PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 21

 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America


With the emergence of democracies in Europe and the New World at the beginning of the nineteenth century, political philosophers began to re-evaluate the relationship between freedom and equality. Tocqueville, in particular, saw the creation of new forms of social power that presented threats to human liberty. His most famous work, Democracy in America, was written for his French countrymen who were still devoted to the restoration of the monarchy and whom Tocqueville wanted to convince that the democratic social revolution he had witnessed in America was equally representative of France’s future.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 21 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Chapter 1. Tocqueville’s Problem [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: I want to begin by talking a little about what is the question or what is the problem to which this immense book of which you’re reading, I don’t know, a couple of hundred pages maximum–What is the problem with which this huge book is concerned? It’s always an important question to ask when you begin a new book. What question is the author trying to ask or what problem is he trying to deal with? Let me try to set up Tocqueville’s problem in the following way.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ideas of freedom and equality seemed to walk confidently hand in hand. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, who we’ve been reading, all believed that in the state of nature, remember, we were all born free and equal. As long as the enemy appeared to be the entrenched hierarchies of power and privilege of the old regime, of the old monarchical societies, freedom and equality were taken to be mutually reinforcing aspects of the emerging democratic order. But it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the democracies or proto-democracies of Europe and the new world, that political philosophers, political thinkers began to wonder whether freedom and equality did not in fact pull in different directions. Tocqueville in particular, although you could add the names like Benjamin Constant or John Stuart Mill, but Tocqueville in particular saw the new democratic societies as creating new forms of social power, new types of rule that represented, in some ways, organized threats to human liberty. What were these new forms of social power? These were, for Tocqueville, the new middle class or what we might call bourgeois democracies, the new middle class democracies emerging in countries like France, England and of course the United States.

And the problem for Tocqueville or his question, as it was for Locke and others before him, was how to mitigate the effects of political power. How does one control or mitigate for political power? Yes? Right? You can see that. Locke’s answer, you recall, to this problem was to divide and separate the powers, separated powers, a theme clearly taken up and endorsed by the American constitutional framers. But Tocqueville was less certain that this kind of institutional device, so to speak, of checks and balances or separated powers, could be an effective or truly effective check in a democratic age where you might say the people as a whole had become king. He was less certain that institutional remedies alone could work. While 75 years before Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, Rousseau had taken up the doctrine of popular sovereignty to be an ideal to be worked for, taking men as they are and laws as they might be. He looked to the doctrine of popular sovereignty as something that could be. But Tocqueville, again writing approximately 75 years after Rousseau, saw this doctrine, this doctrine of popular sovereignty that, for mid eighteenth-century Frenchmen had looked like a far flung utopian ideal, for Tocqueville this ideal had become an altogether political reality that had taken shape in the backwoods of Jacksonian America. Consider just the following passage from theDemocracy. “In the United States,” Tocqueville writes, “the dogma,” he says, he calls it the dogma, “of the sovereignty of the people is not an isolated doctrine that is joined neither to habits nor to the sum of dominant ideas. On the contrary,” he says, “one can view it as the last link in a chain of opinions that envelops the Anglo American world as a whole.” And he goes on to say that extended to the entirety of the nation it becomes, it, this opinion, becomes the dogma of the sovereignty of the people.

So here you have Tocqueville’s view that this Rousseauian concept of popular sovereignty has become an existent reality. And for Tocqueville, there was no reason to believe that the new democratic states emerging, again, in America and in Europe, these new democratic states, ruled by the people–there was no reason to believe that they will be more just or less arbitrary than any other previous kind of regime. For Tocqueville no one, no person or body of persons, can be safely entrusted with political power and the united power of the people, the united sovereignty of the people, is no more for him a reliable guarantor of freedom than any other kind of regime. So the problem of politics, you might say, in age of democracy, is the problem of how to control the sovereignty of the people. For Rousseau, you remember, that was never really seriously a problem. The general will, he says, cannot err, the people when they are ruling in their collective capacities cannot be wrong but Tocqueville was less certain about this, whether or not the people, in their collective capacity as sovereign, are an infallible guide.

The question is, what can be done about that? In aristocratic ages, you might say, the answer was simple. Tocqueville believed that in aristocratic times there were always countervailing centers of power. Kings, no matter how powerful, always had to contend with fractious and warlike nobilities but, again, who or what can exercise that countervailing power in a world where the people in their collective capacity have, to repeat, become the king? Who or what has the power to check the popular will or the general will? This is the problem, how to check democratic power. This is the problem that Tocqueville’s new political science, what he boasts in the introduction to the book, is a new political science for a world itself quite new. This is the problem that he sets out to answer. And to this extent I would also say we, are all Tocqueville’s children. We are all disciples of Tocqueville insofar as our political science continues to deal with the problem of the guidance and control of democratic government, how to, you might say, combine popular government with political wisdom. How to do that remains a problem, you might say, akin to squaring the circle but it remains the fundamental problem for democracies, how to combine popular rule with political wisdom. That was really what Tocqueville was concerned about.

Chapter 2. Who Was Alexis de Tocqueville? [00:08:36]

But before going on, let me ask, who was Alexis de Tocqueville? Let me tell you something about him. Tocqueville was born in 1805 into a Norman family from the north of France, from Normandy, with an ancient lineage. The Tocqueville estate still stands today and is owned still in the hands of members of the Tocqueville family. I know because I visited it a couple of summers ago and met his heirs although they are not actually the heirs of him directly. Tocqueville and his wife had no children. They belonged to one of the brothers’ side of the family but absolutely charming people, exactly what you’d think French aristocrats would be like, all charm and grace, wonderful hosts. And Tocqueville was deeply attached to his ancestral home. In a letter from 1828, one of my favorite Tocqueville letters, he wrote to a friend, “Here I am,” after returning from a trip abroad, a trip away, “Here I am, finally at Tocqueville,” referring to the home simply by the family name. “I am finally at Tocqueville in my family’s old, broken down ruin. At a league’s distance I can see the harbor where William the Conqueror set sail for England. I am surrounded by Normans whose names figure among the conquerors. All of this I have to confess tickles my heart.”

So he comes from a line of people who trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest and have been in that part of France for centuries. In fact, the Tocqueville home is a short drive away from the Normandy beach where the big D Day invasion took place during World War II. It’s a miracle that the home still survives. Tocqueville’s parents had been arrested during the French Revolution and were held in prison for almost a year and only the fall of Robespierre in 1794 saved them from execution. The young Tocqueville was born under the Napoleonic dynasty and spent his formative years, his adolescence and his school years, under the most conservative, if not to say reactionary, circles of post revolutionary France. Tocqueville studied law in Paris and during this time he made the acquaintance and friendship of another young aristocrat by the name of Gustave de Beaumont. And in 1830, for reasons that are not altogether clear, when he was 25 or so, in 1830, the two men received a commission from the new government of Louis Philippe, King Louis Philippe, to go to the United States to study the prison system there.

The trip to the U.S. was occasioned by a grant you, might say, a fellowship, to study the American prison system. Tocqueville’s journey to America, which has been extensively documented, lasted for just under a year from May 1831 to February 1832, and during that time he traveled as far north as New England, south to New Orleans. Yes, he was in New Orleans and went to the outer banks of Lake Michigan. The result of this visit was of course the two large volumes that he called Democracy in AmericaDemocratie en Amerique. The first volume appeared five years, four years or so after his trip, in 1835 when its author was only 30 years old. The second volume appeared five years later in 1840 and both of those volumes are contained within the single volume that you have. Tocqueville’s trip has been much studied and much admired. Even just in very recent times, a French philosopher, by the name of Bernard Henri Levy, came over, didn’t exactly follow Tocqueville’s journey but traveled throughout America, a kind of Frenchman’s guide, a sort of Borat’s America almost, going to Las Vegas and evangelical churches and all of this stuff, and wrote a very interesting book called American Vertigo. The most charitable thing I can remark is that he was no Tocqueville but, leaving that aside, it was an admirable effort.

Chapter 3. Democracy in America and the Letter to Kergolay [00:14:04]

Democracy in America, to put it simply, is the most important work about democracy that you will ever read. To compound the irony, the most famous book on American democracy was written by a French aristocrat who might have been deeply foreign, if not hostile to the manners, customs, habits of a democratic society. And from the time of its first publication in 1835, the book was hailed as a masterpiece. John Stuart Mill called the book a masterpiece that has at once, he says, taken its rank among the most remarkable productions of our time. Tocqueville has come to take his side, his place alongside of Washington, Jefferson and Madison almost as if he were an honorary American. And, as if this were not enough, a recent translation of the book was recently inducted into the prestigious Library of America series which seems to put the stamp of naturalization on a book written in French for Frenchmen and yet it is part of the prestigious Library of America. As Tocqueville might have said, go figure. I don’t know how to say that in French actually.

But there is a textbook image of Tocqueville according to which he came to America as a kind of blank slate and the experience of American democracy had a profoundly transformative influence over the young aristocrat. But nothing I would suggest to you could be further from the truth. In a letter to his best friend, a man named Louis de Kergolay, whose home, whose estate is actually directly next door to the Tocqueville estate–In a letter to Tocqueville written just before the publication of the first volume of the Democracy in 1835, Tocqueville describes his purpose in writing his book in these terms. Let me read from his letter. Tocqueville writes, “It is not without having carefully reflected that I decided to write the book I am just now publishing. I do not hide from myself what is annoying in my position. It is bound to attract active sympathy from no one. Some will find that at bottom I do not like democracy and am severe toward it but others will think I favor its development immoderately. It would be most fortunate for me if the book were not read and that is a piece of good fortune that may perhaps soon come to pass. I know all that but here is my response. Nearly 10 years ago, I was already thinking about part of the things that I have just now set forth. I was in America only to become clear on this point. The penitentiary system was a pretext.”

So two points, I think, bear comment about this remarkable statement of his purpose to his friend Kergolay. First is that Tocqueville indicates that his idea for the book had already, as he says, begun to germinate five years before his trip to America. He says the penitentiary system, the penitentiary project for which he was sent over, was only a pretext, he said. He already had begun to speculate on these things, he says, 10 years before his trip. Now, if you do the math, when you consider that he was 30 years old in 1835 when the book’s first volume was published and he said he was speculating on these things already 10 years before, it would seem that the germ of the idea for the book, the germ idea, the germ cell for the book, had occurred to Tocqueville when he was only 20 years old, that is to say about the age that most of you are here. And he went to America only to confirm what he had begun to suspect when he was at the age of a contemporary undergraduate. Think of that. Get your idea now. Get it quickly. Then maybe you can write a famous book by the time you are 30. I have to tell you it is way, way beyond that stage for me. Hobbes, however, did not write his masterpiece until he was 63 so there’s still hope for some of us.

Nevertheless, the second point I would make about that letter is that it is also clear that Tocqueville was writing his book not for the benefit of Americans, who you will discover he thought had little taste for philosophy, but for Frenchmen. In particular, he was hoping to persuade his fellow countrymen, who were still devoted to the restoration of the monarchy, that the democratic social revolution that he had witnessed in America represented also the future of France. If John Locke had said in his Second Treatise, when Locke had said “in the beginning all the world was America,” Tocqueville’s point appears to be in the future all of the world will be America. His attitude towards what he saw or what we would perhaps call today Americanization, democratization–his attitude towards this was one of skepticism mixed with fear. “I confess,” he writes, “that in America I saw more than America. I sought there an image of democracy itself or its penchants, its characters, its prejudices, its passions. I wanted to become acquainted with it if only to know at least what we ought to hope or fear from it.” And that sentence is so typical of Tocqueville, the way he piles on the descriptive labels, “its penchants, its character, its prejudices, its passions.”

So there are embedded in that two questions, two you might say subordinate clauses or two sub questions that Tocqueville set out to answer. The first concerns the gradual replacement of the ancien régime, that is to say, the French term for the old, aristocratic order based on privileges, hierarchy, deference and inequality, with a new democratic society based on equality. How did this happen and what brought it about, this immense social and political transformation from the old regime, from an age of inequality to an increasing age of equality, a huge example of what we might call today regime change or regime transformation? And the second–How did that happen? And the second not perhaps explicitly asked question, but nevertheless a question on virtually every page of Tocqueville’s book, concerns the difference between the form democracy has taken in America and the form it took in France during their revolutionary period. Why, Tocqueville asks, has American democracy been relatively gentle or mild? Those are two characteristic Tocquevillian terms. Why has American democracy been what we might call today a liberal democracy and why did democracy in France veer dangerously close towards terror and despotism during its revolution? That was the second question Tocqueville set out to answer. Tocqueville believed it to be virtually a providential fact of history that societies were becoming increasingly democratic, increasingly egalitarian, we might say. What is not certain, you could say, is what form democracy will take. Whether democracy will be compatible with liberty or whether it will issue into a new kind of despotism remains a question that only the statesmen of the future will be able to answer. And from these two questions, “how did this transformation occur” and “what form will democracy take in the future,” from these two questions, we can see that Tocqueville wrote his book as a political educator, that Tocqueville takes his place along with people like Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and the others as a great political educator. He was more than a mere chronicler of American manners and customs but rather was an educator of future European statesmen hoping to steer their countries between the shoals of revolution and reaction.

How did Tocqueville attempt to accomplish this? Let me try to talk for a moment about what he hoped to teach because you have to admire the book and have to understand it as an immense handbook, almost as it were of the education of a democratic statesman, slightly larger than Machiavelli’s Prince perhaps but nevertheless a handbook for state craft nonetheless. What did he hope to teach? Near the end of the introduction, and I pay special attention to that fascinating introduction to the book–I don’t mean the translator’s introduction. I mean Tocqueville’s own introduction. Near the end of the introduction, he writes the following sentence. “I think those who want to regard it, namely his book, who want to regard it closely will find in the entire work a mother thought that, so to speak, links all the parts, a mother thought. His word, term is an idée mere, a mother idea. What is this mother idea or mother thought to which he refers there? And the most likely candidate for its central idea is the idea of equality. The opening sentence of the book reads: “Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. The equality of conditions. What does he mean by that phrase?

What is meant by “equality” here? Note, in the first instance, that Tocqueville speaks of equality as a social condition, an equality of conditions, not a form of government per se. This is in part an expression of what you might think of as Tocqueville’s sociological imagination. Equality of conditions precedes democratic government. Equality of conditions, you might say, is the cause from which democratic governments arise. Equality of conditions were planted both in Europe and in America long before democratic governments arose in either place. Democratic governments are only as old–at least in France and America, democratic governments are only as old as the American or French revolutions but equality of conditions had been prepared by deep rooted historical processes that began long before the dawn of the modern age. So equality of conditions refers to a social fact, not a form of government, and which precede democratic government by long periods of time. And in the introduction to his book, again, Tocqueville gives a brief, I would say very brief, history of equality, taking it as far back to the heart of the medieval world, some 700 years he says. Unlike Hobbes or Rousseau, he does not invoke a state of nature as a way of grounding equality.

In fact, for Tocqueville what Hobbes and Rousseau believed that we are by nature free and equal and only over time they believed were social hierarchies and inequalities introduced, Tocqueville argues exactly the opposite point of view. The historical process, so to speak, has been moving away from inequality and towards greater and greater equality of social conditions. The historical process, at least as Tocqueville traces it out here, has been a process of gradual equalization of social conditions. His equality is something like an historical force, something that has been working itself out in history over a vast stretch of time, and he often writes as if equality is not just one fact among others but is what he calls a generative fact from which everything else derives. “As I studied America more and more,” he writes, “I saw in the equality of conditions the generative fact from which each particular fact seems to issue,” he says in the second paragraph of his introduction, “the generative fact from which each particular fact seemed to issue.”

Tocqueville writes here about equality as an historical fact that has come to acquire an almost providential force over time. And he uses this term “providence” here several times throughout the introduction. He uses that term not so much to describe God, as one might think, but rather to describe a sort of universal historical process that is working itself out, so to speak, even against the intentions of individual social and political actors. The gradual spread of the conditions of equality, he believes, has two characters or two characteristics of providence. It is universal, he says, and it always escapes the power of the individual to control. If Machiavelli believed we can control fortuna, we can control providence or chance half the time, Tocqueville seems to believe that the process of equality always escapes the powers of human control. It is the very power of equality that makes it seem to be an irresistible force. Rather than the product of the modern age alone, again, Tocqueville shows how the steady emergence of equality of conditions has been the central dynamic of European history over several hundreds of years. He frames the book within you might say a very large-scale sort of philosophy of history in which democracy, equality, and the gradual equalization of social conditions are the sort of central motifs.

So it is in order to understand that process that Tocqueville turns to America of the 1830s. “There is only one country in the world,” he says, “where the great social revolution I am speaking of seems nearly to have attained its natural limits,” one country where this social revolution, the democratic transformations from the old aristocratic order to the new democratic age, seems to have reached its natural limits, and that country is of course the United States. In this context, I think, it is very revealing that he chose to call his book Democracy in America and not simply American democracy. Think about that choice of title for a moment. His point, I take it, is that it’s not that democracy is a peculiarly American phenomenon, far from it. His point is, when he’s describing democracy in America, here is the form that the democratic revolution has taken in America. What form it will take elsewhere or it may take elsewhere is by no means predetermined. Democracy is not a settled or fixed condition. It is something more like a process and when we think of the way we speak today when we talk about democratization, the process of democratization, you can see that democracy seems to be less a settled or fixed or determinate kind of regime than a kind of process. It has the quality that Rousseau referred to in the Second Discourse as perfectibilité, perfectibility, that is to say an almost infinite elasticity and openness to change.

Again, it is less a determinate political or social order than a continual work in progress and that is the way Tocqueville looks at America, in some ways, or looks at the future of democracy when he says, “I look at the place where it seems to have attained its natural limit” but what form it may take elsewhere is by no means to say that the form it takes in America is the form it will take anywhere else.” Democracy is the regime that seems to be almost infinitely elastic in terms of its possibilities and this I think is a profound and astute observation about the nature of democratic government. We do not know where the process of democratization will end any more today than we did in Tocqueville’s time or that Tocqueville knew. It is a matter for statecraft and leadership and political thought. Again, will future democracies be liberal and freedom loving or will they be harsh and rebarbative? That is a question that we are now seeing very upfront and close in various parts of the world today that are undergoing their own very tempestuous transitions to democracy as we will say and it remains very much an open question, what form those democracies will take. That question is at least as important for us, if not more so, than it was for Tocqueville.

What Tocqueville is sure about, however, is that the fate of America is in some way the fate of Europe and maybe for that matter the fate of the rest of the world. “It appears to me,” he says, “beyond doubt that sooner or later we shall arrive like the Americans at an almost complete equality of conditions.” He says, in the introduction, that we shall arrive, speaking to his French audience, a shocking statement again to members of his class and of his family background, that sooner or later we too will arrive at this complete equality. He seems to ask the reader, “Do you like what you see, what I describe? What form democracy will take elsewhere will be very much dependent upon circumstance and statesmanship.” Again, his is an attempt to educate statesmen for the future.

Chapter 4. The Characteristics of American Democracy: Importance of Local Government [00:35:46]

Let me say a few words, and I will not finish this today but we’ll take it up–continue this a bit on Wednesday, about what were the characteristics of American democracy, what constitutes, as it were, democracy American style as Tocqueville understood it, given that, again, democracy has no single determinate form but is characterized by a considerable degree of elasticity and openness, what are the features that are constitutive of American democracy. Condensing a vast amount of material from– especially from volume one of Democracy, there are three features that I want to emphasize about the unique characteristics of American democracy that lead to, again, making it mild, gentle or what we might call a liberal democracy. These are: local government, civil associations, and what Tocqueville calls the spirit of religion, and I want to talk about each of these three in turn. I’ll only probably talk about the first one here, local government, one of the parts of Tocqueville’s book for which he is most famous.

The first and, in many respects, most fundamental feature of American democracy is the importance that Tocqueville attributes to local government and local institutions, the importance of localism, local democracies, and you might say, the spirit that emanates from it is the spirit–is the key to the whole. The cradle of democracy is to be found in what Tocqueville calls the commune or what in our translation is called the township, the township democracy. “It is nonetheless in the township,” he writes, “that the force of free peoples resides. The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science. They put it within the reach of the people.” Does that sound at all familiar? I think it should, in some respects. Tocqueville’s description of the New England township, put within the reach of all the people, clearly demonstrates the influence on Tocqueville of Rousseau’s account of the general will in the Social Contract. Right? It is the people organizing, legislating, and deliberating over their common interests that is the core of liberty. Tocqueville very much views the American experience of local democracy through the lenses shaped or crafted by Rousseau and this is hardly fortuitous. In a famous letter to his friend Kergolay, Tocqueville admits that Rousseau was one of three writers with whom he spent some time every day. He read Rousseau every day, the other two, Montesquieu and Pascal, but it was Rousseau more than any other figure who, again, helped him understand the democratic experience and particularly this experience of the township.

Yet, in some ways, Rousseau–Tocqueville combines Rousseau–his reading of the township, his Rousseauian reading of the township, with a kind of Aristotelian twist. The township, he writes, he continues in that same passage, is the sole association that is so much in nature, he says, that everywhere men are gathered, a township forms of itself. That term “in nature,” it is the sole association so much in nature, should alert you to a kind of Aristotelianism in what Tocqueville is saying. The township is here said to be a product of nature. It eludes, he writes, the effort of man. The township exists by nature but its existence is far from being guaranteed. It is fragile and it is uncertain. It is continually threatened by invasions, not necessarily by foreign powers but from larger forms of government, state and federal government. The township is continually threatened by federal and national authority. And Tocqueville adds, with a definite hint of Rousseau, that the more enlightened the people are, the more difficult it is for them to retain the spirit of the township. Think of that. The more enlightened they are. The township relies on a certain kind of spirit of local sturdy and steady habits, not necessarily enlightened opinion. That spirit of local freedom, again, goes hand in hand with a kind of rustic, even primitive manners and customs that clearly Rousseau would have admired and for this reason he laments that the spirit of the township no longer exists in Europe where the process of political centralization and the progress of enlightenment have virtually destroyed the conditions for local self-government. I’m going to end on that note and Wednesday we’re going to show a little movie again, a little piece from a movie about–just a very, very short clip which will illustrate the theme of civil associations in democracy and we’ll go on to talk about religion and then some other parts of Rousseau. Well, welcome back. It’s nice to see you all here.

[end of transcript]

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