Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville uses the metaphor of a human life to argue that in order to understand a nation’s development, we must look to its origin (just as one studies an infant). In examining the birth of America, we might discover the cause of its prejudices, habits, and national character. While most states are too old to do this, America is far younger. This chapter, then, is the key to everything that follows.
Tocqueville’s point is that while the origins of French politics are far too distant for him to study (first-hand, that is, rather than as a historian might), America’s origins are still close enough in recent history that Tocqueville can gain an authoritative perspective on them just by visiting and observing.
Themes
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While Tocqueville acknowledges that people emigrated to the New World with different aims, many had certain features in common. Those from England shared a language and an acquaintance with political strife, as well as a natural notion of rights and freedoms. Even those who came from other European countries, once they settled in the colonies, were relatively equal in their shared sense of precariousness and poverty (which usually drove people to emigrate). In addition, American soil was best cultivated in small portions rather than vast tracts, thus discouraging the rise of a land-based aristocracy.
Here Tocqueville raises a number of points to which he will return and further elaborate later in the book, including the English acquaintance with individual rights and the American way of dividing land. While Tocqueville is eager to formulate a sense of Americans’ “national character,” rather than make racially- or ethnically-based generalizations, he chooses to probe history for answers.
Themes
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Tocqueville describes the inhabitants of the first English colony in Virginia (founded in 1607) as seekers of gold, adventurers without a well-developed spiritual or intellectual sense. Slavery was established early on here. Tocqueville argues that slavery dishonors labor, promotes idleness, and generally helps to explain what he sees as the sorry manners of American Southerners. In the north, meanwhile, the independence, intelligence, and morality of the Pilgrims (who hadn’t been forced to leave for reasons of poverty) has given New England an entirely different character from the South. New England has been like a “beacon lit upon a hill” for America, Tocqueville says.
Tocqueville is quick to characterize whole groups according to certain moral and personality traits. By the time he was writing, both France and Britain had abolished slavery, while the practice would continue in America until the Civil War. Tocqueville sees slavery not just as a horrific institution but as a sign of a particularly depraved character on the part of slave-owners, a character that stands in stark contrast with that of their fellow countrymen to the north.
Themes
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Tocqueville explains that the Pilgrims had been independent in England already, and they had also been committed to their ideals. Their Puritanism, which Tocqueville claims was a political as much as religious doctrine, forced them to leave to escape persecution. Every year more Puritans followed as a result of the 17th-century religious and political unrest in England. Almost all emigrants came from the middle classes, creating a basically homogeneous society.
Again, Tocqueville traces certain qualities of this group of American immigrants to a particular set of historical circumstances—specifically, the religious rather than economic reasons for emigration, which Tocqueville praises as contributing to the creation of a stable middle-class society in the New World.
Themes
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England mostly left these emigrants alone, such that New England’s liberty was greater than anywhere else in the New World. The king sometimes appointed a governor or granted certain tracts of land to individuals, but only in New England did he allow emigrants to form political assemblies and govern themselves independently through charters. People in New England thus came to learn the meaning of sovereignty of the people by enacting laws, naming their own magistrates, and so on. These laws were severe in their moral strictures, prohibiting adultery, promiscuity, idleness, and drunkenness. Sometimes even religious toleration was lost in the zeal to punish all who strayed from the right path. Tocqueville characterizes this as an unfortunate side effect of newfound freedom.
Here Tocqueville turns to the northern regions of America in an effort to identify the origins of American democracy as he sees it, two centuries after the Pilgrims established themselves in New England. A particular confluence of political and historical circumstances, he argues, allowed New Englanders to essentially teach themselves the rules of politics through experimentation. This freedom paradoxically could lead to greater strictness—a theme Tocqueville will return to.
Themes
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New England was the germ for a number of characteristics of modern democracies, from “free voting of taxes” and trial by jury to the independence of the township, a model of American liberty today. Townships, which were the center of local interests, rights, and duties, were established beginning around 1650, and Tocqueville finds them to have productively promoted political activity among all. He is impressed at the advanced theories and sciences of legislation he finds in these early records, including concern for the condition of the poor and the arbitration of civil records.
In discussing what he finds to be the advantages of American democracy, Tocqueville is led again to emphasize the North over the South, with a preference for the North. Although Tocqueville has already argued that America is so young that he can basically study its origins as if he had been there to experience them for himself, he does acknowledge the need to examine archives and documents, many of which allow him to better observe the roots of contemporary society.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
For Tocqueville, the mandates regarding public education are particularly remarkable, showing an eagerness to establish schools and oblige everyone to support them—an eagerness prompted, he thinks, by a connection New Englanders saw between education and proper religious spirit.
For New Englanders, Tocqueville argues, there was no contradiction between worldly learning and spiritual devoutness. Instead, their sense of religious duty compelled them to treat both realms with equal seriousness.
Themes
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Tocqueville remarks upon the contrast to 17th-century Europe, where absolute monarchy ruled and individual rights were limited—whereas a new, humble community in the New World was the site of greatest innovation. This was the result of two distinct elements in American culture, he thinks: the spirit of religion and that of liberty. A concern for well-being on earth is matched with a concern for salvation in heaven. Even as Americans had broken down old laws, institutions, and hierarchies, and launched into a new and equal society, they nevertheless maintained a reverence for religious authority. The contrast between political uncertainty and religious authority allowed for the mutual advancement of both liberty and religion: religion acknowledged the nobleness of political affairs, and reigned supreme in its own sphere, while liberty regarded religion as the safeguard of morality, which is the best protection of freedom.
Tocqueville continues to insist on how surprising it is that it was in America—a place with (he thinks) barely any culture, history, or acquaintance with politics—that entrenched European dilemmas about individual rights and freedoms began to be resolved. At the same time, he argues, that was precisely the advantage of the clean slate offered by the American colonies. Writing from a nation where religion had long been a source of conflict and political turmoil, Tocqueville also admires the ways in which Americans, unlike the French (whose situation he portrayed starkly earlier in the chapter), find liberty and religion mutually beneficial.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
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