Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 2 Chapters 5 6 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5: On the Government of Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville begins this chapter with some enigmatic remarks about universal suffrage, commenting that such a political system does not necessarily produce all the good (or all the evils) that Europeans might expect from it.

He then discusses another apparent anomaly: the failure of democracy to attract candidates of true distinction for public office. Tocqueville attributes this disappointing feature of American democracy to the impossibility of raising people's enlightenment above a certain level. Tocqueville also notes the tendency of democratic institutions to encourage feelings of envy in the human heart. As he says, with considerable psychological insight, "Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely." Thus, Tocqueville concludes that universal suffrage does not offer a guarantee of good choices.

On the other hand, a crisis in the affairs of a democratic people will often bring citizens of superior merit into the public sphere. Tocqueville gives the example of America's outstanding statesmen at the time of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. For Tocqueville, such conditions are the exception that prove the rule.

Tocqueville regards geographical regions as important indicators in the political choices made by the democratic citizens of America. The best choices, he believes, are made in New England, with its history of education, freedom, and traditional mores or customs in society. As one travels southward, where education is less widespread and social norms are less rooted, the level of those who govern declines. Most disappointing of all are the public officials in the new states of the Southwest.

In the next section, Tocqueville comments on the relative rarity or frequency of elections. Rare elections, he claims, run the danger of exposing a state to great crises; frequent elections, however, risk continuous agitation and volatility. Tocqueville cites apposite remarks by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson on this vexed issue.

In the remaining sections of this chapter, Tocqueville focuses on a series of particular topics: the salaries of American public officials, administrative instability in America, profuse public spending in a democracy, different types of budgets in the United States, corruption in politics, the potential strengths and weaknesses of the democratic system, and the manner in which America conducts its foreign affairs.

Chapter 6: What Are the Real Advantages That American Society Derives from the Government of Democracy

In this chapter, Tocqueville devotes significant attention to a discussion of "public spirit" in America, as well as to the American respect for law. Although he considers American patriotism somewhat annoying, Tocqueville is compelled to admit that citizens' participation in the public sphere in the United States is impressive. The American individual, in Tocqueville's opinion, "sees in the public fortune his own."

For Tocqueville, the idea of rights is intimately linked to the idea of virtue. Respect for the law in America, he asserts, is widespread and exemplary. As Tocqueville says, "If the laws of democracy are not always respectable, they are almost always respected." He continues with a discussion of the fervid activity of the American democracy, noting its weaknesses but also arguing in favor of its citizens' mutual effort for the "well-being" of the whole society.

Analysis

Tocqueville's discussions in these chapters are somewhat discursive, as he seems to jump, almost at random, from one aspect of his announced topic to another. Yet his major theme is unmistakable: he wants to plunge beneath the surface and analyze the practical operation of democratic government in America. He thus emphasizes the quality of public officials, the efficacy of universal suffrage, regional variations in democratic government, the relative frequency of elections, public expenditures, public spirit and patriotism, and American respect for rights and for the law. On most of these topics, he expresses a mixed verdict. (Readers should note that, despite the term "universal suffrage," Tocqueville takes for granted the exclusion of women and blacks from the right to vote.)

Tocqueville draws a sharp distinction between the mediocrity of American public officials in his day and the outstanding quality of statesmen who were active a half century beforehand during the Revolutionary period. Tocqueville's explanation is that great crises tend to produce great leadership. Readers may ponder whether this explanation is overly facile; yet, in the overall contours of American history—for example, the crises of the Civil War (1861–65) and the Great Depression (1929–37)—crisis coincided with the leadership of two of the greatest American presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Toward the end of Chapter 6, Tocqueville adopts a relatively uncommon rhetorical device in his work: direct address to the reader. This address has the flavor of an exhortation. Tocqueville begins with this question: "What do you expect of society and its government? We must understand each other." He then urges his readers to follow reason, procuring maximum well-being and reducing misery in an effort to "equalize conditions and constitute the government of a democracy." Despite his many misgivings on the dangers and possible excesses of democracy, Tocqueville reveals himself in this passage to be a fervent advocate of democratic government.

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