Democracy in America Summary

Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

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Democracy in America Summary

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Democracy in America, originally titled De La Democratie en Amerique, is a classic French political text published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840 by Alexis De Tocqueville, a prominent French diplomat and political scientist. De Tocqueville examines the rise of democracy in the relatively new country of the United States and discusses what he believes is a coming democratic revolution around the world. The genesis of the text began with an 1831 expedition in which de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. This turned into an elaborate examination of American society as a whole and its political, religious, and economic character. This nine-month visit led to both men writing extensively on the vastly different society that had emerged. De Tocqueville believed that the aristocracy was gradually disappearing, and as the modern world experienced democracy for the first time they would not turn back.

De Tocqueville begins Democracy in America by exploring the various factors that are leading to the development equality. This includes the democratization of the clergy, the growth of trade and commerce providing greater opportunity, monarchies raising money by selling titles of nobility, and the end of primogeniture, or the automatic inheritance of the eldest son of his parents’ estate. With these changes, De Tocqueville believed that this would necessitate the development of a new political science that would teach the public the foundations of democracy.

De Tocqueville believed that the foundation of American democracy began in its earliest days, with the Puritan founding. According to him, the Puritans established America’s natural state of equality. They were generally all equals in education and class, and as they formed their new settlements it was naturally devoid of the long-standing divisions of heredity and nobility that were common in Europe. De Tocqueville believed that the Puritans first established the principles of individual sovereignty in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which lay the roots for the principles that would lead to the American Revolution. These same principles let to the outcome of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although De Tocqueville praises the Constitution, he believes that it succeeds because of the natural mindset of the American people. He credits institutions such as township democracy; the family; and the natural tendency towards individualism for maintaining an orderly democracy.

While De Tocqueville praises American democracy, he also casts a critical eye on some of its institutions. The latter half of the book focuses on the status of American women. He states that in no other country has as much care been taken to create two distinct lines of action for the two sexes. They stay always separate, but always in pace with one another. De Tocqueville believes that the collapse of aristocracy has led to a natural decrease in patriarchal rule, where fathers arranged daughters’ marriages. While this gives single women additional freedom, it strengthens the ties of the marriage and reduces the independence of married women. De Tocqueville ultimately considers this a positive development, due to his belief at the time that women need the comforts of marriage. He considered the status of women at the time in the US the highest in the world.

Ultimately, De Tocqueville asks the question of why democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other states, including France during the revolution. He believes that the strong influence of religion in the United States, as well as its separation from the government, keeps the United States from descending into soft despotism. In France, by contrast, there was a natural antagonism between democrats and the religion, which led to the collapse of religious institutions during the revolution. De Tocqueville warns of the influence of social passions to lead to excesses and tyranny in democracies, and warns that social frustration increases as social conditions improve.

Alexis De Tocqueville was a prominent diplomat, political scientist, and historian. Best known for Democracy in America, as well as his second work, The Old Regime and the Revolution, where he explored the factors that led to the collapse of the French monarchy and the rise of the Reign of Terror. It serves as a counter-piece to Democracy in America, as it explores where democracy in France failed while it succeeded in the United States. However, he was perhaps most significant for his role in French politics. He was involved in the July Monarchy and the Second Republic. He retired from politics after Napoleon III’s coup in 1851, and turned to writing full-time. Although he was a classical liberal who advocated parliamentary government, he remained skeptical of the extremes of democracy despite his positive experiences in the United States. His work discussing the nature of colonialism in France’s conflict with Algeria is still seen as one of the earliest examples of anti-colonialist thought, in its advocacy for humanity in colonialist endeavors. His work is still widely read and discussed by political theorists today, and Democracy in America is regularly taught in colleges.