Democracy in America Vol. 1

Democracy in America Vol. 1

Democracy in America Vol. I

Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE (1805 – 1859), translated by Henry REEVE (1813 – 1895)

When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a thriving democracy of a kind he had not seen anywhere else. Many of his insightful observations American society and political system, found in the two volume book he published after his visit, still remain surprisingly relevant today. (Summary by the Bookworm)

Genre(s): *Non-fiction, History , Philosophy

Language: English


For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.

Part 2: The Power of Democracy

One of the key points that Alexis de Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America, Volume 1 is that democracy is a form of government that is extremely powerful:

Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy. (Chapter 14, Part 2)

Tocqueville doesn’t hesitate to warn against the abuse of that “superabundant force”:

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.

In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. (Chapter 15, Part 2)

He gives an appalling example of this sort of abuse in a footnote of Chapter 15, Part 2:

A striking instance of the excesses which may be occasioned by the despotism of the majority occurred at Baltimore in the year 1812. At that time the war was very popular in Baltimore. A journal which had taken the other side of the question excited the indignation of the inhabitants by its opposition. The populace assembled, broke the printing-presses, and attacked the houses of the newspaper editors. The militia was called out, but no one obeyed the call; and the only means of saving the poor wretches who were threatened by the frenzy of the mob was to throw them into prison as common malefactors. But even this precaution was ineffectual; the mob collected again during the night, the magistrates again made a vain attempt to call out the militia, the prison was forced, one of the newspaper editors was killed upon the spot, and the others were left for dead; the guilty parties were acquitted by the jury when they were brought to trial.

(For more on this incident, please see this article from the National Park Service.)

Tocqueville observes that this sort of “tyranny of the majority” can occur because Americans believe that the majority can “do no wrong”:

The French, under the old monarchy, held it for a maxim (which is still a fundamental principle of the English Constitution) that the King could do no wrong; and if he did do wrong, the blame was imputed to his advisers. This notion was highly favorable to habits of obedience, and it enabled the subject to complain of the law without ceasing to love and honor the lawgiver. The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority. (Chapter 15, Part 1)

I’m not sure Americans today would admit to believing that the majority can “do no wrong,” but even if we, as individuals, don’t think we believe such a thing, we are influenced by the majority in ways we may not realize, many of them subtle:

Intellectual principles exercise an influence which is so invisible, and often so inappreciable, that they baffle the toils of oppression. . . .

The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy. . . .

In America the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion: within these barriers an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them. Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.. . .

The excesses of monarchical power had devised a variety of physical means of oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as that will which it is intended to coerce. Under the absolute sway of an individual despot the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul, and the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose superior to the attempt; but such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. (Chapter 15, Part 2)

Even though “the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion,”  Tocqueville points out that while the freedom of speech exists, a “strong-minded” individual can still have great powers of persuasion:

The language in which a thought is embodied is the mere carcass of the thought, and not the idea itself; tribunals may condemn the form, but the sense and spirit of the work is too subtle for their authority. . . . If you establish a censorship of the press, the tongue of the public speaker will still make itself heard, and you have only increased the mischief. The powers of thought do not rely, like the powers of physical strength, upon the number of their mechanical agents, nor can a host of authors be reckoned like the troops which compose an army; on the contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the smallness of the number of men by whom it is expressed. The words of a strong-minded man, which penetrate amidst the passions of a listening assembly, have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators; and if it be allowed to speak freely in any public place, the consequence is the same as if free speaking was allowed in every village. (Chapter 11)

Clearly democracy provides enormous power to the people, both individually and collectively. Two years after the mob violence in Baltimore at the beginning of the War of 1812, British ships attacked Baltimore from the Patapsco River and were stopped by the defense at Fort McHenry. The 30′ X 40′ flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became our National Anthem.

I doubt that the majority of Americans know the circumstances surrounding the writing of the National Anthem. I’m certain that the majority of Americans know nothing about the mob violence that occurred in Baltimore at the beginning of the War of 1812. What many, if not most, Americans do know, however, is the first verse of their National Anthem, proving that yes, “The words of a strong-minded man, which penetrate amidst the passions of a listening assembly, have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators.”


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