Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville
Published 1835-40

Democracy in America is almost 1000 pages long. The author, French politician Alexis de Tocqueville, visited America, in 1831-32, to study its penitentiaries and judicial system. While there, he made political and social observations, hoping to help France transition from an aristocracy to a democracy. Tocqueville also visited Britain and made similar observations, believing that France was moving toward a democracy like America, not a constitutional monarchy, as in Britain.

The County Election ~ Bingham, 1852
With the size of this work, written in two parts, you can imagine there were countless topics throughout, including liberty, equality, patriotism, social conditions and political society, elections, freedom of the press, individualism, slavery, and Native Americans. Part II covered democracy and how it affected religion, science, literature, art, education, civility, manners, and equality between men and women.

Independence ~ Meyer, 1858
For a while, I was confused what the author thought about democracy; sometimes I was not sure if he liked it or not. Then I learned that he was concerned that his nation of France may ignore the dangers of democracy, and he wanted to be sure that the country avoided these mistakes. That is why he carefully observed society during his visit to the United States because he thought the new, young  democratic nation was headed in the right direction. In fact, he wrote candidly about the drawbacks to democracy, but he believed that if applied properly - if a government and its people found the happy medium - democracy would ensure liberty and equality.

Stump Speaking ~ Bingham, 1854
Again, this is an essential work in the world of political science, especially for democratic nations, or those nations that consider themselves democratic and free. I think the author's honesty and warnings about democracy's weaknesses are relevant. But I wonder if anyone is listening anymore.

I will leave you with this...an observation that rang throughout: man would rather have equality than personal liberty, and that is what Tocqueville was concerned about. He wrote:
At such times men pounce upon equality as their booty, and they cling to it as to some precious treasure which they fear to lose. The passion for equality penetrates on every side into men's hearts, expands there, and fills them entirely. Tell them not that by this blind surrender of themselves to an exclusive passion they risk their dearest interest; they are deaf. Show them not freedom escaping from their grasp, whilst they are looking another way: they are blind -- or rather, they can discern but one sole object to be desired in the universe. 
I'm with Tocqueville. I'll take individual liberty over equality anytime! Because you cannot have equality unless you have liberty...not the other way around. 

Should you read this?

If you like political and social science, government, or American and European history (particularly France and England), and you don't mind committing to 1000 pages, then this would be worth your time.

I do not plan to ever read this again, unless my interests change; but I doubt it. I was so glad to be done with it. Whew.


Luci said...

I'd be going 'Whew!' after a thousand pages, myself. I've often thought I won't read the History section in TWEM, but then I read a review like this and it makes me want to change my mind. Especially given our current political and social climate. Good for you, Ruth, for completing it. And a good review as well. You've given me some food for thought.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Luci. If you don't mind taking several months to read it, the good thing is that the second part is in short chapters. So you can read it in little chunks.

I really looked forward to the WEM histories b/c I thought I loved history; however, I have really struggled w/ Bauer's choices, especially the Ancients. (The novels and biographies were my favorites!) But I'm going to keep chugging along through the histories.

Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

Thanks for your fascinating presentation!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's quite an accomplishment! I have never been able to get through Democracy in America so I just stopped trying. You know how it is with some books? Anyway, I have read The Count Of Monte Cristo several times and really enjoyed it as well as Wuthering Heights, which used to be my favorite book. I know those two aren't your cup-of-tea. I often wonder why folks with very similar reading tastes often have stark and opposite opinions about other books. Perhaps it is a difference between the two sexes, or perhaps we're just born with certain proclivities. Fascinating post though!

Silvia said...

Impressive. I once tried to read it. I liked all I read before I quit. I lost interest at some point.

The WTM list sounds a great challenge. I am fascinated by seeing how much of it you have completed.

Ruth said...

Yeah, I have no idea how that happens. It's like that for another male blogger I know. He and I have similar tastes, but there are a few books he appreciates that I have a distaste for, and vise versa. How interesting!

Ruth said...

Sometimes I think I was in and out of consciousness while reading Democracy in America. I lost interest often. But I am sure it is a really important work; I just couldn't enjoy it.

Beth said...

Great review!!! I will definitely read this, but I am not sure when. I plan to read The Communist Manifesto sometime this month and then get started on Tocqueville.

Ruth said...


Well, for sure you can get through CM pretty quickly. It's under 50 pages. But that D in A is a doozy. Good luck!!!

Marian H said...

Good for you for finishing it!! I started it once... yep. Maybe someday.