Themes from Democracy in America
Democracy in America
Themes from de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville’s political masterpiece, “Democracy in America”, touches on several core themes that define the main messages of the book. The most important one of these is based on equality in the United States. “Democracy in America” examines equality in terms of class, education and property; which is incredibly insightful given that it was written in the 1830’s. Equality, on several different levels, has been both achieved and defeated in America throughout our history. “Democracy in America” shows us the challenges that we faced in the past, in the hopes of paving the way for a better future.
When arriving in America in 1831, Tocqueville wrote how he was noticeably aware of how different this new country was from the old world in Europe. “The social state of the Americans is eminently democratic. It has been like that ever since the birth of the colonies but is even more so now”(Tocqueville 50). That quote details how since the days the colonists arrived until the present; Americans were distinctly different from Europe regarding their social state. Almost everyone one came on the same equal footing and was looking to become successful in this vast, exciting new land. After fighting for our independence, America became even more democratic in terms of equality according to Tocqueville. The first form of how things are different and more democratic involves inheritance and property in the United States. What Tocqueville has to say is not all good either.
Throughout the centuries in Europe, inheritance and property were strictly a family affair. Typically the first born would receive the lion’s share of the inheritance on the death of a parent. During previous centuries in Europe, land belonged to a family for generations and helped hold the family “unit” together. They were bonded over the land and the sense of family remained.
“In nations where the law of inheritance is based on primogeniture, landed estates generally pass undivided from one generation to another. Hence family feeling finds a sort of physical expression in the land. The family represents the land, and the land the family, perpetuating its name, origin, glory, power, and virtue. It is an imperishable witness to the past and a precious earnest of the future.” (Tocqueville 52)
In America, things became different with land changing hands regularly and with the first born not always being guaranteed as inheriting most of the family property. While some may feel that is fair and is an early example of equality in the United States, Tocqueville agrees with the equality but that it comes with a price to pay. With the first born not guaranteed to take over the family land, Tocqueville felt the families would feel less attached to it and would end up selling it. He felt that this would promote individualism over community, which would begin to hurt the family values that the world has known for centuries. Tocqueville believed that when family feeling is at an end, then personal selfishness begins to set it. When the selfishness set it and began to hurt the family, it would ultimately end up hurting the country.
When people arrived in America to start anew, they arrived with an equal shot to achieve that. After establishing roots here for several decades and inheritance began to be passes down, many of those benefiting from that would sell it to receive money from other interested parties. Money became the name of the game in the United States and that is what everyone was after ultimately.
“It is not that in the United States, as everywhere, there are no rich; indeed I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity, and experience shows that two successive generations seldom enjoy its favors.” (Tocqueville 54)
Human nature is never satisfied and always restless, according to Tocqueville, leading him to state his opinions on the quest for money in the New World. The ability to make money factors into the next form of equality that Tocqueville mentions in “Democracy in America,” and that is mental endowment.
Europe during this time had a very rigid structure regarding education and who benefited from that system. America was not at all like that, which Tocqueville immediately picked up on during his visit here in the 1830’s. “I think there is no other country in the world where, proportionately to population, there are so few ignorant and so few individuals as in the United States” (Tocqueville 55). That quote best sums up how many outsiders felt about the United States. Things were done differently, with almost everyone receiving some level of education which allowed them to function in their chosen profession, and leading everyone to a good footing to make an adequate living.
“In America most rich men began by being poor, almost all men of leisure were busy in their youth; as a result, at the age when one might have a taste for study, one has not the time; and when time is available, the taste has gone.” (Tocqueville 55)
No other country had their beginnings quite like this, probably helping to contribute to our nickname “The Land of Opportunity.” People were typically self-made here and the social class in America was much less defined as it was in Europe at the time. That fact coupled with a lack of a royal class, helped the United States charter a new path regarding social order. Not everyone was intelligent, but had the ability to gain knowledge. “Though mental endowments remain unequal as the Creator intended, the means of exercising them are equal” (Tocqueville 56). The ability to make money and to have access to forms of education, set the United States apart from other nations around the world at the time.
“So the social state of America is a very strange phenomenon. Men there are nearer in equality in wealth and mental endowments, or, in other words, more equally powerful, than in any other country of the world or in any other stage of recorded history. (Tocqueville 56)
While Tocqueville enjoyed seeing the experiment of equality as previously mentioned, he also felt that there were some concerns about what will happen in the long run due to these actions. Among his chief concerns was the 1) mediocrity of intellect, 2) outward frenetic materialism, 3) inward isolation, and 4) secret, hidden desire for a tyrant. At the time, all of these concerns about equality of money and mental endowment were somewhat justified, but hindsight is 20/20. Paving the way this early on helped establish America as a trailblazer which set us apart from other countries at the time and still does the same today. “Democracy in America” was a probing look into something that was widely regarded as one of the largest social experiments in history, the establishment of such a unique country.
Reading Tocqueville work, one must give him incredible praise for accurately reporting how things were run and his unbiased approach to reporting on what he saw. “Democracy in America” allowed Europe to see the United States through an unbiased looking glass since it was written by a French aristocrat, undoubtedly changing the perspectives of many who viewed the former colonies with disdain for a multitude of reasons. At the same time, he pointed out flaws in the system too, which are accurate criticisms. This book established political science as a method of study and Tocqueville became the first official political scientist because of his unique approach to studying the United States.
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