Front Page Titles (by Subject) General Ideas on Administration in the United States - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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General Ideas on Administration in the United States - 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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General Ideas on Administration in the United States
How the states of the Union differ among themselves, by the system of administration.—Town life less active and less complete as you move toward the south.—The power of the magistrate then becomes greater; that of the voter smaller.—Administration passes from the town to the county.—State of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania.—Administrative principles applicable to all the Union.—Election of public officials or fixed term of their offices.—Absence of hierarchy.—Introduction of judicial means into the administration.
I previously announced that, after having examined in detail the constitution of the town and county in New England, I would cast a general glance over the rest of the Union.
There are towns and town life in each state; but in none of the confederated states do you find a town identical to the New England town.
As you move toward the south, you notice that town life becomes less active; the town has fewer magistrates, rights and duties; the population there does not exercise so direct an influence on town affairs; town meetings are less frequent and involve fewer matters. The power of the elected magistrate is therefore comparatively greater and that of the voter, smaller; town spirit there is less awake and less powerful.37
You begin to see these differences in the state of New York; they are already very apparent in Pennsylvania; but they become less striking when you move toward the Northwest. Most of the emigrants who go to establish the states of the Northwest come from New England, and they bring the administrative habits of their mother land to their adopted country. The Ohio town has much in common with the Massachusetts town.
We have seen that in Massachusetts the principle of public administration is found in the town. The town is the center where the interests and affections of men converge. But it ceases to be so the more you move toward the states where enlightenment is less universally spread and where, consequently, the town offers fewer guarantees of wisdom and fewer elements of administration. So as you move away from New England, town life passes in a way to the county. The county becomes the great administrative center and forms the intermediate power between the [central] government and the ordinary citizens.
I said that in Massachusetts county matters were directed by the court of sessions. The court of sessions is made up of a certain number of magistrates appointed by the Governor and his council. The county has no representation, and its budget is voted by the national [sic: state] legislature.
In the large state of New York, on the contrary, in the state of Ohio and in Pennsylvania, the inhabitants of each county elect a certain number of deputies; these deputies meet together to form a representative county assembly.38
The county assembly possesses, within certain limits, the right to tax the inhabitants; in this regard, it constitutes a true legislature. It simultaneously administers the county, directs the administration of the towns in several instances, and limits their powers much more strictly than in Massachusetts.r
These are the principal differences presented by the constitution of the town and county in the various confederated states. If I wanted to get into the details of the means of execution, there are still many other dissimilarities that I could point out. But my goal is not to give a course in American administrative law.
I have said enough about it, I think, to make the general principles that administration in the United States rests upon understood. These principles are applied in different ways; they have more or less numerous consequences depending on the place; but fundamentally they are the same everywhere. The laws vary; their physiognomy changes; the same spirit animates them.
The town and county are not constituted in the same way everywhere; but you can say that everywhere in the United States the organization of the town and county rests on the same idea: that each person is the best judge of what concerns himself alone, and the one most able to provide for his individual needs. So the town and county are charged with looking after their special interests. The state governs and does not administer. Exceptions to this principle are found, but not a contrary principle.s
The first consequence of this doctrine has been to have all the administratorst of the town and county chosen by the inhabitants themselves, or at least to choose these magistrates exclusively from among the inhabitants.[*]
[≠The second, to put into their hands the administration [v. direction] of nearly all the interests of the town and county.
The state has retained the power to impose laws on all the towns and counties, but it has not put into the hands of any official the power to direct the administration in a general way.≠]
Since administrators everywhere are elected or at least irrevocable, the result has been that rules of hierarchy have not been able to be introduced anywhere. So there are nearly as many independent officials as offices. Administrative power finds itself scattered among a multitude of hands.
Since administrative hierarchy exists nowhere and administrators are elected and irrevocable until the end of their term, the obligation followed to introduce courts, more or less, into the administration. From that comes the system of fines, by means of which the secondary bodies and their representatives are forced to obey the law. This system is found from one end of the Union to the other.
The power of suppressing administrative crimes or of taking administrative actions as needed has not been granted, moreover, to the same judges in all the states.
The Anglo-Americans have drawn the institution of the justices of the peace from a common source; it is found in all the states. But they have not always taken advantage of it in the same way.
Everywhere the justices of the peace take part in the administration of the towns and counties,39 either by administering them directly or by suppressing certain administrative crimes committed in them. But in most states, the most serious of these crimes are submitted to ordinary courts.
Election of administrative officials, or irremovability from office, lack of administrative hierarchy, and introduction of judicial measures into the government of society at the secondary level are, therefore, the principal characteristics by which American administration, from Maine to Florida, is recognized.v
There are some states where signs of administrative centralization begin to be seen. The state of New York is the most advanced along this path.
In the state of New York, officials of the central government exercise, in certain cases, a kind of supervision and control over the conduct of the secondary bodies.40 In certain other cases, they form a type of court of appeal for deciding matters.41 In the state of New York, judicial penalties are used less than elsewhere as an administrative measure. There, the right to bring proceedings against administrative crimes is also placed in fewer hands.42
The same tendency is slightly felt in several other states.43 But, in general, you can say that the salient characteristic of public administration in the United States is to be prodigiously decentralized.
[37. ] See, for detail, The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, at part I, chap. XI, entitled: Of the Powers, Duties and Privileges of Towns, vol. I, pp. 336-64.
See in the collection entitled: Digest of the Laws of Pennsylvania, the words Assessors, Collectors, Constables, Overseers of the Poor, Supervisors of highways. And in the collection entitled: Acts of a General Nature of the State of Ohio, the law of 25 February 1824, relating to the towns, p. 412. And next, the particular arrangements relative to the diverse town officers, such as: Township’s Clerks, Trustees, Overseers of the Poor, Fence Viewers, Appraisers of Property, Township’s Treasurers, Constables, Supervisors of Highways.
[38. ] See Revised Statutes of the State of New York, part I, chap. XI, vol. I, p. 340. Id. chap. XII; id., p. 366. Id.,Acts of the State of Ohio, law of 25 February 1824, relating to the county commissioners, p. 263. See Digest of the Laws of Pennsylvania, the words County Rates, and Levies, p. 170.
In the state of New York, each town elects a deputy, and this deputy participates at the same time in the county administration and in that of the town.
[r. ] In the margin: “≠Ask L[ouis (ed.)] and B[eaumont (ed.)] if it is necessary to support these generalities with notes. Here either very minutely detailed notes are needed or nothing.≠”
[s. ] “To place.
Jealousy of legislatures against intermediate bodies.
In New England the justice of the peace prepares the county budget; it is the legislature that votes on it. In the state of New York it is a representation of the county that votes on the tax, but its power is confined to very narrow limits” (YTC, CVh, 5, p. 13).
[t. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “It seems to me that you cannot say as positively that these administrators are chosen by the inhabitants since you have taught us that the justices of the peace are chosen by the Governor” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 111). Cf. note 48.
[[*]. ] I say this because in the laws of Tennessee, which are probably those found among all those of Virginian descent, the justices of the peace or magistrates composing the county court (who hold their offices during good behavior) are in charge of the entire administration. I believe that it is purely and simply the English system.
[v. ] “No hierarchy and no centralization, character of American administration. So in the town, more powers and more magistrates than in the French town, but all independent.
“Division of powers among those charged with making them fulfill their duties. Finally, when they are concentrated, it is in a judicial body, that is to say, legal and far from arbitrary [v: slave to forms]” (YTC, CVb, p. 16).
[40. ] Example: the running of public education is centralized in the hands of the government. The legislature appoints the members of the university, called regents; the Governor and the Lieutenant-Governor of the state are members ex officio. (Revised Statutes, vol. I, p. 456). The regents of the university visit the colleges and universities each year and submit an annual report to the legislature; their supervision is not illusory, for the following particular reasons: the colleges, in order to become corporations that can buy, sell and own, need a charter; but this charter is granted by the legislature only on the advice of the regents. Each year the state distributes to the colleges and academies the interest from a special fund created to encourage education. It is the regents who are the distributors of this money. See chap. XV, Public Education, Revised Statutes, vol. I, p. 455.
Each year, the boards of public schools are required to send a report on conditions to the superintendent of the Republic, Id., p. 488.
A similar report on the number and condition of the poor must be made annually to him. Id., p. 631.
[41. ] When someone believes himself wronged by certain acts coming from the school commissioners (these are town officers), he can appeal to the superintendent of primary schools whose decision is final. Revised Statutes, vol. I, p. 487.
You find here and there, in the laws of the state of New York, provisions analogous to those I have just cited as examples. But in general these tentative efforts at centralization are weak and not very productive. While the highest officials of the state were given the right to supervise and direct inferior agents, they were not given the right to reward or punish them. The same man is hardly ever charged with giving the order and with suppressing disobedience; so he has the right to command, but not the ability to make himself obeyed.
In 1830, the superintendent of schools, in his annual report to the legislature, complained that several school commissioners, despite notice from him, had not forwarded the accounts they owed him. “If this omission occurs again, he added, I will be reduced to prosecuting them to the full extent of the law before the courts of competent jurisdiction.”
[42. ] Example: the district attorney in each county is charged with suing for the recovery of all fines above 50 dollars, as long as this right has not been expressly granted by law to another magistrate. Revised Statutes, part I, chap. XII, vol. I, p. 383.
[43. ] There are several signs of administrative centralization in Massachusetts. Example: the town school boards are charged with making an annual report to the Secretary of State. Laws of Massachusetts, vol. I, p. 367.