Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 1 Chapter 8 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 8: On the Federal Constitution

Alexis de Tocqueville points out that the year 1789 was a fateful turning point for both America and France, for in that year the American Revolution ended (Tocqueville considers the struggle for independence ended with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) and the revolution in France began. In America, two years before, George Washington had presided over the Constitutional Convention, whose task was to create a viable framework of government for the newly independent United States. Tocqueville emphasizes the system of checks and balances the framers devised and the compromises they arrived at in order to accommodate small states and large states, as well as competition between the powers of the states and the powers of the federal government. He declares that the goal of the federal constitution "was not to destroy the existence of the states but only to restrict it."

In a subsection of this chapter, Tocqueville compares and contrasts the positions of an American president and a constitutional king in France. He notes that the king, unlike the president, enjoys unlimited executive power and sovereignty, being considered inviolable. Tocqueville adds that the king has the advantage of longevity, because he is a hereditary monarch, whereas the president is elected every four years. He concludes, however, because both are subject to the will of the people (via elections or revolutions) "that France, with its king, resembles a republic more than the Union ... resembles a monarchy."

Commenting on the presidential election process, Tocqueville observes that agitation and instability inevitably arise as a result of the election system. In the twelve presidential elections that have occurred since 1789, Tocqueville notes, the House of Representatives has played a role on only two occasions, when Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1801 and John Quincy Adams was elected in 1825. Nevertheless, Tocqueville believes that presidential elections in America mark moments of national crisis, since who is chosen matters to all citizens. Tocqueville concludes his remarks on presidential elections by considering the pros and cons of reelection. He concludes that the framers were mistaken to allow presidents to be reelected.

Tocqueville next proceeds to discuss the judiciary, remarking on the unique powers and importance of the Supreme Court of the United States. He acutely points out that the court's power is immense, but "it is the power of opinion." The court's ability to establish the law is contingent on the people's willingness to obey it. Federal judges, therefore, "must know how to discern the spirit of the times," to ensure continued respect and obedience to the sovereignty of the Union.

In the following section, Tocqueville discusses the important topic of the relationship between the federal constitution and those of the states. Here he points out that the judicial power of the federal government is less subject to the will of the majority. The discussion shows Tocqueville to be a firm adherent of American federalism in the sense in which it was conceived by the framers.

Tocqueville goes on to compare the Union with other confederations, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have not achieved nearly as much success as can be found in the American federal system. A key difference is that the 1789 Constitution entrusts execution of federal laws to the federal government, rather than the states. As Tocqueville observes, "It is to unite the diverse advantages resulting from the greatness and the smallness of nations that the federal system was created."

Tocqueville concludes the chapter by observing some particular advantages that have contributed to the success story of American federalism, singling out the homogeneity of the people and America's geographical isolation for special mention. Tocqueville emphasizes that America has no politically or militarily powerful neighbors.

Analysis

Tocqueville's discussion of the Constitution and of the federal system established by the framers is wide-ranging, perceptive, and sometimes unexpected. As readers might anticipate, he devotes detailed attention to the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. He clearly understands the necessity for, and the nature of, the federal system, showing a detailed knowledge of the Federalist papers—a work that he says "ought to be familiar to statesmen of every country." Tocqueville also reveals his appreciation for several fundamental principles of American government, such as popular sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, the bicameral legislature, and conflicts of laws.

Readers of this chapter must keep in mind that Tocqueville wrote Volume 1 of his great work between his return to France in 1832 and the work's publication in 1835. Occasionally, therefore, chronological adjustments are necessary. For example, Tocqueville's remarks on the election of U.S. senators in two stages are now outdated, since the 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of senators in 1913. Likewise, his reference to seven members of the Supreme Court, though accurate at the time of writing, needs adjustment today, when the court consists of nine justices. (As provided for by Congress in 1789, the original Supreme Court consisted of six members; membership stood at seven between 1807 and 1837, and again between 1866 and 1869.)

Tocqueville's negative verdict on reelection of the president may at first seem puzzling. For Tocqueville, the prevailing argument here seems to be the inherent "corruption," or unfairness, of incumbency. The historical record appears to offer modest support, at least, for Tocqueville's outlook. At the time of his visit to America, four out of six presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) had been elected to two terms each; only John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams had been one-term presidents. For a century after Tocqueville, a maximum of two terms remained the norm. After the four-term administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, the 22nd Amendment (ratified 1951) limited chief executives to two terms.

Tocqueville's analysis of the Supreme Court is striking for its subtlety. He correctly observes that the court's impressive power is restrained by an extra-legal but formidable limitation: the judges' congruence with and sensitivity to public opinion. In 1832, soon after Tocqueville returned from the United States to France, a powerful example of this point surfaced in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, decided that states have no criminal jurisdiction in Indian affairs. Andrew Jackson, then in the White House, is said to have remarked, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Jackson thus drew attention to the Supreme Court's necessary reliance on persuasion and compliance, rather than outright enforcement.

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