Tocqueville and America

James Q. Wilson, "Tocqueville and America," Claremont Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 14-16.

Excerpt of an admiring but critical essay by James Q. Wilson on Tocqueville:

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is no doubt the greatest book ever written by a foreigner about this country. It may be one of the greatest books written about any country by someone outside of it. The volume shows the extent to which Tocqueville had separated himself from one version of the Enlightenment. The English Enlightenment, which occurred in the 18th century and lasted into the 19th, was one that promoted liberty and self-study, did not attack religion, valued common sense, and was tempered by the operations of a decentralized state. The French Enlightenment—of which Tocqueville was not a part, but which had produced the French Revolution—was a movement that promoted not only liberty, but equality, and fraternity (one might add adultery), attacked religion, valued ideology, and was made worse by a centralized state. Tocqueville was apart from his culture; John Stuart Mill, one of the great reviewers of Democracy in America, made these flattering remarks about what he said. Tocqueville was in many ways more English than French.

When he wrote about America, he said that this country “was only the frame, my picture was democracy.” In 1835, democracy was a new phenomenon in the world, and when he described it he described it in eminently practical terms. He went out and talked to people on the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, and in the nine months he spent in this country he learned about democracy from the experience of ordinary people. And so in his book on democracy he did not quote John Locke; there was no contract theory; he did not discuss James Madison; there was no theory of representation; he did not describe Aristotle’s alternative view that a state might produce or elevate human character. Instead he talked to ordinary people because to him a democratic revolution was an irresistible fact—it would sweep the world, and in this sense he was absolutely right, though it took at least two centuries for that to happen.

In his book he talked about the limits to democracy. He suggested that the desire for equality might trump the desire for liberty; he talked about Americans suffering from excessive individualism; he feared the tyranny of the majority, a phrase he later modified to indicate that it was not necessarily the tyranny, but it was the despotism of public opinion. In his views on democracy and equality he was not very clear about what democracy meant. He defined democracy in some places as equality of conditions, by which he meant that Americans were free-born—they had no aristocratic ancestors and had been born equal without having to become so. In other places he meant by democracy the absolute sovereignty of the people. And these two definitions—equality of condition on the one hand and the control by the absolute sovereignty of the people on the other—produce some contradictions in these writings, which I’m not sure he ever entirely resolved.

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