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Democracy in America

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Democracy in America has had the singular honor of being even to this day the work that political commentators of every stripe refer to when they seek to draw large conclusions about the society of the USA. Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat, came to the young nation to investigate the functioning of American democracy & the social, political & economic life of its citizens, publishing his observations in 1835 & 1840. Brilliantly written, vividly illustrated with vignettes & portraits, Democracy in America is far more than a trenchant analysis of one society at a particular point in time. What will most intrigue modern readers is how many of the observations still hold true: on the mixed advantages of a free press, the strained relations among the races & the threats posed to democracies by consumerism & corruption. So uncanny is Tocqueville’s insight & so accurate are his predictions, that it seems as tho he were not merely describing the American identity but actually helping to create it.

983 pages, Paperback

First published January 31, 1835

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About the author

Alexis de Tocqueville

436 books833 followers
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 – April 16, 1859) was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies.

Democracy in America (1835), his major work, published after his travels in the United States, is today considered an early work of sociology and political science. An eminent representative of the classical liberal political tradition, Tocqueville was an active participant in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–1848) and then during the Second Republic (1849–1851) which succeeded to the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte's December 2, 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I. After obtaining a law degree, Alexis de Tocqueville was named auditor-magistrate at the court of Versailles. There, he met Gustave de Beaumont, a prosecutor substitute, who collaborated with him on various literary works. Both were sent to the United States to study the penitentiary system. During this trip, they wrote Du système pénitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application (1832). Back in France, Tocqueville became a lawyer. He met the English economist Nassau William Senior in 1833, and they became good friends and corresponded for many years.[1] He published his master-work, De la démocratie en Amérique, in 1835. The success of this work, an early model for the science that would become known as sociology, led him to be named chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) in 1837, and to be elected the next year to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. In 1841 he was elected to the Académie française.

Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830–1848), began his political career in the same period. Thus, he became deputy of the Manche department (Valognes), a position which he maintained until 1851. In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe's regime. Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department's conseil général between 1849 and 1851.

Apart from Canada, Tocqueville also made an observational tour of England, producing Memoir on Pauperism. In 1841 and 1846, he traveled to Algeria. His first travel inspired his Travail sur l'Algérie, in which he criticized the French model of colonization, based on an assimilationist view, preferring instead the British model of indirect rule, which did not mix different populations together. He went as far as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists and the "Arabs" through the implementation of two different legislative systems (a half century before its effective implementation with the 1881 Indigenous code).

After the fall of the July Monarchy during the February 1848 Revolution, Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly of 1848, where he became a member of the Commission charged with the drafting of the new Constitution of the Second Republic (1848–1851). He defended bicameralism (two parliamentary chambers) and the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. As the countryside was thought to be more conservative than the laboring population of Paris, universal suffrage was conceived as a means to block the revolutionary spirit of Paris.

During the Second Republic, Tocqueville sided with the parti de l'Ordre against the "socialists" and workers. A few days after the February insurrection, he believed a violent clash between the workers' population agitating in favor of a "Democratic and Social Republic" and

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Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,277 followers
July 19, 2018
I struggle to penetrate God’s point of view, from which vantage point I try to observe and judge human affairs.

A few months ago, bored at work and with no other obligations to tie me to New York, I decided that I would look into employment in Europe; and now, several months and an irksome visa process later, I am on the verge of setting off to Madrid. Unsurprisingly, I’m very excited to go; but of course leaving one’s home is always bittersweet. This is partly why I picked up Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as a sort of literary good-bye kiss to this odd, uncouth, chaotic, and fantastic place which has, up until now, molded my character, sustained my body, and contained my thoughts.

This turned out to be an excellent choice, for this book is without a doubt the best book ever written on the United States. I am able to say this, even though I haven’t even read a fraction of the books written on this country, because I simply can’t imagine how anyone could have done it better. As it is, I can hardly believe that Tocqueville could understand so much in the short span of his life; and when I recall that he wrote this book after only 9 months in America, while he was still in his thirties, I am doubly astounded. This seems scarcely human.

Part of the reason for his seemingly miraculous ability is that, with Tocqueville, you find two things conjoined which are normally encountered separately: extremely keen powers of observation, and a forceful analytic mind. With most travel writers, you encounter only the former; and with most political philosophers, only the latter. The product of this combination is a nearly perfect marriage of facts and reasoning, of survey and criticism, the ideas always hovering just above the reality, transforming the apparently senseless fabric of society into a sensible and intelligible whole. Almost everything he sees, he understands; and not only does he understand what he sees, but so often hits upon the why.

Although this book covers an enormous amount of ground—religion, slavery, culture, government, the role of women, just to name a few topics—there is one central question that runs through every subject: What does the appearance of democracy mean for the future of humanity? Tocqueville sees this question as the most pressing and significant one of his time; for, as he perceived, what was happening then in America was destined to inspire Europe and perhaps the whole world to adopt this new form of government, which would forever change the face of society. In short, Tocqueville is seeking to understand America so that he could understand the future; and the plan of the book follows these two goals successively. The first volume, published in 1835, is a thorough analysis of the United States; and the second volume, published in 1840, is a comparison of democracy and aristocracy, an attempt to pinpoint how a switch to a democratic government causes far-reaching changes in the whole culture.

Tocqueville is famously ambivalent about American democracy. He often sounds greatly impressed at what he finds, noting how hardworking and self-reliant are most Americans; and yet so often, particularly in the second volume, Tocqueville sounds gloomy and pessimistic about what the future holds. Much of his analysis is centered on the idea of social equality. He often reminds the reader—and by the way, Tocqueville wrote this for a French audience—that Americans, rich or poor, famous or obscure, will treat everyone as an equal. The entire idea of castes or classes has, in Tocqueville’s opinion, been abolished; and this has had many effects. Most obviously, it gives free reign to American ambition, for anyone can potentially climb from the bottom to the top; thus results the ceaseless activity and endless financial scheming of Americans. And even those who are quite well-off are not spared from this fever of ambition, for the lack of inherited wealth and stable fortunes means that the rich must continually exert effort to maintain their fortunes. (Whether this is true anymore is another story.)

Thus we find a kind of money-obsession, where everyone must constantly keep their minds in their wallets. In America, money is not only real currency, but cultural currency as well, a marker of success; and in this context, the creature comforts of life, which after all only money can buy, are elevated to great importance. Rich food, warm beds, spacious houses—these are praised above the simpler pleasures in life, such as agreeable conversation or pleasant walks on sunny days, as the former require money while the latter are free and available to anyone. The central irony of a classless society is that it forces everyone to focus constantly on their status, as it is always in jeopardy. You can imagine how shocking this must have been for Tocqueville, the son of an aristocratic family. There simply was no class of Americans who had the leisure of retiring from the cares of the world and contemplating the “higher” but less practical things in life. All thought was consumed in activity.

This results in a society of the ordinary individual. In America, there are few “great men” (as Tocqueville would say) but a great many good ones. Americans are self-reliant, but not daring; they are often decent, but never saintly. They will sometimes risk their lives in pursuit of a fortune, but never their fortunes for the sake their lives. An American might temporarily accept hardship if there is a financial reward on the other end; but how many Americans would forsake their fortunes, their comforts, their houses and property, for the sake of an idea, a principle, a dream? Thus a kind of narrow ambition pervades the society, where everyone is hoping to better their lot, but almost nobody is hoping to do something beyond acquiring money and things. One can easily imagine the young Tocqueville, his mind filled with Machiavelli and Montesquieu, meeting American after American with no time or inclination for something as intangible as knowledge.

In the midst of his large-scale cultural analysis, Tocqueville sometimes pauses for a time, putting off the role of philosopher to take up the role of prophet. Tocqueville does get many of his predictions wrong. For example, he did not at all foresee the Civil War—and in fact he thought Americans would never willingly risk their property fighting each other—and instead he thought that there would be a gigantic race war between blacks and whites in the south. But Tocqueville was otherwise quite right about race relations in the slave-owning states. He predicts that slavery could not possibly last, and that it would soon be abolished; and he notes that abolishing slavery will probably be the easiest task in improving the relationship between blacks and whites. For although slavery can be destroyed through legal action, the effects of slavery, the deep-rooted racial prejudice and hatred, cannot so easily be wiped clean. In support of this view, Tocqueville notes how badly treated are free blacks in the northern states, where slavery is banned. Without a place in society, they are shunned and fall into poverty. The persistence of the color line in America is a testament to Tocqueville’s genius and our failure to prove him wrong.

But perhaps the most arresting prediction Tocqueville makes is about the future rivalry of the United States with Russia. Here are his words:
Americans struggle against obstacles placed there by nature; Russians are in conflict with men. The former fight the wilderness and barbarity; the latter, civilization with all its weaponry: thus, American victories are achieved with the plowshare, Russia’s with the soldier’s sword.

To achieve their aim, the former rely upon self-interest and allow free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.

The latter focus the whole power of society upon a single man.

The former deploy freedom as their main mode of action; the latter, slavish obedience.

The point of departure is different, their paths are diverse but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.

While discussing such an obviously brilliant man as was Tocqueville, whose ideas have become foundational in the study of American society, it seems almost petty to praise his prose style. But I would be doing an injustice to any readers of this review if I failed to mention that Tocqueville is an extraordinary writer. I was consistently captivated by his ability to sum up his thoughts into crisp aphorisms and to compress his analyses into perfectly composed paragraphs. I can only imagine how much better it is in the original French. Here is only a brief example:
Commerce is a natural opponent of all violent passions. It likes moderation, delights in compromise, carefully avoids angry outbursts. It is patient, flexible, subtle, and has recourse to extreme measures only when absolute necessity obliges it to do so. Commerce makes men independent of each other, gives them quite another idea of their personal value, persuades them to manage their own affairs, and teaches them to be successful. Hence it inclines them to liberty but draws them away from revolutions.

In the brief space of a book review—even a long one—I cannot hope to do justice to such a wide-ranging, carefully argued, and incisive book as this. So I hope that I have managed to persuade you to at least add this work to your to-read list, long as it may be already. For my part, I can’t imagine a better book to have read as I prepare myself to visit a new continent, about the same age as was Tocqueville when he visited these shores, for my own travels in a strange place. And although, lowly American that I am, I cannot hope to achieve even a fraction of what Tocqueville has, perhaps his voice echoing in my ears will be enough to encourage me to look, to listen, and to understand.
Profile Image for Russell Bittner.
Author 26 books60 followers
June 14, 2013
I don’t mind admitting that Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America is quite possible the most demanding piece of exposition I’ve read since Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. I suspect it’s one of those books — analogous, if you will, to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Melville’s Moby Dick, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Musil’s Man Without Qualities — that avid readers want to have read, but never have.

I finally did.

If you can find the time (and the quiet) to read fifty pages of this book a day, you can accomplish it in under three weeks. If you can devote yourself to more than fifty pages a day — and have the concentration necessary to make sense of what you’re reading — you’re a better (wo)man than I am.

I couldn’t. In spite of my best efforts and virtually ideal conditions (most often in some secluded spot in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), I found myself having to read many sentences two and three times over.

Democracy in America is no doubt more worthy of a dissertation than of a review. And I suspect that thousands of dissertations have been written on this oeuvre. The book is dense — with a capital “D” — and any sort of commentary on it could rival exegesis of the Torah.

Dense it is. But also prescient — with a capital “P.” If you can’t find the time or the circumstances to devote yourself to a reading of the entire work, read just Chapter 10 of Part II, Volume One (“Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States”). And keep in mind that Volume One was published in 1835; the “Trail of Tears” (the expulsion of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to a circumscribed territory in Oklahoma) happened only three years later; and the Civil War was still relatively far off!

But what of de Tocqueville’s observation at the conclusion of Volume One concerning Americans and Russians — ions before the start of the Cold War? Allow me to quote at length from pp. 475-476, as I don’t want to shortchange the man:

"There are today two great peoples on earth, who, though they started from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.

Both grew in obscurity, and while humanity’s gaze was focused elsewhere, they abruptly vaulted to the first rank among nations: the world learned almost simultaneously of their birth and of their grandeur.

All other peoples seem close to achieving the limits traced for them by nature and henceforth need only to preserve what they already have; but these two are still growing. All the others have stopped, or move forward only with the greatest of effort. Only these two march with an easy and rapid stride down a road whose end no eye can yet perceive.

The American does battle with the obstacles that nature has placed before him; the Russian grapples with men. One combats wilderness and barbarity; the other, civilization with all its arms. The American makes his conquests with the farmer’s ploughshare, the Russian with the soldier’s sword.

To achieve his goal, the American relies on personal interest and allows individuals to exercise their strength and reason without guidance.

The Russian in a sense concentrates all of society in the power of one man.

The American’s principal means of action is liberty; the Russian’s, servitude.

Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe."

Just as prescient are de Tocqueville’s observations in Volume Two, Part II, Chapter 20 (pp. 649 – 652 in the Arthur Goldhammer/Literary Classics of the United States, © 2004 edition I’ve just read). In these four pages (titled “How Industry Could Give Rise to an Aristocracy”), de Tocqueville not only foresees the dangers of the industrial process known as “Taylorism” introduced decades later by the Ford Motor Company, but also adumbrates the condition of alienation between worker and owner/manager, haves and have-nots, into which we in the U. S. are now inexorably slipping. (Should you have any interest in understanding more about this latter development, I would respectfully refer you to Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, which I reviewed here at Goodreads at the end of last month.)

And what of this concluding observation 150 years before the deluge of widgets and gadgets in which most of the current generation of digital addicts would appear to be drowning? “Habitual inattention must be regarded as the greatest defect of the democratic mind (last sentence on p. 718).” There are no doubt other good reasons for the seemingly constant state of distraction of so many young minds — and de Tocqueville carefully lays out his argument in the pages leading up to his conclusion. And yet, one has to wonder whether the “democratic mind” as it has come to be in these United States and elsewhere in the Western World at the beginning of the twenty-first century was the incubator or the egg in our so-called “high-tech (r)evolution.”

Please allow me to return to p. 198 to conclude with one last citation, even if I could go on and on with others worth their aphoristic weight in gold. “Time no more stops for nations than it does for individuals. Both advance daily toward a future of which they know nothing.”

“…(A) future of which they know nothing.” Scary stuff — but worthwhile (to say the least!) reading.

Brooklyn, NY
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,890 followers
May 12, 2019
I had thought to come back to this after reading a general history of the early history of the US republic, but instead a sudden batch of newspaper articles wondering about the end of Democracy brought me back to it.

Reading this book I felt that the unfinished The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution was Tocqueville's masterpiece and in so far as Democracy in America has renown, I feel it is because there are a lot of Americans, and naturally it is nice when a foreigner takes your country and its institutions seriously and discusses them soberly as something of world historical significance (although in places he is plainly exasperated by his hosts).

I feel it is important to say that it is not a travelogue, nor is it a systematic study of American institutions circa 1830. de Tocqueville's big idea, I guess, is that a culture or civilisation is by definition congruent so that on the basis of a couple of key data points one can infer or deduce the entire nature of that culture and civilisation. On the one hand he is wonderfully inventive coming close to describing alienation and deskilling as a consequence of industrial labour organisation - what will become of the man's mind, he asks, if all he does is make pin heads all day for years on end, on the other hand he plainly suffers from the absence of conceptual language which will be invented later and suffers from a fondness of logic and deduction, for example in his opinion at the time of writing there was no American literature but, because he perceives the nature of the culture of the USA, he gives us a chapter about what American and indeed all democratic countries' literature will be like, ditto poetry, theatre, history writing and how the USA will conduct wars (book 2 Chapter XIII onwards). He suffers from Observational bias too - because Andrew Jackson was President during his visit he assumes that the trend from then on will be for the Federal structures to become weaker and state ones stronger . Here his biases may also be due to his sources both books and the people he meet in the USA who by implication seem to have been well to do persons opposed to the Democratic party.

Having read the thing twice, I feel as though I am a person on their death bed regretting that they didn't do more unpaid overtime while they had the chance : there need be no shame in reading a selection or an abridged version, Tocqueville would have benefited from an imaginative and kind editor, he spends pages expressing one idea but in lots of slightly different ways, it is possible to imagine a condensed version a couple of hundred pages long. He suffers strongly from being innovative, later generations would devise concepts like 'conventional wisdom' or collect statistics, or indeed establish more ostensibly democratic states and providing more data to chew over. It is a book more admirable in its ambition than likeable in it's delivery.

In studying democracy in America we notice two obvious separate subjects - America and Democracy, and the USA we can further say in the 1830s was a colonial society, a frontier society, a capitalist society which had a degree of industrialisation, had regions with a slave economy, as well as regions absorbing immigrants from overseas and regions absorbing internal migrants and all these factors worked together in a dynamic way. Tocqueville doesn't pull all these elements apart nor can he know what was typical of democratic societies in general or only of America because they wasn't much to compare the USA with (he doesn't much like Switzerland as it wasn't federal enough for his liking in the 1830s) in his lifetime.

Tocqueville was very interested in the role of religion, he observes that Christianity is essential democratic - even Catholicism because he holds that everyone is equal beneath the priest, for his contemporaries and indeed Europeans for a further hundred years or so this would have been a provocative position to take - the hostility in some countries to democratic tendencies from churches was marked and turf wars over education, welfare and social policy generally were and have been an ongoing process, I recall in the context of Italian unification that a Pope forbade Italians from participating in elections which I guess gave people something extra to talk about in the confessional box. Religion, like Aristocracy (meaning potentially any elite group in society) functions in a dualistic manner, both are anti-democratic and underpin democracy simultaneously they tend towards tyranny (majoritarian culture in the case of religion, generally being anti-democratic in the case of elites) while at the same time promoting a unifying culture and protecting privileges and rights for all. That nothing has a simple effect in the social dynamic, but is at least two-faced was a useful insight.

de Tocqueville was hardly a disinterested or neutral observer, he was an aristocrat, but he believed that the trend was towards democratic governments in politics. He also felt that governments would be increasingly centralised and would have greater and greater scope than ever before, this meant that when democratic governments flipped in to despotism these despotic governments would be more powerful than any tyranny seen before 1830, democratic society would be vulnerable to tyranny because of the drive to equality, there would be no institutions or individuals capable of resisting despotism - which seems a curious position since Aristocrats and provincial liberties in his native France hadn't been so successful in restraining the ambitions of mighty kings.

Implicit in his thinking is French history, he assumes that all governments are essentially programmatic and are always working to achieve a certain programme coherent across centuries, he also seems to have the likes of Turgot and Sully in mind in believing that there are great statesmen, philosophes perhaps at heart, public spirited and of considerable intellect who really ought to be ruling over everybody, for him President Washington and the early leadership of the USA were of that ilk (but things have been going downhill since Jefferson in his opinion).

For Tocqueville pure or model forms of government are practically irrelevant, politics is human interaction. The history, social complexion and geography of the country shape how the democracy will actually function in practise. At times this felt deterministic, if history is destiny then can we only say that democratic countries will remain so and non-democratic societies remain so for all time? But Tocqueville believes that through education a society can become more (and presumably less too) democratic. By education he means involvement in democratic activities holding political office and involvement in running public affairs. In terms of the future of representative governments this seems to me a disturbing observation, are there countries where one can still observe a functioning Cursus honorum with aspiring politicians working up from fly catcher general to head of state? Jury service he believes too is educative it teaches everybody that citizens are the ultimate power and are the ones with the right to decide and govern. In this I feel the weakness of his trust in logic and deduction. I feel that what he says makes sense but if it actually has that effect on society generally I am not sure, and while we can feel that the transition from non-democratic to democratic society is unlikely to be smooth or easy, but that seems too simplistic a view too.

In addition to despotism Tocqueville's picture of the tyranny of the majority is strikingly pessimistic - majority culture indeed looks worse than a despotism "what I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom that prevails there but the shortage of any guarantee against tyranny" (p.294) in Tocqueville's vision of America the government represents the majority whose values and ideas will also be reflected throughout the legal system and public service general, he tells of observing an election in Pennslyvania and asking if free Blacks have the vote, he is told -yes, but they don't dare to vote (presumably for fear of violence), of course Tocqueville himself was also part of the majority in some ways, he reflects that everybody imaginable has the vote in the USA in the 1830s despite being in correspondence with J.S. Mill he doesn't imagine giving women the vote and thinks it normal that servants (not just slaves) don't have the vote either. Even if you do have the vote, as we noticed, exercising it is another issue and cultural change to shift the position of the majority is something else again. Perhaps it begins to make sense that when French President Louis Napoleon held a referendum asking 'This democracy business is a bit rubbish really, do you agree that I must become your lawful Emperor, Napoleon III' that a majority voted yes

I get the impression that Tocqueville has been mined as a source of an idealised view of the USA, how far his view of essentially the North and North-west of the USA of the 1830 was (a) realistic and (b) remained similar as the country continued to develop I am sure many others will have their own ideas. Thinking of some of the quotes below I see I've read him in a similar light playing the game of what he 'got right' or 'got wrong' this is I guess to fall into the Texas sharp shooter fallacy, the USA even in 1830, was already a pretty big target, and the future is not so small either .

On the remarkable side I think is his view of slavery that a particular (and not so visible) evil is how the slave internalises the negative view that the slave society has of them and that the downfall of a civilisation need not be sudden, catastrophic and violent - he anticipates the Needham Question by seeing the state of early nineteenth China as a warning - you can be a forerunner yet still end up falling way behind without the need for any barbarians charging down the streets.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,377 reviews12k followers
September 19, 2019

Alexis de Tocqueville captures the spirit of American democracy back when he wrote his classic in 1835. But what of the spirit of democracy in current day America where every citizen has the God given right to be a spectator or participate in exciting entertainment? The following fiction by author Lawrence Millman hits the bull's-eye.

A few years ago the Murmansk Opera came to town. And my friend Clint decided to take his wife Erma to a production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia at the local grange. Now Clint had never been near an opera before. Closet he had come was the tri-annual demolition derby sponsored by the Loyal Order of moose. So you can imagine his confusion when, by the middle of the second act, not a single junker had gone to meet its Maker. He had hoped at least to see a skirmish of Ladas and Moskvitches, with perhaps something from the Eastern Block, like a Skoda, thrown in. "When they gonna bring on the cars? he asked Erma. Sh-h-h, said the man sitting behind him. Nor did any cars show up the the end of the third act. Clint felt cheated. "If the next act don't have a bang-up," he said, "I'm gettin' our money back. Sh-h-h, hissed the man behind him. At which point Clint turned around: "It's a goddamn free country. I got every right to speak my mind. It's guaranteed by the, um, constipation." "Constitution," whispered Erma. "Like I said," Clint said. And when the next act brought only an apotheosis or two, he stormed out of the grange. Minutes later he reappeared driving his Dodge-Studebacker pickup mix. He drove it right onto the stage, sideswiping a baritone and dispersing the Chorus of the Russian People. "Ain't no Communist gonna destroy the sacred privilege of a car." Clint said. The audience gave him a standing ovation. And soon a whole armada of Fords, Chevys, Dodge Darts, and Buicks was crowding onto the stage, honking and cruising and bashing each other. The man who'd been sitting behind Clint kept yelling, "Quiet! Quiet! I want to hear the opera." But it was too late. The majority ruled.

*The Origin of Democracy by Lawrence Millman appeared in Unscheduled Departures - The Asylum Anthology of Short Fiction edited by Greg Boyd
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews47 followers
March 15, 2018
‭De la democratie en Amerique = On Democracy in America = Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
De La Démocratie en Amérique published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840) is a classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville. Its title translates as On Democracy in America, but English translations are usually simply entitled Democracy in America. In the book, Tocqueville examines the democratic revolution that he believed had been occurring over the previous several hundred years.
عنوانها: دموکراسی در دنیای جدید؛ دموکراسی در امریکا؛ تحلیل دموکراسی در امریکا؛ تاریخ نخستین خوانش: یازدهم ماه مارس سال 1971 میلادی
عنوان: تحلیل دموکراسی در دنیای جدید؛ نویسنده: شارل هانری موریس کارل دو توکویل؛ یا: الکسی دو توکویل؛ با مقدمه هارولد نسکی؛ مترجم: رحمت الله مقدم (رحمت الله مقدم مراغه ای)؛ تهران، بنگاه ترجمه و نشر کتاب، 1346؛ در 815 ص؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، نشر همراه، 1380، در 743 ص؛ شابک: 9641319505؛ موضوع: دموکراسی در امریکا قرن 19 م
عنوان: تحلیل دموکراسی در امریکا؛ نویسنده: شارل هانری موریس کارل دو توکویل؛ یا: الکسی دو توکویل؛ با مقدمه هارولد نسکی؛ مترجم: رحمت الله مقدم (رحمت الله مقدم مراغه ای)؛ تهران، زوار، فرانکلین، 1347؛ در 815 ص؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، علمی فرهنگی، 1383، در هشتاد و یک و 574 ص؛ چاپ سوم: 1393، شابک: 9789644455285؛ موضوع: دموکراسی در امریکا قرن 19 م
جناب بزرگ نادرزاد نیز در دو جلد این کتاب را برای نشر فرهنگ جاوید ترجمه کرده است که جلد دوم آن در سال 1394 هجری خورشیدی بوده است
در سال 1831 میلادی، الکسی دو توکویل و گوستاو دو بیومون از سوی دولت فرانسه اعزام شدند، تا نظام زندان آمریکا را مورد مطالعه قرار دهند. توکویل در نامه‌ های متأخرش می‌گوید که او و بیومون از کسب و کار رسمیشان به عنوان زمینه‌ ای استفاده کردند تا در عوض جامعهٔ آمریکا را مورد مطالعه قرار دهند. آنان در ماه می همانسال به نیویورک رسیدند، و نه ماه در ایالات متحده سفر کردند، زندان‌ها را مورد مطالعه قرار دادند و در خصوص جامعهٔ آمریکا از جمله ویژگی‌های مذهبی، سیاسی و اقتصادی آن اطلاعات گردآوری کردند. این دو به طور جزئی از کانادا نیز دیدن کردند. ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
December 18, 2019
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville, a young French diplomat, wrote this remarkable essay in two books based on his travels to the United States in the 1830s. He was a student of the consequences of the French revolution and had a very disdainful view of power for a diplomat — in particular the elite’s ability to eventually exploit the loopholes and take power back from the people. It quickly becomes obvious from this treatise that de Tocqueville had enormous admiration for America’s experiment in democracy and also her progress. He also points out sadly that some day the experiment would come to an end.

de Tocqueville came to the U.S. in part to better understand sociology and prison reform. His real aim and his lasting work, that congealed in his mind along the way, became America and her democratic system. In his analyses here he often uses England, France and the South American countries as points of comparison to counterbalance the U.S. study because these were the countries of importance that had constitutions or most resembled democracies that he was most familiar with.

Beyond a brief history lesson of very early America that is quite interesting, de Tocqueville dissects America’s local, state and federal levels of government and the different branches of the federal government. Many of his observations are still fresh and one even could say prescient given our political situation in the United States. Of course he came decades after Washington and Adams and Jefferson and does not spend much time discussing these key people but rather the systems of government. Here are some key takeaways.

1. de Tocqueville believed the biggest reason for the success of America’s democratic experiment fifty years into it was due to the mannerisms of Americans — not the Constitution. By mannerisms he meant not just discourse but the work habits and pragmatism. He did not hold as much faith in Constitutions as France and Mexico’s were similar to the U.S. and both governments had major issues with corruption and inefficiencies.

The manners of the Americans of the United States are, then, the real cause which renders that people the only one of the American nations that is able to support a democratic government.

2. In conjunction with the first point, he was enamored of the Puritan work ethic and disappointed in the French to the north in Canada who did very little with either the land or opportunities in his opinion. He spent a hundred pages discussing the Northeast and the Puritan influence. This was quite interesting.

I have met with men in New England who were on the point of leaving a country, where they might have remained in easy circumstances, to go to seek their fortune in the wilds. Not far from that district I found a French population in Canada, which was closely crowded on a narrow territory. Nature offers the solitudes of the New World to Europeans; but they are not always acquainted with the means of turning her gifts to account. Other peoples of America have the same physical conditions of prosperity as the Anglo-Americans, but without their laws and their manners; and these peoples are wretched. The laws and manners of the Anglo-Americans are therefore that efficient cause of their greatness which is the object of my inquiry.

3. de Tocqueville disliked the populist and current president of the time Andrew Jackson calling him a man of violent temper and mediocre talents. Hmmm that sounds familiar. His cruel policy toward Native Americans and the undue accolades pertaining to the Battle of New Orleans were other points that de Tocqueville wrote about. Nevertheless he did comment that Jackson advocated a diminished role of centralized government in most areas including the role of banks. I think if de Tocqueville had understood slavery better he might have had a more enlightened view as to why Jackson so often opposed central government policies.

Far from wishing to extend the federal power, the President belongs to the party which is desirous of limiting that power to the bare and precise letter of the Constitution, and which never puts a construction upon that act favorable to the Government of the Union; far from standing forth as the champion of centralization, General Jackson is the agent of all the jealousies of the States.

4. de Tocqueville had a few, largely unremarkable, chapters on the two other peoples living in America beyond the Europeans; African-American slaves and Native Americans. His views of Native Americans were somewhat empathetic. His views on slaves were quite racist. He simply could not understand why slaves didn’t revolt at every opportunity. This racist statement of his about the plight of slaves is actually one of the milder ones he makes.

He [the slave] quietly enjoys the privileges of his debasement. If he becomes free, independence is often felt by him to be a heavier burden than slavery

5. Switching gears. de Tocqueville talked extensively about townships and local communities and how they were the bedrock of America’s success. One of the more enlightening aspects of the book. He returns to this point often.

Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty

6. de Tocqueville also points out that a geographically isolated America does not have the pressures of warring neighbors like in France. But he believes the U.S. deserves credit for maintaining peace among themselves not an easy thing to do.

The American Union has no enemies to contend with; it stands in the wilds like an island in the ocean. But the Spaniards of South America were no less isolated by nature; yet their position has not relieved them from the charge of standing armies. They make war upon each other when they have no foreign enemies to oppose; and the Anglo-American democracy is the only one to maintain peace.

7. de Tocqueville certainly had some interesting things to say about both impeachment and re-elections of presidents. He did not think a president should be eligible for re-election. Nor did he think the prosecutors in an impeachment trial should be withheld the ability to criminally prosecute the accused. Better to have a president fearful of jail — or in the case of treason the ultimate penalty. Although he did acknowledge that he doubted a real tyrant would be stopped by the threat of jail either.

By preventing political tribunals from inflicting judicial punishments the Americans seem to have eluded the worst consequences of legislative tyranny, rather than tyranny itself.

8. de Tocqueville also wrote presciently of a future Mexican-American war. It took only thirteen years for his prediction to come true. He thought nothing would slow the ambition of America’s westward expansion. How right he was.

Thus, the Spaniards and the Anglo-Americans are, properly speaking, the only two races which divide the possession of the New World. The limits of separation between them have been settled by a treaty; but although the conditions of that treaty are exceedingly favorable to the Anglo-Americans, I do not doubt that they will shortly infringe this arrangement.

9. The last takeaway is around the question of how great empires end. This is one near and dear to most of our hearts. And de Tocqueville has some important things to say here. Sadly no practical solutions. DeTocqueville could not have imagined the technological globalization we have today nor Nuclear weapons nor the Climate Crisis. So I’m not convinced that making government local will solve the big problems. But I could be wrong.

All the passions which are most fatal to republican institutions spread with an increasing territory, whilst the virtues which maintain their dignity do not augment in the same proportion. The ambition of the citizens increases with the power of the State; the strength of parties with the importance of the ends they have in view; but that devotion to the common weal which is the surest check on destructive passions is not stronger in a large than in a small republic.

4 stars. Highly readable book for being nearly two centuries old. The version I read was translated to English in the 1870’s. It is lengthy but reads quite quickly. Most every section stands on its own. I probably would have given five stars if de Tocqueville wasn’t so obtuse about slavery. Other than this blind spot his deductive reasoning is quite remarkable and pertinent to today’s political climate.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,787 reviews674 followers
June 18, 2019
It amazed me that my country, the USA, was looked on as a democracy worth emulating within its first half century of existence. Though some see Democracy in America as a recounting of travels, and others see it a deconstruction of a foreign country, I think I am with a fair number of others who consider Tocqueville as trying to find what France might adapt for its own institutions. That, of course, started with our penal system because that is what “paid the freight” for Tocqueville and his compatriot, Gustave de Beaumont to spend many months seeing much of America.

I have struggled with writing this review for months because it is so easy to drill down on any one of more than a dozen topics including: America’s Constitution; the nature of the democratic family; the Indians that Tocqueville observed; Blacks and slavery; the importance of local government; the judiciary; the tyranny of the majority; the role of political parties; the foundation of education; freedom of speech; how mores influence democracy; American culture; individualism; the desire for wealth; the strength of lawyers; and, how Christianity fits with democracy.

What permeates this two-volume work are Tocqueville’s thoughts and concerns about how democracy can and should work. For instance, Americans were not the first “individuals” but Tocqueville invented the word individualism and applied it to Americans. He believed there was a danger in this American individualism, particularly the tendency to withdraw from the public sphere. It was in private life that individuals could see themselves as unique, yet he feared that this would encourage withdrawal from the public sphere and mitigated their participation in the life of the community, thus damaging the foundation of democracy.

Tocqueville consistently holds that democracy is not just a form of government—it is a way of life. Beyond democratic institutions, he sees democratic values and attitudes and family structures and culture. Tocqueville uses the term “mores of democracy” to describe the larger idea of democratic values and habits. In addition to being essential to understanding our democracy, Tocqueville was concerned as to whether nations without a tradition of democracy could quickly create an egalitarian and free society. A concern that is just as appropriate today.

There are so many aspects of America and Americans that he found worth considering. Reading these almost 200 years since he wrote them down, it is easy to point to what may not be now relevant. But the astounding impact of this book is how much of it is enduring and how many of the questions that he raised are still relevant.

No summary of that is a substitute for your willingness to take time to immerse yourself in his experiences. I leave you with something that, I hope, will further encourage you to do so.

Key events before and during Beaumont and Tocqueville’s time in America (My thanks to one of my professors for his notes.)

1828.....Tocqueville meets Gustave de Beaumont, who will be his traveling companion in America, and Mary Motley, whom he will later marry.
1830......Tocqueville reluctantly takes an oath of loyalty to the new king following the July Revolution and is appointed a substitute judge. Beaumont and Tocqueville propose a trip to America to study the American penal system.
Jan. 1, 1831.....William Lloyd Garrison publishes the first issue of The Liberator.
Feb. 6, 1831.....Beaumont and Tocqueville are granted an 18-month leave to study the American penal system.
Mar. 18, 1831...The Supreme Court rules on Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.
Apr. 2, 1831......They set sail for America.
May 9, 1831......Beaumont and Tocqueville arrive in Newport, Rhode Island.
May 11, 1831.....They arrive in New York City.
May 27, 1831.....They travel up the Hudson River to visit Sing Sing Penitentiary.
June 30, 1831........They leave New York City.
July 4, 1831...........They attend July 4th festivities in Albany.
July 9, 1831............They begin their visit to Auburn Penitentiary.
July 16, 1831..........They arrive in Canandaigua, New York, and stay with John C. Spencer.
July 18, 1831..........They arrive in Buffalo.
July 22, 1831..........They arrive in Detroit and depart for Saginaw.
July 26, 1831..........John C. Calhoun definitively declares himself for nullification.
Aug. 9, 1831...........Tocqueville and Beaumont arrive in Green Bay.
Aug. 18, 1831..........They visit Niagara Falls.
Aug. 22, 1831...........Nat Turner’s rebellion begins.
Aug. 23, 1831...........They arrive in Montreal.
Sept. 9, 1831.............They arrive in Boston for a stay of almost four weeks.
Sept. 28, 1831............The Anti-Masonic Convention meets.
Oct. 12, 1831..............They arrive in Philadelphia for a two-week stay, visiting Eastern State Penitentiary several times.
Oct. 28, 1831...............They travel to Baltimore, where they encounter slavery for the first time.
Nov. 12, 1831..............The first steam-powered train makes its maiden voyage.
Nov. 25, 1831..............Tocqueville and Beaumont leave Pittsburgh on an Ohio River boat for Cincinnati but hit a rock the next day.
Dec. 7, 1831..................They arrive in Nashville.
Dec. 25, 1831.................They begin their trip to New Orleans from Memphis on a steamboat. Jan. 1, 1832...............................They arrive in New Orleans.
Jan. 3, 1832.....................They begin a long voyage on land and sea through the South.
Jan. 15, 1832....................They arrive in Norfolk, Virginia.
Jan. 17, 1832....................They arrive in Washington.
Jan. 19, 1832.....................Tocqueville and Beaumont meet President Andrew Jackson.
Feb. 6, 1832.......................They arrive in New York.
Feb. 20, 1832.....................They board a ship for their return voyage to France.
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,144 reviews1,847 followers
December 29, 2012
I'm going with 4 stars here, it isn't always the easiest book to read, but worth it. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, a lot of insight. While history hasn't borne out all his predictions, there have been enough. Sadly also, it looks as though more of the things he said may still prove to be true.

In today's atmosphere, the thoughts here compared to the reality we live in and that "may" be coming to pass....well, it's worth some thought. When America broke away from the "branch" so to speak it was a new thing in the world. No colony had ever done what was done here and it was an idealistic experiment even a dream that was watched by the world. Europe was...somewhat worried and England in particular was very unhappy about the implications. Had the War of 1812 gone differently on this side of the Atlantic we all still might be drinking tea more than coffee as it could have changed everything. But when you say "the War of 1812" in Europe their minds go to battles and events other than here in North America. They think of the Napoleonic war.

But back to the subject. The American Revolution raised questions worldwide and things began to percolate. In France things boiled over not long after they did here. It's notable that many in the academic community are far more enamored with the French Revolution than with the American. You see it was "supposed to be" a "rational Revolution" it was a Godless revolution with all the clergy and God Himself rejected by the leaders and much of the movement (the clergy was seen as close to the royals you see). Unfortunately the French Revolution spun out of control into a rein of terror and then into a military dictatorship.

In the wake of all this a young man (Alexis de Tocqueville) spent 9 months touring the "new" United States and when he returned to France he wrote this book commenting on the social and governmental "situation" and implications.

He was torn between hopeful and...well, not so hopeful.

So I recommend the book. It's interesting, thought provoking and somewhat sobering. I leave you with one quote from said book:

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Think about it.
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews684 followers
October 14, 2016
Introduction & Notes
Further Reading
Translator's Note

--Democracy in America

Two Essays on America:
--Two Weeks in the Wilderness
--Excursion to Lake Oneida
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews232 followers
October 30, 2020
de Tocqueville is one of those authors that is often quoted, sometimes excerpted, but not always read in full. It's been years since I've last read anything by him. In returning to him, I am faced with the fact that he often repeats himself, and his writing could have been greatly improved with a reliable editor.

He writes about the United States not in specific details, but in broad assertions. His opinions and observations are cited by liberals who favor his opinions on the "equality of conditions", conservatives who favor his slow-walking of reform as well as his admiration of the system as a union of states without an overweening federal government. Tocqueville could even be cited by Marxists - the growth of industrialization, for example, leads him to remark that "all the industrial crises threaten more and more to become political crises."

A good deal of his writing and predictions have the stamp of the 1830s on them. He predicts that the federal government would not become more powerful - not really. He casts aspersions on the state of American literature - give it a few more years and you have Melville, Poe, and Dickinson. He was a comte who was snakebit by the French Revolution - he reports to French readers on democracy that continues to exist without the violent convulsions of the French Revolution that tore apart his fellow aristocrats. Well, no, there was a civil war three decades later.

Even with all these caveats, there are many observations that still show de Tocqueville's perception. Take, for example, the importance of inheritance law, the importance of religious belief, his notes on the power of the judiciary, of elected representatives growing more obsessed with reelection instead of the interests of their constituents, of Americans' tendency to join groups and form "voluntary associations" -- and the terror of a "soft despotism", where the form of democracy is retained and the electorate has no power at all. Or, how the state of slavery was such de Tocqueville, a dyed-in-the-wool colonialist, saw only cruelty and waste coming out of it.

Finally, it is a reminder that for large parts of the 19th and even the 20th century, the United States was seen as a model or as an ideal for later governmental structure or policy reforms. In October 2020, this is not the case. If there is any hope for recovery, and that recovery is a long and difficult process, that might be more evident after November 3rd.
Profile Image for Karey.
Author 1 book296 followers
February 17, 2009
Update: My brother just told me that Kurt Vonnegut says that anyone who hasn't read Democracy in America is a wimp. So I guess that makes me almost not a wimp. Well!

Post from a few weeks ago: I've been wanting to read de Toqueville's, Democracy in America for some time, and I've finally bit the bullet. The translation is beautifully done. De Toqueville's sentiments are eloquent and thought provoking. Wonderful.

How's that for summer reading! Part of me wishes we still talked like pilgrims.
Profile Image for Chris.
756 reviews104 followers
July 7, 2019
How does one review a 900+ page work (4 vols) that combines observations, history & essays published between 1835 and 1838. He spent nine months in the U.S in 1831 & 1832. He wrote in paradoxes, had some incredible insights and some out and out misses about Americans, American life and what the future holds. I had to keep reminding myself of the time period, and the incredibly small slice of life he was observing in his travels, along with his own background and experience in Europe, specifically France. He was quite prescient about the only thing that would precipitate another large revolution for the U.S. would be the institution of slavery.

This was a group read, and one of the members highlighted a point that is still so relevant today. He stated that Tocqueville asserts that to preserve liberty in a democracy, 3 things were necessary:
1) Freedom of the press, 2) an electorate that does the work to stay informed, and 3) an electorate that resists apathy, and votes.
Profile Image for Taku Nakaminato.
Author 1 book21 followers
Want to read
July 26, 2021
As I posted in 2019, I studied this book for a semester-long seminar class long time ago. I liked it, but I couldn't keep carrying the big book with me after the class. I wish there had been eBooks at that time.

Profile Image for Steve.
380 reviews1 follower
September 4, 2019
Can you be a proud, card-carrying observer of American society without first having read Democracy in America? Given this is my second time through de Tocqueville's work, do you think I can get my card laminated?

I bored with this read. De Tocqueville makes some interesting observations about life in early 19th century America. He drones on and on, later in this work, with comparisons between the democracy he has observed in America and with the aristocracies of Europe. I'm glad I won't be tested on reading comprehension because it's tough to retain much when I'm asleep.

There are kernels of interest in this lengthy volume, to be sure. In his short piece, A Fortnight in the Wilderness, included as an appendix, de Tocqueville writes,

The only sentiments that you feel while traveling through these flowered wilderness areas where, as in Milton’s Paradise, everything is prepared to receive man, are a tranquil admiration, a mild melancholy, a vague disgust with civilized life; a sort of wild instinct that makes you think with pain that soon this delicious solitude will have changed face.

Those words were written in August, 1831.
Profile Image for Sharon Barrow Wilfong.
1,117 reviews3,944 followers
July 19, 2018
It's taken a year and a half but I have finally finished the unabridged version of Tocqueville's great classic.

Ironically there is far too much to cover to try to give an adequate review.

"In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead.[3] They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling the United States, studying the prisons, and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character. " from wikepedia

I do not remember anything about the prison system of America but there is much comparing and contrasting between the Democratic government of America and the aristocracy in Europe and especially in France. Tocqueville also compares the mentality of Americans vs. French.

He sees much to commend in American, he also believes there are advantages to living under a theocracy as well. He details each advantage and disadvantage.

And Tocqueville leaves no stone unturned. He breaks down government on a national, state, county and city level. He compares the various religions (at that time Christian denominations) and how the Church affects how people think, Protestant, such as Episcopalian and it's belief in the state church; Puritanism and it's belief in the right of individual freedom of religious practice and also the Catholic church, which is founded on a theocracy and goes hand in hand with Royalty. (Of course this is not so today, he is describing the state of contemporary France).

Other studies were on American's view of money, their right to earn and keep it and also their attitude towards the poor and helpless. Their right to own their own land, compared to a serf-like attitude that seems to still be prevalent in Europe where everyone is considered, if not servantss to a king anymore, still wards of the state, where each person must serve the state, handing over most of their earnings and possessions to the state in order to be taken care of by the state. Europeans would argue that this is for the common good of all, but they cannot show how the system is different from serving Royalty. In practice it is the same.

I found many of observances insightful, but I'm not sure how true they are. He makes a lot of unsubstantiated and sweeping generalizations by which he then forms his conclusions. I daresay much of it is true and also his conclusions, and some of his observations may have been wrong and also his conclusions (even if his observations were right).

This is a book filled with heavy thought. As I said, it took me over a year to read it. It is worth everyone's while to read it because too many Americans today are ignorant as to our history. This is an invaluable record of American life on every level as seen from an outsider's point of view.
Profile Image for Rebecca Renner.
Author 4 books643 followers
February 10, 2017
One of the most pivotal books in my college education. It got me to start rethinking the concept of prisons and mass incarceration in America.
Profile Image for Dan.
306 reviews70 followers
June 20, 2022
In order to appreciate and to understand the uniqueness and radical nature of the American experiment in democracy and liberty - one needs a keen insight, an alternative and systematic perspective, and to live in America for some time. The aristocratic Tocqueville got all of them and even more. In the first volume, his enthusiasm for American democracy is almost limitless and his observations are extremely pertinent, fresh, and all over the place; the only objection he has against America is the “tyranny of the majority”. In the second volume, the aristocrat in him notices more and more problems with American democracy; but primarily with the tendency of equality to suppress liberty and the lack of any nobility and depth in such an equal system. He also turns more abstract and philosophic in the second volume, and some of the initial freshness is gone.
It is very interesting to notice how many of Tocqueville's predictions came to pass in America and in the rest of the world since he wrote this book. Then there are the principles of the French Revolution and Napoleonic period that he barely mentions here; however one needs to constantly keep them in mind while reading this book. It is also interesting to contrast Tocqueville with Marx in almost everything they say. As someone who immigrated as an adult from Europe to America, I find this book fascinating and extremely relevant today.
Profile Image for Lynn Beyrouthy.
47 reviews113 followers
December 13, 2014
In the 1830s, the period during which this book was written, Europe was still straining under the social structures of The Old Regime (the Helvetian Confederation excluded) while a new democratic state had emerged, ever since its Declaration of Independence on July 4 1776, the United States of America, led by George Washington who seemed to be the modern American version of Solon or Pericles.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and politician, fascinated by the democracy so easily established in America while his homeland still struggled to free itself from the manacles of social inequality, took advantage of a business trip to the United States with Gustave Beaumont for the purpose of studying the penitentiary system there while they truly intended to analyze the foundations of American society.

Although not a panegyric of America as it would seem, this book exposes the pros and cons of the democratic system and the threat of the tyranny of the majority and provides an exhaustive study of republicanism, federalism, governmental and administrative decentralization and presidency in the United States. It also evokes the capital and indispensable role religion plays in politics while it is separated from political power.

The importance of this oeuvre lies in its chilling prophecies. Tocqueville predicted more than a century earlier the rise of two giants on the global platform - America and Russia and thus heralded the development of the Cold War (1947-1991). He also broached the then-sensitive subject of slavery in America and alluded to the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Profile Image for booklady.
2,324 reviews65 followers
October 17, 2013
My husband and I have listened to the audio version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for the past few months. We have paused many times to discuss interesting passages and have thoroughly enjoyed this courteous visitor’s (de Tocqueville was French) perspective on the early years of our nation. The first Volume was written in 1835 and the second in 1840.

To fully appreciate this monumental socio-economic classic of colonial and antebellum political life, one would need to devote many hours of intensive scholarship. We choose not to allocate that much of our lives right now to this fine tour de force; as such we pressed on over many topics where we could have lingered. Often we saw—or heard—the prophet in the author’s voice, especially his predictions concerning the impending national calamity over slavery. Other times, we chuckled over his descriptions of various perceptions and misconceptions, especially in any area pertaining to royalty and aristocracy. As these are two systems, we as Americans claim to abhor, we believe we’ve ‘abolished’ these through our democracy. Officially and technically we have. What most fail to see is how we have inadvertently created pseudo-systems operating along the same lines and by the same rules, merely called by other names. Of course there is dating and irrelevancy threaded in among his other brilliant observations, but all things considered, I was amazed by how much has stood the test of time.

For all that I would have liked to have delved into Democracy more, I’m still exceedingly glad to have at least made its acquaintance. If you only have a limited amount of time or this isn’t your usual reading fare, I highly recommend the Blackstone Audiobooks production with the memorable and unmistakable voice of the British Frederick Davidson rendering a French author’s vision of democracy in 19th century America.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,041 followers
Want to read
August 6, 2017
Have to eventually read this, of course.

Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.
The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […]
  The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea.
— [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]
What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage.

Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.

First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.

Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.

In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.

Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country.
Profile Image for Dan.
79 reviews
December 19, 2014
This is not a review by any means, just a placeholder to indicate that after two months of enthusiasm, two months of stalling, and a final two months of hard reading, I have finally finished Democracy in America. I am no longer a wimp! (nor am I a "twerp", in the words of Vonnegut. Thanks Dion)

In my altered state (the euphoria of having finished such an amazing book), I cannot with sound mind expound upon how awesome this book is. It will take many years of study and careful re-reading to fully comprehend the importance of what I just read. I'll have to write a more substantial review in the future.

In the meantime, I'll leave with this quote:
We ought not strain to make ourselves like our fathers, but strive to attain the kind of greatness and happiness that is proper to us.

As for myself, having come to the final stage of my course, to discover from afar, but at once, all the diverse objects that I had contemplated separately in advancing, I feel full of fears and full of hopes. I see great perils that it is possible to ward off; great evils that one can avoid or restrain, and I become more and more firm in the belief that to be honest and prosperous, it is still enough for democratic nations to wish it.

I am not unaware that several of my contemporaries have thought that peoples are never masters of themselves here below, and that they necessarily obey I do not know which insurmountable and unintelligent force born of previous events, the race, the soil, or the climate.

Those are false and cowardly doctrines that can never produce any but weak men and pusillanimous nations: Providence has not created the human race either entirely independent or perfectly slave. It traces, it is true, a fatal circle around each man that he cannot leave; but within its vast limits man is powerful and free; so too with peoples.
Profile Image for Donna.
1,518 reviews80 followers
March 15, 2019
No getting away from the fact that this is a loooong book and it's always a challenge when you are reading a book in translation. Tocqueville is a Frenchman who toured America in the 1820s-30s and then wrote the book about the United States for his audience in France. His observations are relevant both in an outsiders view on the constitutional government and as compared to the aristocratic governments of Europe. More importantly are Tocqueville's observations on the American character itself--the sentiments, morals, and mind of the people populating the wide open spaces in the New World.

Tocqueville helped explain America to Europeans...and to Americans themselves.
Profile Image for César.
31 reviews3 followers
January 20, 2017
Creio que , devido ao dia, todos deveríamos ler esta extraordinária obra , para perceber melhor o caldo de culturas que é o país Estados Unidos da América.
Profile Image for Xander.
428 reviews146 followers
November 9, 2017
I'm impressed by this book. Especially by the eloquence of the author, his visionary remarks on the dangers of equality, his brutally honest treatment of the first fully democratic country (America) and his intelligent comparison between European democracies (France and England) and the United States of America. I didn't expect Democracy in America to be this gripping; for a long time I had it on my shelves and I couldn't get myself to start reading. I'm glad I did start. This tome should be read more, especially by young people growing up, who are not used to defending their liberties.

In this book it becomes clear how our (European) democracies are the product of social revolutions and in this sense differ tremendously from the - worshipped by many - democracy of the USA. In the USA, the founding immigrants started out as equals, this is why equality of everyone forms one of the building blocks of the Constitution. In Europe, most of the democracies had to shake off aristocratic laws and customs. European democracies and the American democracies started out different. Personal liberties are protected more in the USA due to a secular state, a free press and a healthy division of legislative power between states and de federation. This explains for example why the freedom of religion (including freedom from religion!) is so problematic in Europe nowadays and seems almost no issue in the USA. Most of the European states are secular by convention, not by right.

One of the most important topics (in my opinion) is the importance of customs. Tocqueville learns us that you can have a judicial democracy and yet still lack a democratic society. He informs us of the importance of customs and conventions; without the right customs, a democracy won't stand for long. Equality and liberty are, so to speak, in the genes of the United States of America, because the immigrants all started out as equals and were free to claim land for themselves. This also partly explains the 'work hard for yourself-mentality' of Americans, especially in the North and North-west. In the southern states people could get rich by using slaves as a labour force. That's why the people in the North are more industrious (according to Tocqueville).

Another insight Tocqueville offers us modern readers, is the fact that freedom and equality aren't necessarily friends: most of the time, they are at eachothers throats. The more equal a society becomes, the more limited the individual will be in his daily life. This is all the more dangerous, when equality is coupled with a centralized government and administration. In a democracy people work hard for their (relatively) little material gains and are on their own ("individual and weak") and are therefore not really interested in important matters of state. The people will neglect threats and give the government maximum amount of room to 'play'. This can lead to despotism, where the centralized government plays the role of 'benevolent overlord' and watches over its people.

Two of the main remedies for this path to despotism are (1) a free press, which can warn the people of dangers and stir their passions and (2) the freedom to form associations. Only associations can rise above the level of the weak individual and form a counter movement against a usurping government.

I can't really stress enough how important the messages of this book are in our modern times. Almost all of the western democracies are shrouded with a thick fog of political correctness (Tocqueville's "tiranny of the majority") which hinders us in defending the freedom of the individual and battling anti-democratic forces (especially religious ones).
Profile Image for Sarah Myers.
125 reviews33 followers
October 8, 2015
Five reasons you really might want to consider reading Democracy in America:

1. You were assigned it for a political theory class. Yes, in this circumstance, I would definitely recommend reading it. This should not need elaboration.

2. You just love beautiful writing. Congratulations. The introduction alone will be a literary feast worth the price of the book. (Note that this might vary by translation; mine is the Mansfield and Winthrop translation.)

3. You feel unlearned, inferior, left out, and Left Behind because everybody talks about what an amazing book it is, and you've never read it. Well, you haven't exactly missed the Apocalypse, but you're definitely missing something. Not the most noble reason in the world, but read it.

4. You want to understand the roots of American culture/society/institutions a bit better than you currently do, and you want to see their significance in a broader context. Perhaps you want to think a little outside the box of modern American politics. You'll be getting more than you bargain for, but go ahead and read it.

5. You want to have your thoughts turned in directions you never imagined, you want to reexamine things you thought plain, you want to have something very deep inside of you stirred and torn in different directions, and you want to be terrified by freedom and love it more than you ever did before. In fact, you want to look on things very near the center of human existence, and find in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke: "You must change your life."

If you are open to it, all of that might happen to you, but somewhere along the way, it will cease to be about "you." It's just that kind of book.
Profile Image for Jerry Raviol.
6 reviews
October 3, 2007
I read this in response to my frustration with what I saw as our inability to bring democracy to other places in the world. Chapters 1-42 and 55 - 57 are the most insightful. Others tend to drag. In 1830s de Tocqueville comes to America to figure our why a democratic revolution in France lead to anarchy and despotism, while a democratic revolution in America lead to freedom. What he finds is still relevant to our trying to bring or give democracy to others.

Two things emerge- first there were many natural advantages that America had that the French or any other European nation would never have the good fortune to posses. Other places in the world seeking democracy similarly lacks these natural advantages today. Second and more to the point - regardless of your natural advantages - you cannot "give" democratic institutions to a society that has no practical experience with democracy. Democratic society must precede democratic governments if the institutions are to succeed. If you want to move to democratic governments you must begin with a government that provides order, and begin change on the social level.

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