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Political Thoughts, Quotes and Comment
Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America
 
QUOTES ---------------------------------------COMMENT

GENERAL OBSERVATION

1.  "Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention... in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions among the people.... The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived..."

2.  "division of property has lessened the distance between the rich and the poor; but it would seem that the nearer they draw to each other, the greater is the mutual hatred, and the more vehement the envy and the dread with which they resist each others claims to power;"

3.  "The poor man ... has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions,"

4.  "Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system, and vanquished kings, will retreat before tradesmen and capitalism?"

5.  "voluntary associations of the citizens might then take the place of the individual exertions of the nobles, and the community would be alike protected from anarchy and from oppression."

6.  "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."

7.  "Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power, or debased by the habit of obedience; but by the exercise of power which they believe to be illegitimate, and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive."

8.  "has man always inhabited a world like the present, where all things are out of their natural connections, where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law; where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and where nothing seems to be any longer forbidden or allowed, honorable or shameful, false or true?"

9.  " There are virtuous and peaceful  individuals whose pure morality, quiet habits, opulence, and talents fit them to be the leaders of the surrounding population. Their love of country is sincere, and they are ready to make the greatest sacrifices for its welfare. But civilization often finds them among its opponents; they confound its abuses with its benefits, and the idea of evil is inseparable in their minds from that of novelty. Near these I find others, whose object is to materialize mankind, to hit upon what is expedient without heeding what is just, to acquire knowledge without faith, and prosperity apart from virtue; claiming to be the champions of modern civilization, they place themselves arrogantly at its head, usurping a place which is abandoned to them, and of which they are wholly unworthy."

 

ON POLITICAL PARTIES

1. "In the United States, the majority governs in the name of the people,..... This majority is principally composed of peaceable citizens, who, either by inclination or by interest, sincerely wish the welfare of their country. But they are surrounded by the incessant agitation of parties, who attempt to gain their cooperation and support."

2. "When the war of independence was terminated, .... the nation was divided between two opinions -- two opinions which are as old as the world, ....the one tending to limit, the other to extend indefinitely, the power of the people. The conflict between these two opinions never assumed the degree of violence in America which it has frequently displayed elsewhere."

3. "Both parties of the Americans were agreed upon the most essential points; and neither of them had to destroy an old constitution, or overthrow the structure of society, in order to triumph. In neither of them, consequently, were a great number of private interests affected by success or defeat: but moral principles of a high order, such as the love of equality and independence, were concerned in the struggle, and these sufficed to kindle violent passions."

4. "The party which desired to limit the power of the people, endeavored to apply its doctrines more especially to the Constitution of the Union, whence it derived its name of Federal. The other party, which affected to be exclusively attached to the cause of liberty, took that of Republican."

5. "Federalists, therefore, were always in a minority: but they reckoned on their side almost all the great men whom the war of independence had produced, and their moral power was very considerable. In 1801, the Republicans got possession of the government: Thomas Jefferson was elected President; and he increased the influence of their party by the weight of his great name, the brilliancy of his talents, and his immense popularity."

 

6. "The accession of the Federalists to power (in the beginning years of our nation) was, in my opinion, one of the most fortunate incidents which accompanied the formation of the great American Union: .....their government at least gave the new republic time to acquire a certain stability, and afterwards to support without inconvenience the rapid growth of the vary doctrines which they had combated. ....the Federal Constitution, which subsists at the present day, is a lasting monument to their patriotism and their wisdom."

7. "Great political parties, then, are not to be met with in the United States at the present time."

8. "In the United States, there is no religious animosity, because all religion is respected, ....there is no jealousy of rank, because the people are everything, and none can contest their authority; lastly, there is no public misery to serve as a means of agitation,"

9. "I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States."

10. "At the present day, the more affluent classes of society have no influence in political affairs; and wealth, far from conferring a right, is rather a cause of unpopularity than a means of attaining power. The rich abandon the lists, through unwillingness to contend, and frequently to contend in vain, against the poorer classes of their fellow-citizens. As they cannot occupy in public a position equivalent to what they hold in private life, they abandon the former and give themselves up to the latter; and they constitute a private society in the state, which has its own tastes and pleasures."

11. "The two chief weapons which parties use in order to obtain success are the newspapers and public associations."

GENERAL COMMENT
 

In the early 1830s, while the United States was at its peak regarding rugged individualism, lassez-faire business policies, and unrestricted liberty, Alexis De Tocqueville visited the nation to study the American experiment and to report his observations. In his book, Democracy in America, he reported that he saw a nation that appeared to have an intense passion for equality. He attributed this to the fact that the immigrants from Europe were mostly of equal rank when they arrived in the country and that there was an abundance of land which everyone could own. Land ownership made citizens view themselves as equal to their neighbors and contributed to this feeling of equality. Although De Tocqueville saw equality as a U.S. passion, he believed like Locke and Mill, that the primary concern of the American nation should be the preservation of liberty. It was this liberty that had created the necessary conditions for the U.S. to become economically prosperous. De Tocqueville saw the potential flaw in the American ideology which included the concepts of both liberty and equality. He saw that there would come a time when liberty would conflict with the American passion for equality. He saw that through the exercise of liberty, some citizens would prosper more than others. As the citizens became aware of increasing economic and social differentiation between themselves and their neighbors, they would view their neighbors success as developing inequality and would demand a return to the perceived equality of the past. De Tocqueville saw liberty and equality as inversely proportional -- as one increased, the other decreased. He believed that the advantages of liberty could be demonstrated over an extended period of time but that demands for equality would be used as a weapon against this liberty. It appears that, within a society founded upon liberty, equality can only be imposed on people at the expense of liberty. While liberty is the absence of control over individuals and costs a nation little, the form of equality that would be demanded would have to be imposed by governmental authority at great expense.

 

ON POLITICAL PARTIES

       Alexis de Tocqueville did not see powerful political parties as a problem for the United States, at the time of his visit. He did however, believe that the emergence of such parties was inevitable. De Tocqueville knew that, because there are always ambitious men who seek power and, the vast size of our nation, powerful political parties would eventually develop. De Tocqueville saw that ambitious men would want their personal interests or agenda to prevail over the interests of the majority of citizens. In an effort to impose their will, these men would integrate their interests with compatible interests of other groups and, promise citizens some benefit for their support. Eventually, a powerful political party would form.

     De Tocqueville believed that these parties appeal to one of two political concepts: One tending to limit the power of the citizens, the other wishing to infinitely expand the citizens freedom. He attributes our nations early success to the fact that, at the time of our break with England, our fledgling nation had two competing parties that shared the same morals and values even though their political concepts differed. De Tocqueville thought it was fortunate that the minority Federalist Party (a party that wished to limit the power of the citizens) maintained control of the federal government in its infancy. This stability allowed our young nation the time needed to solidify the concepts set forth in our constitution. De Tocqueville believed that it was the Federalist's patriotism and wisdom that allowed our infant nation to survive its early and critical years. To De Tocqueville, our constitution was a monument to the Federalist efforts and greatly assisted our nation in avoiding the mistakes made after the French Revolution of 1789. When Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800, the Federalist Party faded from the political scene and powerful political parties could no longer be found. The nation was united on most major issues concerning our young republic.

Application Today    

Today, the powerful political parties, predicted by De Tocqueville, have emerged. While the citizens of our nation continue to share most of the important principles upon which our nation was established, ambitious party leaders and their politicians see it to their advantage to divide the citizens of our nation along racial, economic, age, gender, race, education, religion and, even sexual preference lines. The purpose is to piece together enough votes, from a divided citizenry, to win elections. These parties, and their politicians, excite citizens emotions in an effort to gain support. They frequently use, handouts, special favors, fear, envy, etc., in their efforts to gain support from segments of the divided population. When they win elections, they seek to pass legislation beneficial to their supporters (Rousseaus "Particular will", not "General will") and, which will further their agenda. Today, a victory for one political party is viewed as a damaging loss for the other party and its supporters. Citizens loyal to one party, view the other party as a threat to their well being. The parties no longer work together in the Congress but continually attack each other in an effort to gain more power. They no longer appear to produce laws that are fair and equitable to all citizens -- laws reflecting the general will -- an absolute necessity for any good government. If De Tocqueville were explaining in the words of Rousseau, he would say that the parties are placing the particular will of their citizen supporters over the general will of the society, at large, in their actions. The attitude has become the welfare of the party over everything and has created the reality of two separate and competing nations, which are hostile to each other, existing within our borders. According to De Tocqueville, such a division is a serious danger to our nation.

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