Alexis de Tocqueville begins Democracy in America by discussing present-day conditions in his own nation, France. Although France—and Europe in general—have long been home to aristocratic monarchies (where a king and queen rule but an aristocratic class also retains power and privileges based on birth), equality of condition (a leveling out of social class hierarchies) is increasingly coming to replace such customs. Tocqueville describes a number of broad historical reasons for these changes, and then admits that he himself is terrified of this democratizing process. However, given that it’s impossible to halt the forces of democratization, he suggests that it would be useful to consider the example of American democracy, where equality of condition has developed further than anywhere else.
Tocqueville first describes the basis of American society by giving a historical account of the Pilgrims who first arrived from England, and the ways in which sovereignty of the people was established quite early on, most notably through the dissemination of power into various townships. He maintains that this helps to mitigate the dangers of highly centralized administration, which can numb or “enervate” nations. Tocqueville elaborates a number of features of America’s federalist system, which divides power between the national capital, the states, and local townships, stressing the ways this system both maintains individual freedom and encourages people to play an active role in their nation’s political affairs. Democratic juries are a key example of active political life in America.
After discussing some of the advantages and disadvantages of great size, Tocqueville discusses the ways America has avoided the dangers of large kingdoms. He returns to a discussion of early American history and the arguments about how to divide power, resulting in the current division of political parties. Tocqueville also draws attention to the power of the press in America, which he praises as a civic institution that promotes liberty and disseminates political knowledge. Political associations are another means by which Americans maintain individual political rights. Indeed, Tocqueville insists on political rights and education as essential to promoting freedom, and he argues that Americans have by and large succeeded in promoting such rights—even if he also draws attention to certain excesses of Americans’ intense political involvement.
Tocqueville subsequently turns to what he considers a crucial aspect of American society: the sovereignty of the majority, which, he warns, can become just as tyrannical as an individual despot. He worries that it’s the very strength of democratic institutions in America that may one day lead to the country’s downfall—arguing against a number of his contemporaries who fear that democracy’s weakness might lead to anarchy and disorder. However, Tocqueville also argues that America has found a number of ways to mitigate tyranny of the majority, especially through law and the jury system, political associations, and the historical effects of Puritanism in early America. He concludes Part One by acknowledging that he doesn’t think France or other countries should copy the American system; still, he argues, American democracy has proved remarkably versatile and powerful.
In Part Two, Tocqueville pays far more attention to non- or extra-political aspects of American culture, expressing more reservations about American democracy and its effect on social life than he had in Part One. He insists that Americans have little concern for philosophy or abstract ideas, preferring simplicity and directness. This is in part why religion can be so useful in a democracy, since it is a clear (though limited) source of authority that also mitigates some of the materialism and selfishness that Tocqueville finds prevalent in democratic societies.
Tocqueville argues that America hasn’t made much progress in science, poetry, or the arts, and he attempts to find political reasons for this weakness. Democratic equality has the unfortunate consequence of making people pursue material desires and economic improvement above all else, he thinks, leaving them little time or interest for more abstract, intellectual affairs. Still, the ability of more and more people to leave desperate poverty behind will only increase the number of those involved in scientific pursuits, even if the quality of such pursuits is lower than in an aristocracy. Tocqueville continues to insist on Americans’ preference for the concrete over the abstract, the practical over the theoretical, and the useful over the beautiful. As a result, America and other democracies will tend to produce more and cheaper commodities rather than fewer, more well-wrought objects. Tocqueville uses similar reasoning to explain what he argues is America’s lack of its own literature. Americans’ lives are unpoetic, he thinks. But he also tries to imagine what poetry will look like in the future, hypothesizing that democratic poetry will increasingly study human nature and try to account for all of human existence.
Tocqueville subsequently returns to his earlier argument that freedom and equality do not necessarily go together—and that, indeed, democracies will always privilege the latter over the former. America’s individualism both results from equality and works to maintain it, he thinks, even while causing bonds between people to erode and threatening the ability of society to function well. This lack of fellow-feeling is what makes democracies particularly prone to despotism, he thinks, even as the political and civic associations that are so prevalent in America have worked against such a threat. Indeed, Tocqueville turns his attention to the various civic institutions, such as town halls and temperance societies, which bind citizens together and work against individualism and materialism.
Tocqueville turns to another aspect of American culture, the intense physical vigor that seems to characterize Americans; he argues that this stems from their embrace of constant activity and striving to improve their material conditions. This is also why industry and commerce are prized above all in America, he thinks, because Americans are eager to become wealthy (and enjoy far more upward mobility than in an aristocracy); however, he warns that the consolidation of wealth among a manufacturing class threatens to erode such social mobility. Tocqueville also discusses Americans’ casual manners and disdain for etiquette, which he contrasts to European attitudes, while also depicting Americans as vain and proud.
Tocqueville then spends some time discussing the institution of the family in America, where the relationship between fathers and sons is characterized by a greater ease than in Europe—there, a sense of patriarchal authority leads to stiff, artificial family relations. Tocqueville also praises the place of women in America, who are given far more independence and respect than they are in Europe. He admires their relatively higher level of education and argues that education should be extended to women as part of extending political rights to everyone. He finds that women play a central role in the success of American democracy—even though he also argues that this participation is predicated on their confinement to the domestic sphere. Indeed, Tocqueville thinks that America has accepted the “natural” differences between men and women and, therefore, that there is actually greater equality between the sexes in the United States.
Tocqueville goes on to describe other characteristics of American manners, from homogeneity of behavior to Americans’ vanity to the monotony of daily life that exists when people’s conditions are more and more the same—Tocqueville fears the “enervating” effects of such homogeneous behaviors, attitudes, and ways of life. He characterizes Americans as ambitious, even as their ambitions have an upper limit: Americans prefer stability and peace above all else, making them unlikely to want to seize power or go to war. Europe is far more revolutionary than America precisely because democracy has not yet secured a place for itself there. Indeed, Tocqueville insists on the relationship between democracy and peace, even as he acknowledges some of the peculiarities of democratic armies, whose soldiers are unique in democratic societies because they are eager for war.
Tocqueville returns to his concern that democracies will continue to prefer increasingly centralized power, in part because of their preference for peace and stability. America has managed to avoid such dangers thus far because its citizens have had a long time to accustom themselves both to individual liberties and to participation in politics on a number of levels. Still, the centralization of power remains a major danger in a democracy. At the same time, though, perhaps the greatest threat to a democracy is the despotism of the majority. Tocqueville depicts a number of hypothetical scenarios of future democratic societies where everyone thinks and acts the same way, where tyranny is diffused in a subtle, insidious, but no less powerful way. As he concludes, he acknowledges that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict the future; he is saddened by the homogenization and increased uniformity of ways of life that he sees, even as he admits that this may be an unavoidable consequence of extending greater equality to all. In any case, he argues that it’s impossible and undesirable to turn back the clock—even as he ends by insisting that people have the power to change their historical conditions, working within the vast processes of democratization in order to maintain and extend individual liberties.