Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Summary



Volume 1, Part 1

Alexis de Tocqueville introduces Democracy in America by describing his work as a detached attempt to learn what people may reasonably hope or fear from democratic government. After a geographical overview of North America, he traces the history of the Anglo-Americans (Americans with English roots) in colonial times. According to Tocqueville, popular sovereignty in America long predated the American Revolution of 1775–83. In an analysis of local government, Tocqueville first focuses on the township, and then on the county and the state. He then discusses American judicial power. Finally, he devotes a lengthy chapter to a discussion of the federal constitution.

Volume 1, Part 2

In this part, Tocqueville discusses a wide range of individual topics. He begins with political parties, and then includes a discussion of freedom of the press, as well as a chapter on people's freedom to assemble peaceably and form political associations. Later chapters focus on political candidates, elections, participation in the public sphere, majority rule, restraints on the "tyranny of the majority," the role of religion in a democracy, and the separation in America of church and state. Tocqueville devotes his longest chapter to a sober and eloquent discussion of the "three races" in America: whites, Native Americans, and blacks.

Volume 2, Part 1

The major theme of this part is the influence of democracy on American intellectual life. Tocqueville examines American philosophical inclinations as well as American ideas about politics and religion. He devotes brief chapters to American interest in pantheism, or the worship of all gods, and human perfectibility. America's uniquely commercial habits are reflected in attitudes toward the arts and sciences: Americans, Tocqueville finds, are uniquely pragmatic. Tocqueville also discusses books and literature in America, as well as the impact of democracy on language. He concludes Part 1 with some observations on theatrical performances, oratory, and history.

Volume 2, Part 2

This part of Tocqueville's work deals with the influence of democracy on the sentiments, or emotions, of Americans. Tocqueville devotes significant space to a discussion of American individualism. He also discusses civic associations in some detail, highlighting such volunteer efforts as an important feature of American life. In Chapter 8 of this part, Tocqueville introduces one of his most renowned concepts: the doctrine of "self-interest well understood." Other topics include the American enjoyment of material well-being, American restiveness even in the midst of abundance, and the nature and possible consequences of the American preference for industry and commerce.

Volume 2, Part 3

In Part 3, Tocqueville stresses the role of mores—habits, customs, or norms—in a democracy. Here the author's topics include servant-master relations, salaries or wages, the American family, women's education, the relationship between equality and good mores, the American understanding of gender equality, American manners or social graces, the notion of honor, the ambition of Americans, and the effects of democracy on military matters.

Volume 2, Part 4

In the final part of his work, Tocqueville turns to a discussion of governmental power and its distribution. He devotes significant attention in these chapters to the potential connection between democracy and despotism. In particular, he foresees the possibility that the people in a democracy may grow so fond of material well-being and so dependent on a strong central government that they will forfeit independent thought. In Tocqueville's judgment, such a "mild despotism" should be considered especially insidious. The author concludes his work with an appeal to his readership to exercise free will and good judgment as the future of democratic government unfolds.

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