Front Page Titles (by Subject) Of Town Life - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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Of Town Life - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 1.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Of Town Life
Each person is the best judge of what concerns only himself alone.—Corollary of the principle of sovereignty of the people.—Application that the American towns make of these doctrines.—The New England town, sovereign in everything that concerns only itself, subject in everything else.—Obligation of the town toward the state.—In France, the government lends its agents to the town.—In America, the town lends its to the government.
I said previously that the principle of sovereignty of the people hovers over the entire political system of the Anglo-Americans. Each page of this book will show some new applications of this doctrine.
Among nations where the dogma of the sovereignty of the people reigns, each individual forms an equal portion of the sovereign power, and participates equally in the government of the state.
Each individual is therefore considered to be as enlightened, as virtuous, as strong as any of his fellows.
So why does he obey society, and what are the natural limits of this obedience?
He obeys society, not at all because he is inferior to those who direct it, or less capable than another man of governing himself; he obeys society because union with his fellows seems useful to him and because he knows that this union cannot exist without a regulatory power.
So in all that concerns the mutual duties of citizens, he has become a subject. In all that concerns only himself, he has remained the master; he is free and is accountable for his actions only to God. Thus this maxim, that the individual is the best as well as the only judge of his particular interest and that society has the right to direct his actions only when it feels harmed by them, or when it needs to call for his support.
This doctrine is universally accepted in the United States. Elsewhere I will examine what general influence it exercises over even the ordinary acts of life; but at this moment I am talking about the towns.
The town, taken as a whole and in relation to the central government, is only an individual like any other to whom the theory I have just indicated applies.
Town liberty in the United States follows, therefore, from the very dogma of the sovereignty of the people. All the American republics have more or less recognized this independence; but among the people of New England, circumstances have particularly favored its development.
In this part of the Union, political life was born very much within the towns; you could almost say that at its origin each of them was an independent nation. When the Kings of England later demanded their share of sovereignty, they limited themselves to taking central power. They left the town in the situation where they found it; now the towns of New England are subjects; but in the beginning they were not or were scarcely so. They did not therefore receive their powers; on the contrary, they seem to have relinquished a portion of their independence in favor of the state; an important distinction which the reader must keep in mind.p
In general the towns are subject to the states only when an interest that I will call social is concerned, that is to say, an interest that the towns share with others.q
For everything that relates only to them alone, the towns have remained independent bodies. No one among the inhabitants of New England, I think, recognizes the right of the state government to intervene in the direction of purely town interests.r
So the towns of New England are seen to buy and sell, to sue and to defend themselves before the courts, to increase or reduce their budget without any administrative authority whatsoever thinking to oppose them.7 [<≠This right has only a single limit. That is found in the institution of the judicial power, but we will examine it later.≠>]
As for social duties, they are required to fulfill them. Thus, if the state needs money, the town is not free to grant or to deny its cooperation.8 If the state wants to open a road, the town does not have the right to close its territory. If it establishes a regulation concerning public order, the town must execute it. If it wants to organize education according to a uniform plan throughout the country, the town is required to create the schools desired by the law.9 We will see, when we talk about administration in the United States, how and by whom the towns, in all these different cases, are forced to obey. Here I only want to establish the existence of the obligation. This obligation is strict, but the state government, while imposing it, only enacts a principle; for carrying out the principle, the town generally recovers all its rights of individuality. Thus, it is true that the tax is voted by the legislature, but it is the town that apportions and collects it; a school is prescribed, but it is the town that builds, funds and directs it.
In France the tax collector of the State levies the taxes of the town; in America the tax collector of the town raises the tax of the state.
With us, therefore, the central government lends its agents to the town; in America, the town lends its officers to the government. That alone makes clear to what degree the two societies differ.
[p. ] In the margin: “≠The dogma of sovereignty of the people, it must not be forgotten, has as its end not to make the people do all that they should want, but all that they do want.≠”
[q. ] Cf. conversations with Sparks and Mr. Gray (non-alphabetic notebooks 2 and 3, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, p. 90, 96). See also H.= B. Adams, Jared Sparks and Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 18.
[r. ] Earlier draft: “≠I do not believe anyone has ever dared to profess that the duty and the right of a government was to watch over the governed in such a paternal way that they could not even do what can be of harm only to themselves.≠”
[7. ] See Laws of Massachusetts, law of 23 March 1786, vol. I, p. 250.
[8. ]Ibid., law of 20 February 1786, vol. I, p. 217.
[9. ] See the same collection, law of 2 June 1789, and 8 [10 (ed.)] March, 1827, vol. I, p. 367, and vol. III, p. 179.