Item of the Day: Democracy in America (1836)

Full Title: Democracy in America. By Alexis De Tocqueville, Avocat A La Cour Royale De Paris, Etc., Etc.  Translated by Henry Reeve, Esq. Second Edition. In Two Volumes. Vol. I. London: Saunders and Otley, Conduit Street. 1836.

Introduction.

Amongst the novel aspects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.   I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenour to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed.

I speedily perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the poilitical character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce.

The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.

I then turned my thoughts to our own hemisphere, where I imagined that I discerned something analogous to the spectacel which the New World presented to me.  I observed that the equality of conditions is daily progressing towards those extreme limits which it seems to have reached in the United States; and that the democracy which governs the American communities apppears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe. 

I hence conceived the idea of the book which is now before the reader.

It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going on amongst us; but there are two opinions as to its nature and consequences.  To some it appears to be a novel accident, which as such may still be checked; to others it seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is to be found in history. 

Let us recollect the situation of France seven hundred years ago, when the territory was divided amongst a small number of families, who were the owners of the soil and the rulers of the inhabitants; the right of governing descended with the family inheritance from generation to generation; force was the only means by which man could act on man; and landed property was the sole source of power. 

Soon, however, the political power of the clergy was founded, and began to exert itself: the clergy opened its ranks to all classes, to the poor and the rich, the villain and the lord; equality penetrated into the Government through the Church, and the being who as a serf must have vegetated in perpetual bondage, took his place as a priest in the midst od nobles and not unfrequently above the geads of kings.

The different relations of men became more complicated and more numerous as society gradually became more stable and more civilized.  Thence the want of civil laws was felt; and the oder of legal functionaries soon rose from the obscurity of tribunals and their dusty chambers, to appear at the court of the monarch, by the side of the feudal barons in their ermine and their mail […] 

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Filed under 1830's, Political Commentary, Posted by Matthew Williams

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