Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Introduction Part 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Introduction–Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Introduction

Alexis de Tocqueville begins Democracy in America by focusing on what he identifies as his central impression during his stay in the United States: the equality of conditions there. He suggests a European analogy, remarking that democracy seems to be making rapid advances in Europe as well. Over the past 700 years, he asserts, equality has gradually but steadily progressed. In Tocqueville's opinion, "A new political science is needed for a world altogether new."

On the other hand, if one scrutinizes European history over the centuries and the recent history of France in particular, one cannot fail to notice that equality has increased "haphazardly." Tocqueville notes that France has abolished aristocratic society but has not, thus far, replaced it with a satisfactory or stable alternative. It is only in America that the "great social revolution," or upheaval, culminating in equality of conditions, has reached its "natural limits."

Readers would be mistaken, Tocqueville warns, to assume that the author's sojourn in the United States was undertaken solely out of curiosity. Instead, he traveled to America in search of practical lessons about the nature and functioning of democracy. The book is not a "panegyric" (formal, elaborate praise or eulogistic writing), and it has not been written to support any particular party or point of view. Instead, Democracy in America is the outcome of the author's quest to discover "what we ought to hope or fear" from a democratic system of government.

In his Introduction, Tocqueville also briefly summarizes his methods, commenting on his use of written documents and his numerous interviews with "the most enlightened men" he could consult.

Chapter 1: External Configuration of North America

Tocqueville opens Part 1 of the first volume with a geographical overview, focusing on what he calls the "external configuration" of North America. The most prominent features of the continent are its two great mountain ranges—the Rockies and the Alleghenies—and the immense Mississippi River and its valley, which are located in between. Tocqueville envisions the first landings in the Americas by Europeans, and he goes on to describe the boundless wilderness and its Native American inhabitants. Although these peoples may have all been ignorant and poor, Tocqueville says, they were equal and free. To support his remarks on the Native Americans, Tocqueville quotes Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. He closes the chapter reaffirming his description of North America as a wilderness at the time of the first European contact; although the Native Americans occupied the land, they did not possess it. Such was the landscape within which "civilized men were to try to build a new society on new foundations."

Analysis

This opening section of Tocqueville's lengthy work provides a valuable account of the author's goals, methods, and emphases. In the very first sentence, for example, Tocqueville highlights equality, which is to be one of his most important themes throughout the book. Likewise, in the discussion of the social and political landscape in Europe, Tocqueville foreshadows a keynote contrast between equality and aristocracy—sometimes presented as a contrast between democracy and aristocracy—juxtapositions to which he will return on numerous occasions.

The author's remarks on his motivations and goals are also notable. Although he will reveal himself to be generally favorable toward democracy, Tocqueville has many criticisms and foresees significant dangers in this system of government. Readers should take him at his word when he asserts he has not written a "panegyric" of unvarnished praise. It is also noteworthy that he aligns himself with the skeptical view that "there is almost never any absolute good in the laws"—a perspective that was common to many of America's Founding Fathers. Tocqueville's evenhandedness and detachment are emphatically highlighted by such phrases about democracy as "to hope or fear" and "the goods and the ills" (emphasis added).

The opening pages of Democracy in America also provide helpful signposts for the masterful complexity of Tocqueville's prose style. He often produces rolling, periodic sentences of rhythmic power and balanced structure, such as the disclaimer in the next-to-last paragraph of the Introduction: "Nor must it be forgotten that the author who wants to make himself understood is obliged to push each of his ideas to all of its theoretical consequences ... and a man finds it almost as difficult to be inconsistent in his words as he does ordinarily to be consistent in his actions." In this type of sentence, both the precision and the tension inherent in the writer's methodology are admirably conveyed by the balance and antithesis of the phrasing.

In sharp contrast to such rhetorical passages, however, are pungent sayings such as the brief sentence in Chapter 1 summarizing the Native Americans' relationship to the land of North America: "The Indians occupied it, but they did not possess it." And, in yet another stylistic vein, there is the lyricism of Tocqueville's descriptive passages, as in his visualization of the first European landings in the New World (Chapter 1): "When the Europeans landed ... the harmonies of a nature full of movement and life." In such passages, it is likely that Tocqueville owed a significant debt to his Romantic predecessors in French literature, especially François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) and his novella Atala (1801), which was set in French Louisiana and featured Native American characters.

The graceful interweaving of these disparate stylistic elements, all three of which are exemplified in the opening section, is an important aspect of Tocqueville's achievement as a political theorist and his sophistication as a writer.

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