21. Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
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21. Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

October 12, 2019


Professor Steven Smith:
I want to begin by talking a little about what is the
question or what is the problem to which this immense book of
which you’re reading, I don’t know,
a couple of hundred pages maximum–What is the problem
with which this huge book is concerned?
It’s always an important question to ask when you begin a
new book. What question is the author
trying to ask or what problem is he trying to deal with?
Let me try to set up Tocqueville’s problem in the
following way. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, the ideas of freedom and
equality seemed to walk confidently hand in hand.
Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, who we’ve been
reading, all believed that in the state of nature,
remember, we were all born free and equal.
As long as the enemy appeared to be the entrenched hierarchies
of power and privilege of the old regime,
of the old monarchical societies, freedom and equality
were taken to be mutually reinforcing aspects of the
emerging democratic order. But it was not until the
beginning of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of
the democracies or proto-democracies of Europe and
the new world, that political philosophers,
political thinkers began to wonder whether freedom and
equality did not in fact pull in different directions.
Tocqueville in particular, although you could add the
names like Benjamin Constant or John Stuart Mill,
but Tocqueville in particular saw the new democratic societies
as creating new forms of social power,
new types of rule that represented, in some ways,
organized threats to human liberty.
What were these new forms of social power?
These were, for Tocqueville, the new middle class or what we
might call bourgeois democracies,
the new middle class democracies emerging in
countries like France, England and of course the
United States. And the problem for Tocqueville
or his question, as it was for Locke and others
before him, was how to mitigate the effects of political power.
How does one control or mitigate for political power?
Yes? Right?
You can see that. Locke’s answer,
you recall, to this problem was to divide and separate the
powers, separated powers,
a theme clearly taken up and endorsed by the American
constitutional framers. But Tocqueville was less
certain that this kind of institutional device,
so to speak, of checks and balances or
separated powers, could be an effective or truly
effective check in a democratic age where you might say the
people as a whole had become king.
He was less certain that institutional remedies alone
could work. While 75 years before
Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America,
Rousseau had taken up the doctrine of popular sovereignty
to be an ideal to be worked for, taking men as they are and laws
as they might be. He looked to the doctrine of
popular sovereignty as something that could be.
But Tocqueville, again writing approximately 75
years after Rousseau, saw this doctrine,
this doctrine of popular sovereignty that,
for mid eighteenth-century Frenchmen had looked like a far
flung utopian ideal, for Tocqueville this ideal had
become an altogether political reality that had taken shape in
the backwoods of Jacksonian America.
Consider just the following passage from the
Democracy. “In the United States,”
Tocqueville writes, “the dogma,” he says,
he calls it the dogma, “of the sovereignty of the
people is not an isolated doctrine that is joined neither
to habits nor to the sum of dominant ideas.
On the contrary,” he says, “one can view it as the last
link in a chain of opinions that envelops the Anglo American
world as a whole.” And he goes on to say that
extended to the entirety of the nation it becomes,
it, this opinion, becomes the dogma of the
sovereignty of the people. So here you have Tocqueville’s
view that this Rousseauian concept of popular sovereignty
has become an existent reality. And for Tocqueville,
there was no reason to believe that the new democratic states
emerging, again, in America and in
Europe, these new democratic states, ruled by the
people–there was no reason to believe that they will be more
just or less arbitrary than any other previous kind of regime.
For Tocqueville no one, no person or body of persons,
can be safely entrusted with political power and the united
power of the people, the united sovereignty of the
people, is no more for him a reliable guarantor of freedom
than any other kind of regime. So the problem of politics,
you might say, in age of democracy,
is the problem of how to control the sovereignty of the
people. For Rousseau,
you remember, that was never really seriously
a problem. The general will,
he says, cannot err, the people when they are ruling
in their collective capacities cannot be wrong but Tocqueville
was less certain about this, whether or not the people,
in their collective capacity as sovereign, are an infallible
guide. The question is,
what can be done about that? In aristocratic ages,
you might say, the answer was simple.
Tocqueville believed that in aristocratic times there were
always countervailing centers of power.
Kings, no matter how powerful, always had to contend with
fractious and warlike nobilities but,
again, who or what can exercise that countervailing power in a
world where the people in their collective capacity have,
to repeat, become the king? Who or what has the power to
check the popular will or the general will?
This is the problem, how to check democratic power.
This is the problem that Tocqueville’s new political
science, what he boasts in the introduction to the book,
is a new political science for a world itself quite new.
This is the problem that he sets out to answer.
And to this extent I would also say we, are all Tocqueville’s
children. We are all disciples of
Tocqueville insofar as our political science continues to
deal with the problem of the guidance and control of
democratic government, how to, you might say,
combine popular government with political wisdom.
How to do that remains a problem, you might say,
akin to squaring the circle but it remains the fundamental
problem for democracies, how to combine popular rule
with political wisdom. That was really what
Tocqueville was concerned about. But before going on,
let me ask, who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
Let me tell you something about him.
Tocqueville was born in 1805 into a Norman family from the
north of France, from Normandy,
with an ancient lineage. The Tocqueville estate still
stands today and is owned still in the hands of members of the
Tocqueville family. I know because I visited it a
couple of summers ago and met his heirs although they are not
actually the heirs of him directly.
Tocqueville and his wife had no children.
They belonged to one of the brothers’ side of the family but
absolutely charming people, exactly what you’d think French
aristocrats would be like, all charm and grace,
wonderful hosts. And Tocqueville was deeply
attached to his ancestral home. In a letter from 1828,
one of my favorite Tocqueville letters, he wrote to a friend,
“Here I am,” after returning from a trip abroad,
a trip away, “Here I am, finally at
Tocqueville,” referring to the home simply by
the family name. “I am finally at Tocqueville in
my family’s old, broken down ruin.
At a league’s distance I can see the harbor where William the
Conqueror set sail for England. I am surrounded by Normans
whose names figure among the conquerors.
All of this I have to confess tickles my heart.” So he comes from a line of
people who trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest and
have been in that part of France for centuries.
In fact, the Tocqueville home is a short drive away from the
Normandy beach where the big D Day invasion took place during
World War II. It’s a miracle that the home
still survives. Tocqueville’s parents had been
arrested during the French Revolution and were held in
prison for almost a year and only the fall of Robespierre in
1794 saved them from execution. The young Tocqueville was born
under the Napoleonic dynasty and spent his formative years,
his adolescence and his school years, under the most
conservative, if not to say reactionary,
circles of post revolutionary France.
Tocqueville studied law in Paris and during this time he
made the acquaintance and friendship of another young
aristocrat by the name of Gustave de Beaumont.
And in 1830, for reasons that are not
altogether clear, when he was 25 or so,
in 1830, the two men received a commission from the new
government of Louis Philippe, King Louis Philippe,
to go to the United States to study the prison system there.
The trip to the U.S. was occasioned by a grant you,
might say, a fellowship, to study the American prison
system. Tocqueville’s journey to
America, which has been extensively documented,
lasted for just under a year from May 1831 to February 1832,
and during that time he traveled as far north as New
England, south to New Orleans. Yes, he was in New Orleans and
went to the outer banks of Lake Michigan.
The result of this visit was of course the two large volumes
that he called Democracy in America, Democratie en
Amerique. The first volume appeared five
years, four years or so after his trip, in 1835 when its
author was only 30 years old. The second volume appeared five
years later in 1840 and both of those volumes are contained
within the single volume that you have.
Tocqueville’s trip has been much studied and much admired.
Even just in very recent times, a French philosopher,
by the name of Bernard Henri Levy,
came over, didn’t exactly follow Tocqueville’s journey but
traveled throughout America, a kind of Frenchman’s guide,
a sort of Borat’s America almost, going to Las Vegas and
evangelical churches and all of this stuff,
and wrote a very interesting book called American
Vertigo. The most charitable thing I can
remark is that he was no Tocqueville but,
leaving that aside, it was an admirable effort. Democracy in America,
to put it simply, is the most important work
about democracy that you will ever read. To compound the irony,
the most famous book on American democracy was written
by a French aristocrat who might have been deeply foreign,
if not hostile to the manners, customs, habits of a democratic
society. And from the time of its first
publication in 1835, the book was hailed as a
masterpiece. John Stuart Mill called the
book a masterpiece that has at once, he says,
taken its rank among the most remarkable productions of our
time. Tocqueville has come to take
his side, his place alongside of Washington, Jefferson and
Madison almost as if he were an honorary American.
And, as if this were not enough, a recent translation of
the book was recently inducted into the prestigious Library of
America series which seems to put the stamp of naturalization
on a book written in French for Frenchmen and yet it is part of
the prestigious Library of America.
As Tocqueville might have said, go figure.
I don’t know how to say that in French actually.
But there is a textbook image of Tocqueville according to
which he came to America as a kind of blank slate and the
experience of American democracy had a profoundly transformative
influence over the young aristocrat.
But nothing I would suggest to you could be further from the
truth. In a letter to his best friend,
a man named Louis de Kergolay, whose home, whose estate is
actually directly next door to the Tocqueville estate–In a
letter to Tocqueville written just before the publication of
the first volume of the Democracy in 1835,
Tocqueville describes his purpose in writing his book in
these terms. Let me read from his letter.
Tocqueville writes, “It is not without having
carefully reflected that I decided to write the book I am
just now publishing. I do not hide from myself what
is annoying in my position. It is bound to attract active
sympathy from no one. Some will find that at bottom I
do not like democracy and am severe toward it but others will
think I favor its development immoderately.
It would be most fortunate for me if the book were not read and
that is a piece of good fortune that may perhaps soon come to
pass. I know all that but here is my
response. Nearly 10 years ago,
I was already thinking about part of the things that I have
just now set forth. I was in America only to become
clear on this point. The penitentiary system was a
pretext.” So two points,
I think, bear comment about this remarkable statement of his
purpose to his friend Kergolay. First is that Tocqueville
indicates that his idea for the book had already,
as he says, begun to germinate five years before his trip to
America. He says the penitentiary
system, the penitentiary project for which he was sent over,
was only a pretext, he said.
He already had begun to speculate on these things,
he says, 10 years before his trip.
Now, if you do the math, when you consider that he was
30 years old in 1835 when the book’s first volume was
published and he said he was speculating on these things
already 10 years before, it would seem that the germ of
the idea for the book, the germ idea,
the germ cell for the book, had occurred to Tocqueville
when he was only 20 years old, that is to say about the age
that most of you are here. And he went to America only to
confirm what he had begun to suspect when he was at the age
of a contemporary undergraduate. Think of that.
Get your idea now. Get it quickly.
Then maybe you can write a famous book by the time you are
30. I have to tell you it is way,
way beyond that stage for me. Hobbes, however,
did not write his masterpiece until he was 63 so there’s still
hope for some of us. Nevertheless,
the second point I would make about that letter is that it is
also clear that Tocqueville was writing his book not for the
benefit of Americans, who you will discover he
thought had little taste for philosophy, but for Frenchmen.
In particular, he was hoping to persuade his
fellow countrymen, who were still devoted to the
restoration of the monarchy, that the democratic social
revolution that he had witnessed in America represented also the
future of France. If John Locke had said in his
Second Treatise, when Locke had said “in the
beginning all the world was America,”
Tocqueville’s point appears to be in the future all of the
world will be America. His attitude towards what he
saw or what we would perhaps call today Americanization,
democratization–his attitude towards this was one of
skepticism mixed with fear. “I confess,” he writes,
“that in America I saw more than America.
I sought there an image of democracy itself or its
penchants, its characters, its prejudices,
its passions. I wanted to become acquainted
with it if only to know at least what we ought to hope or fear
from it.” And that sentence is so typical
of Tocqueville, the way he piles on the
descriptive labels, “its penchants,
its character, its prejudices,
its passions.” So there are embedded in that
two questions, two you might say subordinate
clauses or two sub questions that Tocqueville set out to
answer. The first concerns the gradual
replacement of the ancien régime, that is to say,
the French term for the old, aristocratic order based on
privileges, hierarchy, deference and inequality,
with a new democratic society based on equality.
How did this happen and what brought it about,
this immense social and political transformation from
the old regime, from an age of inequality to an
increasing age of equality, a huge example of what we might
call today regime change or regime transformation?
And the second–How did that happen?
And the second not perhaps explicitly asked question,
but nevertheless a question on virtually every page of
Tocqueville’s book, concerns the difference between
the form democracy has taken in America and the form it took in
France during their revolutionary period.
Why, Tocqueville asks, has American democracy been
relatively gentle or mild? Those are two characteristic
Tocquevillian terms. Why has American democracy been
what we might call today a liberal democracy and why did
democracy in France veer dangerously close towards terror
and despotism during its revolution?
That was the second question Tocqueville set out to answer.
Tocqueville believed it to be virtually a providential fact of
history that societies were becoming increasingly
democratic, increasingly egalitarian,
we might say. What is not certain,
you could say, is what form democracy will
take. Whether democracy will be
compatible with liberty or whether it will issue into a new
kind of despotism remains a question that only the statesmen
of the future will be able to answer.
And from these two questions, “how did this transformation
occur” and “what form will democracy take in the future,”
from these two questions, we can see that Tocqueville
wrote his book as a political educator,
that Tocqueville takes his place along with people like
Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli,
and the others as a great political educator.
He was more than a mere chronicler of American manners
and customs but rather was an educator of future European
statesmen hoping to steer their countries between the shoals of
revolution and reaction. How did Tocqueville attempt to
accomplish this? Let me try to talk for a moment
about what he hoped to teach because you have to admire the
book and have to understand it as an immense handbook,
almost as it were of the education of a democratic
statesman, slightly larger than Machiavelli’s Prince
perhaps but nevertheless a handbook for state craft
nonetheless. What did he hope to teach? Near the end of the
introduction, and I pay special attention to
that fascinating introduction to the book–I don’t mean the
translator’s introduction. I mean Tocqueville’s own
introduction. Near the end of the
introduction, he writes the following
sentence. “I think those who want to
regard it, namely his book, who want to regard it closely
will find in the entire work a mother thought that,
so to speak, links all the parts,
a mother thought. His word, term is an idée
mere, a mother idea. What is this mother idea or
mother thought to which he refers there?
And the most likely candidate for its central idea is the idea
of equality. The opening sentence of the
book reads: “Among the new objects that attracted my
attention during my stay in the United States,
none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions.
The equality of conditions. What does he mean by that
phrase? What is meant by “equality”
here? Note, in the first instance,
that Tocqueville speaks of equality as a social condition,
an equality of conditions, not a form of government per
se. This is in part an expression
of what you might think of as Tocqueville’s sociological
imagination. Equality of conditions precedes
democratic government. Equality of conditions,
you might say, is the cause from which
democratic governments arise. Equality of conditions were
planted both in Europe and in America long before democratic
governments arose in either place.
Democratic governments are only as old–at least in France and
America, democratic governments are only as old as the American
or French revolutions but equality of conditions had been
prepared by deep rooted historical processes that began
long before the dawn of the modern age.
So equality of conditions refers to a social fact,
not a form of government, and which precede democratic
government by long periods of time.
And in the introduction to his book, again, Tocqueville gives a
brief, I would say very brief, history of equality,
taking it as far back to the heart of the medieval world,
some 700 years he says. Unlike Hobbes or Rousseau,
he does not invoke a state of nature as a way of grounding
equality. In fact, for Tocqueville what
Hobbes and Rousseau believed that we are by nature free and
equal and only over time they believed were social hierarchies
and inequalities introduced, Tocqueville argues exactly the
opposite point of view. The historical process,
so to speak, has been moving away from
inequality and towards greater and greater equality of social
conditions. The historical process,
at least as Tocqueville traces it out here, has been a process
of gradual equalization of social conditions.
His equality is something like an historical force,
something that has been working itself out in history over a
vast stretch of time, and he often writes as if
equality is not just one fact among others but is what he
calls a generative fact from which everything else derives.
“As I studied America more and more,” he writes,
“I saw in the equality of conditions the generative fact
from which each particular fact seems to issue,”
he says in the second paragraph of his introduction,
“the generative fact from which each particular fact seemed to
issue.” Tocqueville writes here about
equality as an historical fact that has come to acquire an
almost providential force over time.
And he uses this term “providence” here several times
throughout the introduction. He uses that term not so much
to describe God, as one might think,
but rather to describe a sort of universal historical process
that is working itself out, so to speak,
even against the intentions of individual social and political
actors. The gradual spread of the
conditions of equality, he believes,
has two characters or two characteristics of providence.
It is universal, he says, and it always escapes
the power of the individual to control.
If Machiavelli believed we can control fortuna,
we can control providence or chance half the time,
Tocqueville seems to believe that the process of equality
always escapes the powers of human control.
It is the very power of equality that makes it seem to
be an irresistible force. Rather than the product of the
modern age alone, again, Tocqueville shows how
the steady emergence of equality of conditions has been the
central dynamic of European history over several hundreds of
years. He frames the book within you
might say a very large-scale sort of philosophy of history in
which democracy, equality, and the gradual
equalization of social conditions are the sort of
central motifs. So it is in order to understand
that process that Tocqueville turns to America of the 1830s.
“There is only one country in the world,” he says,
“where the great social revolution I am speaking of
seems nearly to have attained its natural limits,”
one country where this social revolution, the democratic
transformations from the old aristocratic order to the new
democratic age, seems to have reached its
natural limits, and that country is of course
the United States. In this context,
I think, it is very revealing that he chose to call his book
Democracy in America and not simply American democracy.
Think about that choice of title for a moment.
His point, I take it, is that it’s not that democracy
is a peculiarly American phenomenon, far from it.
His point is, when he’s describing democracy
in America, here is the form that the democratic revolution
has taken in America. What form it will take
elsewhere or it may take elsewhere is by no means
predetermined. Democracy is not a settled or
fixed condition. It is something more like a
process and when we think of the way we speak today when we talk
about democratization, the process of democratization,
you can see that democracy seems to be less a settled or
fixed or determinate kind of regime than a kind of process.
It has the quality that Rousseau referred to in the
Second Discourse as perfectibilité,
perfectibility, that is to say an almost
infinite elasticity and openness to change.
Again, it is less a determinate political or social order than a
continual work in progress and that is the way Tocqueville
looks at America, in some ways,
or looks at the future of democracy when he says,
“I look at the place where it seems to have attained its
natural limit” but what form it may take elsewhere is by no
means to say that the form it takes in America is the form it
will take anywhere else.” Democracy is the regime that
seems to be almost infinitely elastic in terms of its
possibilities and this I think is a profound and astute
observation about the nature of democratic government.
We do not know where the process of democratization will
end any more today than we did in Tocqueville’s time or that
Tocqueville knew. It is a matter for statecraft
and leadership and political thought.
Again, will future democracies be liberal and freedom loving or
will they be harsh and rebarbative?
That is a question that we are now seeing very upfront and
close in various parts of the world today that are undergoing
their own very tempestuous transitions to democracy as we
will say and it remains very much an open question,
what form those democracies will take.
That question is at least as important for us,
if not more so, than it was for Tocqueville.
What Tocqueville is sure about, however, is that the fate of
America is in some way the fate of Europe and maybe for that
matter the fate of the rest of the world.
“It appears to me,” he says, “beyond doubt that sooner or
later we shall arrive like the Americans at an almost complete
equality of conditions.” He says, in the introduction,
that we shall arrive, speaking to his French
audience, a shocking statement again to
members of his class and of his family background,
that sooner or later we too will arrive at this complete
equality. He seems to ask the reader,
“Do you like what you see, what I describe?
What form democracy will take elsewhere will be very much
dependent upon circumstance and statesmanship.”
Again, his is an attempt to educate statesmen for the
future. Let me say a few words,
and I will not finish this today but we’ll take it
up–continue this a bit on Wednesday,
about what were the characteristics of American
democracy, what constitutes, as it were, democracy American
style as Tocqueville understood it, given that,
again, democracy has no single determinate form but is
characterized by a considerable degree of elasticity and
openness, what are the features that are
constitutive of American democracy. Condensing a vast amount of
material from– especially from volume one of Democracy,
there are three features that I want to emphasize about the
unique characteristics of American democracy that lead to,
again, making it mild, gentle or what we might call a
liberal democracy. These are: local government,
civil associations, and what Tocqueville calls the
spirit of religion, and I want to talk about each
of these three in turn. I’ll only probably talk about
the first one here, local government,
one of the parts of Tocqueville’s book for which he
is most famous. The first and,
in many respects, most fundamental feature of
American democracy is the importance that Tocqueville
attributes to local government and local institutions,
the importance of localism, local democracies,
and you might say, the spirit that emanates from
it is the spirit–is the key to the whole.
The cradle of democracy is to be found in what Tocqueville
calls the commune or what in our translation is called the
township, the township democracy.
“It is nonetheless in the township,” he writes,
“that the force of free peoples resides.
The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary
schools are to science. They put it within the reach of
the people.” Does that sound at all familiar?
I think it should, in some respects.
Tocqueville’s description of the New England township,
put within the reach of all the people,
clearly demonstrates the influence on Tocqueville of
Rousseau’s account of the general will in the Social
Contract. Right?
It is the people organizing, legislating,
and deliberating over their common interests that is the
core of liberty. Tocqueville very much views the
American experience of local democracy through the lenses
shaped or crafted by Rousseau and this is hardly fortuitous.
In a famous letter to his friend Kergolay,
Tocqueville admits that Rousseau was one of three
writers with whom he spent some time every day.
He read Rousseau every day, the other two,
Montesquieu and Pascal, but it was Rousseau more than
any other figure who, again, helped him understand
the democratic experience and particularly this experience of
the township. Yet, in some ways,
Rousseau–Tocqueville combines Rousseau–his reading of the
township, his Rousseauian reading of the
township, with a kind of Aristotelian twist.
The township, he writes, he continues in that
same passage, is the sole association that is
so much in nature, he says, that everywhere men
are gathered, a township forms of itself.
That term “in nature,” it is the sole association so much in
nature, should alert you to a kind of Aristotelianism in what
Tocqueville is saying. The township is here said to be
a product of nature. It eludes, he writes,
the effort of man. The township exists by nature
but its existence is far from being guaranteed.
It is fragile and it is uncertain.
It is continually threatened by invasions, not necessarily by
foreign powers but from larger forms of government,
state and federal government. The township is continually
threatened by federal and national authority.
And Tocqueville adds, with a definite hint of
Rousseau, that the more enlightened the people are,
the more difficult it is for them to retain the spirit of the
township. Think of that.
The more enlightened they are. The township relies on a
certain kind of spirit of local sturdy and steady habits,
not necessarily enlightened opinion.
That spirit of local freedom, again, goes hand in hand with a
kind of rustic, even primitive manners and
customs that clearly Rousseau would have admired and for this
reason he laments that the spirit of the township no longer
exists in Europe where the process of political
centralization and the progress of enlightenment have virtually
destroyed the conditions for local self-government. I’m going to end on that note
and Wednesday we’re going to show a little movie again,
a little piece from a movie about–just a very,
very short clip which will illustrate the theme of civil
associations in democracy and we’ll go on to talk about
religion and then some other parts of Rousseau.
Well, welcome back. It’s nice to see you all here.

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