Alexis De Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville


Alexis de Tocqueville was only one of dozens of foreign visitors to America during the first three decades of the nineteenth century who recorded and published their observations of that unique experiment in political and economic democracy. Unlike most of them, however, he peered through the superficialities of the country's often rude manners to analyze the underlying forces of change and stability and the structure of its fundamental institutions.

Tocqueville's reaction to today's America

"No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult," de Tocqueville wrote in his book. "A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements." De Tocqueville was amazed at the large number of people active in public affairs. "All around you everything is on the move," he reported. De Tocqueville saw all kinds of people busily planning local projects, choosing representatives and assembling to criticize their leaders. He was especially impressed with New England town meetings where every citizen had the right to vote on public matters.

De Tocqueville thought it remarkable how often Americans joined together in various organizations which he called associations. "Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever forming associations," he wrote. "There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute."

De Tocqueville went on to observe that Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else. "Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling ...they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in the United States you are sure to find an association."

"The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe," wrote de Tocqueville. Although property requirements for voting were still common, they were beginning to disappear. Elections were usually held every year for local and state offices. Those who had the right to vote did so and in large numbers. During the time that de Tocqueville toured America, 70% or more of the voters turned out on election day, compared to under 50% today.


What he was describing here was, in effect, a democratic state without acomplementary democratic society. Because he only encountered America once the struggles that had brought its system of public and private institutions into being were largely complete, he seems to have been unaware of the extent to which American democracy had skirted the condition of democratic despotism and that it was only an extraordinary combination of circumstances that had led it in towards the general acceptance of associations as preferred vehicles of collective action.

Perhaps he suffered the social scientist's propensity (albeit, in a primordial form) ...
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