Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9: On the Principal Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States

In this section, Tocqueville interweaves a number of important themes. He reiterates that, in maintaining a democratic republic, America enjoys a number of great advantages: for example, geographical isolation, social homogeneity, seemingly boundless land, no great wars to fear, no need for large taxes or a large army.

Next, Tocqueville focuses on American mobility and expansion—a continuous displacement that is ceaselessly changing the shape and nature of the nation. Westward expansion goes hand in hand with land-grabbing and materialistic greed. Paradoxically, however, such vices in America seem "almost as useful to society as [a man's] virtues."

In addition, the American passion for commerce results naturally in a preference for order, which in turn encourages "regularity of mores." In the middle of this chapter, before he proceeds to discuss "mores" in more detail, Tocqueville offers a summary of the positive legal forces that favor the maintenance of a democratic republic: federalism, the institutions of township government, and the judiciary.

Tocqueville then glosses the word mores as "the whole moral and intellectual state of a people." He first focuses on religion as a habit or custom that favors the maintenance of a democratic republic. Here his argument accords with his earlier statement in this chapter that he can "see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores, like the whole human race in the first man." The Christian beliefs of America's original settlers inclined them to democracy and republicanism, and this tendency has persisted, despite the arrival in the New World of numerous Roman Catholics and the growth of an "innumerable multitude of [religious] sects" in the United States.

Tocqueville believes there is a strong connection between religion, women, and mores. For him, the marriages and domestic hearths of Americans foster order and stability, thereby shoring up democracy. In Europe, by contrast, social disorders are never far from the domestic hearth. Unexpected as it may seem, in the United States "religious zeal constantly warms itself at the hearth of patriotism."

Tocqueville next turns to one of the most important aspects of American religion: the constitutional separation of church and state. He flatly contradicts the prophecy of Enlightenment philosophers, to the effect that religious zeal will wane once freedom and enlightenment increase. In America, he asserts, the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom flourish together on the same soil. In numerous interviews with the clergy, Tocqueville found unanimous approval for the separation of church and state. Far from disabling or harming religion, this separation has permitted it to flourish.

Tocqueville proceeds to discuss the American intellectual scene, commenting that the United States, so far at least, has produced only a few remarkable writers. On the other hand, he notes that education and enlightenment advance in the United States largely because of the rapid circulation of thought, even in the wilderness, via newspapers. As Tocqueville remarks, "The instruction of the people serves powerfully to maintain a democratic republic."

In the final part of this chapter, Tocqueville returns to his hypothesis that mores, laws, and physical causes—in a descending order of importance—influence development and maintenance of a democratic republic. He contrasts the success of the United States with the failure of Mexico and of South American nations to create and nurture democracy. In a separate argument, Tocqueville contrasts degrees of democracy in the East of the United States with conditions in the West; this juxtaposition again shows that mores provide the most important social element in maintaining democracy. Tocqueville concludes with guarded optimism, declaring that democracy, despite all its pitfalls and dangers, is preferable to autocracy, and it may, under the right conditions, be viable in countries other than the United States.

Analysis

In this chapter, Tocqueville's emphasis on "mores" is probably his single most important, overriding theme. Readers encounter the term mores frequently in Democracy in America, so it is important to understand what Tocqueville means by it. The English word (cognate with the French moeurs) comes directly from Latin, where it means "customs" or "habits." In Tocqueville's usage, mores refers to deeply engrained, traditional customs that assume the importance of expected norms, or standards of behavior. Mores can thus be distinguished from laws; for Tocqueville, in fact, the former have a more profound and enduring impact on society than the latter.

Tocqueville's stress on the importance of mores in forging and maintaining a democratic system of government shows, more than any other concept in his thinking, his conviction that temperament, rather than legal structure, lies at the root of democratic government.

It is thus appropriate that religion should loom so large in this chapter. In his discussion, Tocqueville confronts a centuries-old paradox in American life. The original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts established a theocracy, in which church and state were virtually the same entity. Their beliefs and values, on the other hand, favored equality and democracy—as evidenced in the text of the Mayflower Compact (quoted at length by Tocqueville in Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 2).

By the late 18th century, the framers of the Constitution were convinced that republican democracy demanded a wall of separation between church and state. This separation was enshrined in the "no establishment of religion" clause in the 1st Amendment. In his writing, Tocqueville expresses general approval of this feature of the Constitution. But he is also hospitable to American religious zeal, which is common to the "innumerable multitude of [religious] sects" in the United States. On the one hand, Tocqueville seems to say, no religion should be established, privileged, or dominant in America. On the other hand, religious belief, on the whole, is a good thing, because it supplies a brake on democratic excess. As Tocqueville says, "at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything."

In the discussion of religion, readers should bear in mind that Tocqueville himself, although subject to anguishing doubts from an early age, was a professed Roman Catholic. He seems to have genuinely believed that democracy was providentially inspired and was therefore destined by God to be accepted by humanity.

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