Sunday, July 6, 2014

Impressions from a first reading of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, vol 1

I just finished reading the first tome of Alexis de Tocqueville's De la démocratie en Amérique. It is, of course, a classic work, and it would be worth very little to add yet another summary or review to the cybersphere. On the other hand, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down the strongest impressions it made on my own thinking. There's nothing quite like learning about your own country from a point of view that comes from both a different era and a different continent. Here I will write a point by point list of the ideas that stuck with me most strongly.

  • The United States can be rightfully called a Christian nation. This has not so much to do with the Constitution or the Founding Fathers, and everything to do with the original colonists, their culture, their beliefs, and their mission. Religion was everywhere in early America, much like today, though it is in a slow decline. It was not just a matter of personal belief, but it shaped laws and cultural norms. In particular, the education of children was highly shaped by Christian belief.
  • Despite the mix of cultures, the USA is still very much an Anglo-Saxon nation. Its political and legal traditions have the same roots as those of England. Democracy in America was not an 18th century invention. It was a 17th century evolution. That is, the colonists put into practice what they already knew, and whatever innovation they came up with was learned from experience in their new circumstances.
  • There was, from the very beginning, a pretty significant divide between the North and South. In some ways, the Civil War seems kind of inevitable in retrospect. This doesn't seem to be the result of profound cultural differences, but rather circumstances which caused political interests to be rather divided. I think we all know which was the biggest difference.
  • Concerning slavery: it was already well-recognized at that time (the 1830's) that slavery hindered economic improvement. I found it particularly fascinating that Tocqueville would argue quite explicitly that the North ended slavery for economic reasons.
  • Racism was just a given, North and South. In fact--and I admit this was a real discovery for me--Tocqueville argues it was in many ways worse in the North, precisely because there was no slavery (strange as that seems). Indeed, without the institution of slavery keeping blacks and whites legally separated, white people separated themselves from black people all the more carefully. And of course this racism wasn't against blacks only, but also against the indegenous people of America. The difference is that black people lived among whites, whereas the indigenous people were outsiders.
    Tocqueville said that if slavery ever ended in the South, there would be a huge struggle between the black and white races. It seems he was right.
  • Freedom was not considered to be a state of nature. People had to learn how to be free. Certain morals were required for a free society. In short, freedom was the result of civilization.
    In some ways this feeds into my previous point, because if you don't consider a certain race civilized enough, then they can't really be free, either.
  • Americans enjoyed remarkable equality of possessions and status, even though they didn't explicitly seek it.
  • Americans believed in freedom: all people where free to choose in whatever concerned only themselves, and likewise for each city, county, and state (in relation to other cities, counties, and states). This is a point on which Tocqueville insists over and over again, calling it the principle on which the entire American society was based.
  • The union was, in Tocqueville's opinion, fairly loose: in one place he said the federal government seemed to be losing control over the states. Things have certainly changed since 1835.
  • Actually, an interesting example of the previous point had to do with American interactions with the indigenous peoples. The individual states were actually worse than the federal government, though both acted in bad faith. In theory, the federal government should have been responsible for interactions with foreign peoples, but individual states got rather impatient when it came to chasing tribes off of lands they wanted.
  • Tocqueville was pretty certain America was going to become a global superpower. I don't have the historical knowledge to say whether he was unique in this, but I found his predictions kind of impressive. For instance, in one place he says that 100 years from his writing, the US would have at least 100 million people. His first volume was published in 1835. The US population broke 100 million in 1915, and in 1935 it was around 127 million. Not bad.
  • The American president was a relatively powerless figure in Tocqueville's opinion. On the other hand, he said this had nothing to do with the Constitution, and everything to do with circumstances. At the time the US had relatively few military opponents. Any country surrounded by enemies will inevitably have to set up a strong executive.
    I think the experience of the US over the past century or so confirms, in a disturbing way, exactly what Tocqueville said.
Some of these points deserve more developed reflection, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of other things that jumped out at me, but that's a start.

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