Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Although Tocqueville has described the institutions that maintain freedom in America, he also suggests that the democracy is successfully maintained by chance features, such as geographical isolation, the lack of financial crises, and the lack of a great capital city that would extend its influence everywhere. Subjecting the provinces to the rule of a capital city would mean placing the nation’s fate in the hands of an independent group with no regard for the welfare of the rest of the country. This is how ancient republics fell.
Tocqueville balances his arguments about the historical aspects of America that have given rise to its current-day characteristics with an acknowledgment of the role chance has played in America’s development—his point is that while some aspects of America are replicable (or to be avoided), it would be impossible to entirely transplant it into Europe.
Themes
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Tocqueville reflects that the first Puritan emigrants left their stamp on the American national character for the better, in their embrace of equality and freedom. The vast geography of the nation has also proved beneficial to prosperity and thus to stability. The lush natural habitat of the continent has enabled regular waves of settlers to set out alone for the center of the country and, eventually, create a life and fortune for themselves there. Tocqueville recalls seeing the vestiges of log-houses in the American wilderness while traveling, signs of Americans’ constant movement. Once he was traveling in the woods of New York State when he encountered a small island in a lake, with a column of smoke the only sign of human presence. After investigating, he found the ruins of a log cabin, which nature was already re-conquering, and he noted that America already had ruins.
Here Tocqueville raises a number of possible reasons for the peculiarly American embrace of democracy, for its equality of condition, and for the energy and activity that he observes there. As usual, he acknowledges the unique natural and geographical conditions of America, but also is eager to insist against geographical determinism (that is, the idea that geography equals fate). Instead he wants to show how Americans have historically dealt with their physical circumstances. Tocqueville’s comment about ruins creates a striking comparison to Europe, which is full of ruins, but which has a longer history of white people building structures on its land.
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While restlessness and desire for wealth are considered dangerous in Europe, Tocqueville notes that these qualities have ensured peace and prosperity in America. Still, he maintains that laws are more important than physical circumstances, and manners more important than either, in the development of the American national character. Comparing North American geography to South American geography, Tocqueville remarks on the difficulty of implementing democratic institutions in South America. It’s thus necessary to study what the Americans have chosen to do with their given circumstances in order to understand what Europe might learn from democratization.
Again, Tocqueville shows both the influence of climate and geography on history, but also the ways in which people respond to the circumstances that they’ve been dealt. As a writer who framed his book not just as a historical study but as a document he hoped would propel people to look toward the future and engage with political challenges, it’s important for him to emphasize they ways in which Americans have been able to steer the fate of their own country.
Themes
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Tocqueville notes that Europe is lost if democracy is only possible in vast, uncultivated geographical spaces. It’s useless to will a non-democratic system back into being in Europe because democratization is an inexorable force. The loss of religious authority and of the moral guidance of kings, as well as a series of long revolutions, have all eaten away at Europeans’ tolerance for monarchies. The only possible paths are democracy or total despotism—including the despotism that comes from the tyranny of the majority. Involving people in the functioning of their own government will be difficult, but it’s the only true way forward. If complete equality is inevitable, he argues that it’s better to be levelled by democratic institutions than by a tyrant.
Even as Tocqueville studies certain aspects of American democracy that he thinks Europe can adopt or modify for its own use (or else avoid entirely), he is also eager to point out that different nations must navigate their own physical, geographical, and historical circumstances in attempting to transition from aristocracy to democracy, and in attempting to maintain or promote freedom along the way. America, for Europe, is not a clear-cut model to follow or avoid but rather a valuable case study that should be examined as a productive point of comparison with Europe’s own future.
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Tocqueville states that it hasn’t been his purpose to propose that all democratic communities adopt the laws and customs of the Americans. Instead, he has hoped to show that laws and manners allow a democratic people to retain their freedom. Still, the country is so unique that there’s no point in attempting to replicate its features wholesale. Still, unless democratic institutions are gradually introduced into France, he fears that the country will soon fall under the unlimited authority of a despot.
Tocqueville continues to insist on the subtleties of his argument and his objectives in writing Democracy in America. He is promoting neither complete replication of American norms nor dismissal of the American example, but instead wants his readers to consider America as a case study of a nation that has carried democratic conditions farther than any other.
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