Democracy in america by Alexis De Tocqueville

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By Alexis De Tocqueville

Translated by Henry Reeve

Book One
Introductory Chapter
Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay

in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general

equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence

which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by

giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to

the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar

habits to the governed. I speedily perceived that the influence of this

fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the

country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over

the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the

ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce.

The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I

perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from

which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all

my observations constantly terminated.
I then turned my thoughts to our own hemisphere, where I imagined that

I discerned something analogous to the spectacle which the New World

presented to me. I observed that the equality of conditions is daily

progressing towards those extreme limits which it seems to have reached

in the United States, and that the democracy which governs the American

communities appears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe. I hence

conceived the idea of the book which is now before the reader.
It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is

going on amongst us; but there are two opinions as to its nature and

consequences. To some it appears to be a novel accident, which as such

may still be checked; to others it seems irresistible, because it is the

most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is

to be found in history. Let us recollect the situation of France seven

hundred years ago, when the territory was divided amongst a small number

of families, who were the owners of the soil and the rulers of

the inhabitants; the right of governing descended with the family

inheritance from generation to generation; force was the only means by

which man could act on man, and landed property was the sole source of

power. Soon, however, the political power of the clergy was founded, and

began to exert itself: the clergy opened its ranks to all classes, to

the poor and the rich, the villein and the lord; equality penetrated

into the Government through the Church, and the being who as a serf must

have vegetated in perpetual bondage took his place as a priest in the

midst of nobles, and not infrequently above the heads of kings.
The different relations of men became more complicated and more numerous

as society gradually became more stable and more civilized. Thence the

want of civil laws was felt; and the order of legal functionaries soon

rose from the obscurity of the tribunals and their dusty chambers, to

appear at the court of the monarch, by the side of the feudal barons in

their ermine and their mail. Whilst the kings were ruining themselves

by their great enterprises, and the nobles exhausting their resources

by private wars, the lower orders were enriching themselves by commerce.

The influence of money began to be perceptible in State affairs. The

transactions of business opened a new road to power, and the financier

rose to a station of political influence in which he was at once

flattered and despised. Gradually the spread of mental acquirements, and

the increasing taste for literature and art, opened chances of success

to talent; science became a means of government, intelligence led to

social power, and the man of letters took a part in the affairs of the

State. The value attached to the privileges of birth decreased in the

exact proportion in which new paths were struck out to advancement. In

the eleventh century nobility was beyond all price; in the thirteenth

it might be purchased; it was conferred for the first time in 1270;

and equality was thus introduced into the Government by the aristocracy

In the course of these seven hundred years it sometimes happened that in

order to resist the authority of the Crown, or to diminish the power of

their rivals, the nobles granted a certain share of political rights to

the people. Or, more frequently, the king permitted the lower orders

to enjoy a degree of power, with the intention of repressing the

aristocracy. In France the kings have always been the most active and

the most constant of levellers. When they were strong and ambitious they

spared no pains to raise the people to the level of the nobles; when

they were temperate or weak they allowed the people to rise above

themselves. Some assisted the democracy by their talents, others by

their vices. Louis XI and Louis XIV reduced every rank beneath the

throne to the same subjection; Louis XV descended, himself and all his

Court, into the dust.
As soon as land was held on any other than a feudal tenure, and

personal property began in its turn to confer influence and power, every

improvement which was introduced in commerce or manufacture was a fresh

element of the equality of conditions. Henceforward every new discovery,

every new want which it engendered, and every new desire which craved

satisfaction, was a step towards the universal level. The taste for

luxury, the love of war, the sway of fashion, and the most superficial

as well as the deepest passions of the human heart, co-operated to

enrich the poor and to impoverish the rich.
From the time when the exercise of the intellect became the source of

strength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition

to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power

placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory,

the grace of wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all

the gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand, turned

to the advantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the

possession of its adversaries they still served its cause by throwing

into relief the natural greatness of man; its conquests spread,

therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature

became an arsenal where the poorest and the weakest could always find

weapons to their hand.

In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a

single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not

turned to the advantage of equality. The Crusades and the wars of the

English decimated the nobles and divided their possessions; the erection

of communities introduced an element of democratic liberty into the

bosom of feudal monarchy; the invention of fire-arms equalized the

villein and the noble on the field of battle; printing opened the same

resources to the minds of all classes; the post was organized so as to

bring the same information to the door of the poor man's cottage and to

the gate of the palace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are

alike able to find the road to heaven. The discovery of America offered

a thousand new paths to fortune, and placed riches and power within

the reach of the adventurous and the obscure. If we examine what has

happened in France at intervals of fifty years, beginning with the

eleventh century, we shall invariably perceive that a twofold revolution

has taken place in the state of society. The noble has gone down on the

social ladder, and the roturier has gone up; the one descends as the

other rises. Every half century brings them nearer to each other, and

they will very shortly meet.
Nor is this phenomenon at all peculiar to France. Whithersoever we turn

our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the

whole of Christendom. The various occurrences of national existence have

everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it

by their exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause,

and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for

it and those who have declared themselves its opponents, have all

been driven along in the same track, have all labored to one end, some

ignorantly and some unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the

hands of God.

The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a

providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine

decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human

interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its

progress. Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social impulse which

dates from so far back can be checked by the efforts of a generation? Is

it credible that the democracy which has annihilated the feudal system

and vanquished kings will respect the citizen and the capitalist? Will

it stop now that it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?

None can say which way we are going, for all terms of comparison are

wanting: the equality of conditions is more complete in the Christian

countries of the present day than it has been at any time or in any part

of the world; so that the extent of what already exists prevents us from

foreseeing what may be yet to come.

The whole book which is here offered to the public has been written

under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the

author's mind by the contemplation of so irresistible a revolution,

which has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and

which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is

not necessary that God himself should speak in order to disclose to

us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the

habitual course of nature, and in the invariable tendency of events: I

know, without a special revelation, that the planets move in the orbits

traced by the Creator's finger. If the men of our time were led by

attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the

gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the

past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the

sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to

check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and

the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot

awarded to them by Providence.
The Christian nations of our age seem to me to present a most alarming

spectacle; the impulse which is bearing them along is so strong that it

cannot be stopped, but it is not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided:

their fate is in their hands; yet a little while and it may be so no

longer. The first duty which is at this time imposed upon those who

direct our affairs is to educate the democracy; to warm its faith,

if that be possible; to purify its morals; to direct its energies;

to substitute a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and an

acquaintance with its true interests for its blind propensities; to

adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it in compliance

with the occurrences and the actors of the age. A new science of

politics is indispensable to a new world. This, however, is what we

think of least; launched in the middle of a rapid stream, we obstinately

fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we

have left, whilst the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards

towards the gulf.

In no country in Europe has the great social revolution which I have

been describing made such rapid progress as in France; but it has always

been borne on by chance. The heads of the State have never had any

forethought for its exigencies, and its victories have been obtained

without their consent or without their knowledge. The most powerful, the

most intelligent, and the most moral classes of the nation have never

attempted to connect themselves with it in order to guide it. The people

has consequently been abandoned to its wild propensities, and it has

grown up like those outcasts who receive their education in the

public streets, and who are unacquainted with aught but the vices and

wretchedness of society. The existence of a democracy was seemingly

unknown, when on a sudden it took possession of the supreme power.

Everything was then submitted to its caprices; it was worshipped as the

idol of strength; until, when it was enfeebled by its own excesses, the

legislator conceived the rash project of annihilating its power, instead

of instructing it and correcting its vices; no attempt was made to fit

it to govern, but all were bent on excluding it from the government.
The consequence of this has been that the democratic revolution has been

effected only in the material parts of society, without that concomitant

change in laws, ideas, customs, and manners which was necessary to

render such a revolution beneficial. We have gotten a democracy, but

without the conditions which lessen its vices and render its natural

advantages more prominent; and although we already perceive the evils it

brings, we are ignorant of the benefits it may confer.
While the power of the Crown, supported by the aristocracy, peaceably

governed the nations of Europe, society possessed, in the midst of its

wretchedness, several different advantages which can now scarcely be

appreciated or conceived. The power of a part of his subjects was an

insurmountable barrier to the tyranny of the prince; and the monarch,

who felt the almost divine character which he enjoyed in the eyes of

the multitude, derived a motive for the just use of his power from the

respect which he inspired. High as they were placed above the people,

the nobles could not but take that calm and benevolent interest in

its fate which the shepherd feels towards his flock; and without

acknowledging the poor as their equals, they watched over the destiny of

those whose welfare Providence had entrusted to their care. The people

never having conceived the idea of a social condition different from its

own, and entertaining no expectation of ever ranking with its chiefs,

received benefits from them without discussing their rights. It grew

attached to them when they were clement and just, and it submitted

without resistance or servility to their exactions, as to the inevitable

visitations of the arm of God. Custom, and the manners of the time,

had moreover created a species of law in the midst of violence, and

established certain limits to oppression. As the noble never suspected

that anyone would attempt to deprive him of the privileges which

he believed to be legitimate, and as the serf looked upon his own

inferiority as a consequence of the immutable order of nature, it is

easy to imagine that a mutual exchange of good-will took place between

two classes so differently gifted by fate. Inequality and wretchedness

were then to be found in society; but the souls of neither rank of men

were degraded. Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power or debased

by the habit of obedience, but by the exercise of a power which they

believe to be illegal and by obedience to a rule which they consider

to be usurped and oppressive. On one side was wealth, strength, and

leisure, accompanied by the refinements of luxury, the elegance of

taste, the pleasures of wit, and the religion of art. On the other was

labor and a rude ignorance; but in the midst of this coarse and ignorant

multitude it was not uncommon to meet with energetic passions, generous

sentiments, profound religious convictions, and independent virtues. The

body of a State thus organized might boast of its stability, its power,

and, above all, of its glory.
But the scene is now changed, and gradually the two ranks mingle; the

divisions which once severed mankind are lowered, property is divided,

power is held in common, the light of intelligence spreads, and the

capacities of all classes are equally cultivated; the State becomes

democratic, and the empire of democracy is slowly and peaceably

introduced into the institutions and the manners of the nation. I can

conceive a society in which all men would profess an equal attachment

and respect for the laws of which they are the common authors; in which

the authority of the State would be respected as necessary, though not

as divine; and the loyalty of the subject to its chief magistrate would

not be a passion, but a quiet and rational persuasion. Every individual

being in the possession of rights which he is sure to retain, a kind of

manly reliance and reciprocal courtesy would arise between all classes,

alike removed from pride and meanness. The people, well acquainted

with its true interests, would allow that in order to profit by the

advantages of society it is necessary to satisfy its demands. In this

state of things the voluntary association of the citizens might supply

the individual exertions of the nobles, and the community would be alike

protected from anarchy and from oppression.
I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not

be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and

directed forwards; if there be less splendor than in the halls of an

aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also; the

pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will

be more general; the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but

ignorance will be less common; the impetuosity of the feelings will be

repressed, and the habits of the nation softened; there will be more

vices and fewer crimes. In the absence of enthusiasm and of an

ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a

commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience;

each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his

fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if

they are to assist he must co-operate, he will readily perceive that his

personal interest is identified with the interest of the community. The

nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and

perhaps less strong; but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a

greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not

because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the

advantages of its condition. If all the consequences of this state of

things were not good or useful, society would at least have appropriated

all such as were useful and good; and having once and for ever

renounced the social advantages of aristocracy, mankind would enter into

possession of all the benefits which democracy can afford.

But here it may be asked what we have adopted in the place of those

institutions, those ideas, and those customs of our forefathers which

we have abandoned. The spell of royalty is broken, but it has not been

succeeded by the majesty of the laws; the people has learned to despise

all authority, but fear now extorts a larger tribute of obedience than

that which was formerly paid by reverence and by love.

I perceive that we have destroyed those independent beings which were

able to cope with tyranny single-handed; but it is the Government

that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and

individuals have been deprived; the weakness of the whole community has

therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which,

if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative. The division

of property has lessened the distance which separated the rich from the

poor; but it would seem that the nearer they draw to each other, the

greater is their mutual hatred, and the more vehement the envy and the

dread with which they resist each other's claims to power; the notion of

Right is alike insensible to both classes, and Force affords to both the

only argument for the present, and the only guarantee for the future.

The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their

faith, and their ignorance without their virtues; he has adopted

the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without

understanding the science which controls it, and his egotism is no less

blind than his devotedness was formerly. If society is tranquil, it is

not because it relies upon its strength and its well-being, but because

it knows its weakness and its infirmities; a single effort may cost it

its life; everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy

enough to seek the cure; the desires, the regret, the sorrows, and the

joys of the time produce nothing that is visible or permanent, like the

passions of old men which terminate in impotence.
We have, then, abandoned whatever advantages the old state of things

afforded, without receiving any compensation from our present condition;

we have destroyed an aristocracy, and we seem inclined to survey its

ruins with complacency, and to fix our abode in the midst of them.

The phenomena which the intellectual world presents are not less

deplorable. The democracy of France, checked in its course or abandoned

to its lawless passions, has overthrown whatever crossed its path, and

has shaken all that it has not destroyed. Its empire on society has

not been gradually introduced or peaceably established, but it has

constantly advanced in the midst of disorder and the agitation of a

conflict. In the heat of the struggle each partisan is hurried beyond

the limits of his opinions by the opinions and the excesses of his

opponents, until he loses sight of the end of his exertions, and holds a

language which disguises his real sentiments or secret instincts. Hence

arises the strange confusion which we are witnessing. I cannot recall to

my mind a passage in history more worthy of sorrow and of pity than the

scenes which are happening under our eyes; it is as if the natural bond

which unites the opinions of man to his tastes and his actions to

his principles was now broken; the sympathy which has always been

acknowledged between the feelings and the ideas of mankind appears to

be dissolved, and all the laws of moral analogy to be dissolved, and all

the laws of moral analogy to be abolished.

Zealous Christians may be found amongst us whose minds are nurtured in

the love and knowledge of a future life, and who readily espouse

the cause of human liberty as the source of all moral greatness.

Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of

God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the

eye of the law. But, by a singular concourse of events, religion is

entangled in those institutions which democracy assails, and it is not

unfrequently brought to reject the equality it loves, and to curse that

cause of liberty as a foe which it might hallow by its alliance.
By the side of these religious men I discern others whose looks are

turned to the earth more than to Heaven; they are the partisans of

liberty, not only as the source of the noblest virtues, but more

especially as the root of all solid advantages; and they sincerely

desire to extend its sway, and to impart its blessings to mankind. It

is natural that they should hasten to invoke the assistance of religion,

for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality,

nor morality without faith; but they have seen religion in the ranks of

their adversaries, and they inquire no further; some of them attack it

openly, and the remainder are afraid to defend it.

In former ages slavery has been advocated by the venal and

slavish-minded, whilst the independent and the warm-hearted were

struggling without hope to save the liberties of mankind. But men of

high and generous characters are now to be met with, whose opinions are

at variance with their inclinations, and who praise that servility which

they have themselves never known. Others, on the contrary, speak in

the name of liberty, as if they were able to feel its sanctity and its

majesty, and loudly claim for humanity those rights which they have

always disowned. There are virtuous and peaceful individuals whose

pure morality, quiet habits, affluence, and talents fit them to be the

leaders of the surrounding population; their love of their country is

sincere, and they are prepared to make the greatest sacrifices to its

welfare, but they confound the abuses of civilization with its benefits,

and the idea of evil is inseparable in their minds from that of novelty.

Not far from this class is another party, whose object is to materialize

mankind, to hit upon what is expedient without heeding what is just,

to acquire knowledge without faith, and prosperity apart from virtue;

assuming the title of the champions of modern civilization, and placing

themselves in a station which they usurp with insolence, and from

which they are driven by their own unworthiness. Where are we then?

The religionists are the enemies of liberty, and the friends of liberty

attack religion; the high-minded and the noble advocate subjection,

and the meanest and most servile minds preach independence; honest and

enlightened citizens are opposed to all progress, whilst men without

patriotism and without principles are the apostles of civilization and

of intelligence. Has such been the fate of the centuries which have

preceded our own? and has man always inhabited a world like the present,

where nothing is linked together, where virtue is without genius, and

genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste

for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law;

where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and

where nothing seems to be any longer forbidden or allowed, honorable

or shameful, false or true? I cannot, however, believe that the Creator

made man to leave him in an endless struggle with the intellectual

miseries which surround us: God destines a calmer and a more certain

future to the communities of Europe; I am unacquainted with His designs,

but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them,

and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than His justice.

There is a country in the world where the great revolution which I am

speaking of seems nearly to have reached its natural limits; it has

been effected with ease and simplicity, say rather that this country

has attained the consequences of the democratic revolution which we

are undergoing without having experienced the revolution itself. The

emigrants who fixed themselves on the shores of America in the beginning

of the seventeenth century severed the democratic principle from all

the principles which repressed it in the old communities of Europe, and

transplanted it unalloyed to the New World. It has there been allowed to

spread in perfect freedom, and to put forth its consequences in the laws

by influencing the manners of the country.
It appears to me beyond a doubt that sooner or later we shall arrive,

like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of conditions. But I

do not conclude from this that we shall ever be necessarily led to draw

the same political consequences which the Americans have derived from

a similar social organization. I am far from supposing that they have

chosen the only form of government which a democracy may adopt; but the

identity of the efficient cause of laws and manners in the two countries

is sufficient to account for the immense interest we have in becoming

acquainted with its effects in each of them.
It is not, then, merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have

examined America; my wish has been to find instruction by which we may

ourselves profit. Whoever should imagine that I have intended to write a

panegyric will perceive that such was not my design; nor has it been

my object to advocate any form of government in particular, for I am

of opinion that absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any

legislation; I have not even affected to discuss whether the social

revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous or

prejudicial to mankind; I have acknowledged this revolution as a fact

already accomplished or on the eve of its accomplishment; and I have

selected the nation, from amongst those which have undergone it, in

which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete,

in order to discern its natural consequences, and, if it be possible, to

distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable. I confess

that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy

itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its

passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its


In the first part of this work I have attempted to show the tendency

given to the laws by the democracy of America, which is abandoned almost

without restraint to its instinctive propensities, and to exhibit the

course it prescribes to the Government and the influence it exercises on

affairs. I have sought to discover the evils and the advantages which

it produces. I have examined the precautions used by the Americans to

direct it, as well as those which they have not adopted, and I have

undertaken to point out the causes which enable it to govern society.

I do not know whether I have succeeded in making known what I saw in

America, but I am certain that such has been my sincere desire, and that

I have never, knowingly, moulded facts to ideas, instead of ideas to

Whenever a point could be established by the aid of written documents,

I have had recourse to the original text, and to the most authentic and

approved works. I have cited my authorities in the notes, and anyone may

refer to them. Whenever an opinion, a political custom, or a remark on

the manners of the country was concerned, I endeavored to consult the

most enlightened men I met with. If the point in question was important

or doubtful, I was not satisfied with one testimony, but I formed my

opinion on the evidence of several witnesses. Here the reader must

necessarily believe me upon my word. I could frequently have quoted names

which are either known to him, or which deserve to be so, in proof of

what I advance; but I have carefully abstained from this practice. A

stranger frequently hears important truths at the fire-side of his host,

which the latter would perhaps conceal from the ear of friendship;

he consoles himself with his guest for the silence to which he is

restricted, and the shortness of the traveller's stay takes away all

fear of his indiscretion. I carefully noted every conversation of this

nature as soon as it occurred, but these notes will never leave my

writing-case; I had rather injure the success of my statements than

add my name to the list of those strangers who repay the generous

hospitality they have received by subsequent chagrin and annoyance.
I am aware that, notwithstanding my care, nothing will be easier than

to criticise this book, if anyone ever chooses to criticise it. Those

readers who may examine it closely will discover the fundamental idea

which connects the several parts together. But the diversity of the

subjects I have had to treat is exceedingly great, and it will not be

difficult to oppose an isolated fact to the body of facts which I quote,

or an isolated idea to the body of ideas I put forth. I hope to be read

in the spirit which has guided my labors, and that my book may be judged

by the general impression it leaves, as I have formed my own judgment

not on any single reason, but upon the mass of evidence. It must not be

forgotten that the author who wishes to be understood is obliged to push

all his ideas to their utmost theoretical consequences, and often to

the verge of what is false or impracticable; for if it be necessary

sometimes to quit the rules of logic in active life, such is not the

case in discourse, and a man finds that almost as many difficulties

spring from inconsistency of language as usually arise from

inconsistency of conduct.
I conclude by pointing out myself what many readers will consider

the principal defect of the work. This book is written to favor no

particular views, and in composing it I have entertained no designs

of serving or attacking any party; I have undertaken not to see

differently, but to look further than parties, and whilst they are

busied for the morrow I have turned my thoughts to the Future.

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