Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 1 Chapters 5 7 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapters 5–7 | Summary



Chapter 5: Necessity of Studying What Takes Place in the Particular States before Speaking of the Government of the Union

At the beginning of this chapter, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out his plan for the analysis of American government in practice. It is necessary, he explains, to examine the stages or layers of government from the bottom up. Therefore, he will first discuss the township, then the county, and then the state.

The township, in fact, provides the core of the analysis. According to Tocqueville, township society is ubiquitous among humanity. In America, township government is especially vigorous in the New England states, and for his model Tocqueville selects townships in the state of Massachusetts. Despite certain vulnerabilities, it is in townships where "the force of free peoples resides." The representatives of the people in townships are the selectmen, who are elected annually. Other township officials include assessors, constables, clerks, cashiers, and school commissioners. American governmental administration is so decentralized that it is the township, rather than the state, that assumes the primary role in such endeavors as collecting taxes and building schools.

Townships typically have two or three thousand inhabitants. Tocqueville asserts that they form the center of the ordinary relations of life, and he points out that, although England formerly ruled "the entirety of the colonies, the [American] people always directed affairs in townships." Townships are attractive to New Englanders because they are strong and independent and because the people living there have an active, participatory role in directing affairs.

In the next section of this chapter, Tocqueville focuses on the county. This discussion relates primarily to the county's role in "the administration of justice." Tocqueville comments on the office of justice of the peace and on the court of sessions and their roles in ensuring the proper conduct of townships and local officials. He notes that the people's ultimate power over officials lies in the process of elections. He also points to regional variations. As one moves away from New England, townships become less active and vigorous, and counties correspondingly more so.

Tocqueville concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of American government at the state level, singling out bicameral legislatures for special attention. It is noteworthy that state governors, who hold the supreme executive office at this level, enter only indirectly into the affairs of counties and townships. Such administrative decentralization, Tocqueville believes, offers Americans considerable political advantages, particularly regarding citizens' voluntary aid in keeping order and in resisting despotism. In praising the American system, Tocqueville remarks, "Often the European sees in the political official only force; the American sees in him right. One can therefore say that in America man never obeys man, but justice or law."

Chapter 6: On Judicial Power in the United States and Its Action on Political Society

In this chapter, Tocqueville briefly discusses judicial power in America. One point is especially notable: the power of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional and thus to nullify the law. The judiciary thus provides a powerful barrier against the potential tyranny of a legislative majority.

Chapter 7: On Political Judgment in the United States

Here Tocqueville reflects on how American governmental institutions are designed to deal with the abuse of power. He comments specifically on the impeachment process, remarking that political judgment in the United States exists not so much to punish individuals as to deprive them of power so they cannot abuse it. Limiting the legislature's power to removing officials from office and leaving further punishment to the courts prevents one form of legislative tyranny.


Tocqueville accords special emphasis in these chapters to decentralization in American government. He favorably regards administrative (as opposed to governmental) decentralization. He claims that a wide distribution of authority offers impressive advantages to the governed. In particular, the American system exhibits a striking contrast with European patterns, especially in France, whose peak of centralization is symbolized by the famous statement of Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715): "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the state").

The most important background for the discussion of judicial review in Chapter 6 is the landmark Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). In this case, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted the court's power to strike down a law as unconstitutional, even though this power is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution itself.

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