Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville notes how strange it is for a European to observe the absence of “Administration” in America. While Europeans maintain authority by limiting rights, Americans distribute authority among many different hands—disseminating rather than destroying it (since indeed, a love of order and law does characterize the American people). The idea is that the community will be at once regulated and free: the power exists, even while its representative cannot be pinpointed.
Again, Tocqueville comes from a context in which it makes sense to speak of Administration with a capital A—a complex and highly centralized bureaucracy that defined the France of his time. Tocqueville seems to prefer the American ideal because it doesn’t deny the need for authority—it just doesn’t find it necessary to maintain it by denying individual rights.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Tocqueville distinguishes between centralized government, which concentrates common interests like foreign relations or general laws, and centralized administration, which concentrates local interests into one place. Together, they have enormous power, but they need not both be present: English centralized government, for instance, is powerful, but its administration has never been centralized. Tocqueville argues that centralized government is necessary for a nation to prosper, but that centralized administration only sucks away local spirit and “enervates” nations.
Tocqueville’s distinction between centralized government and centralized administration is not always quite clear, but it’s useful to think of it in the way he characterizes it here: he doesn’t have a problem with a national government directing issues that concern everyone in the country, but he finds that once the central government starts meddling in issues of purely local interest, problems can arise.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
The United States thus benefits from its decentralized administration. There is a single legislature in each state and concentration of national affairs in the capital, but power in local affairs is divided. Sometimes this works slowly and inefficiently. In New England, for instance, the town assessor decides on tax rates, the town collector receives them, and the town treasurer sends the amount to the public treasury.
Tocqueville argues that the United States seems to have found a relatively stable balance between centralization and decentralization, even as he also pays attention to the drawbacks of decentralization—particularly in the way they prevent the efficient running of government.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
While Tocqueville is confident that such inefficiency can be reformed without a new system, he argues that the total decentralization of administration goes too far in America. Still, he also insists that centralized administration is not the answer, since no one central power can be adept enough to embrace all the details of a great nation’s life. Sometimes Tocqueville has observed weaknesses in the lack of uniform regulations that control everyone’s conduct in France, such as in certain examples of social neglect, but he also has witnessed the participation of many in the “common weal” (or commonwealth), for instance, building schools and churches or repairing roads on their own.
As usual, Tocqueville strives to maintain a balanced perspective regarding both the advantages and disadvantages of American democracy. Here he isolates one example, “social neglect,” by which he seems to mean that maintenance of infrastructure and public services can sometimes slip through the cracks in America, leaving people without access to basic services like decent roads. Still, he argues that Americans themselves counteract such disadvantages out of their own goodwill.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
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Tocqueville also argues that an absolute authority over people’s lives prevents them from feeling a stake in the affairs of their country or even town. If the country ever needs them, they will hardly be eager to rise up to defend it. He uses the example of the Turks, who only rose up to defend their nation as a defense of Islam. Now that their faith is weakening, there’s only despotism, not true spirit, that remains. Laws are thus necessary to reawaken the patriotic impulse. Indeed, Tocqueville most admires the political rather than the administrative effects of decentralization in America—the ability of citizens to keep their country’s interests in view everywhere.
Sometimes, Tocqueville makes recourse to cultures other than those of the United States, England, and France in order to prove a point. Here he refers to the Ottoman Empire, which by the middle of the nineteenth century had lost much of the power and influence it had held over the previous few centuries. His work of comparing and contrasting societies is meant to underline that the American model might prove useful as a lesson (either positively or negatively) elsewhere.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Individualism and Materialism   Theme Icon
Americans obey not other men but justice and law. They also are eager to embark on private undertakings, which might fail more than government initiatives, but the sum total of all personal undertakings exceeds anything the government could do on its own. Tocqueville takes one example of the success of decentralized administration: while there is no criminal police on the same level as in France, no passports, and no long examinations, America is notable for its ability to punish almost every crime—because the people rise up together in the interest of finding and judging the criminal, who is considered an actual enemy of the people.
Tocqueville continues to balance his characterization of American democracy by including both advantages and disadvantages: here, America comes out favorably in contrast to France, where (perhaps paradoxically) the massive administrative apparatus actually makes prosecuting crimes more difficult. Tocqueville instead points to Americans’ own initiative as the cornerstone of their justice system.
Themes
Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Provincial institutions are particularly necessary in a democracy, Tocqueville argues, since without them there is no security against the excesses of central power. Nonetheless, democracies are also most in danger of yielding to central power, in part because centralized government tends to want to spread into central administration as well (as happened during the French Revolution, which was against both the king and provincial institutions, and thus democratized and centralized at the same time—leading to a new kind of tyranny). Those countries that deny the utility of provincial institutions are those where they least exist.
This is a point that Tocqueville will return to again and again in his book: given that the “excesses of central power” are some of the greatest dangers posed by a democracy, he uses America as both an example of how this danger presents itself, but also as a key model for how to avoid such excesses. The existence and powers of “provincial institutions” are some of the most significant aspects of American life.
Themes
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