Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

In 1831, the French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the

United States of America, a nation in which the citizenry had rejected such

things as income taxation, welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid,

public schooling, drug wars, economic regulations, gun control, and

immigration controls. The following excerpts are taken from Tocqueville's

book Democracy in America:

"The Revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and

reflecting preference of freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving

for independence. It contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of

anarchy; but its course was marked, on the contrary, by a love of order and

law." (page 62)

"The English who emigrated . to found a democratic commonwealth on the

shores of the New World had all learned to take a part in public affairs in

their mother country; they were conversant with trial by jury; they were

accustomed to liberty of speech and of the press; -- to personal freedom, to

the notion of rights and the practice of asserting them. They carried with

them to America these free institutions and manly customs, and these

institutions preserved them against the encroachments of the state." (page


"The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely on his own

exertions, in order to resist the evils of life; he looks upon the social

authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance

only when he is unable to do without it." (page 95)

"In the United States, as soon as a man has acquired some education and

pecuniary resources, he either endeavors to get rich by commerce or

industry, or he buys land in the bush and turns pioneer. All that he asks of

the state is, not to be disturbed in his toil, and to be secure of his

earnings." (page 27)

"When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however connected it

may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the

co-operation of the government; but he publishes his plan, offers to execute

it, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully

against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the

state might have been in his position; but in the end, the sum of these

private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done."

(page 70)

"The most natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself,

is that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow-creatures, and

of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to

me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty. No

legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society."

(page 98)

"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly

form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing

companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other

kinds, -- religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous

or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to

found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to

send missionaries to the antipodes; they found in this manner hospitals,

prisons, and schools." (page 198)

"But it would be a simpler and less dangerous remedy to grant no privilege

to any, giving to all equal cultivation and equal independence, and leaving

every one to determine his own position. Natural inequality will soon make

way for itself, and wealth will spontaneously pass into the hands of the

most capable." (page 161)

"[Some people] have a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to

lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in

slavery to inequality with freedom.. I believe that it is easier to

establish an absolute and despotic government amongst a people in which the

conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other; and I think that,

if such a government were once established amongst such a people, it would

not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of

the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism, therefore, appears to me

peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times." (page 306)

"As the conditions of men become equal amongst a people, individuals seem of

less, and society of greater importance; or rather, every citizen, being

assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands

conspicuous but the great and imposing image of the people at large. This

naturally gives the men of democratic periods a lofty opinion of the

privileges of society, and a very humble notion of the rights of

individuals; they are ready to admit that the interests of the former are

everything, and those of the latter nothing. They are willing to acknowledge

that the power which represents the community has far more information and

wisdom than any of the members of that community; and that it is the duty,

as well as the right, of that power, to guide as well as govern each private

citizen." (page 291)

"I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations

are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our

contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in

vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I

have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate:

the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must define it." (pages


"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes

upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their

fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would

be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was

to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in

perpetual childhood: It is well content that the people should rejoice,

provided they think of nothing but rejoicing." (page 303)

"For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to

be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for

their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their

pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry,

regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what

remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of

living?" (page 303)

"Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less

useful and less frequent: it circumscribes the will within a narrower range

and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of

equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure

them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits." (pages 303-4)

"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its

powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends

its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a

network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the

most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to

rise above the crowd." (pages 303-4)

"The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are

seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting:

such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not

tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a

people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of

timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

(pages 303-4)

"I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet and gentle kind

which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly

believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even

establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people." (pages


"But it happens that, at the same period and amongst the same nations in

which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private persons, the

rights of society at large are naturally extended and consolidated: in other

words, men become less attached to private rights just when it is most

necessary to retain and defend what little remains of them." (pages 310-11)

"It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times that the

true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be

on the alert, to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing

the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs.

At such times, no citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to

allow him to be oppressed; no private rights are so unimportant that they

can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government." (pages


"Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they

want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either

the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy

them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all powerful form of

government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of

centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite:

they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they

have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in

leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of

persons but the people at large, who hold the end of his chain." (page 304)

"A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort

of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the

people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of

individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation

at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies

less to me than the fact of extorted obedience." (page 304)

"Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are

not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent,

because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is

no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself, or clothed with rights so

sacred, that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority.

When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on

any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a

republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere,

under other laws." (page 115)

These excerpts and page references are from Tocqueville's Democracy in

America, Mentor Book edition, edited by Richard D. Heffner (New York: The

New American Library, 1956), as reprinted in an article entitled "Democracy

in America: A Challenge to Free Men" by Robert G. Bearce, which appeared in

the January 1976 issue of The Freeman, published by The Foundation for

Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

January 1976 issue of The Freeman
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