DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: Volume I & II
Alexis de Tocqueville
Pub. 1835 & 1840
The Henry Reeve Text as revised by Francis Bowen now further corrected and edited with a Historical Essay, Editorial Notes, and Bibliography by Phillips Bradley, 1945.
Is it possible that the most powerful and influential published work ever written about modern democracy, hailed as the most remarkable book ever written about early America, was actually crafted by a Frenchmen visiting the country over 180 years ago? Many historians consider Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, to be the most significant manuscript ever written depicting the early ethos of our burgeoning American experiment.
De Tocqueville’s writings address the larger issues and deeper meanings concerning the impact of democracy sweeping through Europe and America of the beginning 1800’s. Aided by a youthful physical energy and a superior intellect he produces an energetic and reasoned political philosophy, Democracy in America, that details the nature of the institutions and organizations creating American liberty. Astonishingly, the making of these liberties continue to this day!
As I have often found, the best place to begin the reading of many historical texts is within the Appendices. That is certainly true for Democracy as Phillip Bradley outlines the events leading to Tocqueville’s authorship in Appendix II, “A Historical Essay”. This is a marvelous read that enables one to fully understand the yet-to-be worldwide impact of two young men who landed at the foot of Manhattan on the morning of May 11, 1831. They had arrived on an official mission from their government, France, to study the American prison system. Thus, Alexis deTocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont began their travels that covered over seven thousand miles through America and Canada before setting sail for home on February 20, 1832. Only later did they decide to write individually of their experiences in America, “…each maintained his way in perfect accord” and remained life long friends.
Their grand design shifted, however, from the prison system, to the nature and working of democracy in America as it might apply to Europe. De Tocqueville’s mind had moved away from the political ideas of the ’ancient regime’ toward the French liberal movement that was leading the way toward democracy. France, after its disastrous attempt to copy the American Revolution, was to spend the next 75 years in a constant upheaval of religious and political turmoil bringing to birth their new democratic relationships. Because de Tocqueville’s work was of the highest intellectual standards and his methods of research surpassed most of his contemporaries, Democracy was recognized as a political treatise of the first order and a foundation to guide and to test the French change to democracy. It was received as a masterpiece from its first day of publication, and, so, it remains to this day.
Until de Tocqueville, most foreign writings about America were casual and vitriolic travelogues full of ridicule. De Tocqueville’s lack of bias and degree of accuracy were unprecedented in the genre. As one noted with high regard, “ The difference between de Tocqueville and our common herd of travelers, is, that when he speaks of the principles of government he knows what he is talking of.” Some acknowledged it as ”… the best philosophical work on American democracy yet written.” Nevertheless, it was slow to gain full recognition in America because of the prejudice against the French promoted by General Andrew Jackson’s war spirit.
Particularly germane to C-133 crewmembers are five chapters that contrast a democratic nation’s desire for peace and their armies’ for war. De Tocqueville reasons that a desire for peace emanates from men acquiring property, the growth of personal wealth, and the gentleness of heart all that cool the military spirit. However, de Tocqueville makes it quite clear that all nations must have an army, as there would be no escaping worldwide aggression. He believed that the best citizens of democracy would shun the military because it does not reward with property or wealth. Consequently, the democratic soldier would generally feel inferior as he gained status only when the democracy is threatened with hostilities–creating an ongoing dynamic tension between the democracy and it army.
In my opinion, history is not on the side of de Tocqueville regarding this theory. Since de Tocqueville’s time, there has never been an instance in modern history where one democratic country has attacked another. And, secondly, democratic nations in their maturity have made the military an honorable profession – recognizing democracy’s inherent vulnerability to totalitarian aggression. For example, America’s all-volunteer force is regarded as the world’s best and held in high regard by its citizens. In fact, it is considered the highest rated government institution in America by a large factor.
A notable and prescient judgment about the future made by de Tocqueville that will interest crewmembers is from the last paragraph of Volume I and concern ‘two great countries’, Russia and America. He seemed to sense the growing ideological conflict that would increase between these two nations that lasted over fifty years, consumed most of the life of C-133 crewmembers, and was armed in nature. However, a worldwide conflagration was avoided through the advent of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
De Tocqueville saw them starting from different points but destined for great influence. “Each seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” They had grown up largely unnoticed but were suddenly in the front ranks among nations, and the world was ‘learning of their existence and their greatness’. All others had seemed to reach their natural limits and power and had seemed to stop or to proceed only with extreme difficulty, but these two alone were proceeding with ‘ease and celerity’ along a path which ’no limit can be perceived’
These two great nations, of course, collided during the 20th Century and during the life of C-133 crewmembers. De Tocqueville’s initial impressions that democracy, the great experiment of America, would create a nation made by civilized man that would, in turn, create a ‘spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past,” all came to fruition during the Cold War. America’s advance by the plowshare and by principles of freedom trumped Russia’s advance by the sword and servitude. One country became part of the totalitarian, mega-murdering communists, and the other the savior of the free world.
Throughout the decades of an ever-changing political landscape, politicians of all stripes have quoted salient excerpts from this historical writing to bolster their arguments. Other than the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, Democracy is arguably the most important work about citizen participation in government during the early formation of our country and illuminates America’s meaning to the Founders. A major personal regret of mine is that I did not read it while in my teens and every decade since. I am sure other readers will share this lament. It is a powerful story!
Richard Spencer, Ph.D.
39th ATS, DAFB
P.S. I have now published about 20 reviews over the past two years and it is time to sincerely thank those who have helped me, especially with the editing. My brother, Ronald Spencer, J.D., and a family friend, Deborah Hartman as both have unselfishly given of their time. Also, Dick Hanson for posting them in a manner that provides for pleasant reading and viewing. And, thank all of you for your kind comments.