Study Guide

Democracy in America

by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America Summary


Since its publication in 1835 and 1840, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA has been noted for its insightful portrayal of the American character and democratic institutions. Initially, the French government commissioned de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to study the penitentiary system in the United States, but in their travels from the cities to the frontier throughout the young country, the two men kept detailed journals as they attempted objective observation of all phases of American life.

De Tocqueville wrote DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA over a period of several years after his return to France and published the first pair of volumes in 1835. The work received immediate recognition as a significant study of social changes brought about by political freedom and equality. The scope of the work was much broader than originally projected and prophetic in many ways, one of which was prediction of the inevitable struggle to end slavery.

The first volumes focus on the evolution of the political order from aristocratic to democratic. De Tocqueville had to modify some of his original assumptions, one being that geographic isolation allowed the new country to thrive. He later attributed its prosperity to freedom of political institutions and equality of individuals.

Although complementary to the first part, the 1840 pair of volumes focuses more on the effects of democracy. De Tocqueville foresaw possible abuses of power, the greatest of which he considered to be tyranny...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Democracy in America Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alexis de Tocqueville lived in a time of enormous political change, when every conceivable variety of political theory flourished. He was born shortly after the French Revolution had turned France into the empire; in his lifetime occurred those further changes that transformed France, at least nominally, into a republic. His object in writing Democracy in America was twofold: to write about the new nation that he so much admired and to establish a new way of examining ideas of politics. Instead of proceeding from ideas of right and responsibility, Tocqueville preferred to begin by analyzing social institutions as they functioned in reality. Instead of working, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had worked, from an arbitrary picture of the beginnings of humanity in a natural condition, Tocqueville preferred to work from what was statistically observable. Thus, Democracy in America begins with a picture of the geography of the new continent, its weather, its indigenous tribes, its economy, and its natural resources. In this respect, Democracy in America is the forerunner of the scientific spirit in the investigation of social structures.

Much of Democracy in America is concerned with institutions, and the first institution described by Tocqueville is that of the partition of property. He points out that it is customary in the nations of Europe to divide property by the laws of primogeniture. The result is that property remains fixed in extent and in possession; the family, no matter how changed in each generation, is linked to the wealth and political power of landed property. The family represents the estate, the estate the family, and naturally a strong inequality is carried from one generation to another. The foundations of American culture are to be found, Tocqueville points out, in the equal partition of land and fortune. Land is continually broken up into parcels, sold, developed, and transformed. The accompanying wealth and power are much more fluid than in societies in which descent really dominates fortune. The subsidiary effect of equal partition is that people have access to careers from which they might be blocked in another system.

Tocqueville was fascinated by the practice of equality, a phenomenon rarely encountered in France during his lifetime. Several chapters concern political equality; he is one of the first great commentators on the democracy of U.S. townships and corporations in the early nineteenth century. He emphasizes that it is fundamental to understand the nature of the township, particularly in its New England tradition. The key to the nature of the United States, he asserts, is the wide and responsible nature of freedom at the level of municipal government. This gives the citizen a direct voice in the government and trains the citizen for the representative democracy of the federal government. Tocqueville points out that, under this form of government, power is concentrated in the hands of the voter; the legislative and executive branches have no power of their own, but merely represent those who appoint them. To us, this fact is commonplace, but it was a new idea for the citizens of Europe in the nineteenth century.

Although much of this work is in praise of democracy in the United States, Tocqueville makes some important qualifications. His first principle is that abuse in government occurs when one special interest is served to the exclusion of all others. This kind of...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)