Democracy in America (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Democracy in America (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Written nearly 170 years ago, Democracy in America is a masterful display of insight and foresight into all things American. Doubting whether the American experiment in equality could work, Tocqueville conjectured that democracy would erect a society that would succumb to a different type of tyranny than that of a monarchy or aristocracy - that of the majority. Through detailed interviews with "the most informed men" he could meet, he offers an examination of American institutions and the fabric of American life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411428805
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 556,083
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) worked first as a magistrate and then as a government administrator. Because he fell out of political favor due to his perceived Bourbon sympathies during the July Revolution, he was required to fund his nine-month visit to America himself, even though he was ostensibly coming to complete a survey of the American penal system on behalf of the French government. When Tocqueville arrived in America in May of 1831 he was far more interested in his own questions about America's political future, and Democracy in America is the result of extensive personal research on the subject.


The core assumption of any democratic institution is that the participants in that contract will respect the rights of others, just as much as they expect their own rights to be respected. Unfortunately, clunky political science theories rarely account for the wild card of human nature. As a result, we end up with frequent clashes over how to define where one person's liberty ends and another begins. Does the USA Patriot Act of 2001 violate Americans' right to privacy or is government surveillance a necessary step toward protecting the country from terrorism? At an abortion clinic, what should take priority: the rights of a woman to make decisions about her own body, the rights of the unborn child inside her, or the right to "freedom of speech" held by the protestors who block her entrance to the clinic? Does executing a convicted murderer violate his rights to protection from "cruel and unusual punishment," or does keeping him alive in a prison cell violate the rights of citizens who must bear the financial burden of keeping him alive? Matters are even more complicated when those conflicts pit the few against the majority or the individual against society, when the lone voice cannot overpower the unison choir (and sometimes cacophony) of majority opinion.

When Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) first arrived in America with his friend and co-worker, Gustave de Beaumont, in May 1831, he came hoping to solve a mystery. Europeans, and Tocqueville's fellow French citizens in particular, were intrigued by the evolution of the new American republic and why it seemed to work, considering their own difficulties with forays into "equality" during the preceding forty-five years. Tocqueville knew firsthand how dangerous political revolution could be. His own father had narrowly escaped execution in 1793, and in the early part of his career-first as a magistrate and then as a government administrator-he had seen how quickly the winds of political change could shift in post-Revolution France. By the time of his journey to the United States, he had fallen out of political favor because of the recent July Revolution and his perceived Bourbon sympathies. As a result, Tocqueville and Beaumont were required to fund their nine-month visit to America themselves, even though they were ostensibly coming to complete a survey of the American penal system, then regarded as one of the most humane in the world, on behalf of the French government. Tocqueville, though, was far more interested in his questions about American democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville had his doubts about whether the American experiment in equality could work. His concern focused not on whether a revolution could bring about relative "equality of condition" in a civilized society-clearly the American experience had already demonstrated that it could. Instead, Tocqueville marveled at whether democracy would sustain itself over the long term, whether it could iconoclastically destroy monarchy and aristocracy and, in its place, erect a society in which power would no longer be held by a handful of individuals, yet at the same time not succumb to a different type of tyranny-that of the majority. By immersing himself in America, Tocqueville hoped to pose the questions that would uncover the answer to this riddle.

Tocqueville's method bore none of the quantitative analytical techniques employed by our contemporary political scientists or sociologists. Instead, he thought the best way to learn about America was to go to its citizens-in the obvious locations of New York and Boston and even the not-so-obvious destinations of New Orleans, Detroit, and Memphis, all relatively small cities at the time of his visit. Through a review of the historical documents available to him and detailed interviews with "the most informed men" he could meet, Tocqueville hoped to clarify specifically what it meant to be an American. Some critics have rightly pointed out that Tocqueville's observational evidence comes primarily from the wealthier and more industrial communities of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and that his observations about slavery and the South are made without having spent any substantial time studying plantation culture firsthand. Despite these weaknesses, Tocqueville's Democracy remains a masterful display of insight and foresight into all things American. Coming from a twenty-six-year-old tourist, his observations seem to display nothing short of pure genius.

First-time readers of Democracy in America are cautioned not to assume that Tocqueville's "equality of condition" refers to equal sociological footing for all residents of the United States. He was not speaking of equality among men and women, or among blacks and whites. Instead, his "equality of condition" refers to the embarrassment of riches in individual opportunity, the lack of a clear hierarchical class structure that would permanently stigmatize individuals on the basis of personal wealth, and the tendency of the bulk of white men in Tocqueville's America to be middling in education, wealth, and artistic sensibility. Tocqueville did not intend the observation to be a compliment; he was making social commentary about the environment in which, without any semblance of an aristocracy, democracy had "gained so much strength by time, by events, and by legislation, as to have become not only predominant, but all-powerful." What fascinated Tocqueville most was that Americans had achieved such a balance where no other previous attempt at democracy had succeeded nearly as well, and certainly not in such a short period of time. For Tocqueville, the secret of the success of American democracy was the lack of a lengthy national history of life under an American monarch or an American despot. "The great advantage of the Americans," Tocqueville noted, "is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution, and that they are born equal instead of becoming so."

Democracy in America consists of two volumes, written five years apart, each divided into a series of chapters designed to tackle questions Tocqueville sees as key to understanding democracy, America, and its citizenry. Volume I probes the key features of American democracy that distinguish its experiment in "equality of condition" from all that have preceded it. The analysis covers the obvious elements of political and societal structure that one might expect a political theorist to tackle in such a work, but he is also quick to examine the social and cultural influences that shaped the unique American experiment in democracy. In one of the most fascinating and, in some respects, prophetically frightening parts of Democracy , Tocqueville analyzes "The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races" in America: Anglo-European, Black, and Native American. For the Native Americans, Tocqueville offers little hope in the face of America's Indian Removal policy and territorial expansion: "[A]s the limits of the earth will at last fail them, their only refuge is the grave." And about the treatment of blacks in America, he makes this prediction: "Slavery,...contrasted with democratic liberty and the intelligence of our age, cannot survive. By the act of the master, or by the will of the age, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue."

Volume II, on the other hand, focuses on the specific cultural attributes of the American citizenry and how those traits are influenced by the philosophical assumptions of American society, specifically America's democratic principles and "equality of condition." Tocqueville briefly quips on the everyday features of American experience, ranging from American attitudes toward the arts, American newspapers, and American religion, to "why so many ambitious men and so little lofty ambition are to be found in the United States." Here Tocqueville accomplishes what any cultural or political analysis must do to be successful-his political theories already well established from the first volume, he shows us, through myriad windows into American life, why he is right. And always in the background, hauntingly so, is the specter of his prediction that the American experiment just might fail because of the specific nature of American democracy.

"I have no objection to the liberty of speech," Alexander H. Stephens wrote to Thomas H. Thomas in 1856, the day after John Brown's Pottawatomie Creek massacre, "[so long as] the liberty of the cudgel is left free to combat it." Such is the conflict among American democratic ideals and their various guarantees, or more importantly, the conflict between the rights of others and the fundamental American tendency to unleash one's sense of individual entitlement on the society as a whole. Tocqueville gracefully called it "individualism," a new vice he specifically attributed to the spread of democracy, one which "make[s] every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." Tocqueville saw the great threat of American democracy in the potential for a single individual, by sheer will of the majority, to attain a sufficiently strong elected role in central government to carry out his personal agenda, all under the auspices of doing the "work of the people." One need not look far into America's future from Tocqueville's perspective to see examples of such despotism laying its roots: Lincoln's illegal suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court, Reagan's "forgotten" role in Iran-Contra.

Tocqueville's masterwork was in its twelfth edition by 1848, and by 1862, a new translation of the Henry Reeve text had been issued, with corrections supplied by Francis Bowen. Critical reaction to the work from the beginning was stunningly positive, with John Stuart Mill's support for the text prompting much of the interest in the text among American readers. The success of Tocqueville's work can perhaps best be measured in comparison to his companion Beaumont's novel on slavery entitled Marie, or Slavery in the United States . It also accorded remarkably positive reviews when it first appeared, prompting heated discussion in both Europe and the United States about the conditions of slavery. Today Marie remains virtually unread and forgotten except among the most well-read slavery scholars.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, though, Democracy in America itself was no longer even in print. Then, following World War II, with national concerns focused on democratic ideals in the face of communism, and, in the 1960s and 1970s, with those same democratic ideals facing fierce criticism in light of the Vietnam experience and the Nixon presidency, Tocqueville suddenly became popular again. Today, it has become quite fashionable to quote Tocqueville in conjunction with any discussion of American democracy and its merits. As we might expect, Tocqueville is routinely paraded before the American people whenever a politician of any stripe wishes to lend credence to his or her particular interpretation of what democracy "means" in America. And every few years, a new Tocqueville scholar comes forward with his or her self-described "authoritative translation" of Tocqueville, often reopening debate about exactly what Tocqueville meant and what his views reveal about America today.

At times mesmerizing for his remarkable insight and the durability of his observations even today, at other times laugh-out-loud funny for how wrong he can be, Tocqueville offers us an examination of American institutions and the fabric of American life that will engross anyone with an interest in American political, social, cultural, or intellectual history. Democracy is best appreciated-and best understood-if it is read in its entirety, and considering that even Iran's President Mohammed Khatami held Tocqueville in sufficient regard to make a favorable nod to the French traveler in 1998, Americans should recognize that Tocqueville remains a seminal text of international interest to those hoping to understand America. To read Democracy in America as a complete work is to understand how others saw us-and in fact how we saw ourselves-in our nation's youth, and the experience will prompt readers to question whether the American experiment, with all that it promised in the beginning, has succeeded or failed.

Eric W. Plaag teaches history and politics at the university level.

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Democracy in America 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
De Tocqueville was simply of one of the great social scientists writing about America and Democracy. From reading the book I deduced that De Tocqueville was a social scientist before Marx! He compares European culture and government with the fledgling culture and democracy he observes in America. He is very much impressed with what he sees taking place in America in the 1830's and hopes it will spread to Europe. He at first believed that America's prosperity was simply due to geography and their distance from powerful neighbors, he abandons this idea after his visit to America. He comes to realize that the West is not being peopled 'by new European immigrants to America, but by Americans who he believes have no adversity to taking risks'. De Tocqueville comes to see that Americans are the most broadly educated and politically advanced people in the world and one of the reasons for the success of our form of government. He also foretells America's industrial preeminence and strength through the unfettered spread of ideas and human industry. De Tocqueville also saw the insidious damage that the institution of slavery was causing the country and predicted some 30 years before the Civil War that slavery would probable cause the states to fragment from the union. He also the emergence of stronger states rights over the power of the federal government. He held fast to his belief that the greatest danger to democracy was the trend toward the concentration of power by the federal government. He predicted wrongly that the union would probably break up into 2 or 3 countries because of regional interests and differences. This idea is the only one about America that he gets wrong. Despite some of his misgivings, De Tocqueville, saw that democracy is an 'inescapable development' of the modern world. The arguments in the 'Federalist Papers' were greater than most people realized. He saw a social revolution coming that continues throughout the world today. De Tocqueville realizes at the very beginning of the 'industrial revolution' how industry, centralization and democracy strengthened each other and moved forward together. I am convinced that De Tocqueville is still the preeminent observer of America but is also the father of social science. A must read for anyone interested in American history, political philosophy or the social sciences.
Russell_Kirk More than 1 year ago
Interesting and well written of a perspective on the U.S. in the 19th century; de Tocqueville examines our form of democracy, political associations and the races at that time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This abridged version of the classic was so good that I got the full version which is over twice as long. However, this version does present the ideas well. The translation uses a bit outdated English but the positive side of that is that it reminds you when it was written, i.e. about 1840. It not only predicts current day problems but seems to point to the coming Civil War, the Mexican War and the trouble between labor and big business. Actually so many of the warnings have come to pass that I found myself wondering if we still have a republic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Toqueville's work unquestionably will last for as long as human nature remains the same. Certainly, it is diverting to read accounts about the topography and anachronistically idiosyncratic habits of the inhabitants of America over a century ago; the fundamental value of his work, however, lies in his understanding of human nature that does not change throughout time. More than most (if not all) writers on the American polity, he perceives how certain tendencies of human nature are revealed in the particular society founded upon practical wisdom, personal responsibility, self-reliance, and faith. Many of his disquisitions on these tendencies that could be accentuated in American democracy are now more thought-provoking than ever. One prominent example is his intuitive grasp of a challenge to Americans. He shows famously how they are practical and intent upon getting things done by combining in 'societies.' A problem could occur if ever the citizens in general become selfish and much less self-reliant: 'individualism' could arise. He articulates a bleak portrait of a society in which none care to take personal responsibility, but are willing to sacrifice freedom for temporary security. This is disquieting for modern society, and it would be well were more people to read his work and learn from it.
mentormom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written over 150 years ago, Democracy In America is even more important and compelling today than it was then. This past fall, I had the opportunity to teach a Government class for my college. My class studied the second volume of this invaluable classic. It was such a pleasure to study it through a mentor's eyes. It truly came alive for me in a way that it never had before as I prepared to teach it.Despite his young age, Tocqueville was a master at understanding human nature. Volume II is filled with both compliments for American culture and cautionary advice for us as citizens. It's amazing how accurate his predictions and warnings were. We are falling into the very snares and excesses about which he cautioned. I wish that all Americans would take the time to read this insightful volume. If we would simply heed Tocqueville's admonitions, we would be well on our way to rebuilding our great American culture and securing our liberty. ¿When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.¿ ~Alexis de Tocqueville
Carolfoasia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Loved this! It was so interesting to read an outsiders perspective of America in between the American Revolution and Civil War.
Whiskey3pa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most important things ever written about the US. Really thoughtful and insightful.
callmemiss on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Still the most acute analysis of what makes Americans special.
mramos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a classic treatise by a French aristocrat who comprehensively examines the underpinnings of American democatic institutions. Including the rights and powers provided by the Consitution, forms of governments, and concepts of freedom and equality. In this book he also analyzes the influence of democratic values on intellectual movements, customs and political society. This treatise was originally written in 1835.
Smiley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What Tocqueville has to say about the American character is still mostly true, but his observations of our political institutions have been supplanted by the welfare state and our role in world empire. Our loss I think. He is almost silent on state institutions, but has some valid, if now sadly historical, observations on local government.
heidilove on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most important political works of its time, Democracy In America is still referred to today.
Hawkeye51 More than 1 year ago
De Toqueville's observations detailing just who the Americans are, remains valid to this day. His writings do not confirm the pretentious belief in American Exceptionalism rather, they expose the subtle differences in how we view individualism and the State and the belief system in continental Europe.
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