Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 49 Summary & Analysis

Tocqueville makes a similar case for why democratic nations are averse to war: the rise of men of property preferring peace, mild manners, the growth of personal wealth, and so on. Of course, in many cases war is unavoidable, and democracies too need standing armies. In aristocracies, armies replicate the hierarchies of society, such that private soldiers rarely strive for promotion. But in democratic armies, since any soldier might become an officer, military ambition swells—and yet during peace there is little practical chance of advancement. While democratic nations are the most desirous of peace, then, democratic armies are the most eager for war.
Turning from revolution to war, Tocqueville continues to hypothesize on the relationship between this aspect of a state and the conditions and tendencies of a democracy. Some of these ideas are familiar: Tocqueville has already written about ambition, for instance, although here he seems to argue that the checks on ambition in the military are not a result of soldiers’ limited desires but rather of their circumstances.  
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Another great danger, Tocqueville warns, is that without military spirit, the profession of soldier is no longer considered honorable, and so the best candidates no longer seek out the profession. As a result, democratic armies are often restless and dissatisfied, their soldiers among the few who do desire revolution or war. He does think war improves people’s minds and character, and may be a corrective to the excesses of democracy—but it is not a complete corrective to democracy’s dangers.
In aristocracies, at least in Tocqueville’s account, the same levels of hierarchy and honor that characterize society in general are also applicable to the functioning of their armies. If it’s no longer an aristocratic honor to join the military profession, he thinks, soldiers will be eager to pursue war simply to prove themselves and artificially gain honor.
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Indeed, Tocqueville argues that extended war can endanger freedom: it increases the powers of government and centralizes the administration, thus habituating people to the tendencies of despotism. When soldiers’ over-ambition becomes cause for alarm, one source of relief may be to increase the number of officers, but that will only encourage more people to join the army and compete for such advancement.
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