Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 2 Part 2 Chapters 1 10 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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



Chapter 1: Why Democratic Peoples Show a More Ardent and More Lasting Love for Equality than for Freedom

Tocqueville's main point in this section is that political freedom requires sacrifices, whereas the pleasures of equality may be readily enjoyed. Hence, people naturally cherish equality more than they love freedom. He explains the fervor of democratic peoples: "They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy."

Chapter 2: On Individualism in Democratic Countries

At the beginning of this chapter, Tocqueville carefully distinguishes individualism from selfishness, asserting that the latter is born of a blind instinct, whereas individualism is based on a reflective (although erroneous) judgment. Once again, Tocqueville contrasts aristocratic centuries, when individualism tends not to flourish, with democratic periods, when devotion to a single other person becomes rarer, and the bond of human affections is loosened. Democracy, Tocqueville claims, leads each person back toward the self alone, cutting off connections to other generations and contemporaries alike.

Chapter 3: How Individualism Is Greater at the End of a Democratic Revolution than in Any Other Period

Tocqueville illustrates how the former divisions of aristocracy perpetuate separations in a newly equal society. The heart of this brief chapter is Tocqueville's succinct observation that the "great advantage of the Americans is to have arrived at democracy without having to suffer democratic revolutions." Americans were "born equal instead of becoming so."

Chapter 4: How the Americans Combat Individualism with Free Institutions

In this chapter, Tocqueville begins by discerning a latent but dangerous linkage between equality and despotism. He argues that in democracies the presence of political freedom is essential to safeguard against despotism. Political freedom places a check and balance against excessive individualism. The framers made provision for multiplying the occasions on which citizens could act together, which reminds them of their common interests.

Chapter 5: On the Use That the Americans Make of Association in Civil Life

Here Tocqueville draws attention to the myriad civil, or nonpolitical, "associations" formed in America. These groups are of many different types: commercial, industrial, religious, and missionary. Americans form associations to build churches, hospitals, prisons, and schools. In contrast, when Tocqueville visited England in 1833 and 1835, he found very little usage of associations. In England such undertakings are usually sponsored by a lord, and in France the government attempts to provide for many of these needs. Americans, Tocqueville says, "can do almost nothing by themselves," but they achieve much in cooperation with one another. He says that in democratic countries the science of associations is the "mother science."

Chapter 6: On the Relation between Associations and Newspapers

This chapter provides a follow-up to the preceding one by exploring the close link between associations and newspapers. One can say that the newspaper parallels the association by counteracting individualism and tying people together: "newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers." As men grow more equal, the empire of newspapers should grow.

Chapter 7: Relations between Civil Associations and Political Associations

Tocqueville illustrates the interrelatedness of civil and political associations, which he sees as complementary, the one facilitating the other. Citizens who participate in the political process gain a free education in the art of association. Tocqueville goes on to discuss the freedom of association and the fears that lead societies to restrict it, arguing that such freedom more often promotes stability than unrest.

Chapter 8: How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Doctrine of Self-Interest Well Understood

This chapter is one of the key sections of Tocqueville's entire work. He traces the doctrine of "self-interest well understood" to Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French philosopher. Tocqueville asserts that Americans "almost always know how to combine their own well-being with that of their fellow citizens." That is, they make minor sacrifices for the general good: "man, in serving those like him, serves himself ... his particular interest is to do good." Self-interest well understood, he argues, provides a social safety net, in that it may prevent people from falling into a depraved, selfish individualism. "Consider some individuals," he says, "they are lowered. View the species, it is elevated."

Chapter 9: How the Americans Apply the Doctrine of Self-Interest Well Understood in the Matter of Religion

This chapter forms a sequel to the preceding one. Although Tocqueville discerns an affinity between the doctrine of self-interest well understood and some religious precepts, he does not agree that self-interest is the sole motive of religious men. Here he refers to the famous "bet" or "wager" formulated by the French theologian Blaise Pascal, in which a small bet of belief in the Christian religion costs little if the bet is lost, whereas the opposite bet, that Christianity is false, has a heavy cost (eternal damnation) if the bet is lost. American preachers often remind their listeners that religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, so Americans are accustomed to thinking that the practice of religion accords with well-being.

Chapter 10: On the Taste for Material Well-Being in America

In America, there is a general "passion for material well-being." Tocqueville associates this with social mobility—the chance for the poor to become rich and vice versa. This passion is "essentially a middle-class one," and in times of increasing material equality, people are more disposed to be concerned with their material fortunes. A similar sentiment is increasing in Europe, according to Tocqueville.


Readers of Chapters 2 and 3 should keep in mind that the word "individualism" was a fairly recent coinage in Tocqueville's day and did not have the favorable connotations that it often has in ours. For Tocqueville, free institutions and civil associations constitute a valuable, effective counterweight to individualism because they draw people together for all sorts of productive goals and projects.

Tocqueville's approval of American civil associations is clear in Chapters 5 and 6. By "association" here, he means something different from "assembly," the right of association guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Civil associations are voluntary groups, clubs, or organizations formed to advance a particular goal or cause. Today, sociologists would describe such associations as a community or nation's "social capital" (see the well-known analysis Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam, published in 2000). Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) was notable for the energy he devoted to mustering support for such groups, such as volunteer firefighting services or circulating libraries.

Another key idea in this section is the doctrine of "self-interest well understood" (conveyed in French by the unmodified noun intérêt). A modern equivalent might be "to do well by doing good," or even a reference to the proverbial Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
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