Front Page Titles (by Subject) What Distinguishes the Federal Constitution of the United States of America from All Other Federal Constitutions - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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What Distinguishes the Federal Constitution of the United States of America from All Other Federal Constitutions - 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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What Distinguishes the Federal Constitution of the United States of America from All Other Federal Constitutions
The American confederation outwardly resembles all confederations.—Its effects are different, however.—What causes that?—How this confederation stands apart from all others.—The American government is not a federal government, but an incomplete national government.f
The United States of America has not presented the first and only example of a confederation. Without mentioning antiquity, modern Europe has furnished several. Switzerland, the German Empire, the Dutch Republic have been or still are confederations.
When you study the constitutions of these different countries, you notice with surprise that the powers they confer on the federal government are more or less the same as those granted by the American Constitution to the government of the United States. Like the latter, they give the central power the right to make war or peace, the right to raise an army, to levy taxes, to provide for general needs and to regulate the common interests of the nation.
Among these different peoples, however, the federal government has almost always remained deficient and weak, while that of the Union conducts public affairs with vigor and ease.
Even more, the first American Union could not continue to exist because of the excessive weakness of its government. Yet this government, so weak, had received rights as extensive as the federal government of today. You can even say that in certain respects its privileges were greater.g
So several new principles are found in the current Constitution of the United States that are not striking at first, but make their influence profoundly felt.
This Constitution, which at first sight you are tempted to confuse with previous federal constitutions, rests as a matter of fact on an entirely new theory that must stand out as a great discovery in the political science of today.
In all the confederations that have preceded the American confederation of 1789, peoples who combined for a common purpose agreed to obey the injunctions of a federal government; but they retained the right to command and to supervise the execution of the laws of the Union at home.
The American states that united in 1789 agreed not only that the federal government could dictate laws to them, but also that the federal government itself would execute its laws.
In the two cases, the right is the same; only the exercise of the right is different. But this single difference produces immense results. [Such is the power of laws over the fate of societies.]h
In all the confederations that have preceded the American Union of today, the federal government, in order to provide for its needs, applied to the individual governments. In the case where the prescribed measure displeased one of them, the latter could always elude the need to obey. If it was strong it appealed to arms; if it was weak, it tolerated a resistance to the laws of the Union that had become its own, pretended weakness and resorted to the power of inertia.
Consequently, one of these two things has constantly happened: the most powerful of the united peoples, taking hold of the rights of the federal authority, has dominated all the others in its name;36 or the federal government has been left to its own forces. Then anarchy has become established among the confederated peoples, and the Union has fallen into impotence.37
In America, the Union governs not the states, but ordinary citizens. When it wants to levy a tax, it does not apply to the government of Massachusetts, but to each inhabitant of Massachusetts. Former federal governments faced peoples; the Union faces individuals. It does not borrow its strength, but draws upon its own. It has its own administrators, courts, officers of the law, and army.
Certainly the national [sic: state] spirit, collective passions, provincial prejudices of each state still strongly tend to diminish the extent of federal power so constituted, and to create centers of resistance to the will of the federal power. Limited in its sovereignty, it cannot be as strong as a government that possesses complete sovereignty; but that is an evil inherent in the federal system.
In America, each state has far fewer opportunities and temptations to resist; and if the thought occurs, the state can act on it only by openly violating the laws of the Union, by interrupting the ordinary course of justice, and by raising the standard of revolt. In a word, it must suddenly take an extreme position, something men hesitate to do for a long time.
In former confederations, the rights granted to the Union were causes of war rather than of power, since these rights multiplied its demands without augmenting its means of enforcing obedience. Consequently, the real weakness of federal governments has almost always been seen to grow in direct proportion to their nominal power.
This is not so for the American Union; the federal government, like most ordinary governments, can do everything that it has the right to do.
The human mind invents things more easily than words; this is what causes the use of so many incorrect terms and incomplete expressions.j
Several nations form a permanent league and establish a supreme authority that, without acting on ordinary citizens as a national government could, nonetheless acts on each of the confederated peoples, taken as a group.
This government, so different from all the others, is given the name federal.
Next, a form of society is found in which several peoples truly blend together as one for certain common interests, and remain separate and only confederated for all the others.
Here the central power acts without intermediary on the governed, administering and judging them as national governments do, but it acts this way only within a limited circle. Clearly that is no longer a federal government; it is an incomplete national government. So a form of government, neither precisely national nor federal, is found. But here things have stopped, and the new word needed to express the new thing does not yet exist.k
Because this new type of confederation was unknown, all unions have arrived at civil war, or slavery, or inertia. The peoples who composed them have all lacked either the enlightenment to see the remedy to their ills, or the courage to apply them.
The first American Union had also lapsed into the same faults.
But in America, the confederated states, before achieving independence, had been part of the same empire for a long time; so they had not yet contracted the habit of complete self-government, and national prejudices had not been able to become deeply rooted. Better informed than the rest of the world, they were equal to each other in enlightenment; they only weakly felt the passions that ordinarily, among peoples, resist the extension of federal power; and these passions were fought against by the greatest citizens. The Americans, at the same time that they felt the evil, resolutely envisaged the remedy. They corrected their laws and saved the country.
[f. ] In the margin: “Temporary alliance, league.
“Lasting alliance, confederation.
“Limited [v: incomplete] national government.
“Complete national government.
“The Union is not a confederation [v: federal government], but an incomplete national government.”
[g. ] “The old constitution gave Congress great power to command the different states (illegible word) in order to compel them other than by war. It established a league among independent states, not a federal government” (YTC, CVh, 1, p. 47).
[h. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “I believe that this paragraph could be deleted. It develops an idea that springs from what precedes and comes naturally to the mind of the reader. By removing it, the pace will be faster. Be careful about slowing the pace by reflections, when they are not absolutely necessary. The last sentence of the paragraph is a useless commonplace” (YTC, CIIIb, 3, p. 22).
[36. ]This is what was seen among the Greeks under Philip, when this prince took charge of enforcing the decree of the Amphictyons. This is what happened to the republic of the Netherlands, where the province of Holland has always made the law. The same thing is still going on today among the Germans. Austria and Prussia are the agents of the Diet and, in its name, dominate the entire confederation.
[37. ]It has always been so for the Swiss confederation.—Were it not for the jealousy of its neighbors, Switzerland, for several centuries, would no longer exist.
[j. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “In my opinion, this paragraph and the four following must be deleted and replaced by one or two sentences. It is long and a bit heavy; its importance does not justify its defects. I therefore advise pruning the grammatical discussion and quickly going straight to the paragraph: Because this new type of confederation was unknown . . .”
Édouard de Tocqueville: “I cannot share this opinion. This reflection seems very profound to me. Moreover, if you went to the paragraph beginning Because this new type . . ., it would have absolutely no sense, since it relates only to the deleted paragraph” (YTC, CIIIb, 3, p. 22).
[k. ] In the margin: “≠The thing is new [v: other], but an old word is still needed to designate it.≠”