Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1413 words.)
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