Tocqueville begins by highlighting his most significant discovery from his travels in the United States: the “equality of condition” that he found there—and that, he argues, structures not just politics but all of American society. He’s realized that France seems to be approaching a similar condition: this was the germ of his idea for the book.
Tocqueville suggests in his opening that he is not aiming to write an introduction to American society that will merely be of scholarly interest, but instead thinks that France has lessons to learn by looking at the United States. He immediately establishes equality as one of the book’s core themes and highest-held values.
Tocqueville traces the history of democratization in France, which was long controlled by a small number of families holding property and ruling over the inhabitants who worked there. As society developed, the clergy’s power increased and relationships between people grew increasingly complicated in commerce, in royal affairs, and in private noble wars. As education increased and, with it, general intelligence, the importance of being of noble birth gave way to that of natural ability. This was how the idea of equality was introduced into government.
In order to further explain why the American example is useful to France, Tocqueville begins with a brief summary of the political history of his own country—a history that he thinks is emblematic for Euro-American civilizations, all of which have witnessed what seems to be an inexorable march toward democracy and the greater equality of conditions that accompanies it.
Tocqueville notes that kings became more likely to give political influence to common people, if only to counter the influence of the aristocracy. With the rise of personal property and the erosion of serfdom, people could increasingly work for themselves, contributing to a general “levelling” in society. In turn, poetry and the arts and sciences came to be accessible to the people and not just to rulers.
If democracies are characterized by an equality of resources, power, and intelligence among people, Tocqueville shows how, perhaps counterintuitively, monarchies could sometimes actually speed the process of democratization.
Tocqueville pinpoints a few major events that have led to “equality of condition,” from the Crusades, which devastated the nobles’ wealth, to the art of printing, which disseminated knowledge among many, and Protestantism, which proclaimed the ability of all to reach heaven on their own merits. The same “revolution” is taking place throughout the Christian world, and democracy is gaining the advantage.
Tocqueville notes that this vast process can hardly be stopped. While he has a “religious terror” of this revolution, he believes that it’s necessary to face it directly rather than pretend it’s not happening. While he and others might not be able to stop equality from spreading, they might be able to guide it in a certain direction, educating people, directing their morals, and developing a new political science. As it is, since the aristocrats have turned a blind eye, democracy is growing at a wild pace, its worst tendencies free to develop unchecked and its best possibilities left unfulfilled.
For the first time, Tocqueville shows his cards. An aristocrat himself, who believes that there are natural differences between people that should be upheld, he is suspicious of the idea that equality is a virtue. At the same time, Tocqueville is a pragmatist who finds it unrealistic and undesirable to remain stuck in the past. Instead, intelligent, aristocratic people like him can have a hand in nudging democracies toward improvement.
Tocqueville fondly recalls the peace and stability of the past, when monarchs achieved respect from nobles and the people alike, when serfs were content and didn’t yearn for a position above their own and nobles felt secure in their privileges. Now all distinctions of rank are being eroded, property is being divided among many, and the abilities of all, no matter their class, are being cultivated equally. Potentially, Tocqueville thinks, such a process could lead to a society in which all people would love and respect the laws that they forge themselves, and would be satisfied with certain limits to their pursuits because they’d understand that these would be in the service of their country. But as it is, people seem to despise all authority, and have destroyed the powers able to check tyranny.
Tocqueville’s evocative descriptions in this passage only heighten the stark contrast that he sets up between a nostalgic view of the past as stable and pleasant, and a view of the present and future as overwhelming, chaotic, and muddled (a view that is largely a product of his own vantage point as a member of a class that used to have far more advantages than it does now). At the same time, Tocqueville reflects thoughtfully on the potential benefits of this new system, even if the dangers are, to him, much clearer.
Tocqueville argues that the poor still hate the rich, but now yearn to join their ranks. Peace is only maintained because of fear, not mutual interest. The former advantages of aristocracy have been abandoned, but without the potential advantages of democracy replacing them. A “strange confusion” reigns in France, where bonds between people have been broken, and everyone rages against each other. While certain true Christians remain, many others have used religion to bolster their idea of democracy, leading to chaos. Truly religious people have become the enemies of liberty, while those who love liberty attack religion. The noblest minds advocate for slavery and the most servile advocate for liberty. Tocqueville bemoans the topsy-turvy nature of contemporary life.
Tocqueville continues his rather ominous characterization of his own country in the throes of a wave of democratization and increased equality, a process that he worries is breeding disorder and immorality. Religion, which in Tocqueville’s mind can potentially work in the interest of liberty, is instead used against it. In general, his description of contemporary society as chaotic, disordered, and upside-down serves to justify his own work, which will offer alternative options and several paths forward.
In order to get out of this conundrum, Tocqueville suggests looking at one country that has nearly reached the natural limits of equality—the United States. France is slowly approaching that limit, though Tocqueville doesn’t think it will ever reach the extent of equality existing in America. Still, he suggests that it might be instructive to look at America for lessons that France might be able to follow—or avoid.
Here Tocqueville shifts from a wary discussion of the contemporary situation in his own country to the object lesson of the United States, with which the bulk of his book will be concerned. America is both a possible beacon and a warning for France’s own future.
Tocqueville describes the structure of his book: the first part will explain how, based on his observations and travels, democracy has structured American laws, while the second will discuss its society more generally. In all, he will be careful to examine both advantages and disadvantages of the American way of life. He recognizes that some might object to his refusal to be partisan (his refusal to choose one side over the other), but he has been nonpartisan on purpose.
Although Tocqueville will certainly take sides at a number of points in his book, he never comes down one way or another on the issue of whether American democracy as a whole is positive or negative. Instead, he’ll break it down into many parts, evaluating each aspect of democratic life on its own merits.