Tocqueville argues that one must study social conditions in order to understand the laws and ideas that regulate a nation. He describes Americas’ social condition as, in a word, democratic. Equality reigned from the start in New England, although to the South some English proprietors had imported aristocratic principles of inheritance, buttressed by slavery. Without privileges of birth, a true aristocracy couldn’t arise, but these proprietors still were a “superior class” and became some of the greatest leaders of the American Revolution.
Tocqueville has mentioned the peculiarly American “equality of condition” before, but now he returns in earnest to this discussion, all while contrasting the northern status quo to the southern. Although Tocqueville has registered his disapproval of slavery, he does sense an affinity between himself and the southern landowners insofar as they were the closest approximation to an aristocracy.
Tocqueville signals the importance of laws of inheritance in social and political affairs. They can affect the future as well as the present, collecting property and power into a few hands and aiding in the construction of an aristocracy (or, if the laws prohibit privileges of inheritance, dissolving it). In America, the laws of “partible inheritance,” which allow property to be divided up upon the owners’ death, and the ban on primogeniture (in which the eldest son would inherit all the land), lead to the smaller and smaller division of land to and to the destruction of large fortunes and properties. Properties no longer represent families, and the chance is higher that sons will prefer to sell land—putting more property into circulation—rather than maintaining it. Individual selfishness rather than family pride comes to characterize such actions. Tocqueville notes that the law of partition is causing increasing impacts in France, too—but old traditions and recollections of the past linger far more in France than in the United States.
Inheritance laws were, in France and elsewhere, crucial means of transmitting wealth and maintaining an aristocracy over time. Such laws supported practices like primogeniture, in which only the eldest son would receive the fortune and property, as well as the prevention of partitioning an estate, which—as Tocqueville notes here—would eventually cause the most powerful families’ fortunes to erode. Although Tocqueville is struck by the success of the United States in dismantling the system, his tone here shifts from the merely expository to the nostalgic or even dismayed, as he traces the loss of families and estates like his in America, and as he acknowledges that his own family won’t be exempt from such changes back in France.
In America, the families of old, landed proprietors are now merchants, lawyers, or doctors, and any small hereditary distinctions have been lost. While the love of money is pervasive in the country, wealth circulates quickly and is easily lost. In addition, the spread of people west of the Mississippi has made neighbors ignorant of each other’s history and family traditions, wiping out the influence of great names and wealth but also the “natural aristocracy” of knowledge and virtue.
Tocqueville describes the transition from an aristocratic society to one that is not just democratic but capitalistic. No longer is society divided into landowners, royalty, and peasants, but rather into a much larger “middle class” made up of people who aren’t poor but still have to work for a living.
Tocqueville characterizes America as full of people neither learned nor ignorant. Everyone has access to primary education, but few to higher education. Nearly everyone has to work in America, so they begin their apprenticeship at fifteen rather than going on to study more. Most rich Americans were once poor, so now that they have leisure time they have no desire to study. Consequently there is no intellectual tradition handed down from one generation to the next, and instead the desire for knowledge is fixed at a “middling standard.” Tocqueville is struck by this unique equality both of fortune and intellect.
A general way that Tocqueville characterizes Americans is as a “middling sort,” neither great nor puny in their intelligence, estates, tastes, and other features. In some ways, Tocqueville simply applies an economic characteristic (i.e., the relative sameness of class in America) to many other aspects of American life, even as he tries to maintain neutrality by acknowledging that the alternative is an aristocratic society of great economic inequality.
Tocqueville argues that such equality must necessarily spread into the political world, meaning that either everyone must be granted equal rights, or rights will be granted to no one. He praises the passion for equality that would encourage the humble to rise to the great, but warns that the weak may want to lower the powerful to their own level. In places like America, even if democrats instinctively love liberty, they’ll always prefer equality—and in a place where everyone is equal, it’s difficult to remain free against aggressions of power, since a union of many is required to be strong enough to resist. So far, Americans have resisted this danger thanks to their circumstances, origin, and morals.
As Tocqueville concludes his introduction, he establishes one of his major themes in the book: Americans’ preference for equality over liberty. Here, he suggests that a desire for equality may come to endanger individual freedoms. Tocqueville doesn’t linger over what he will later call the “tyranny of the majority,” but the aggressions of power to which he refers here will resurface in his discussions about the danger in giving all power to the people.