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

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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



Chapter 1: How One Can Say Strictly That in the United States the People Govern

In Part 2 of Volume 1, Alexis de Tocqueville proposes to analyze the American people, as opposed to their written laws and political institutions, with an attention to behavior and cause and effect. He begins by emphasizing popular participation in the direct election of representatives on an annual basis: "the majority ... governs in the name of the people."

Chapter 2: On Parties in the United States

At the outset of this chapter, Tocqueville reveals that he believes parties to be "an evil inherent in free governments." In Tocqueville's opinion, America has had great parties marked by commitments to principles: namely, the Federalists (championed by Alexander Hamilton) and the Republicans (led by Thomas Jefferson). In Tocqueville's own time, however, he fails to discern political parties of any stature. Rather, he notes a disparity of material interests between the states of the North and the South.

Chapter 3: On Freedom of the Press in the United States

For Tocqueville, the press is an integral element in the success of American democracy. A free press is intimately related to, or "correlative with," the principle of popular sovereignty. Tocqueville admits that his love of the press springs from his appreciation of "the evils it prevents" rather than any gratitude "for the good it does."

Tocqueville illustrates freedom of the press in America by quoting at length a highly critical newspaper attack on President Andrew Jackson. The author of the article characterizes Jackson as a "heartless despot" who governs "by corruption." Jackson, according to the journalist, should be warned that justice will soon overtake him, even though repentance for wrongdoing is foreign to his nature.

In much of the remaining discussion in this chapter, Tocqueville compares and contrasts the press in France and in the United States. Although the French press may exercise more power, it is still true that the American press is extremely powerful, because of its wide distribution and freedom from censorship. Tocqueville admiringly remarks that, among the American population of more than 12 million, there is "not a single one who has yet dared to propose restricting the freedom of the press" (emphasis in the original).

Chapter 4: On Political Association in the United States

Tocqueville sees "political association" as closely allied to freedom of the press in the functioning of popular sovereignty in government. The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the people's freedom to assemble peaceably. In America, the unlimited freedom to associate for political goals contrasts strikingly with the situation in Europe, where such associations had often led to violence rather than conventions with speakers and such rights are often restricted.


Readers should bear in mind that political parties in the United States have had a complex, varied history. At the very outset of the republic, George Washington had a low opinion of political parties, equating them to dangerous factions. Yet it is traditional, in chronicling the early history of the republic, to designate the period 1789–1808 as largely dominated by a struggle between "Federalists," the party that vigorously favored a strong central government, and "Republicans" (or "Democrat-Republicans"), the party that favored less federal interference with the rights and powers of states. These two wings were epitomized by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, respectively.

Closer to Tocqueville's own time, the Democrat-Republicans had morphed into Jacksonian Democrats, adherents of the populist, untraditional seventh president of the United States who denounced confiscatory tariffs and elitist institutions such as the Second Bank of the United States. Paradoxically, however, Jackson aligned himself with strong, centralized federal power when it came to a conflict between the Union government and states' rights, as in the Nullification Crisis of 1831–32. In fact, some caricaturist critics went so far as to mockingly portray the president as "King Andrew."

Tocqueville's remarks on "political association" need to be interpreted in the light of strongly restrictive European measures on people's ability to assemble. Ever since 1810 in France, for example, assembly of 20 individuals or more for political purposes had been illegal. The July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe reaffirmed this restriction in a law passed in April 1834, as Tocqueville was working on the first volume of Democracy in America.

Readers should also note that, in other parts of his work, Tocqueville uses the word "association" to mean "voluntary group"—a much broader social aggregation of people who support a specific cause or goal that is not necessarily political.

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