Turning his attention to the 13 American colonies before the revolution, Tocqueville identifies two opposite tendencies: a tendency toward unity and a tendency toward independence. Each colony proclaimed its own sovereignty, such that there was no security against common dangers, or ability to pay the debt owed as a result of war. America had owed much of its war victory to its geographical position alone, but now it was forced to look inward and revise its first constitution in a convention led by the first President, George Washington.
In turning back to the early days of American independence, Tocqueville traces the country’s fits and starts, first by looking at the initial document, the Articles of Confederation, which proved too weak. Tocqueville is eager to show how democracies can work in a number of different ways, as evidenced by the historical trajectory of even a single democratic nation.
In 1789, the new Federal government began and the American revolution officially ended (the same year as the revolution in France began). The difficult question of how to balance sovereignty and unity still had to be resolved: the Convention gave some powers to the federal government and left all else to the states, establishing a Federal court to maintain this balance. The careful division of powers led to both a system of federalism and, simultaneously, a highly centralized government. Yet while the powers of the president are great, given the isolation of the country, he has little chance to enact such powers.
Tocqueville continues to relate a general historical account of the establishment of the American constitution and separation of powers—an account that Tocqueville will draw on throughout the rest of his book to explain everything from manners to poetry in America. Tocqueville returns to the point about central power to argue both that America exhibits the dangers of centralization but also manages to mitigate them.
Tocqueville argues that the limited powers given to people in America also work to limit their desires—Americans being generally more content and tranquil than others. In a small country, he says, tyranny is more frightening because a tyrant’s power spreads throughout the country, but Tocqueville also notes that small places are more likely to be free, if only because tyrannical individuals are less likely to be tempted by the prospect of ruling over an unimpressively-sized land.
Throughout this chapter, Tocqueville avoids sweeping generalizations, moving back and forth between point and counter-point in reflecting on the various ways that freedom and tyranny can play out depending on the size of a country. Here he takes a step back from the specifically American case in order to discuss the influence of a country’s size on its style of government.
In turn, many small nations lose their freedom once they grow. Not a single great nation has maintained republican government for a long period of time. As states grow, ambitions grow as well, though unaccompanied by an increase in patriotism. Together with extreme inequality, large capital cities, and antagonism of interests, these dangers stem from great size in a democracy (while in monarchies, large numbers only increase their power). Vast empires, Tocqueville concludes, only work against freedom and well-being.
While Tocqueville’s explicit object of study is America, he relies on a great deal of historical and political knowledge about forms of government stretching back to the Roman Empire. Indeed, Rome is a touchstone throughout the book, here becoming an example of the dangers of vast size to the maintenance of democratic rights.
Still, Tocqueville also acknowledges the advantages of size: individual greatness becomes more likely when there is greater glory to strive for, leading to more knowledge, ideas, and aptitude in war. Even if the world would be better off if only small nations existed, given the unavoidable existence of large nations, it’s better to be large, if only so nations can defend themselves against other strong countries. Small nations always end up being yoked to large empires, whether by force or will.
Again, Tocqueville embraces complexity and nuance over sweeping generalization. Without contradicting himself, he carefully weighs the many different benefits and disadvantages (morally, physically, and politically) of large versus small size. Here he reveals his pragmatic emphasis, moving from an idealized view of the world to an acceptance of political affairs as they are.
Tocqueville returns to the advantage of America’s federalist system, by which Congress regulates the national government and provincial legislatures manage local details of administration. Each small community has different needs, so the spirit of improvement is kept alive—unlike in South America, where large republics have prevented such improvement.
South America is used several times as a counter-example in Democracy in America. As a landmass of similar size to North America, the political differences between South America and the United States encourage Tocqueville to find other sources of explanation than the geographical alone.
Tocqueville notes that the national public spirit in America is really only an aggregate of patriotism applied to each province. Americans defend their nation because they want to defend their own state or county’s prosperity. Still, while America is a great nation in size, its administration is more like that of a small nation, in which desires for fame and power are limited, and there are no massive capital cities or great inequalities of wealth. At the same time, objects and ideas circulate freely throughout the land.
Tocqueville returns to the power of provincial institutions and provincial spirit in America as he discusses the ways that the country has managed to secure a number of the advantages of a small nation while also retaining the benefits deriving from vastness of size.
Tocqueville characterizes war as the most important testing ground for a nation’s power and spirit. Given that there is no centralized administration in America, and only an imperfectly organized central government with a tendency toward weakness, he asks why America is not harmed by a great war—and responds that its physical isolation means it has no wars to fear from Europe, while Canada and Mexico are not real threats.
Even as Tocqueville seeks to explain certain aspects of American power and stability as stemming from Americans’ own qualities, he also pays careful attention to the workings of chance in matters such as geographic isolation—thereby acknowledging that America’s success may not always be replicable by other nations.
In sum, Tocqueville admires the federalist system, but he doesn’t imagine that it can be easily replicated anywhere other than in the US—European nations would become weak and susceptible to threats by highly centralized nations, while America luckily escapes such a menace.
Tocqueville concludes by insisting on the uniqueness of the American model: even as he wants to adopt certain lessons from its example, he recognizes that this is not entirely possible.