local 'township' democracy serves as the wellspring and guardian of the health of democracy more generally, which remains true today. The second is Tocqueville's fear of democracy empowering a 'tyranny of the majority', with this majority so powerful in his view as to lead him to even state that 'there is no freedom of opinion' in the United States as a result. The constitution protects against majoritarianism trampling all before it, by enabling citizens to appeal to it to protect rights against the majoritarianism of the day. Tyranny of the majority is a real problem, but is therefore much more threatening for states without a written constitution. The second volume attempts a much more ambitious sociological analysis of the United States, but one which crudely reduces all society to flowing from the organising principle of the equality of man. This leads to numerous faulty conjectures based upon this simplistic theory, e.g. America will not produce great literature as complex thoughts and communication will not be readily understood by the entire populace, and histories written in America will favour systemic explanations as the equality of man precludes emphasising the influence of specific individuals in shaping history. The first volume is therefore by far the stronger.

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).

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.

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.

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.


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.

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