Tocqueville states that the rest of his book will show how the principle of sovereignty of the people—that is, democratic equality—functions. He asks why, if individuals have equal shares in power, they obey the government at all. He answers that it’s not because they feel inferior to legislators, but because they’ve acknowledged the usefulness of government. Americans assume that society has no right to control their actions unless they hurt the common good, or unless the common good needs their support.
From here on, Tocqueville will mostly use, instead of the term “sovereignty of the people,” the notion of equality—in large part because, he argues, the extension of power to the people both requires and promotes a sense in which everyone is equal under the law. Tocqueville also notes Americans’ libertarian streak—their preference to be left alone in matters of politics.
Tocqueville characterizes the township as a kind of individual in the way that it is granted independence. Townships have to fulfill certain social duties, such as paying taxes to the State or allowing a road to be paved through its territory, but in practice the township levies and collects taxes, builds and manages schools, and so on—whereas in France the State manages all these functions. Independent and authoritative, townships are also places of great local and public spirit. In Europe those in positions of power fear such local spirit as a potential threat, but in America such spirit aids the functioning of local government.
If, as Tocqueville argues, individuals are considered to be unencumbered free agents in the United States, then so too are townships thought of as independent entities. It’s difficult to stress just how different the system of local independence that Tocqueville observes is from the highly centralized, highly bureaucratic administrative system in France.
In American townships, Tocqueville thinks, the power is so spread out and divided that almost everyone is somehow invested in local government. People take part in nearly everything that happens officially in the township, practicing the art of government in a small but valuable way and learning to exercise their rights.
Local independence and self-government are one of the aspects of American political life that Tocqueville admires the most. As a defender of individual political rights, he sees these practices as important educational tools.