Originally penned in the mid-nineteenth century by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America remains the most comprehensive, penetrating, and astute picture of American life, politics, and morals ever written, as relevant today as when it first appeared in print nearly two hundred years ago.
This abridged edition by scholar and historian Scott A. Sandage includes a new introduction and editorial notes, and offers students and the general reader alike easy access to the preeminent translation by George Lawrence, widely recognized as the best translation based on the second revised and corrected text of the 1961 French edition, edited by J. P. Mayer.
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Democracy in America
By Alexis de Tocqueville, Harvey C. Mansfield, Delba Winthrop
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2000 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
EXTERNAL CONFIGURATION OF NORTH AMERICA
North America divided into two vast regions, one sloping toward the pole, the other toward the equator.—Mississippi Valley.—Traces one encounters there of the revolutions of the earth.—Shore of the Atlantic Ocean on which the English colonies were founded.—Different aspects that South America and North America presented at the period of discovery.—Forests of North America.—Prairies.—Wandering tribes of natives.—Their external [appearance], their mores, their languages.—Traces of an unknown people.
North America, in its external configuration, presents general features that are easy to discern at first glance.
A sort of methodical order presided over the separation of land and water, of mountains and valleys. A simple and majestic arrangement reveals itself in the very midst of a confusion of objects and amongst the extreme variety of tableaux.
Two vast regions divide it in an almost equal manner.
One has its limit to the north at the Arctic pole; to the east, to the west, are the two great oceans. It then moves toward the south and forms a triangle whose irregularly drawn sides finally meet below the Great Lakes of Canada.
The second begins where the first ends and extends over all the rest of the continent.
One is slightly inclined toward the pole, the other toward the equator.
The lands comprised by the first region slope toward the north on an incline so insensible that one could almost say they form a plateau. In the interior of this immense platform one encounters neither high mountains nor deep valleys.
The waters there wind almost randomly; rivers intermingle, join, part, find each other again, are lost in a thousand marshes, wander at each instant in the midst of a damp labyrinth they have created, and finally reach the polar seas only after innumerable circuits. The Great Lakes that end this first region are not encased, like most of those of the Old World, in hills or rocks; their banks are flat and rise only a few feet above the level of the water. Each of them therefore forms something like a vast bowl filled to the brim: the slightest changes in the global structure would propel their waves to the pole or toward the tropical sea.
The second region is more uneven and better prepared to become the permanent dwelling of man; two long chains of mountains divide it down all its length: one, under the name Alleghenies, follows the coast of the Atlantic Ocean; the other*1 runs parallel to the South Sea.
The space enclosed between the two chains of mountains comprises 228,843 square leagues. Its area is therefore around six times greater than that of France.2
This vast territory nevertheless forms only one valley, which, descending from the rounded summit of the Alleghenies, rises again, without meeting any obstacle, to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
At the bottom of the valley flows an immense river. One sees waters rushing toward it, descending from the mountains from all directions.
Formerly the French had called the river St. Louis, in memory of their absent native country; and the Indians, in their pompous language, named it the Father of Waters, or the Mississippi.
The Mississippi has its source at the boundary of the two great regions that I spoke of above, toward the summit of the plateau that separates them.
Near it another river rises that discharges in the polar seas. The Mississippi itself sometimes seems uncertain of the path that it will take: several times it retraces its steps, and it is only after having slowed its course in the midst of lakes and marshes that it finally makes up its mind and slowly traces its route toward the south.
Sometimes tranquil at the bottom of the clay bed that nature has dug for it, sometimes swollen by storms, the Mississippi waters more than a thousand leagues in its course.
Six hundred leagues above its mouth, the river still has a mean depth of 15 feet, and ships of 300 tons go up it for a distance of nearly two hundred leagues.
Fifty-seven great navigable rivers bring their waters to it. Among the tributaries of the Mississippi may be counted a river of 1,300 leagues long, one of 900, one of 600, one of 500, four of 200, without speaking of an innumerable multitude of streams rushing from all directions only to lose themselves within it.
The valley watered by the Mississippi seems to have been created for it alone; it dispenses good and evil at will, and in that it is like the god. Along the river, nature shows an inexhaustible fertility; as one moves away from its shores, the vigor of plants is exhausted, the soil grows thin, everything languishes or dies. Nowhere have the great convulsions of the earth left more evident traces than in the Mississippi Valley. The whole aspect of the country attests to the work of the waters. Its sterility as well as its abundance is their work. The flow of the primitive ocean has accumulated enormous layers of arable land at the bottom of the valley, which it has had time to level out. On the right bank of the river one encounters immense plains, smoothed like the surface of a field over which a laborer has passed his roller. By contrast, as one approaches the mountains, the terrain becomes more and more uneven and sterile; the soil there is so to speak broken in a thousand places, and primitive rocks appear here and there like the bones of a skeleton after time has consumed the muscles and flesh around them. A granite sand and irregularly cut stones cover the surface of the land; with great difficulty a few plants push their shoots through these obstacles; one would say it is a fertile field covered with the debris of a vast edifice. In analyzing these stones and sand it is easy, in fact, to remark a perfect analogy between their substances and those that compose the arid and broken peaks of the Rocky Mountains. After having hurled the earth to the bottom of the valley, the waters doubtless in the end carried away with them part of the rocks themselves; they rolled them over the nearest slopes; and after having dashed one against another, they left the base of the mountains strewn with debris torn from their summits.
The Mississippi Valley is, all in all, the most magnificent dwelling that God has ever prepared for the habitation of man, and nonetheless one can say that it still forms only a vast wilderness.
On the eastern slope of the Alleghenies, between the foot of those mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, extends a long band of rocks and sand that the sea, in retreating, seems to have forgotten. That territory is on average only 48 leagues in width, but it measures 390 leagues in length. The soil on this part of the American continent lends itself only with difficulty to the labors of the farmer. The vegetation on it is meager and uniform.
It was on that inhospitable coast that the first efforts of human industry were concentrated. On that tongue of arid land were born and grew the English colonies that were one day to become the United States of America. There one still finds the home of power today, while behind it are assembling, almost in secret, the true elements of the great people to whom the future of the continent doubtless belongs.
When the Europeans landed on the shores of the West Indies and later on the coasts of South America, they believed themselves transported to the fabulous regions that poets had celebrated. The sea sparkled with the fires of the tropics; for the first time the extraordinary transparency of its waters uncovered to the eyes of the navigator the depth of its chasms. Here and there perfumed little islands were revealed that seemed to float like baskets of flowers on the tranquil surface of the ocean. All that was offered to view in those enchanted places seemed prepared for the needs of men or calculated for his pleasures. Most of the trees were laden with nourishing fruits, and those least useful to man charmed his regard with the dazzle and variety of their colors. In a forest of fragrant lemon trees, wild figs, round-leafed myrtle, acacias and oleander, all interlaced by flowering vines, a multitude of birds unknown in Europe displayed their wings, sparkling with purple and azure, and mixed the concert of their voices with the harmonies of a nature full of movement and life.
Death was hidden beneath that brilliant cloak; but they did not then perceive it, and besides, in the air of those climates reigned a certain enervating influence that attached man to the present and rendered him careless of the future.
North America presented a different aspect: everything there was grave, serious, solemn; one would have said that it had been created to become the domain of the intellect, as the other was to be the dwelling of the senses.
A turbulent, foggy ocean enveloped its shores; granite rocks or sandy shores served to ring it; the woods that covered its banks spread a somber and melancholy foliage; one saw hardly anything but pine, larch, live oak, wild olive, and laurel growing in them.
After having penetrated this first enclosure, one entered the shade of the central forest; there, a mix of the largest trees that grow in the two hemispheres was found. Plantain, catalpa, sugar maple, and Virginia poplar interlaced their branches with those of oak, beech, and linden.
As in forests subject to man's domain, death struck here relentlessly; but no one took charge of taking away the debris left behind. It therefore accumulated: time could not suffice to reduce it quickly enough to powder and to prepare new space. But in the very midst of this debris, the work of reproduction was constantly being pursued. Climbers and plants of every species came to light through the obstacles; they crept along fallen trees, insinuated themselves into their dust, lifted and broke the shriveled bark that still covered them, and cleared the way for their young shoots. Thus death came in a way to the aid of life. The one attended the other; they seemed to have wished to mix and confuse their works.
These forests concealed a profound darkness; a thousand streams, whose course human industry had not yet come to direct, maintained an eternal dampness. One barely saw a few flowers, a few wild fruits, a few birds.
The fall of a tree overturned by age, the cataract of a river, the bellowing of buffalo, and the whistling of the winds alone troubled the silence of nature.
To the east of the great river the woods partly disappeared; in their place boundless prairies spread out. Had nature in its infinite variety refused the seeding of trees in that fertile country, or had the forest that once covered them instead been destroyed by the hand of man? This is what neither tradition nor the research of science has been able to discover.
That immense wilderness was, however, not entirely deprived of the presence of man; for centuries, a few small tribes wandered under the shade of the forest or in the pastures of the prairie. From the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the delta of the Mississippi, from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Sea, these savages had points of resemblance among them that attested to their common origin. Yet they differed from all known races: they were neither white like Europeans nor yellow like most Asians nor black like Negroes; their skin was reddish, their hair long and shiny, their lips thin, and the bones of their cheeks very prominent. The tongues spoken by the small savage tribes of America differed in their words, but all were subject to the same grammatical rules. These rules diverged at several points from those that had appeared until then to direct the formation of language among men.
The idiom of the Americans seemed the product of new combinations; it announced an effort of intelligence on the part of its inventors of which the Indians of our day appear hardly capable.
The social state of those peoples also differed in several respects from what one saw in the Old World: one would have said that they had multiplied freely in the heart of their wilderness, having no contact with races more civilized than theirs. One therefore did not encounter among them those dubious and incoherent notions of good and evil, that profound corruption that is ordinarily mixed with ignorance and rudeness of mores in orderly nations that have reverted to barbarism. The Indian owed nothing except to himself; his virtues, his vices, his prejudices were his own work; he had grown up in the savage independence of his nature.
The coarseness of men of the people in orderly countries comes not only from the fact that they are ignorant and poor, but from the fact that while being so, they find themselves in daily contact with enlightened and wealthy men.
The sight of their misfortune and weakness, which contrasts every day with the happiness and power of some of those like them, excites anger and fear at the same time in their hearts; the sense of their inferiority and dependence irritates and humiliates them. That internal state of soul is reproduced in their mores as well as in their language; they are at once insolent and base.
The truth of this is easily proved by observation. The people are coarser in aristocratic countries than everywhere else, in opulent cities than in the countryside.
In places where one encounters men so strong and so wealthy, the weak and poor feel overwhelmed by their own baseness; not discovering any point by which they could regain equality, they wholly despair for themselves and allow themselves to fall below human dignity.
This distressing effect of the contrast of conditions is not found in savage life: the Indians, at the same time that they are all ignorant and poor, are all equal and free.
At the arrival of the Europeans, the native of North America was still ignorant of the value of wealth and showed himself indifferent to the well-being that civilized man acquires with it. Nevertheless, there was nothing coarse to be perceived in him; on the contrary, in his modes of acting there reigned an habitual reserve and a sort of aristocratic politeness.
Mild and hospitable in peace, pitiless in war, even beyond the known boundaries of human ferocity, the Indian would expose himself to die of hunger in order to assist the stranger who knocked at the door of his hut in the night, and with his own hands he would tear off the palpitating limbs of his prisoner. The most famous ancient republics had never admired a firmer courage, prouder souls, a more intractable love of independence than was then hiding in the wild woods of the New World. The Europeans made only a small impression in landing on the shores of North America; their presence gave rise neither to envy nor to fear. What hold could they have had on such men? The Indian knew how to live without needs, to suffer without complaining, to die singing. Furthermore, like all other members of the great human family, these savages believed in the existence of a better world, and under different names they adored God, the creator of the universe. Their notions on great intellectual truths were generally simple and philosophical.
However primitive appears the people whose character we are tracing here, nonetheless, one cannot doubt that another people more civilized, more advanced than it in all things, preceded it in these same regions.
An obscure but widespread tradition among most of the Indian tribes on the shores of the Atlantic teaches us that formerly the dwelling of the same peoples had been located to the west of the Mississippi. Along the banks of the Ohio and in all of the central valley, every day one still finds mounds raised by the hand of man. When one digs to the center of these monuments, they say, one can scarcely fail to encounter human remains, strange instruments, arms, utensils of all kinds—made of metal, or recalling usages unknown to current races.
The Indians of our day cannot give any information about the history of that unknown people. Nor did those who lived three hundred years ago, at the discovery of America, say anything from which one can even infer an hypothesis. Traditions, those perishable and constantly re-emergent monuments of a primitive world, furnish no light. There, however, lived thousands of those like us; one cannot doubt it. When did they come, what was their origin, their destiny, their history? When and how did they perish? No one could say.
A strange thing! There are peoples who have so completely disappeared from the earth that the very memory of the name has been effaced; their languages are lost, their glory has vanished like a sound without an echo; but I do not know if there is a single one of them that has not at least left a tomb in memory of its passing. Thus, of all the works of man, the most lasting is still the one that best recounts his nothingness and his miseries!
Although the vast country that I have just described was inhabited by numerous tribes of natives, one can justly say that at the period of discovery it still formed only a wilderness. The Indians occupied it, but they did not possess it. It is by agriculture that man appropriates the soil, and the first inhabitants of North America lived from products of the hunt. Their implacable prejudices, their indomitable passions, their vices, and perhaps still more their savage virtues, delivered them to an inevitable destruction. The ruin of these peoples began on the day when the Europeans landed on their shores; it has continued ever since; in our day it is finishing its work. Providence, in placing them in the midst of the wealth of the New World, seemed to have given them only a short lease on it; they were there, in a way, only in the meantime. Those coasts, so well prepared for commerce and industry, those rivers so deep, that inexhaustible Mississippi Valley, that continent as a whole, then appeared as the still-empty cradle of a great nation.
Excerpted from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Harvey C. Mansfield, Delba Winthrop. Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Origin of the Anglo-Americans (II)
2. Democratic Social Condition (III)
3. The Sovereignty of the People in America (IV)
4. Local Government (V)
5. Decentralization in America—Its Effects (V)
6. Judicial Power in the United States, and Its Influence on Political Society (VI)
7. Aspects of the Federal Constitution (VIII)
8. Political Parties (IX, X)
9. Liberty of the Press in the United States (XI)
10. Political Associations in the United States (XII)
11. Advantages of Democracy in the United States (XIV)
12. Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and Its Consequences (XV)
13. Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States (XVI)
14. Causes Which Tend to Maintain Democracy (XVII)
15. Future Prospects of the United States (XVIII)
Part Two: Book I - Influence of Democracy Upon the Action of Intellect in the United States
16. Philosophical Method of the Americans (I, II)
17. Influence of Democracy on Religion (V, VI)
18. Equality Suggests to the Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man (VIII)
19. The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, or Art (IX)
20. Why the Americans Are More Addicted to Practical than to Theoretical Science (X)
21. In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts (XI)
22. Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times (XIII)
23. Of Some Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations (XVII)
24. Why American Writers and Orators Often Use an Inflated Style (XVIII)
25. Some Characteristics of Historians in Democratic Times (XX)
Book II - Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans
26. Why Democratic Nations Show a More Ardent and Enduring Love of Equality than of Liberty (I)
27. Of Individualism in Democratic Countries (II)
28. That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions (IV)
29. Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life (V)
30. Of the Relation Between Public Associations and the Newspapers (VI)
31. Relation of Civil to Political Associations (VII)
32. Of the Taste for Physical Well-Being in America (XI)
33. What Causes Almost All Americans to Follow Industrial Callings (XIX)
34. How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Manufactures (XX)
Book III - Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly So Called
35. How Democracy Renders the Habitual Intercourse of the Americans Simple and Easy (II)
36. Why the Americans Show So Little Sensitiveness in Their Own Country, and Are So Sensitive in Europe (III)
37. Influence of Democracy on Wages (VII)
38. Influence of Democracy on the Family (VIII)
39. Young Women in a Democracy (IX, X)
40. How Equality of Condition Contributes to Maintain Good Morals in America (XI)
41. How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes (XII)
42. How the Principle of Equality Naturally Divides the Americans into a Multitude of Small Private Circles (XIII)
43. Some Reflections on American Manners (XIV)
44. Why the National Vanity of the Americans Is More Restless and Captious than that of the English (XVI)
45. How the Aspect of Society in the United States Is at Once Excited and Monotonous (XVII)
46. Why So Many Ambitious Men and So Little Lofty Ambition Are to Be Found in the United States (XIX)
47. The Trade of Place-Hunting in Certain Democratic Countries (XX)
48. Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare (XXI)
49. Why Democratic Nations Are Naturally Desirous of Peace, and Democratic Armies of War (XXII)
50. Causes Which Render Democratic Armies Weaker than Other Armies at the Outset of a Campaign, and More Formidable in Protracted Warfare (XXIV)
51. Some Considerations on War in Democratic Communities (XXVI)
Book IV - Influence of Democratic Ideas and Feelings on Political Society
52. Equality Naturally Gives Men a Taste for Free Institutions (I)
53. That the Opinions of Democratic Nations About Government Are Naturally Favorable to the Concentration of Power (II)
54. That the Sentiments of Democratic Nations Accord with Their Opinions in Leading Them to Concentrate Political Power (III)
55. Of Certain Peculiar and Accidental Causes, Which Either Lead a People to Complete the Centralization of Government, or Which Divert Them from It (IV)
56. What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear (VI)
57. General Survey of the Subject (VIII)