Toward a New Political Science: Reflections on the Point of Departure in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Written by on November 8th, 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.|||

Alexis de Tocqueville I have already said enough to put the character of the Anglo-American civilization in its true light. It is the product (and this point of departure ought constantly to be present in one’s thinking) of two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. p. 43.

In the Democracy in America, De Tocqueville wishes to explain what it is about the American system that makes it unique in the world of the nineteenth century, and to do this he proposes a “point of departure” differentiating the American system, and those who make it up, from those civilizations which preceded it in history. Unlike their European counterparts, those who came to inhabit and settle the new world were united by common themes and characteristics which made them able to establish a polity unlike any in human history. The most crucial element of this departure seems to me to be found in Tocqueville’s assertion that, “Peoples always feel [the effects of] their origins. The circumstances that accompanied their birth and served to develop them influence the entire course of the rest of their lives.”1 This statement is crucial because it forms the basis for his subsequent discussion of American democracy. The settlers of America were united in many ways, particularly in the unity of language and the effect speaking the same tongue on their internal integrity.2 Assuredly, America is colonized by three unique groups of people, the English, French, and Spanish, yet, unlike their geographic separation in Europe, they were able to form a bond here which in its turn formed the basis for free and sovereign governing. The English, he states, were most successful in this respect, owing to their great family resemblance, but the French and Spanish were successful as well.3

Linked to their bond of language, they all, according to Tocqueville, understood ideas like rights, freedom, and mores better than their European brothers because their own formation had been marked by a rejection of certain absolutist and religious persecutions in Europe.4 Their unity in political struggle is precisely what gives them the “seeds” of democracy. These seeds are able to germinate by removing their physical attachment to their country of birth and, in the new world, they are able to grow. He notes that the emigrants, “had no idea of any superiority whatsoever of some over others. It is hardly the happy and powerful who go into exile, and poverty as well as misfortune are the best guarantees of equality known among men.”5 The idea of exile, I think, is also an important element in the point of departure, for they, all of them, were united by a common bond, even before setting sail for the new world. They may not have understood what they were or where they were going, but they all understood where they had come from, and what they wanted: to start anew.

Also unique in the discussion of the point of departure is the idea of government itself. There should be no doubt that, at least initially, the emigrants understood their own patrimony and citizenship in their respective countries as important to their settling in the new world. But, Tocqueville notes, this was not absolute.6 He notes that sometimes, charters were given to governors picked by the crown, sometimes to companies, and at other times to the citizens themselves who, “were given the right to form themselves into a political society under the patronage of the mother country, and to govern themselves in everything that was not contrary to its laws.”7 I think this point is interesting, as it shows the diversity of involvement of the ruling powers. Essentially, one would not have seen anything remotely resembling this in Europe, where the involvement of authority would have been everywhere. Being separated by an ocean, the colonists were able to “put into practice this mode of colonization so favorable to freedom,”8.

The real change happens, though, with the arrival of the Puritans. Perhaps this is the most significant episode in the point of departure. Escaping religious persecution, the emigrants who arrived in New England were “neither great lords nor a people, and, so to speak, neither rich nor poor.”9 It was from them that one of the central components of democracy in America came to be born, namely mores and order.10 Guided by an intellectual bent that can best be described as being inspired by the Enlightenment, the Puritans were able to develop a form of society which, until this time, had been untenable in the old European system. What occurs, Tocqueville notes, is a merging of divergent “providential” episodes which, when taken collectively, produced a system of governing which was at once sovereign and equal,11 and religious and moral.12 Liberty then, the backbone of the democratic system, is able to emerge within a very rigid and moral atmosphere. This liberty, “is the proper end and object of authority, it is a liberty for that only which is just and good.”13 Thus, when coming together, the American system and character presents us with a paradox, the unity of a spirit of religion and a spirit of freedom, which lend mutual support to one another.14 Their combination and cordiality with one another represent a dichotomy irreconcilable until this time–the harmony of authority and people in a religious, moral, and free society.

Thus, in understanding democracy in America, we must understand the relationship these two seemingly divergent spirits have with one another, and how they, in Tocqueville’s estimation, have found peace with one another in the American polity. The success of liberty is precisely because it “considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own destiny.”15

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. 28. 

  2. p. 29. 

  3. p. 30. 

  4. ibid

  5. p. 30. 

  6. p. 36. 

  7. ibid

  8. ibid

  9. p. 32. 

  10. ibid

  11. p. 37. 

  12. p. 43. 

  13. p. 42. 

  14. p. 43. 

  15. p. 44.