Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Symbols


Strengths and Weaknesses of Democracy


Freedom of the Press

Tocqueville's most extended discussion of freedom of the press occurs in Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 3. He claims that the press "modifies not only laws, but mores." Press freedom is to be cherished for the evils it prevents. It is strongly linked to sovereignty of the people. It is extremely rare to see a legal prosecution of the press in America. Newspapers there are so widespread that almost every small town has one. Although each newspaper may have limited power individually, "the periodical press is still, after the people, the first of powers." In Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 6, Tocqueville supplements his discussion with an analysis of the links between newspapers and associations, or voluntary groups. In this analysis, he asserts that "newspapers become more necessary as men are more equal and individualism more to be feared." Newspapers, affirms Tocqueville, "serve not only to guarantee freedom; they maintain civilization."

Freedom of Assembly

Tocqueville discusses this strength of democracy in Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 4, using the phrase "political association" to designate freedom of peaceable assembly. Like freedom of the press, the right to assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Tocqueville finds that the right to assemble in America for political goals "is unlimited." Freedom of association serves as an important deterrent to the tyranny of the majority. American political associations, in contrast to European associations, are generally peaceful. They formulate well-defined objectives, and they employ legal means. In Tocqueville's own time, freedom of assembly in Europe could not be taken for granted. In France, for example, gatherings of 20 or more people were declared illegal in 1810—a prohibition that was reaffirmed by the July Monarchy in 1834.

Individual Cooperation

In Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 5, Tocqueville discusses the ways in which Americans cooperate in numerous nonpolitical associations, or civic groups. In England, by contrast, such associations are few. Americans, according to Tocqueville, are limited and even ineffectual when they act alone, but when they come together to further a cause, such as building a hospital, a church, or a school, they achieve much. "In democratic countries," he says, "the science of associations is the mother science."


Mistreatment of African and Native Americans

Tocqueville devotes the lengthiest chapter in his entire work to discussion of the "three races" in America (Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 10). Both the Native Americans and the blacks have suffered from tyranny by the whites. The dispossession and displacement of Native Americans provokes Tocqueville's compassion, while the inhumanity of slavery elicits his condemnation. Tocqueville does not dismiss the possibility of secession and/or civil war. Readers should note that during Tocqueville's visit to America in 1831–32 the Nullification Crisis, involving South Carolina's fierce opposition to national tariffs, was in the political forefront. Abolitionism, or the fight against slavery, also gained an official start with the first issues of William Lloyd Garrison's periodical, The Liberator. In addition, Tocqueville's speculations on violent racial conflict coincided with the bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia.

Zealotry for Material Well-BeingTocqueville often singles out Americans as materially and commercially motivated. Although the doctrine of "self-interest well understood" generally allows Americans to "combine their own well-being with that of their fellow citizens" (Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 8), it is still possible, according to Tocqueville, to envision an aristocracy that issues from industry (Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 20). If employers and workers settle into a complacent relationship of command and obedience, a "manufacturing aristocracy" might result. Such a social development would, in Tocqueville's view, be far more objectionable than old-fashioned social aristocracy. Paradoxically, it would come about through lassitude and excessive commitment to material well-being. Another danger diagnosed by Tocqueville is the gradual surrender by people of their powers of independent thought. Beguiled by a government attending to their every material want, citizens in a democracy may be tempted to yield their free will to a "mild despotism."

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