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Essay/Term paper: De tocqueville's "democracy in america"

Essay, term paper, research paper:  American History

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Alexis De Tocqueville"s Democracy in America

delves deep into how the American States and the federal government would grow

politically and socially under the umbrella of democracy. He sees the United

States as a unique entity because of how and why it started as well as its

geographical location.

De Tocqueville explains that the foundations of the

democratic process in America are completely different from anywhere else on

the globe. The land was virginal and the colonies had almost complete sovereignty

from England from the very beginning because they were separated by an ocean

and financial troubles. The people who came to America were the oppressed

and unhappy in England and all were trying to find a place where they could

start anew and create a political structure that would facilitate an individual

freedom unlike anything that they had previously experienced in Europe. De

Tocqueville believed that the nature of democracy in the New World rested within

the fact that all of the emigrants were basically from the same social strata,

resulting in the first new country where there was no preliminary basis for

an aristocracy. "Land is the basis of an aristocracy…and… [in America] when

the ground was prepared, its produce was found to be insufficient to enrich

a proprietor and a farmer at the same t

ime(41)." He saw that even the soil

of America was opposed to the structure of an aristocracy.


were also outside influences lending unvoiced support for the creation of this

new democracy. Being an ocean apart from its mother country, who at this time

did not have the financial reserves to oversee its colonies, let the Americans

govern themselves. If they had not had this sovereignty at the beginning America

might have become something completely different than it is today, but that

was not the case, so these emigrants now had a fertile place to plant their

ideas of a country founded upon the many ideas of the Enlightenment. Another

large influence was the lack of neighbors. America had no worries of guarding

and protecting its borders because there was not anyone there who could pose

a threat. They could put all of their energies toward the creation of their


This democratic nation was to have no aristocracy and only one

major division between its people: the North and the South. De Tocqueville

saw two very different attitudes in these regions. The North and the South

had conflicting views as to how they were going to advance themselves in the

economic and political arenas. But the introduction of slavery into labor

was the major conflict between the two. "Slavery…dishonors labor; it introduces

idleness into a society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and

distress…The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains

the manners and the social condition of the Southern States(42)." With the

advent of slavery, the South was creating a class system amongst themselves

that would not exist in the other regions of the States. The few Southern

founders were granted huge amounts of land with which to work, and instead

of diving into the land themselves like the northerners did with their smaller

pieces of land. They instead bought slaves and would eventually divide the

country in a nasty dispute over their handling of affairs.

He realized that

the majority of the influences over public policy were the men in the North.

They created the first public school system that was to be readily accessible

to the majority of the people. The enlightened idea that every man should

have access to knowledge was given exercise in this new nation, creating a

highly learned society, but one that is not very intellectual. Schools teach

specialized skills so that American can enter the work force as soon as possible,

but gloss over any areas that have no value in work. Whereas in England, the

few who do go on towards a higher education are actually being challenged and

forced to expand their minds, higher education in America is available to many,

but it is more specialized and very basic. This unlimited quantity, limited

quality relationship is seem by de Tocqueville as an inherent part of a democratic

society. This is because, "…there is no class…in which the taste for intellectual

pleasures is transmitted with hereditary fortune and leisure

and [wherein]

…intellect [is] held in honor(53)."

Democracy is a facilitator of a blended

society. The masses will be very similar in their thinking as well as their

actions. America is a social democracy because the citizens are united by

their beliefs and movements as

well as their political organization

and its laws. "In no country, in world does the law hold so absolute a language

as it does in America; and in no country is the right of applying it vested

in so many hands(63)." Americans give up the idea of complete personal freedom

so that they can obtain and preserve a civil society in which they can live.

A centralized government is one that controls all interests that are common

amongst the nation, whereas a centralized administration deals with the interests

of a small area or community. "These two kinds of centralization mutually

assist and attract each other; but they must not be supposed to be inseparable(63)."

De Tocqueville sees America as having no real centralized administration but

a supreme system of centralized government. This is states because America

only has one legislature in each State that reigns. He sees this as a great

strength as well as its weakest point. Where ever there is a government that

changes power so quickly do to its "subord

inat[ion] to the power of the people(65)"

will be susceptible to its "vigor." The States will be most likely torn apart

by their vehemence and not apathy.

In the 1830"s, many of the citizens

were very interested in every turn that this budding country took in the political

arena. They saw criminals as a personal affront and society shunned all who

dared to break the peace. Now, with millions of people who live from the Atlantic

to the Pacific, many views of American politics have changed. Instead of enthusiasm,

apathy has taken over many people. Presidential elections have to most turn-outs,


those still do not have 50% turn-out rates. Laziness has

taken over present day America and the society is really hurting because of

it. Crime is rampant and no one seems to care if justice or punishment is

served or not. Many are very disillusioned with the government and think it

is easier to do nothing than to become involved and try to change it. This

is in direct relation to de Tocqueville"s notion that democracies have a tendency

to lose liberty and personal interest as the country grows larger. Not only

with more people are there bound to be more differing ideas, but more people

who share them, creating more voiced dissonance in the political sphere.


dissonance is glossed over when still in the minority. "[T]he tyranny of the

majority" is one of de Tocqueville"s main concerns with democratic nations.

When a government is run and hindered by the thoughts of the majority, where

do the ideas of the minority fit? When in elections only 45% of the population

votes, and who elects representatives, how is the majority of the country really

represented? The original thought behind the majority was that the consensus

of many would be more informed and intelligent than of a few. But looking

upon the uninformed voting habits of the public today, is that still the case?

De Tocqueville sees the problem of an oppressive majority and it seems to

have come to light in the last few decades. He views the majority not as

an entity unto itself, but as a conglomeration of single men who might have

aspirations other than the betterment of society. If a lone man has the ability

to misuse power, what

changes if a majority has the ability to

misuse as well? "Thought is an invisible and subtle power, that mocks all

efforts of tyranny(116)." Since America is founded upon education that lacks

thought, Americans are facilitating oppressive powers from the very place they

are trying to facilitate freedom and liberty. Original American concepts of

democracy are falling to the wayside, hypocrisy and apathy are taking its place,

creating an even more fertile ground for the majority to gain more power than

it already has. If not careful, the majority will soon be speaking for a very

select group, while the masses will be left out, creating a despotic government

of the past to take over what is now one of the greatest democracies of the


In response to Hofstadter"s theory on anti-intellectualism, De Tocqueville"s

vision of American education, or lack there of, again comes into play. It

is not in the nature of America to strive for excellence. For to do so would

be to draw oneself out of the masses, creating a feeling of distrust and suspicion

that would envelop them wherever they went. In order to feel a common bond

with ones' peers, intellectualism is not the route to take. So as to not

alienate oneself, one must be content to merely be average. Mass media knows

this; television was not created to promote education, it was and is used as

an "opiate for the masses," as Karl Marx once said about anything that would

keep people"s minds off what could potentially be revolutionary ideas. Lives

kept mundane and boring are not a threat to the development and movement of

a nation. The contradictions in American

values are amazing.

Liberty is canonized, yet Americans will give it up so easily if enticed,

which is not difficult. Yet, there is still some element that has kept the

country together and away from the tendency to convert from democratic means

to other, more easily managed ways of govern. This element is adaptable from

person to person. Many are content with the government as it is, as long

as they can go about their lives without interference. Others will whole-heartedly

take it as a personal mission to enter into politics and change the world for

the better. Whatever the case may be, people are easily led away from what

is really important to the lasting of a society, and take their lives on a

tangent route that may leave them satisfied with their mediocre accomplishments,

but might eventually kill off any real progress towards excellence in any

genre of society, even if for the time being, it feels that as a nation, America

is content with itself.

De Tocqueville"s ideas of the effects of democracy

on feelings and gender roles are very enlightening. He sees the lack of class

distinctions as to why Americans are immediately friendly with one another.

Since no one person is better than the next, there is no premise for suspicion

of one another. Americans are unaccustomed to a rigid etiquette, so they are

less easily upset by a slight from another person. Amiable to the end, they

will most likely let minor things blow over, and they will be hard to provoke

with breaches in decorum. Americans are very good-natured for the most part,

and this trait will always make them a little apart from the

rest of the Western societies.

De Tocqueville sees women in America as extremely

different from the women in Europe. "…and she is remarkable rather for purity

of manners than for chastity of mind(234)." He sees American women as worldly

and unaffected by the European naiveté and ignorance. He sees the influence

of democracy in every action of a female. She has none of the rigid social

restraints of the Europeans, and in so, needs to know how to combat her passions

herself and not rely on society to do it for her. American women are self-assured

and strong of opinion. They have an innate ability to be strong and independent

while still respectful of their husbands and fathers. Religion helps in maintaining

constraints on the female population, but democratic societies hold the woman

responsible for herself.

De Tocqueville has left no aspect of American society

out of his publication. He rips the American body open and examines all the

things that are inside right down to the bare bones. It is a little scary

to read of ones" own nation and its culture. To realize that one"s own life

is not how he made it, but of how his ancestors have created society. Whether

it be as to how Americans view their politics, or their social afflictions,

de Tocqueville voices his opinions as to what is commendable, are conversely,

what is wrong with every aspect of America. He sees America through the eyes

of intelligent outsider who has no reason to make America sound anything


than it is. He has done a very thorough job, and his vision of nineteenth

century America will surely help lead America into the twenty-first century

with a better definition of itself.  

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