Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: De Tocqueville's Impressions. - The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville
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IV.: De Tocqueville’s Impressions. - Viscount James Bryce, The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville 
The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville. John Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, ed. Herbert B. Adams. 5th Series, no. IX (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1887).
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De Tocqueville’s Impressions.
Let us see what were the impressions which the America of 1832 made on the mind of De Tocqueville. I do not pretend to summarize his account, which every student ought to read for himself, but shall be content with presenting those more salient points to which our comparison of 1832 with 1788 on the one hand, and 1887 on the other, relates.
He is struck by the thoroughness with which the principle of the Sovereignty of the People is carried out. Fifty-five years ago this principle was far from having obtained its present ascendancy in Western Europe. In America, however, it was not merely recognized in theory, but consistently applied through every branch of local, State and national government.
He is impressed by the greater importance to ordinary citizens of State government than of Federal government, and their warmer attachment to the former than to the latter. The Federal government seems comparatively weak, and in case of a conflict between the two powers, the loyalty of the people would be given rather to the State.1
The basis of all American government is to be found in the “commune,” i. e., in local government, the ultimate unit of which is in New England the township, in the Southern and Middle States the county. It is here that the bulk of the work of administration is done, here that the citizens learn how to use and love freedom, here that the wonderful activity they display in public affairs finds its chief sphere and its constant stimulus.
The absence of what a European calls “the administration” is remarkable. Public work is divided up between a multitude of petty and unrelated local officials: there is no “hierarchy,” no organized civil service with a subordination of ranks. The means employed to keep officials to their work and punish offences are two: frequent popular election and the powers of invoking the ordinary courts of justice to obtain damages for negligence or unwarranted action. But along with the extreme “administrative decentralization” there exists a no less extreme “governmental centralization,” that is to say, all the powers of government are collected into one hand, that of the people, the majority of the voters. This majority is omnipotent; and thus authority is strong, capable of great efforts, capable also of tyranny. Hence the value of local self-government which prevents the abuse of power by a central authority: hence the necessity for this administrative decentralization, which atones for its want of skill in details by the wholesome influence it exerts on the character of the people.
The judges enjoy along with the dignity of their European brethren the singular but most salutary power of “declaring laws to be unconstitutional,” and thus serve to restrain excesses of legislative as well as executive authority.
The President appears to our author to be a comparatively weak official. No person, no group, no party, has much to hope from the success of a particular candidate at a Presidential election, because he has not much to give away. The elective system unduly weakens executive authority because a President who approaches the end of his four years’ term feels himself feeble, and dares not take any bold step: while the coming in of a new President may cause a complete change of policy. His re-eligibility further weakens and abases him, for he must purchase re-election by intrigue and an unworthy pandering to the desires of his party. It intensifies the characteristic fault of democratic government, the predominance of a temporary majority.
The Federal Supreme Court is the noblest product of the wisdom of those who framed the Federal Constitution. It keeps the whole machine in working order, protecting the Union against the States, and each part of the Federal government against the aggressions of the others. The strength of the Federation, naturally a weak form of government, lies in the direct authority which the Federal courts have over the individual citizen: while their action, even against a State, is less offensive than might be expected because they do not directly attach its statutes, but merely, at the instance of an individual plaintiff or defendant, secure rights which those statutes may have infringed.
The Federal Constitution is much superior to the State Constitutions; the Federal Legislature, Executive and Judiciary, are all of them more independent of the popular majority, and freer in their action than the corresponding authorities in the several States. Similarly the Federal government is better than those of the States, wiser, more skilful, more consistent, more firm.
The day of great parties is past: there is now a feverish agitation of small parties and a constant effort to create parties, to grasp at some principle or watchward under which men may group themselves, probably for selfish ends. Self-interest is at the bottom of the parties, yet aristocratic or democratic sentiment attaches itself to each of them, that is to say, when a practical issue arises, the old antithesis of faith in the masses and distrust of the masses reappears in the view which men and parties take of it. The rich mix little in politics. Secretly disgusted at the predominance of the crowd, they treat their shoemaker as an equal when they meet him on the street, but in the luxury of their own homes lament the vulgarity of public life and predict a bad end for democracy.
Next to the people, the greatest power in the country is the press: yet it is less powerful than in France, because the number of journals is so prodigious, because they are so poorly written, because there is no centre like Paris. Advertisements and general news occupy far more of their space than does political argument, and in the midst of a din of opposing voices, the ordinary citizen retains his dull fixity of opinion, the prejudices of his sect or party.
A European is surprised, not only by the number of voluntary associations aiming at public objects, but at the tolerance which the law accords to them. They are immensely active and powerful, and do not threaten public security as they would in France, because they admit themselves, by the very fact of their existence, to represent a minority of voters, and seek to prevail by force of argument and not of arms.
Universal suffrage, while it gives admirable stability to the government, does not, as people in Europe expect that it will, bring the best men to the top. On the contrary, the governors are inferior to the governed,1 the best men do not seek either office or a seat in the House of Representatives, and the people, without positively hating the “upper classes” does not like them; and carefully keeps them out of power. “Il ne craint point les grands talents, mais il les goûte peu.”
The striking inferiority of the House to the Senate is due to the fact that the latter is a product of double election, and it is to double election that democracies must come if they will avoid the evils inseparable from placing political functions in the hands of every class of the people.2
American magistrates are allowed a wider arbitrary discretion than is common in Europe, because they are more constantly watched by the sovereign people, and are more absolutely at its mercy.3
Every office is, in America, a salaried office; nothing can be more conformable to the spirit of a democracy. The minor offices are, relatively to Europe, well paid, the higher ones ill paid. Nobody wears any dress or displays any insignia of office.4
Administration has both an unstable and an unscientific character. Few records are kept of the acts of departments, little information is accumulated, even original documents are neglected. De Tocqueville was sometimes given such documents in answer to his queries, and told that he might keep them. The conduct of public business is a hand to mouth, rule of thumb sort of affair.1
Not less instability reigns in the field of legislation. Laws are being constantly changed; nothing remains fixed or certain.2
It is a mistake to suppose that democratic governments are specially economical. They are parsimonious in salaries, at least to the higher officials, but they spend freely on objects beneficial to the mass of the people, such as education, while the want of financial skill involves a good deal of waste. You must not expect economy where those who pay the bulk of the taxes are a mere fraction of those who direct their expenditure. If ever America finds herself among dangers, her taxation will be as heavy as that of the European monarchies.
There is little bribery of voters, but many charges against the integrity of politicians. Now the corruption of the governors is worse than that of the governed, for it lowers the tone of public morals by presenting the spectacle of prosperous turpitude.
The American democracy is self-indulgent and self-complacent, slow to recognize, still more slow to correct, its faults. But it has the unequalled good fortune of being able to commit reparable faults, of sinning with impunity (la faculté de faire des fautes reparables).
It is eminently ill-fitted to conduct foreign policy. Fortunately it has none.
The benefits which American society derives from its democratic government are summed up as follows:
As the majority make the laws, their general tendency, in spite of many errors in detail, is to benefit the majority, because though the means may sometimes be ill chosen, the end is always the same. Hence the country prospers.
Every one is interested in the welfare of the country, because his own welfare is bound up with it. This patriotism may be only an enlarged egotism, but it is powerful nevertheless, for it is a permanent sentiment, independent of transient enthusiasms. Its character appears in the childish intolerance of criticism which the people display. They will not permit you to find fault with any one of their institutions or habits, not even if you praise all the rest.1
There is a profound respect for every political right, and therefore for every magistrate, and for the authority of the law, which is the work of the people themselves. If there be exceptions to this respect, they are to be found among the rich, who fear that the law may be made or used to their detriment.
The infinite and incessant activity of public life, the responsibilities it casts on the citizen, the sense of his importance which it gives him, have stimulated his whole nature, made him enterprising in all private affairs also. Hence, in great measure, the industrial prosperity of the country. Democracy effects more for the material progress of a nation than in the way of rendering it great in the arts, or in poetry, or in manners, or in elevation of character, or in the capacity for acting on others and leaving a great name in history.
We now come to the darker side of the picture. In democracies, the majority is omnipotent, and in America the evils hence flowing are aggravated by the shortness of the term for which a legislature is chosen, by the weakness of the Executive, by the incipient disposition to elect even the judges, by the notion universally received that the majority must be right. The majority in a legislature being unchecked, laws are hastily made and altered, administration has no permanence, officials are allowed a dangerously wide range of arbitrary authority. There is no escape from the tyranny of the majority. It dominates even thought, forbidding, not indeed by law but through social penalties no less effective than legal ones, the expression of any opinion displeasing to the ordinary citizen. In theology, even in philosophy, one must beware of any divergence from orthodoxy. No one dare tell an unwelcome truth to the people, for it will receive nothing but incense. Such repression sufficiently explains the absence of great writers and of great characters in public life. It is not therefore of weakness that the free government in America will ever perish, but by excess of strength, the majority driving the minority to despair and arms.
There are, however, influences which temper the despotism of the majority. One is the existence of a strong system of local self-government, whereby nearly all administration is decentralized. Another is the power of the lawyers, a class everywhere disposed to maintain authority and to defend that which exists, and specially so disposed in England and America because the law which they study and practice is founded on precedents and despises abstract reason. A third exists in the jury, and particularly the jury in its action in civil causes, for it teaches the people not only the regular methods of law and justice, but respect for law and for the judges who administer it.
Next we come to an enumeration of the causes which maintain republican government. They are, over and above the constitutional safeguards already discussed, the following:
The absence of neighboring States, and the consequent absence of great wars, of financial crises,1 of invasions or conquests. How dangerous to republics is the passion for military glory is shown by the two elections of General Jackson to be President, a man of violent temper and limited capacity, recommended by nothing but the memory of his victory at New Orleans twenty years before.2
The absence of a great capital.
The material prosperity of the country, due to its immense extent and natural resources, which open a boundless field in which the desire of gain and the love of independence may gratify themselves and render the vices of man almost as useful to society as his virtues. The passions which really agitate America are commercial, not political.
The influence of religion. American Protestantism is republican and democratic: American Catholicism no less so; for Catholicism tends itself to an equality of conditions, since it treats all men alike. The Catholic clergy are as hearty republicans as any others.
The indirect influence of religion on manners and morality. Nowhere is marriage so much respected and the relations of the sexes so well ordered. The universal acceptance of Christianity, an acceptance which imposes silence even on the few sceptics who may be supposed to exist here as everywhere, steadies and restrains men’s minds. “No one ventures to proclaim that everything is permissible in the interests of society. Impious maxim, which seems to have been invented in an age of liberty in order to give legitimacy to all tyrants to come.”
The Americans themselves cannot imagine liberty without Christianity. And the chief cause why religion is so powerful among them is because it is entirely separated from the State.1
The intelligence of the people, and their education, but especially their practical experience in working their local politics. However, though everybody has some education, letters and culture do not flourish. They regard literature properly so called with disfavor: they are averse to general ideas. They have no great historian, not a single poet, legal commentators but no publicists, good artisans but very few inventors.2
Of all these causes, the most important are those which belong to the character and habits of the people. These are infinitely more important sources of well being than the laws, as the laws are in turn more important than the physical conditions.
Whether democracy will succeed in other parts of the world is a question which a study of America does not enable the observer confidently to answer. Her institutions, however suitable to her position in a world of her own, could not be transferred bodily to Europe. But the peace and prosperity which the Union enjoys under its democratic government do raise a strong presumption in favor of democracy even in Europe. For the passions and vices which attack free government are the same in America as in Europe, and as the legislator has overcome many of them there, combating envy by the idea of rights, and the presumptuous ignorance of the crowd by the practice of local government, he may overcome them here likewise.
One may suppose other institutions for a democracy than those the Americans have adopted, and some of them better ones. Since it seems probable that the peoples of Europe will have to choose between democracy and despotism, they ought at least to try the former, and may be encouraged by the example of America.
A concluding chapter is devoted to speculations on the future of the three races which inhabit the territories of the United States. (I need not transcribe what he says of the unhappy Indian tribes. Their fate was then already certain: the process which he saw passing in Alabama and Michigan is now repeating itself in California and Oregon.)
The presence of the blacks is the greatest evil that threatens the United States. They increase, in the Gulf States, faster than do the whites. They cannot be kept forever in slavery, the tendencies of the modern world run too strongly the other way. They cannot be absorbed into the white population for the whites will not intermarry with them, not even in the North where they have been free two generations. Once freed, they would be more dangerous than now, because they would not long submit to be debarred from political rights. A terrible struggle would ensue. Hence the Southern Americans, even those who regret slavery, are forced to maintain it, and have enacted a harsh code which keeps the slave as near as possible to a beast of burden, forbidding him to be taught and making it difficult for him to be manumitted. No one in America seems to see any solution. The North discusses the problem with noisy inquietude. The South maintains an ominous silence. Slavery is evidently economically mischievous, for the Free States are far more prosperous: but the South holds to slavery as a necessity.
As to the Federal Union, it shows many signs of weakness. The States have most of the important powers of government in their hands; they have the attachment of the people; they act with vigor and promptitude, while the Federal authority hesitates and argues. In every struggle that has heretofore arisen the Federal Government has given way, and it possesses neither the material force to coerce a rebellious State nor a clear legal right to retain a member wishing to dissolve the Federal tie. But although the Union has no national patriotism to support it (for the professions of such patriotism one hears in America are but lip-deep), it is maintained by certain interests—the material interests which each part of the country has in remaining politically united with the rest. Against these one finds no strong interests making for material severance, but one does find diversities not indeed of opinion—for opinions and ideas are wonderfully similar over the whole country—but of character, particularly between Northern and Southern men, which increase the chances of discord. And in the rapid growth of the Union there lies a real source of danger. Its population doubles every twenty-two years. Before a century has passed its territory will be covered by more than a hundred millions of people and divided into forty States. Now all partnerships are more difficult to keep together the more the number of partners increases.1 Even admitting, therefore, that this hundred millions of people have similar interests and are benefited by remaining united, still the mere fact that they will then form forty nations, distinct and unequally powerful, will make the maintenance of the Federal Government only a happy accident. “I cannot believe in the duration of a government whose task is to hold together forty different peoples spread over a surface equal to the half of Europe, to avoid rivalries, ambitions and struggles among them, and to unite the action of their independent wills for the accomplishment of the same plans.”2
The greatest danger, however, which the Union incurs as it grows is the transference of forces which goes on within its own body. The Northern States increase more rapidly than the Southern, those of the Mississippi Valley more rapidly still. Washington, which when founded was in the centre of the Union, is now at one end of it. The disproportionate growth of some States menaces the independence of others. Hence the South has become suspicious, jealous, irritable. It fancies itself oppressed because outstripped in the race of prosperity and no longer dominant. It threatens to retire from a partnership whose charges it bears, but whose profits it does not share.1
Besides the danger that some States may withdraw from the Union (in which case there would probably be formed several federations, for it is highly unlikely that the original condition of State isolation would reappear), there is the danger that the central Federal authority may continue to decline till it has become no less feeble than was the old Confederation. Although Americans fear, or pretend to fear, the growth of centralization and the accumulation of powers in the hands of the Federal Government, there can be little doubt that the central Government has been growing steadily weaker, and is less and less able to face the resistance of a refractory State. The concessions of public territory made to the States, the hostility to the United States Bank, the (virtual) success of South Carolina in the Nullification struggle, are all proofs of this truth. General Jackson (then President) is at this moment strong, but only because he flatters the majority and lends himself to its passions. His personal power may increase, but that of the President declines. “Unless I am strangely mistaken, the Federal Government of the United States tends to become daily weaker, it draws back from one kind of business after another, it more and more restricts the sphere of its action. Naturally feeble, it abandons even the appearance of force. On the other side, I think I perceive that in the United States the sentiment of independence becomes more and more lively in the States, and the tone of provincial government more and more pronounced. People wish to keep the Union, but to keep it reduced to a shadow: they would like to have it strong for some purposes and weak for the rest—strong in war and almost non-existent in peace—forgetting that such alternations of strength and weakness are impossible.”
Nevertheless the time when the Federal power will be extinguished is still distant, for the continuance of the Union is desired, and when the weakness of the Government is seen to threaten the life of the Union, there may be a reaction in its favor.
Whatever may be the future of the Federation, that of republicanism is well assured. It is deeply rooted not only in the laws, but in the habits, the ideas, the sentiments, even the religion of the people. It is indeed just possible that the extreme instability of legislation and administration may some day disgust the Americans with their present government, and in that case they will pass rapidly from republicanism to despotism, not stopping by the way in the stage of limited monarchy. An aristocracy, however, such as that of the old countries of Europe, can never grow up. Democratic equality will survive, whatever be the form which government may take.
This brief summary, which gives no impression of the elegance of De Tocqueville’s reasonings, need not be pursued to include his remarks on the commercial and maritime greatness of the United States, nor his speculations on the future of the Anglo-American race. Still less shall I enter on the second part of the book, for (as has been observed already) it deals with the ideas of democracy and equality in a very abstract and sometimes unprofitable way, and would need a separate critical study.
But before passing on to consider how far the United States now differ from the republic which the French philosopher described, we must pause to ask ourselves whether his description was complete.
It is a salutary warning to those who think it easy to get to the bottom of the political and social phenomena of a nation, to find that so keen and so industrious an observer as De Tocqueville, who has seized with unrivalled acuteness and described with consummate art many of the minor features of American politics, has omitted to notice several which had already begun to show their heads in his day, and have since become of the first importance. Among these are
The system of party organization. It was full grown in some States (New York for instance), and spreading quickly through the rest.
The influence of commercial growth and closer commercial relations in binding together different States of the Union and breaking down the power of State sentiment. He does once refer to this influence, but is far from appreciating the enormous power it was destined to exercise, and must have exercised even without railways.
The results of the principle proclaimed definitely just before his visit, that public office was to be bestowed for political service alone, and held only so long as the party which bestowed it remained in power.
The rise of the Abolitionists (they had begun to organize themselves before 1830 and formed a National Anti-Slavery Society in 1833) and the intense hostility they aroused in the South.
The growth of the literary spirit, and the beginnings of literary production. The society which produced Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow, Channing, Thoreau, Prescott, Ticknor, Margaret Fuller—not to add some equally famous living names—deserved mention as a soil whence remarkable fruits might be expected which would tell on the whole nation. Yet it is not once referred to, although one can perceive that De Tocqueville had spent some time in Boston, for many of his views are due to the conversations he held with the leading Whigs of that day there.
The influence of money on politics. It might have been foretold that in a country with such resources and among a people of such restless commercial activity, great piles of wealth would soon be accumulated, that this wealth would find objects which it might accomplish by legislative aid, would seek to influence government, and would find ample opportunities for doing so. But of the dangers that must thence arise we do not hear a word.
[1 ]Note the singular fact that he does not give any description of a State as a commonwealth, nor characterize the general features of its government.
[1 ]This is a common remark of visitors to America, but it arises from their mistaking the people they see in society for the “governed” in general. They go with introductions to educated people: if they mixed with the masses they would form a different notion of the “governed,” as De Tocqueville rather oddly calls the ordinary citizens.
[2 ]It is remarkable that De Tocqueville should have supposed this to be the chief cause of the excellence he ascribes to the Senate.
[3 ]The only instance given of this is in the discretion allowed to the officers of the New England townships, whose functions are, however, unimportant. I greatly doubt if the statement is or ever was generally true.
[4 ]Still true as regards public offices, save and except the Judges of the Supreme Court when sitting at Washington.
[1 ]This has ceased to be true in Federal administration, and in that of the more advanced States.
[2 ]De Tocqueville does not say whether he intends this remark to apply to State legislation only or to Federal legislation also. He quotes dicta of Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson to the same effect, but these testimonies all refer to a time anterior to the creation of the Federal Constitution. Admitting that such instability did exist in 1832 as respects the States, one is tempted to believe that De Tocqueville was unconsciously comparing America with France, where the Code has arrested legislation to an extent surprising to an English observer. During the last thirty years there have been more important changes in the ordinary law annually made by the English Parliament than by most American legislatures.
[1 ]Every one knows how prominent this trait is among the observations which European visitors pass upon America. It is now much less noticeable than formerly. I can even say from experience that it had sensibly diminished between 1870 and 1883.
[1 ]This observation seems strange indeed to any one who has read the commercial history of the United States since the great crisis of 1838.
[2 ]Jackson’s popularity began with his military exploit: but his hold on the people was due to other causes also. His election coincided with the rise of the great democratic wave already referred to.
[1 ]I do not profess to summarize in these few lines all that De Tocqueville says of the character and influence of Christianity in the United States, for he devotes many pages to it, and they are among the wisest and most permanently true that he has written.
[2 ]Can this have been true even in 1832?
[1 ]No proof is given of this proposition, which is by no means self-evident, and which has indeed all the air of a premiss laid down by a schoolman of the thirteenth century.
[2 ]He has however nowhere proved that the States deserve to be called “peoples.”
[1 ]The protective tariff was felt as a grievance by the South, being imposed in the interest of the Northern and Middle States. No doubt, the North got more gain out of the Union than the South did.