Tocqueville asks why so many Americans prefer industrial and commercial professions to agricultural ones. The cultivation of the land leads only slowly to wealth, he notes; ambitious men in democracies prefer risky but lucrative opportunities. Rich men, unable to secure vast power in political affairs, embark on commercial enterprises in order to spread their influence there. And in general, rich and poor are encouraged both by profit and through the excitement natural to a democracy.
Tocqueville lists a number of the factors he thinks might influence Americans’ preference for industry and commerce over agriculture. That he proposes many different reasons reminds us that Tocqueville’s arguments are often structured as a set of hypotheses rather than self-evident facts.
Tocqueville remarks that only half a century after freeing itself from colonial dependence, America has made more rapid progress in trade and manufacturing than anywhere else. Still, he’s most astonished not by the massive undertakings, but by the vast quantity of small enterprises. People even make agriculture itself a kind of trade, arriving en masse in the South each year to cultivate cotton and sugar, only to return a few years later, enriched. As a result, unfortunately, commercial panics and shocks grow increasingly likely—an inevitable by-product of democracy.
Although Tocqueville has argued that agriculture is not as prevalent as other ways of making a living in America, he accounts for its significance in the South by arguing that American cultivation of the land is more commercial than agricultural. But his warning about the possibility of shocks and depressions would prove prescient, as many would ensue over the course of the century.