Alexis de Tocqueville was a philosopher and political scientist of the 19th century who at some point of his career decided to embark on a journey to North America. He wanted to figure out how democracy was functioning there at the same time escaping the rage of a new French king – Louis Philippe.
Tocqueville was an aristocrat whose family went through many trials and tribulations and faced immediate danger after the revolution of 1830. He decided to be proactive and prove his loyalty to the new king by going on a perilous journey to the other side of the world.
Tocqueville originally said he would research American penitentiary system, but he was really interested in something else. This French aristocrat believed that democracy would eventually triumph all over the world, and he wanted to study it and explore its possible pitfalls.
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The writer was born into a rich noble family whose ancestors fought in the Battle of Hastings of 1066 (the one where William the Conqueror defeats the English king Harold). However, despite the privileged origin, he knew he could not be reliant on it knowing how his great grandfather was executed during the Reign of Terror.
The French Revolution transformed people’s attitude to aristocracy and authority. It showed that common men could come to power and legislate just as well as the nobility. Tocqueville understood that the French status quo where patricians still held onto their rights was fickle and temporary. So, he wanted to understand how the world of the future would look like.
Tocqueville decided to visit America as a prime example of the new order. He wanted to see how democracy fared there and what shortcomings it could possibly have. Because his career was threatened with an establishment of a new king, he also saw it as an opportunity to distinguish himself.
It is fair to assume that America of that time was remarkably different from its contemporary version. Tocqueville went in 1831 and spent 9 months there, right in the midst of Andrew Jackson’s first term. He saw the budding democracy, which began to transmute itself under the leadership of a new Democratic party.
Andrew Jackson famously advocated for the rights of a common man, supporting rural communities and the Jeffersonian idea of agrarian society. Nonetheless, the country was becoming increasingly urbanized with people clustering around big cities of the Northern and Western parts of the US. This division sparked political tensions as on both sides people wanted to get a bigger piece of a pie.
The most controversial aspect of American politics of that time was of course the issue of slavery. Tocqueville despised this phenomenon, as well as most of the Northerners. However, the Southern economy hinged on slavery. So, for them it was not just a moral problem, but a question of survival.
The View of Democracy
Surprisingly, Tocqueville, although convinced that democracy would ultimately engulf the world, did not consider it only from a positive perspective. He offers some insightful thoughts on how democracy could actually be an instrument of tyranny.
For instance, he believed that democracy resulted in materialism and loss of spirituality. During his travels around the United States he noticed that for Americans the biggest indicator of success was how much money a person made. They were assured that the value of things could be determined by their cost, and that a good book is the one which sells well.
Moreover, democracy breeds envy, shame and competition. Tocqueville maintained that in America people felt like losers if they did not achieve the same level of well-being as their friends or neighbors. It made them envious of others’ success, thus, triggering the eternal contest of who makes more money.
When criticizing democracy, Tocqueville seems completely enchanted by the idea of liberty or freedom. He sees it as the primary virtue and foundation for every functioning society. People who have liberty can organize their lives and communities in a way most appropriate as they are the ones who know the most about their own wants and needs.
Tocqueville affirmed that freedom could oppose democracy on many levels. In America of that time government played a central role in society, often imposing rules and regulations which people detested. Andrew Jackson was often viewed as a king as he was the one who made the executive branch powerful as never before.
Tocqueville believed that people were the masters of their fate and the government should not intrude into their lives. He believed that individuals could become successful if they were hard-working and responsible and feared the creation of welfare state which would stifle initiative and innovation.
At that time a great number of volunteering associations started to mushroom across America. They had different purposes ranging from educational and religious to societal and political. Tocqueville viewed volunteering as a cornerstone of liberty.
He believed that only a society which would take its fate into their hands, without waiting for some messiah politician to come and save them had a chance to prosper. America was that kind of country for him, and he dreaded the expansion of government functions, as it could stunt the role of those freely formed associations.
Tocqueville knew how concentrating power in the hands of the few could play out as it happened in his native country during the Reign of Terror. France, although a republic at that time, was controlled by a group of paranoid fanatics who, seeing power slipping away, tried to keep it by terrorizing the whole population. Thus, Tocqueville believed that granting power to smaller communities rather than a big centralized government was safer and more beneficial for the country itself.
Many people view Tocqueville as a prophet, because he accurately predicted the main challenges democratic systems now face around the world. However, he was simply a smart man who could analyze and see connections within the system which others were not able to spot.
Tocqueville does not hate democracy. He only warns humanity that this system, although the best the world can offer, is far from ideal and can malfunction when approached the wrong way. Moreover, this 19th century French political scientist was one of the first to define the characteristic features of American character which people now commonly associate with the US citizens.