Monthly Book Recommendation: February 2019

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

(audiobook link available here)

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, is a book of two parts written in 1835 and 1840. Together, they evaluate the (then-young) American Democracy and theorize that it has been in the creation for hundreds of years prior to the American revolution.

In 1831, the French government commissioned Tocqueville to travel to the United States to study the American prison system. Apart from traveling to various prisons across the States, he interacted with many other aspects of society, viewing people in various economic standings, political viewpoints, and religion.

Tocqueville’s conclusion on the creation of democracy in the United States was that the organic freedom and capitalism within the states created fertile grounds for democracy to flourish.

Tocqueville credits that to the Puritan and protestant immigrants who saw common equality amongst themselves. This common religious ideology, mixed with political liberty, created a society built on inherit equality.

He also theorized that since the citizens are responsible for creating laws, and have checks and balances to stop tyranny, the chances of tyranny were far less than European countries. In his words describing how society keeps itself from becoming corrupted,

“In whatever manner you apply the jury, it cannot fail to exercise a great influence on the national character, but this influence increases infinitely the more you introduce it into civil matters. The jury, and above all the civil jury, serves to give the mind of all citizens a part of the habits of mind of the judge; and these habits are precisely those that best prepare the people to be free. It spreads in all classes respect for the thing judged and for the idea of right. Remove these two things, and the love of independence will be nothing but a destructive passion.”

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. London England: Penguin Books, 2003.

This reasoning justifies the American revolution, as American thought had been organically created hundreds of years prior. Although there was the threat of the rule of the majority in America, the evolution of checks and balances provided for a government much more stable than that of any European country.

Capitalism and its use in America was a central argument for Tocqueville’s conception of America’s government and societal system. Tocqueville argues that the American democratic beliefs stem from capitalism. If an individual is handy and can create something or perform a service, they will not only make themselves successful but the rest of society successful as well. This results not in the equality of outcomes, but the equality of opportunity.

According to Tocqueville, Even when inequality is present, capitalism eventually becomes the causation of change. That’s why Tocqueville argued that slavery wouldn’t in the States. He predicted that capitalism and advances in technology would make it unprofitable for Southern states to continue the abhorrent practice.

The topic of women’s role in society is also talked about in Democracy in America. Unlike the portrayal of conditions for women prior to women’s suffrage movements by most historians, Tocqueville describes that women are just as important as men, just in different ways.

Tocqueville assumes that every individual has an obligation to benefit society. In that vein, women create the morals in society along with religion, while men practice these morals and put them to use. Without the roles of women, the roles of men are useless and often lacking in honor. Conversely, Tocqueville says, without the roles of a husband, women are unable to fulfill their goal in society, which is to produce successful children. Democracy in America is a pivotal work of Western Canon. Tocqueville’s insights to American society helped shape government style, specifically in the Anglosphere, to mimic the thought of American liberties. Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of the unique American experiment with capitalism and democracy held out that these ideas of governance along with natural law are strong fundamentals for a government supporting rule of law, a just society and equality of opportunity.