Democracy in America (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Written nearly 170 years ago, Democracy in America is a masterful display of insight and foresight into all things American. Doubting whether the American experiment in equality could work, Tocqueville conjectured that democracy would erect a society that would succumb to a different type of tyranny than that of a monarchy or aristocracy - that of the majority. Through detailed interviews with ?the most informed men? he could meet, he offers an examination of American ...

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Democracy in America (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Written nearly 170 years ago, Democracy in America is a masterful display of insight and foresight into all things American. Doubting whether the American experiment in equality could work, Tocqueville conjectured that democracy would erect a society that would succumb to a different type of tyranny than that of a monarchy or aristocracy - that of the majority. Through detailed interviews with “the most informed men” he could meet, he offers an examination of American institutions and the fabric of American life.

About the Author:Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) worked first as a magistrate and then as a government administrator. Because he fell out of political favor due to his perceived Bourbon sympathies during the July Revolution, he was required to fund his nine-month visit to America himself, even though he was ostensibly coming to complete a survey of the American penal system on behalf of the French government. When Tocqueville arrived in America in May of 1831 he was far more interested in his own questions about America’s political future, and Democracy in America is the result of extensive personal research on the subject.<%END%>

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Political philosophers Mansfield (government, Harvard U.) and Winthrop (constitutional government, Harvard U.) present a new translation -- only the third since the original two-volume work was published in 1835 and 1840 -- aiming to restore the nuances of Tocqueville's language. Tocqueville himself was not satisfied with the 19th-century translation; the other, prepared in the late 1960s (Harper & Row), is cited in This translation is based on a recent critical French edition (Editions Gallimard, 1992). Mansfield and Winthrop provide a substantial introduction placing the work and its author in historical and philosophical context, as well as annotations elucidating references that are no longer familiar to readers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Caleb Crain
Thanks to [Tocqueville's] prescience, a new edition of ''Democracy in America'' is always timely.
New York Times Book Review
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Introduction

The core assumption of any democratic institution is that the participants in that contract will respect the rights of others, just as much as they expect their own rights to be respected. Unfortunately, clunky political science theories rarely account for the wild card of human nature. As a result, we end up with frequent clashes over how to define where one person's liberty ends and another begins. Does the USA Patriot Act of 2001 violate Americans' right to privacy or is government surveillance a necessary step toward protecting the country from terrorism? At an abortion clinic, what should take priority: the rights of a woman to make decisions about her own body, the rights of the unborn child inside her, or the right to "freedom of speech" held by the protestors who block her entrance to the clinic? Does executing a convicted murderer violate his rights to protection from "cruel and unusual punishment," or does keeping him alive in a prison cell violate the rights of citizens who must bear the financial burden of keeping him alive? Matters are even more complicated when those conflicts pit the few against the majority or the individual against society, when the lone voice cannot overpower the unison choir (and sometimes cacophony) of majority opinion.

When Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) first arrived in America with his friend and co-worker, Gustave de Beaumont, in May 1831, he came hoping to solve a mystery. Europeans, and Tocqueville's fellow French citizens in particular, were intrigued by the evolution of the new American republic and why it seemed to work, considering their own difficulties with forays into "equality" during the preceding forty-five years. Tocqueville knew firsthand how dangerous political revolution could be. His own father had narrowly escaped execution in 1793, and in the early part of his career-first as a magistrate and then as a government administrator-he had seen how quickly the winds of political change could shift in post-Revolution France. By the time of his journey to the United States, he had fallen out of political favor because of the recent July Revolution and his perceived Bourbon sympathies. As a result, Tocqueville and Beaumont were required to fund their nine-month visit to America themselves, even though they were ostensibly coming to complete a survey of the American penal system, then regarded as one of the most humane in the world, on behalf of the French government. Tocqueville, though, was far more interested in his questions about American democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville had his doubts about whether the American experiment in equality could work. His concern focused not on whether a revolution could bring about relative "equality of condition" in a civilized society-clearly the American experience had already demonstrated that it could. Instead, Tocqueville marveled at whether democracy would sustain itself over the long term, whether it could iconoclastically destroy monarchy and aristocracy and, in its place, erect a society in which power would no longer be held by a handful of individuals, yet at the same time not succumb to a different type of tyranny-that of the majority. By immersing himself in America, Tocqueville hoped to pose the questions that would uncover the answer to this riddle.

Tocqueville's method bore none of the quantitative analytical techniques employed by our contemporary political scientists or sociologists. Instead, he thought the best way to learn about America was to go to its citizens-in the obvious locations of New York and Boston and even the not-so-obvious destinations of New Orleans, Detroit, and Memphis, all relatively small cities at the time of his visit. Through a review of the historical documents available to him and detailed interviews with "the most informed men" he could meet, Tocqueville hoped to clarify specifically what it meant to be an American. Some critics have rightly pointed out that Tocqueville's observational evidence comes primarily from the wealthier and more industrial communities of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and that his observations about slavery and the South are made without having spent any substantial time studying plantation culture firsthand. Despite these weaknesses, Tocqueville's Democracy remains a masterful display of insight and foresight into all things American. Coming from a twenty-six-year-old tourist, his observations seem to display nothing short of pure genius.

First-time readers of Democracy in America are cautioned not to assume that Tocqueville's "equality of condition" refers to equal sociological footing for all residents of the United States. He was not speaking of equality among men and women, or among blacks and whites. Instead, his "equality of condition" refers to the embarrassment of riches in individual opportunity, the lack of a clear hierarchical class structure that would permanently stigmatize individuals on the basis of personal wealth, and the tendency of the bulk of white men in Tocqueville's America to be middling in education, wealth, and artistic sensibility. Tocqueville did not intend the observation to be a compliment; he was making social commentary about the environment in which, without any semblance of an aristocracy, democracy had "gained so much strength by time, by events, and by legislation, as to have become not only predominant, but all-powerful." What fascinated Tocqueville most was that Americans had achieved such a balance where no other previous attempt at democracy had succeeded nearly as well, and certainly not in such a short period of time. For Tocqueville, the secret of the success of American democracy was the lack of a lengthy national history of life under an American monarch or an American despot. "The great advantage of the Americans," Tocqueville noted, "is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution, and that they are born equal instead of becoming so."

Democracy in America consists of two volumes, written five years apart, each divided into a series of chapters designed to tackle questions Tocqueville sees as key to understanding democracy, America, and its citizenry. Volume I probes the key features of American democracy that distinguish its experiment in "equality of condition" from all that have preceded it. The analysis covers the obvious elements of political and societal structure that one might expect a political theorist to tackle in such a work, but he is also quick to examine the social and cultural influences that shaped the unique American experiment in democracy. In one of the most fascinating and, in some respects, prophetically frightening parts of Democracy , Tocqueville analyzes "The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races" in America: Anglo-European, Black, and Native American. For the Native Americans, Tocqueville offers little hope in the face of America's Indian Removal policy and territorial expansion: "[A]s the limits of the earth will at last fail them, their only refuge is the grave." And about the treatment of blacks in America, he makes this prediction: "Slavery,...contrasted with democratic liberty and the intelligence of our age, cannot survive. By the act of the master, or by the will of the age, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue."

Volume II, on the other hand, focuses on the specific cultural attributes of the American citizenry and how those traits are influenced by the philosophical assumptions of American society, specifically America's democratic principles and "equality of condition." Tocqueville briefly quips on the everyday features of American experience, ranging from American attitudes toward the arts, American newspapers, and American religion, to "why so many ambitious men and so little lofty ambition are to be found in the United States." Here Tocqueville accomplishes what any cultural or political analysis must do to be successful-his political theories already well established from the first volume, he shows us, through myriad windows into American life, why he is right. And always in the background, hauntingly so, is the specter of his prediction that the American experiment just might fail because of the specific nature of American democracy.

"I have no objection to the liberty of speech," Alexander H. Stephens wrote to Thomas H. Thomas in 1856, the day after John Brown's Pottawatomie Creek massacre, "[so long as] the liberty of the cudgel is left free to combat it." Such is the conflict among American democratic ideals and their various guarantees, or more importantly, the conflict between the rights of others and the fundamental American tendency to unleash one's sense of individual entitlement on the society as a whole. Tocqueville gracefully called it "individualism," a new vice he specifically attributed to the spread of democracy, one which "make[s] every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." Tocqueville saw the great threat of American democracy in the potential for a single individual, by sheer will of the majority, to attain a sufficiently strong elected role in central government to carry out his personal agenda, all under the auspices of doing the "work of the people." One need not look far into America's future from Tocqueville's perspective to see examples of such despotism laying its roots: Lincoln's illegal suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court, Reagan's "forgotten" role in Iran-Contra.

Tocqueville's masterwork was in its twelfth edition by 1848, and by 1862, a new translation of the Henry Reeve text had been issued, with corrections supplied by Francis Bowen. Critical reaction to the work from the beginning was stunningly positive, with John Stuart Mill's support for the text prompting much of the interest in the text among American readers. The success of Tocqueville's work can perhaps best be measured in comparison to his companion Beaumont's novel on slavery entitled Marie, or Slavery in the United States . It also accorded remarkably positive reviews when it first appeared, prompting heated discussion in both Europe and the United States about the conditions of slavery. Today Marie remains virtually unread and forgotten except among the most well-read slavery scholars.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, though, Democracy in America itself was no longer even in print. Then, following World War II, with national concerns focused on democratic ideals in the face of communism, and, in the 1960s and 1970s, with those same democratic ideals facing fierce criticism in light of the Vietnam experience and the Nixon presidency, Tocqueville suddenly became popular again. Today, it has become quite fashionable to quote Tocqueville in conjunction with any discussion of American democracy and its merits. As we might expect, Tocqueville is routinely paraded before the American people whenever a politician of any stripe wishes to lend credence to his or her particular interpretation of what democracy "means" in America. And every few years, a new Tocqueville scholar comes forward with his or her self-described "authoritative translation" of Tocqueville, often reopening debate about exactly what Tocqueville meant and what his views reveal about America today.

At times mesmerizing for his remarkable insight and the durability of his observations even today, at other times laugh-out-loud funny for how wrong he can be, Tocqueville offers us an examination of American institutions and the fabric of American life that will engross anyone with an interest in American political, social, cultural, or intellectual history. Democracy is best appreciated-and best understood-if it is read in its entirety, and considering that even Iran's President Mohammed Khatami held Tocqueville in sufficient regard to make a favorable nod to the French traveler in 1998, Americans should recognize that Tocqueville remains a seminal text of international interest to those hoping to understand America. To read Democracy in America as a complete work is to understand how others saw us-and in fact how we saw ourselves-in our nation's youth, and the experience will prompt readers to question whether the American experiment, with all that it promised in the beginning, has succeeded or failed.

Eric W. Plaag teaches history and politics at the university level.
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