Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Tocqueville concludes Part One, he compares himself to a traveler who, having left a vast city, climbs a hill in order to be able to see the whole (even if he can no longer make out the details). While America now occupies one twentieth of the inhabitable globe, he thinks it may well expand further. At one time, France had the chance to counterbalance English influence in the New World, but that possibility no longer exists. Instead the Spaniards are the only race that can potentially challenge the Anglo-Americans—but Anglophones continue to spread everywhere on the continent.
Such literary imagery reflects Tocqueville’s shift in focus at the end of Part I of his book. Tocqueville has been thinking of himself as a scientist, studying specific specimens in order to make an argument about a particular “species,” and here he draws back from close analysis in order to make a number of broader examples about the place of America on a more global scale.
Themes
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Tocqueville can’t imagine that the impulse of this “race” to extend over all reaches of the American continent can be stopped: nothing can stand in the way of the twin loves of prosperity and enterprise that characterize Americans. At some point, the population will be comparable to that of Europe, and will still be tied together by custom, law, and character. Today, intellectual communication has increased such that there is less difference between Europeans and Americans than there was between towns in the Middle Ages separated only by a river. Still, Tocqueville struggles to grasp the notion of a country filled with millions of people all sharing the same family, language, habits, and opinions.
Although Tocqueville will continue to insist on the importance of human agency in directing vast historical affairs, he also is pragmatic and realistic about what cannot be changed. His unwillingness to turn back the clock and try to recreate an aristocratic society is what distinguishes him from a number of his contemporaries who might share similar views. As an amateur historian and political scientist, he now finds it difficult to turn his focus from the past to what it might mean for the future.
Themes
Individualism and Materialism   Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Tocqueville characterizes Russia and America as the world’s two great nations, which seem to have arisen almost unnoticed by everyone else. While Russians struggle against other men, Americans struggle against nature; their weapons are, respectively, the sword and ploughshare. The countries have started from quite different origins, yet will undoubtedly each influence half the globe.
Tocqueville’s mention of Russia here is eerily prescient, in many ways foretelling the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States that would influence political, economic, and social affairs worldwide for much of the twentieth century.
Themes
Individualism and Materialism   Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon