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Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 2, Notice–Part 1, Chapter 10 | Summary




In his brief introduction to Volume 2, Alexis de Tocqueville stresses the complexity of his subject and cautions readers not to assume that American equality is the cause of every feature of society and politics in the United States. He also points out that the second volume of his work is fully consistent with the first; the two parts "complete one another and form a single work."

Chapter 1: On the Philosophic Method of the Americans

Part 1 of Volume 2 focuses on the influence of democracy on American intellectual movement. Tocqueville therefore begins by discerning the "philosophic method" of the Americans. It turns out that Americans are occupied very little with philosophy. However, although Tocqueville doubts that Americans have read or studied the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), they may be said to have adopted this philosopher's precepts, with each American relying only on the individual effort of his reason. Tocqueville adds an important historical point in this chapter, consistent with what he asserted in Volume 1: Americans have a democratic constitution, "but they did not have a democratic revolution," because they lived in equal and democratic conditions from the beginning.

Chapter 2: On the Principal Source of Beliefs among Democratic Peoples

In this chapter, Tocqueville emphasizes the inevitability within societies of "dogmatic beliefs"—that is, opinions that people accept "on trust" without discussion or challenge. As citizens gain more equality and thus similarity, the tendency to rely on majority opinion increases—although, perhaps surprisingly, people's faith in one another diminishes.

Chapter 3: Why the Americans Show More Aptitude and Taste for General Ideas than Their English Fathers

Here Tocqueville compares and contrasts the English and the Americans with respect to their taste for, and use of, general ideas (that is, generalizations drawn from limited information, often useful but sometimes made too hastily). He finds that aristocratic nations avoid general ideas and sometimes scorn them, while democratic nations are, by contrast, "always ready to abuse" them.

Chapter 4: Why the Americans Have Never Been as Passionate as the French for General Ideas in Political Matters

This chapter follows up the preceding one by comparing the Americans and the French with reference to use of general ideas in politics. Tocqueville theorizes that Americans employ general ideas less often because they have always directed their own affairs, whereas the French have been forced to content themselves with theorizing about how to direct affairs better. Practical experience in the sphere of politics "moderate[s] the excessive taste for general theories in political matters that equality puts forward."

Chapter 5: How, in the United States, Religion Knows How to Make Use of Democratic Instincts

In this chapter, Tocqueville turns to relationships between the dogmatic beliefs of religion and democratic instincts. Tocqueville proposes that, as barriers between nations and individuals diminish, religious belief in a single omnipotent being increases. He returns to the idea that, although there is a multitude of Christian sects in America, all American Christians (including Catholics) take a similar approach by keeping religion separate from public affairs. The clergy, moreover, respect majority public opinion and never venture to tread on democratic institutions.

Chapter 6: On the Progress of Catholicism in the United States

Tocqueville points out that in America, the most democratic nation in the world, Catholicism is making impressive advances. At a time when many are leaving religion altogether, many believers are attracted to the Catholic faith. Americans seem temperamentally attracted to the "great unity" of Roman Catholicism.

Chapter 7: What Makes the Mind of Democratic Peoples Lean toward Pantheism

In this brief chapter, Tocqueville correlates the growth of equality and democracy with the tendency to concentrate obsessively on a single creation and Creator, thus obscuring or even obliterating human individuality. Pantheism—a metaphysical doctrine that God is the same as the natural laws of the universe—similarly obliterates the personhood of God. While he says this philosophy is attractive to a democratic society, Tocqueville argues that it should be opposed.

Chapter 8: How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man

Tocqueville begins this section by pointing out that the idea of human perfectibility is extremely ancient. "Equality did not give birth" to this concept, but it has endowed it with "a new character." As equality increases, the human mind begins to envision the image of "an ideal and always fugitive perfection." Thus, human perfectibility expands or enlarges itself, and limits or frontiers tend to be abandoned. Aristocracies may be said to "contract the limits of human perfectibility," and democracies to swell or expand them.

Chapter 9: How the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and Taste for the Sciences, Literature, and the Arts

Tocqueville notes in this chapter that America has been slow to develop great artists, poets, and celebrated writers. Countering European critics, he argues it is not true that equality inevitably impinges on artistic development. More relevant to the case of America is the estrangement from the fine arts in Puritanism, the religion of the original settlers. America's uniquely commercial habits and its access to European culture are also relevant factors in Americans' decision to cultivate the arts in their own way.

Chapter 10: Why the Americans Apply Themselves to the Practice of the Sciences Rather than to the Theory

Tocqueville's explanation here is closely linked to one of his continuing themes: American pragmatism. Inequality of conditions predisposes people to the search for abstract truths, whereas equality—and its resultant agitation—discourages meditation and increases eagerness for present material enjoyments, as well as for the immediate, useful applications of science.


Although Tocqueville stresses in the Notice to Volume 2 the consistency and compatibility of the two volumes of Democracy in America, the rapid-fire pacing of chapters in the first three parts of Volume 2 leaves the reader with a substantially different impression. Nevertheless, in these briefer, more concise sections, Tocqueville follows up and expands upon some of the major themes he developed in Volume 1: for example, equality and its effects, change and mobility in America, the immense power of majority rule, American pragmatism, and the coexistence of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.

Tocqueville himself professed to be a Roman Catholic, so it is not surprising that he goes out of his way to consider the position of Roman Catholicism in America. By way of background, Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont spent time in Baltimore in early 1832. Maryland had Roman Catholic origins as a colony, and Baltimore was the seat of the first Catholic diocese in America. On their visit, Tocqueville and Beaumont met with Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737–1832), a cousin of Bishop John Carroll, and the last surviving (and only Catholic) signer of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter, Tocqueville described him as "a little old man of ninety-five, straight as the letter I." On the topic of Roman Catholicism in the United States, readers should keep in mind that in 1850, 10 years after the publication of Tocqueville's second volume, Catholics were still a small minority in America, amounting to only 5 percent of the population.

Pantheism, which Tocqueville briefly discusses in Chapter 7, is commonly associated with the teachings of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77). There are pantheist elements as well in the works of Tocqueville's French contemporary, the poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869).

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