Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville addresses the ways tyranny of the majority is mitigated in America, first through the federalist model. Even as the predominant party insists on its own opinion, it can’t carry that opinion through to action throughout the country, since it comes up against the local powers of townships and municipal bodies. If this were not the case, Tocqueville is certain the result would be despotism.
Although he concluded his last chapter with an ominous depiction of the potential for tyranny in America, Tocqueville now turns to the ways America has found to lessen such a possibility. The threat isn’t destroyed, but there are ways, Tocqueville thinks, to combat it.
Themes
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Tocqueville argues that the power of the legal profession also counteracts the potential for tyranny. Lawyers have become a kind of superior intellectual class, arbitrating among citizens, checking the power of the majority, and often embodying an appreciation for order—in a way, they are the democratic version of an aristocratic class. If lawyers are aristocratic in habit and taste, they find affinities in the people through birth and interests.
Tocqueville seems to admire any group of people or institution that reminds him of the aristocracies that are being dismantled, in Europe and in America. His fondness for order, balance, and hierarchies of intellect becomes evident here in his admiring portrayal of American lawyers.
Themes
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Tocqueville identifies the courts as the organs by which the legal profession mitigates excesses of democracy. But the legal spirit extends beyond the courts, as lawyers fill legislative assemblies and administrative posts. Almost every political question eventually becomes a question of law in the United States, so the customs and even language of the legal profession extend into society, including into the lowest classes, which adopt legal logic in their own thinking.
Tocqueville’s tone here is not always clear. In a way, he seems to admire the way in which legal logic spreads into all aspects of American society, but he also always remains slightly suspicious of any viewpoint that becomes so pervasive, something that he thinks is a natural quality of a democracy.
Themes
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Tocqueville turns to the jury as a political institution, not just a legal one. While juries may be composed of an aristocratic class, they are also republican in that they place society’s direction in the hands of its citizens. The existence of juries gives the people a sense of respect for legal judgment and individual rights but also responsibilities. As a result, all citizens feel implicated in the workings of society, including in the affairs of others, which works against selfishness. A jury is a kind of public school that gives people a political education. While it might seem to check the power of the judge, it actually strengthens the power of the judiciary institution as a whole, and instructs people on how to rule properly.
By distinguishing the political from the “merely” legal, Tocqueville clarifies how important he considers the many institutions outside the official executive, legislative, and judicial structures to be in constructing a political life among citizens. Here, then, he separates the role of the jury as a legal institution from the ways in which the existence of the institution comes to influence citizens’ engagement with their community.
Themes
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Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
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