Book Review: Democracy in America

Alexis De Tocqueville

The other day, I finally finished reading Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville.  This one took me a while. Some passages were stirring and others were a slog. Alexis has a lot to say. I took the book in small bites and knocked out a couple chapters a day until the beast was slain.  

Here's the Reader's Digest synopsis:  Alexis De Tocqueville was a French researcher sent to the United States in 1831 to study the American prison system, but he would end up using his visit as a pretext, for his real aim was in conducting an in-depth examination of American society as a whole. The result of his effort was a grand tour of the new nation (with particular emphasis on New England) and a two volume work entitled Democracy in America -  it remains one of the great political and social critiques of all time.  

Cutting right to heart of the matter, Alexis is a fan of the United States and there is much he feels the world can learn from this young, boisterous, republican democracy recently birthed on the North American continent. As both a historian and political philosopher, he dissects our government at the federal, state and local level carefully weighing its merits and faults.  He examines the role of women, the issue of slavery, the tensions between North and South - nothing escapes his lens.  He's particularly struck by the level of civic engagement he witnesses amongst the average citizen, and by the uniform pride Americans take in simply being citizens of a free republic.  

Alexis De Tocqueville was an admirer of both the US Constitution and of those who framed it.

The best (and most prescient) segment of the book came towards the end, when De Tocqueville waxes philosophic and discusses how despotism might manage to take hold within a democratic nation - even amongst a population as ruggedly independent as that of the United States.  The truth of his writing speaks for itself and it's worth quoting at length.  What follows are three unequaled paragraphs of political analysis that ring even truer today then they did almost 200 years ago (I realize I'm letting my slip show a bit here, but that's alright - we're all respectfully opinionated citizens in this great American town hall!)  

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
— Alexis De Tocqueville

He continues on, 

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
— Alexis De Tocqueville

Bring it home Alexis, 

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
— Alexis De Tocqueville

Democracy in America is an important book to read, but it's also a book you must really want to read if you intend on making your way fully through it.  It's passages like those above that make you glad you undertook the journey.