Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 1 Chapters 2 4 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapters 2–4 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 2: On the Point of Departure and Its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans

A key premise at the outset of this section is Alexis de Tocqueville's assumption that people always feel the effects of their origins. In the case of America, we have a unique opportunity to examine clearly the "point of departure of a great people." Tocqueville notes the common culture and language of the English colonies in America but makes a distinction between the resulting cultures of the North and the South. The Southern culture was marked from the start by slavery, which "dishonors work." In particular, Tocqueville singles out several features of the Anglo-American settlers of the New England colonies as unique. They all belonged to the well-to-do classes, they were all well educated, and they had become embroiled in religious strife in their mother country. Tocqueville notes that Puritanism "was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine," and he quotes the text of the Mayflower Compact of 1620. He does not omit pointing out that those who strove for religious liberty did not hesitate to fine, or even execute, people who strayed from orthodoxy in the new Massachusetts colony.

Tocqueville then proceeds to make a fundamental distinction. In Europe, he declares, political existence originates in the upper strata of society and then trickles down. America, however, exhibits the reverse pattern, with politics welling up from the township to the county, and thence to the state and only afterward to the Union.

The author continues with an important discussion of two forces or tendencies: the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. He finds these forces to be diverse, but not contrary. The forces of religion and freedom are, in Tocqueville's judgment, complementary, rather than hostile. Chapter 2 concludes with a discussion of the incongruous mix of laws and customs from English and Puritan origins, noting specifically the bail system, which is of English origin and wholly contrary to the egalitarian principals of New England society.

Chapter 3: Social State of the Anglo-Americans

The author's emphasis in this chapter is largely economic. For example, he discusses estate law—changed during the period of the American Revolution to an equal partitioning system instead of primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son)—as a great "leveler," which divides up the fortunes of aristocratic families. He characterizes America as a country where the love of money exercises a powerful sway over men's hearts. Paradoxically, most of the rich there began by being poor, and basic education is available to most while higher education to only a very few. These trends advance equality. Tocqueville adds that the political consequences of this social state tend to one of two extremes: either equality for all citizens in a flourishing democracy, or equality inconsistent with freedom as when everyone is enslaved under despotism.

Chapter 4: On the Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America

In the author's view, popular sovereignty was implanted in America long before the American Revolution. With its roots in local townships, this principle broke out into the light of day when the United States rebelled against Great Britain and won its independence. In concluding the chapter, Tocqueville asserts that "the people reign over the American political world as does God over the universe." Even in the more aristocratically inclined southern states, sovereignty of the people came to be the dominant ideal in the Union.

Analysis

These chapters are dominated by Tocqueville's view that the seeds of American democracy can be discerned far back in the country's history, right to the "point of departure" in the early 17th century. As he says early in Chapter 2, "The man is so to speak a whole in the swaddling clothes of his cradle." Tocqueville argues that the homogeneity of the English settlers (the "Anglo-Americans")—in their language, social status, education, and religious outlook—strongly furthered the principle of equality among them.

This section also exhibits several notable examples of Tocqueville's love of paradoxes, or apparent contradictions that turn out, upon reflection, to be true. In Chapter 3, for instance, Tocqueville declares that there can be no country in the world where "so few ignorant and fewer learned men can be found" than in America. He immediately explains his meaning: primary education is universal and readily available in America, while higher education is rare and beyond the reach of almost everyone. In Chapter 4, Tocqueville makes the apparently surprising claim that the democratic impulse in America is "more irresistible in states where aristocracy had the deepest roots." He immediately resolves this paradox with a specific example from the state of Maryland: although it was founded by "great lords," it became a leader in the establishment of universal suffrage.

Why did Tocqueville favor paradoxical expression so much? Beyond the likely explanation of attention-getting, one may guess that paradoxes helped him convey the complexity, tension, and ever-changing fluidity of his material. Ever alive to conflict and contradictions, Tocqueville wanted his audience to reject simplistic analyses of cause and effect and to ponder both the past and the future with sober circumspection.

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