Alexis de Tocqueville: A short essay of his liberal manifesto about democracy in America
Tuesday, 13 July 2010 17:06


The Frenchman was shocked by the boiling and enthusiastic crowd. The young member of French nobility that was sent to America to conduct a legal study about the American prison system and how it could be implemented and transplanted to France’s one, witnessed much more than that.

Alexis de Tocqueville felt the democratic liberal verve pulsing strong in the heart of the “New World”. As a man intellectually concerned about the political future of his country, it was very natural for him to want to establish an accurate comparison between the American political system and the one practiced in his motherland.

Using a considerable amount of scientific methods such as participant observation, informal interviews, and direct observation (including participation in the everyday life of social groups), Tocqueville studied the political ethos of the American society like no researcher before him had ever done. Let us say that he collected enough ethnographical information to produce, later on in France, his seminal work about the republican representative democracy system. How this form of government had succeeded in United States and how it hadn’t in other countries was in Tocqueville’s main object of study. His chief political theory lied on the fact that the French democratic system was extremely “aristocratic” compared to the American model. That is what we can call a “weak democracy”, combining authoritarian elements with keen dictatorship, like the absence of pluralities of ideas and the lack of individual freedom for all its citizens. For this bulk of social factors, post-revolutionary France dwarfed the flame of individualism inside every Frenchman, chiefly sprung from the lowest classes of society.

The powerful idea about equality of conditions for all citizens, for each to be able to make his own way to prosperity and welfare, was inside every Middle Americans' consciousness. He observed that before any sense of collective solidarity came first the individual will as the natural compass of Americans everyday life. In other words, Tocqueville could perceive in that social phenomenon how culture in its complex system of meanings can make a collective process of internalization inside every citizen’s minds. Let us say that it is sharply distinguished from selfishness and egoism. Rather, the individualistic way of behaving socially and being able to reach social success contributed to keep American society cohesive and harmonic. In short, that was the essence of American ideology and still continues nowadays. Individual rights and personal autonomy guaranteed by the State power. Basically, the people rule the State, the State does not rule the people, as we can see shortly in the beginning of the United States Constitution as it follows:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a perfect Union […].” [1]

As seen above in the preamble of American Magna Carta, even the word “people” comes before the word “States” one, which is undoubtedly a strong linguistic-anthropological clue that makes it possible for us to presume that Tocqueville's impressions about America was highly correct. So, that social foundation was the main ingredient to form associations throughout the country in its various fields of interest. And that was, according to the author, the strongest pillar of that society.

In fact, American micro-societies in some way ruled the whole nation. A group of individuals that together shared the same system of values. They deeply believed that they had the political power just to knock on the White House’s door to protest and demand any specific civil right that could supposedly be cut off by the State. Indeed, there were many pluralities of ideas in every social cell, from a single local protest over the garbage collection service to the intense and feverish popular movement seen during the presidential elections.

However, even for a well-developed democracy it can reveals in some level its antagonisms and distortions about the equal rights concept. Paradoxically, America institutionalized universal human rights without including blacks and Indian people in their legal protective system, leaving them relegated to a secondary role. The “Separate but equal” doctrine was already a ruling social law even before it has officially stated in the late nineteenth century. That social segregation conducted by WASP (White, Anglo-Saxonian and Protestants) citizens was strongly influenced by evolutionist ideas and racist scientific theories. Such policies were incorporated by majority of the confederated states during the nineteenth century and produced a tremendous impact in American’s value system. It was only in the late 21st century with the American Civil Rights Act that the word ‘equality’ could finally be used in its literal meaning and with no social contradictions.

In the sun of the New World, Tocqueville absorbed enough energy to irradiate fresh ideas all over the “old World”, being convinced during his nine month-journey throughout America that the smaller the State is the more efficient it is for its citizens, acting more like a legal shield, protecting the country against any wind of bad change that barely could contaminate the most fundamental rights of Democracy in America.

[1] USA. The United States Constitution. 1787. Abailable in: <>. Accessed in 2010.

eee 2010-09-10 02:56:04

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