Family and the Polis: the Role of Townships in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Written by on November 19th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in American, about Tocqueville American Democracy in America

|||Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2002.|||

American Founding Fathers The great political principles that govern American society today were born and developed in the state; one cannot doubt it. It is therefore the state that one must know to have the key to all the rest.

As for the external aspect of institutions, the states that compose the American Union in our day all present the same spectacle. Political or administrative life is found concentrated around three sources of action that could be compared to the various nervous centers that make the human body move.

At the first stage is the township, higher the country, finally the state. p. 43.

The township, according to Tocqueville, is the “sole association that is so much in nature that everywhere men are gathered, a township forms by itself.”1 The township represents a significant institution for Tocqueville, since it is the place where both individuals and communities meet. What I mean by this is, townships are made up of people, who in turn make up families. Its establishment represents a significant development for freedom.2 Townships are a significant paradox for Tocqueville, since they are the place where freedom can either be solidified or lost. At the heart of its success or failure is the inculcation of habits, or mores, which can preserve and even consolidate freedom.3

Critical to his overall subject, namely the freedom and equality of the people within the American system, the township holds “the force of free peoples,”4 since it is here that the great principles of sovereignty, political association, and defense can be taught to all. To try and summarize briefly what makes a township so important, we must again discuss the nature of individuality present within the American system. For Tocqueville, man is an individual who is the “best and only judge of his particular interest, and that society has the right to direct his actions only when it feels itself injured by his deed.”5 Taking some license with the logic, we can deduce the following: individuals make up families, individual families make up townships, individual townships make up states, and individual states make up a union or confederation. By a very early principle of subsidiarity, what Tocqueville is positing, are the instances and breadth of sovereignty within the Americas. Townships exist to promote freedom by not being involved unnecessarily in the affairs of free men.6

He notes that townships, for instance, “generally submit to the state only when it is a question of an interest that [he calls] social, that is to say, which they share with others.7 By first positing the sovereignty of the people and then extending the sovereignty to the townships, he shows the necessity of sovereignty and freedom within the American system and how necessary those principles are to the overall tenor of the American people. At the core of his concern for and interest in townships is the relationship between governmental and administrative centralization.8 In short, governmental centralization, of which he seems to approve, allows for the implementation of “general laws and the relations of the people with foreigners;”9 whereas administrative centralization implements interests which are “special to certain parts of the nation.”10 The problem with administrative centralization is that “it tends to diminish the spirit of the city in them [that is, the people]. By diminishing administrative centralization in America, particularly in the townships themselves, there is very little, at least in Tocqueville’s estimation, of its presence in America. This, then, frees citizens from undue, unnecessary bureaucratic involvement, hence leading to a happier “collective force of citizens [which will] be more powerful to produce social well-being than the authority of government.”11

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. p. 57. 

  2. ibid

  3. ibid

  4. ibid

  5. p. 62. 

  6. ibid

  7. ibid

  8. p. 82

  9. ibid

  10. ibid

  11. p. 86.