Democracy in America

by Alexis de Tocqueville

If you want to understand the Constitution, you must first read it carefully. Next, read The Federalist Papers. Then read Democracy in America, because this captures the essence of the American political system more insightfully than any book other than The Federalist Papers. These two books complement each other: The Federalist Papers presents the workings of the Constitution as its authors intended it, and Democracy in America shows how it actually worked forty years later.

Tocqueville was a French aristocrat possessed of remarkable intellectual acuity. In 1831-1832, he and a companion traveled all over the United States on an official French government mission to learn about the American prison system, with an eye towards reforming the French system. But Tocqueville’s mind was far too penetrating to confine itself to prisons — he delved into every aspect of the American political system. It was important, he thought, to document its operation because America was at that time the only genuine democracy on the planet, and Europe was growing ever more restless under the aristocratic regimes of the day. Everybody knew that democracy would someday supplant the old governments, but there was considerable uncertainty as to whether democracy was truly practical in Europe.

Tocqueville’s status as a French government official on a fact-finding mission, combined with his natural charm and penetrating wit, opened doors all over the country. He spoke with President Jackson, several past and current Supreme Court justices, many Senators, Representatives, Governors, and other high officials. Americans were proud to explain their system to an eager-to-learn European. Standing a distance from the American government, but given access to its inner realms, Tocqueville was in an ideal position to assess its operation.

He didn’t just breeze from one posh meeting to another; he slogged through the backwoods of Kentucky, traveled on riverboats, took stagecoaches all over the country, and saw almost everything there was to see. On one occasion, struggling through backwoods Kentucky, he and his companion happened upon a pioneer family and spent the night sleeping with them on the dirt floor of their log cabin. All this gave Tocqueville great insight into the American people, and he was struck by the many differences between America and Europe. Herewith some revealing quotes from the book:

“It hardly needs mentioning that among a free people, like the Americans, every citizen has the right to bring charges against public officials to the attention of the ordinary judges, and every judge has the right to pronounce sentence upon public officials...”

“ a man, they [the Americans] assigned primary credit for the peaceful ascendancy of their country to the complete separation of church and state. I state without hesitation that during my stay in America I met no one — not a single clergyman or layman — who did not agree with this statement.”

“For fifty years the inhabitants of the United States have been told repeatedly that they constitute the only people that is religious, enlightened, and free. They see that democratic institutions in their country have prospered, while in the rest of the world they have thus far foundered. They therefore have a very high opinion of themselves, and they are not far from believing that they constitute a distinct species within the human race.”
[Not much has changed since then.]

“In a country like America, where specialization is so rare, it is impossible to require every person who embraces a profession to undergo a long period of apprenticeship. Americans therefore find it quite easy to change their situation, and they take advantage of this as the needs of the moment dictate. One meets people who have been in turn lawyers, farmers, merchants, ministers of the Gospel, and physicians.”
[Again, not much has changed.]

In democratic countries, where money, rather than bringing those who have it to power, often excludes them from it...
[Well, THAT has certainly changed!]

“In no country is criminal justice more benignly administered than in the United States... the Americans have virtually eliminated the death penalty from their codes.”
[Well, THAT has certainly changed!]

“It has often been observed that in Europe the flattery that men lavish on women conceals a certain contempt. Although the European male may frequently allow himself to be enslaved by women, he plainly never thinks of these women in a sincere way as his equals. In the United States, men seldom praise women but daily give evidence of the esteem in which they hold them.”

“All who seek to destroy liberty in a democratic nation should know that war offers them the surest and shortest route to success.”
[Can you say “Patriot Act”?]

All in all,
Democracy in America is a long and dense book. It is not light reading; I spread the reading of this tome over two years. Some of the chapters drag, and some of Tocqueville’s speculations were way off the mark, but the deep insights into the nature of society, government, and Americans are well worth the slog.