Alexis de Tocqueville

The American Enterprise (November/December 1999).

Alexis de Tocqueville was born in France in 1805, the son of aristocrats. During the French Revolution, his parents had been imprisoned, and his mother’s father and grandfather had been executed. After the Restoration, King Louis XVIII recognized his father’s title, but Alexis knew that aristocracy was finished and that France was destined to become a democracy. This perception had much to do with his visiting America in 1831. Tocqueville thought Europe, and France particularly, might profit from the American experience. America, he said, was the one country in which the “social revolution” was a fact already accomplished, and whose democratic “development” was most peaceful and complete.

Yet he knew democracy had weaknesses as well as strengths. He knew democracy requires public spiritedness, and worried whether it was possible to fashion a stable society out of free and naturally self-interested men. Aristocracy, he said, “made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.”

Tocqueville gave this problem a name: Individualism. Individualism is indigenous to democracy, yet Americans–the most democratic of all peoples–had found a way to combat its effects. He called it “self-interest rightly understood.” It is not a lofty principle, he said, but suited to the “wants of the men of our time.” American practices assumed that men are self-interested, but that they can come to see it as in their interest to help others. By doing so, they can feel good about themselves, and gain the esteem of their fellow citizens. In this way, Americans “almost always manage to combine their own advantage with that of their fellow citizens.”

For a case in point, he could have mentioned Benjamin Franklin. Franklin founded a public library and, for the education of the young, an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania; organized a fire department for Philadelphia and promoted the paving and lighting of its streets; helped to finance a hospital; invented a better household stove (and refused to patent it); and finally, although 81 years old at the time, helped to write the U.S. Constitution. And for all this, his fellow citizens thought well of him. Franklin knew the use of being useful to others, and recommended the practice to all Americans. What he did has become a very American thing to do.

Our rich (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, Frick) do their good works by founding and supporting universities, libraries, and museums, and our middle class by working with the so-called service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions) and other voluntary organizations and philanthropic enterprises. Americans have turned out to be a very generous people: According to Giving USA, individual Americans gave away almost $135billion in 1998, not including the $26 billion given by various foundations and corporations. Tocqueville would praise these “small acts of self-denial.”

Tocqueville found much to praise in America, the place of religion, for example. He said he did not know “whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion–for who can search the human heart?–but [was] certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” He also admired the independent judiciary, for another example, because it serves as a barrier “against the tyranny of political assemblies”; and the American family, where children acquire the habits needed for healthy society. Because this critical work is done primarily under the tutelage of mothers, Tocqueville suggested that Americans owe their singular prosperity and growing strength to “the superiority of their women.”

But he also warned that democracy’s constant emphasis on equality will cause problems. Take the role of women. American women are less likely to carry out their distinctive and vital role of shaping national mores, he wrote, if they are given the same functions and duties as men, mixed with men in all occupations, pleasures, and business. “By thus attempting to make one sex equal to the other, both are degraded, and from so preposterous a medley of the works of nature nothing could ever result but weak men and disorderly women.”

Tocqueville foresaw many things about America and democracy, including–and here especially one hopes he was mistaken–the man who has abandoned all striving, all aspirations, and all ideals, and is motivated only by the desire to preserve himself comfortably. In his chapter on the sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear, Tocqueville speaks of a multitude of men, “all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which to glut their lives, and, above them, an immense and tutelary power which “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances.” The principle of equality, he says, “has prepared men for these things … and often to look on them as benefits.”

Sound familiar?