Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville claims that Americans pay less attention to philosophy than any other members of the civilized world. However, they have an instinctual philosophy,  that is, “to evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices,” preferring innovation to tradition, privileging the individual self as a source of information and meaning, and to prefer ends to means. Americans don’t read Descartes, but they apply him better than anyone, because their social condition naturally disposes them to, in the sense that their system of equality has made individual authority triumph.
In Part Two, Tocqueville will focus less on the specific characteristics of American politics and more on the influence political conditions have on American manners and customs. Descartes’ famous philosophical model (a man sitting alone in his room, narrowing all possibilities of truth back to “I think, therefore I am”) is described as a type of individualism peculiarly suited to Americans.
Themes
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American independence and self-sufficiency has led to a confidence that everything in the world can be explained. Americans have a distaste for the supernatural or miraculous, and a preference for pragmatism. Still, religion gave birth to American society, and Christianity has maintained a hold on its intellectual life—but this means that theological questions are mostly accepted without question or challenge. In addition, Americans have enjoyed democracy since their arrival to the New World, rather than experiencing a democratic revolution—the consequences of which tend to include uncertainty, doubts, and envy and mistrust among citizens. 
These passages can be read as a kind of laundry list of American characteristics, but they are united by what Tocqueville sees as the impact of independence on philosophy, religion, and interpersonal interaction. Tocqueville will later return more closely to what seems here like a significant paradox: the fact that Americans disdain the supernatural and yet have embraced religion and strict morals more than many Europeans.
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Individualism and Materialism   Theme Icon
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For society to exist at all, citizens need to join together under certain dominant ideas—and for this it’s necessary to consent to certain pre-conceived beliefs. Dogmatic beliefs are thus necessary, to a certain extent, for society to function at all, since many people will have to put their trust in some facts and opinions that they haven’t had time to examine for themselves. Some principle of authority, therefore, is always necessary—even in a democracy—and the question thus becomes where, in a democracy, such authority resides.
Tocqueville often takes a circuitous route, floating a number of philosophical hypotheses about society in general in order to end up back at his specific analysis of American affairs. The pragmatism that, according to Tocqueville, characterizes Americans could well be applied to his own frank acknowledgement of the need for dogmatic beliefs in a society.
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Tocqueville states that republicans seek the sources of truth either in themselves or in people like themselves. Unlike in aristocracies, republicans are reluctant to place trust in a superior person or class of people. At the same time, they are overly ready to embrace the opinion of the majority. In the United States, the majority is what supplies many ready-made opinions, allowing individuals relief from forming them themselves. Religion itself is one of these received truths—and indeed, public opinion, too, is a kind of religion in America.
Rather than arguing that democracies do away with the dogmatism of aristocracies, Tocqueville argues that dogmatic opinions simply take a different form, located not in a class that’s considered superior but in another kind of class, the numerical majority, which relieves people of the need for independent thought.
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Tocqueville predicts that the principle of equality leads in two directions: to new, independent thoughts, but also to the lack of any thought at all. Tocqueville warns that a society in which the majority holds dominion over each individual is no less tyrannical than one in which one person dominates over all. 
Tocqueville returns to the arguments about tyranny of the majority that he lingered over throughout Part I, insisting that democracies are not exempt from despotism but may even give it a more frightening form. 
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