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Democracy in America, Volume 1

By: 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. 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. 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. The two also briefly visited Canada, spending a few days in the summer of 1831 in what was then Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario). After they returned to France in February 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont submitted their report, Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France, in 1833. When the first edition was published, Beaumont was working on another book, Marie, ou, L'esclavage aux États-Unis (two volumes, 1835), a social critique and novel describing the separation of races in a moral society and the conditions of slaves in the United States. Before finishing Democracy in America, Tocqueville believed that Beaumont's study of the United States would prove more comprehensive and penetrating.

The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in the United States to what he sees as the failings of democracy in his native France.

 

Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy. These include his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into "soft despotism" as well as the risk of developing a tyranny of the majority. He observes that the strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government, a separation all parties found agreeable. He contrasts this to France, where there was what he perceived to be an unhealthy antagonism between democrats and the religious, which he relates to the connection between church and state.

 

Tocqueville also outlines the possible excesses of passion for equality among men, foreshadowing the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.

 

Insightful analysis of political society was supplemented in the second volume by description of civil society as a sphere of private and civilian affairs, mirroring Hegel.

 

Tocqueville observed that social mechanisms have paradoxes, as in what later became known as the Tocqueville effect: "social frustration increases as social conditions improve". He wrote that this growing hatred of social privilege, as social conditions improve, leads to the state concentrating more power to itself.

 

Tocqueville's views on the United States took a darker turn after 1840, however, as made evident in Craiutu and Jennings' Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings.

 

Books in 'Democracy in America' series
  1. Democracy in America, Volume 1 by Alexis de Tocqueville
  2. Democracy in America Vol. II by Alexis de Tocqueville

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

French

Published In

1835

Author

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville colloquially known as Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, diplomat, political scientist, political philosopher and historian. He is best known...

More about Alexis de Tocqueville

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