Front Page Titles (by Subject) Attributions of the Federal Government - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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Attributions of the Federal Government - 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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Attributions of the Federal Government
Power granted to the federal government to make peace, war, to establish general taxes.—Matter of internal political policy with which it can be involved.—The government of the Union, more centralized on some points than was the royal government under the old French monarchy.
Peoples in relation to one another are only individuals. Above all, a nation needs a single government to appear with advantage in regard to foreigners.
So the Union was granted the exclusive right to make war and peace; to conclude treaties of commerce; to raise armies, to equip fleets.9
The necessity of a national government does not make itself as strongly felt in the direction of the internal affairs of society.
Nonetheless, there are certain general interests for which only a general authority can usefully provide.
The Union was left the right to regulate all that relates to the value of money; it was charged with the postal service; it was given the right to open the great avenues of communication that had to unite the various parts of the territory.10
The government of the different states was generally considered free in its sphere, but it could abuse this independence and compromise the security of the entire Union through imprudent measures. For these rare cases, defined in advance, the federal government was permitted to intervene in the internal affairs of the states.11 That explains how, while still recognizing in each of the confederated republics the power to modify and change its legislation, each was, nevertheless, forbidden to make retroactive laws and to create bodies of noblemen within its midst.12
Finally, since the federal government had to be able to fulfill the obligations imposed on it, it was given the unlimited right to levy taxes.13
When you pay attention to the division of powers as the federal constitution has established it; when, on the one hand, you examine the portion of sovereignty that the particular states have reserved to themselves and, on the other, the share of power that the Union took, it is easily discovered that the federal law-makers had formed very clear and very sound ideas about what I earlier called governmental centralization.o
The United States forms not only a republic, but also a confederation.p But the national authority there is, in several respects, more centralized than it was in the same period under several of the absolute monarchies of Europe. I will cite only two examples.
France counted thirteen sovereign courts that, most often, had the right to interpret the law without appeal. It possessed, in addition, certain provinces called pays d’États that could refuse their support, after the sovereign authority, charged with representing the nation, had ordered the raising of a tax.
The Union has only a single court to interpret the law, as well as a single legislature to make the law; a tax voted by the representatives of the nation obligates all the citizens. So the Union is more centralized on these two essential points than the French monarchy was; the Union, however, is only a collection of confederated republics.
In Spain, certain provincesq had the power to establish their own customs system, a power that, by its very essence, stems from national sovereignty.
In America, Congress alone has the right to regulate commerce among the states. So the government of the confederation is more centralized on this point than that of the kingdom of Spain.
It is true that, in the end, you arrived at the same point, since in France and in Spain the royal power is always able to execute, by force if necessary, what the constitution of the kingdom denied it the right to do. But I am talking here about theory.
[9. ] See Constitution, sect. VIII. Federalist, Nos. 41 and 42. Kent’s Commentaries, vol. I, p. 207 and following. Story [Commentaries (ed.)], pp. 358-82; id., pp. 409-26.
[10. ]There are also several other rights of this type, such as that to pass a general law on bankruptcy, to grant patents. . . . What made the intervention of the whole Union necessary in these matters is felt well enough.
[11. ]Even in this case, its intervention is indirect. The Union intervenes through its courts, as we will see further on.
[12. ]Federal Constitution, sect. X, art. 1.
[13. ] Constitution, sect. VIII, IX and X. Federalist, Nos. 30-36, inclusive. Id., 41, 42, 43, 44. Kent’s Commentaries, vol. I, pp. 207 and 381. Story, id., pp. 329-514.
[o. ] In a variant of the manuscript: “≠You can even say that the necessity of governmental centralization was better understood by them than it was in several of the monarchies of Europe.≠”
[p. ] Throughout the book, Tocqueville uses the words federation and confederation with not much precision.
[q. ] In the manuscript: “each province.”