Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2: Of Parties in the United States - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 2: Of Parties in the United States - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2 
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. 2.
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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 Parties in the United States
A great division among parties must be made.—Parties that differ among themselves like rival nations.—Parties strictly speaking.—Difference between great and small parties.—In what times they arise.—Their different characters.—America had great parties.—It no longer has them.—Federalists.— Republicans.—Defeat of the Federalists.—Difficulty of creating parties in the United States.—What is done to succeed in creating them.—Aristocratic or democratic character that is found in all parties.—Struggle of General Jackson against the Bank.
First I must establish a great division among parties.
There are countries so vast that the different populations living there, though united under the same sovereignty, have contradictory interests that give rise to a permanent opposition among them. Then, the various portions of the same people do not form parties strictly speaking, but distinct nations; and if civil war happens to break out, there is a conflict between rival peoples rather than a struggle between factions.
[≠What I call truly a party is a gathering of men who, without sharing the bond of a common birth, view certain points in a certain way.≠]
But when citizens differ among themselves on points that interest all portions of the country equally, such as the general principles of government, for example, then what I will call truly parties are seen to arise.
Parties are an evil inherent in free governments; but they do not have the same character and the same instincts in all periods of time.
There are periods of time when nations feel tormented by such great ills that the idea of a total change in their political constitution occurs to their mind. There are other periods when the malaise is even more profound and when the social state itself is compromised. That is the time of great revolutions and great parties.
Between these centuries of disorders and miseries, you find others when societies are at rest and when the human race seems to catch its breath. In truth, that is still only outward appearance. The march of time does not stop for peoples any more than for men; both advance each day toward an unknown future; and when we believe them stationary, it is because their movements escape us. They are men who are walking; to those who are running, they seem immobile.
[<Similar to the hand that marks the hours; everyone can tell the path it has already followed, but the hand must be watched for a long time to discover that it is moving.>]
Be that as it may, there are periods when the changes that take place in the political constitution and social state of peoples are so slow and so imperceptible, that men think they have arrived at a final state; the human mind then believes itself firmly seated on certain foundations and does not look beyond a certain horizon.
This is the time of intrigues and of small parties.
What I call great political parties are those that are attached to principles more than to their consequences, to generalities and not to particular cases, to ideas and not to men. In general, these parties have more noble traits, more generous passions, more real convictions, a more candid and bold appearance than the others. Here, particular interest, which always plays the greatest role in political passions, hides more cleverly behind the veil of public interest; sometimes it even manages to hide from the view of those whom it arouses and brings into action.
Small parties, on the contrary, are generally without political faith. Since they do not feel elevated and sustained by great objectives, their character is stamped by an egoism that occurs openly in each of their acts. They get worked up from a cold start; their language is violent, but their course is timid and uncertain. The means they use are miserable, like the very end that they propose. That is why, when a time of calm follows a violent revolution, great men seem suddenly to disappear and souls withdraw into themselves.
Great parties turn society upside down; small ones trouble it; the ones tear it apart and the others deprave it. [<Both have a common trait, however: to reach their ends, they hardly ever use means that conscience approves completely. There are honest men in nearly all parties, but it can be said that no party should be called an honest man.>] The first sometimes save society by shaking it up; the second always disturb it to no profit.
America had great parties; today they no longer exist. From that it has gained a great deal in happiness, but not in morality.a
When the War of Independence finally ended and it was a matter of establishing the foundations of the new government, the nation found itself divided between two opinions. These opinions were as old as the world, and they are found under different forms and given various names in all free societies. One wanted to limit popular power; the other, to expand it indefinitely.
Among the Americans, the struggle between these two opinions never took on the violent character that has often marked it elsewhere. In America, the two parties were in agreement on the most essential points. Neither one had to destroy an old order or turn an entire social state upside down in order to win. Consequently, neither one bound a large number of individuals’ lives to the triumph of its principles. But they touched upon non- material interests of the first order, such as love of equality and of independence. That was enough to arouse violent passions.
The party that wanted to limit popular power sought, above all, to apply its doctrines to the Constitution of the Union, which earned it the name Federalist.
The other, which claimed to be the exclusive lover of liberty, took the title Republican.b
America is the land of democracy. So the Federalists were always a minority; but they counted in their ranks nearly all the great men who had emerged from the War of Independence, and their moral power was very extensive. Circumstances, moreover, favored them. The ruin of the first confederation made the people afraid of falling into anarchy, and the Federalists profited from this temporary frame of mind. For ten or twelve years, they led affairs and were able to apply, not all of their principles, but some of them; for, day by day, the opposing current became too violent for anyone to dare to struggle against it.
In 1801, the Republicans finally took possession of the government. Thomas Jefferson was named President; he brought them the support of a celebrated name, a great talent, and an enormous popularity.
The Federalists had only survived thanks to artificial means and with the aid of temporary resources; the virtue or talents of their leaders, as well as the good fortune of circumstances, had brought them to power. When the Republicans, in turn, gained power, the opposing party was as if enveloped by a sudden flood. An immense majority declared against it, and the party found itself at once in such a small minority that it immediately gave up hope. From that moment, the Republican or Democratic party has marched from conquest to conquest and has taken possession of the entire society.
The Federalists, feeling defeated, without resources, and finding themselves isolated within the nation, divided; some joined the victors; others put down their banner and changed their name. They entirely ceased to exist as a party a fairly great number of years ago.
The transitional period when the Federalists held power is, in my opinion, one of the most fortunate events that accompanied the birth of the great American union. The Federalists struggled against the irresistible inclination of their century and country. Their theories, however excellent or flawed, had the fault of being inapplicable as a whole to the society that the Federalists wanted to govern; so what happened under Jefferson would have happened sooner or later. But at least their government let the new republic have time to get established and allowed it afterward to bear, without difficulty, the rapid development of the doctrines that they had fought. A great number of their principles ended up, moreover, being accepted into the creed of their adversaries; and the federal Constitution, which still continues to exist in our time, is a lasting monument to their patriotism and wisdom.c
So today great political parties are not seen in the United States. Parties that threaten the future of the Union abound there; but none exist that appear to attack the present form of government and the general course of society. The parties that threaten the Union rest, not on principles, but on material interests. In the different provinces of so vast an empire, these interests constitute rival nations rather than parties.d That is how the North was recently seen to uphold the system of commercial tariffs, and the South, to take arms in favor of free trade. The sole reason is that the North engages in manufacturing and the South in agriculture,e and the restrictive system works to the profit of the one and to the detriment of the other.
For lack of great parties, the United States swarms with small ones, and public opinion splinters infinitely on questions of details. The pain that is taken there to create parties cannot be imagined; it is not an easy thing to do in our time.f In the United States, there is no religious hatred, because religion is universally respected and no one sect is dominant; no class hatred, because the people are everything and no one still dares to struggle against them; finally there are no public miseries to exploit, because the material state of the country offers such an enormous scope to industry that leaving man to himself is enough for him to work wonders. But [particular] ambition must indeed succeed in creating parties, because it is difficult to throw someone who holds power out of office for the sole reason that you want to take his place. So all the skill of politicians consists of forming parties. A politician, in the United States, seeks first to discern his interest and to see what analogous interests could be grouped around his; then he busies himself finding out if, by chance, a doctrine or principle exists in the world that could be placed conveniently at the head of the new association, to give it the right to come into being and to circulate freely. It amounts to what would be called the license of the king that our fathers used to print on the first sheet of their works and incorporated into the book, even though it was not part of it.g
This done, the new power is introduced into the political world.
To a foreigner, nearly all the domestic quarrels of the Americans seem, at first view, incomprehensible or childish, and you do not know if you should pity a people who seriously keeps itself busy with such miseries or envy it the good fortune of being able to keep busy in that way.
But when you come carefully to study the secret instincts that govern factions in America, you easily discover that most of them are more or less linked with one or the other of the two great parties that have divided men since free societies have existed. As you enter more profoundly into the intimate thought of these parties, you notice that some of them work to narrow the use of public power, others, to expand it.
I am not saying that American parties always have as their open aim, or even as their hidden aim, making aristocracy or democracy prevail in the country. I am saying that aristocratic or democratic passions are easily found at the bottom of all the parties, and, although hidden from view, they form the tender spot and the soul of the parties.
I will cite a recent example. The President attacks the Bank of the United States. The country is aroused and divided; the enlightened classes generally side with the Bank; the people favor the President. Do you think that the people knew how to discern the reasons for their opinion in the middle of the twists and turns of such a difficult question, where experienced men hesitate? Not at all. But the Bank is a great establishment that has an independent existence; the people, who destroy or raise all powers, can do nothing to it; that astonishes them. Amid the universal movement of society, this immobile point shocks their sight, and they want to see if they cannot succeed in getting it moving like the rest.
Of the Remnants of the Aristocratic Party in the United States
Secret opposition of the rich to democracy.—They withdraw into private life.—Taste that they show inside their residences for exclusive pleasures and luxury.—Their simplicity outside.— Their affected condescension for the people.
Sometimes among a people divided by opinions, when the equilibrium among parties is broken, one of them acquires an irresistible preponderance. It crushes all obstacles, overwhelms its adversary and exploits the entire society to its profit. The vanquished, then despairing of success, hide or fall silent. A universal immobility and silence develop. The nation seems united by the same idea. The conquering party stands up and says: “I have brought peace to the country; you owe me thanks.”
But beneath this apparent unanimity, profound divisions and a real opposition are still hidden.
This is what happened in America. When the democratic party gained preponderance, you saw it take exclusive possession of the leadership of public affairs. Since then, it has not ceased to model the mores and laws after its desires.h
Today you can say that, in the United States, the wealthy classes of society are almost entirely out of public affairs, and that wealth, far from being a right, is a real cause of disfavor and an obstacle to reaching power.
So the rich prefer abandoning the contest to sustaining an often unequal struggle against the poorest of their fellow citizens. Not being able to take a rank in public life analogous to the one they occupy in private life, they abandon the first in order to concentrate on the second. In the middle of the State, they form something like a society apart with its own tastes and enjoyments.
The rich man submits to this state of things as to an evil without remedy; with great care, he even avoids showing that it wounds him. So you hear him publicly praise the sweet pleasures of republican government and the advantages of democratic forms. For, next to hating their enemies, what is more natural to men than flattering them?
Do you see this opulent citizen? Wouldn’t you say, a Jew of the Middle Ages who is afraid of arousing suspicion of his wealth? His attire is simple; his gait is modest. Within the four walls of his dwelling, he adores luxury; into this sanctuary, he lets only a few chosen guests that he arrogantly calls his equals. You meet no nobleman in Europe who appears more exclusive in his pleasures than he, more envious of the slightest advantages that a privileged position assures. But here he is, leaving his house, to go to work in a tiny, dusty room that he occupies in the business center of the city, where everyone is free to come to meet him. Along his path, his shoemaker happens by, and they stop. They begin to converse with each other. What can they be saying? These two citizens are dealing with the affairs of the State, and they will not part without shaking hands.
At the bottom of this enthusiasm for convention and in the midst of these obsequious forms toward the dominant power, it is easy to notice in the rich a great disgust for the democratic institutions of their country. The people are a power that they fear and despise. If, one day, the bad government of democracy led to a political crisis, if monarchy ever presented itself in the United States as something feasible, you would soon discover the truth of what I am advancing.
The two great weapons that parties use to succeed are newspapers and associations.j
[a. ] The ideas of this paragraph and the three preceding ones are found again almost literally in a note of 14 January 1832 from Notebook E of the American journey (YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, pp. 260-61) and in a nearly identical note from pocket notebooks 4 and 5 (YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, pp. 197-98). The last paragraph continues in this way:
I do not know of a more miserable and more shameful spectacle in the world than the one presented by the different coteries (they do not deserve the name parties) that divide the Union today. Within them, you see stirring, in full view, all the petty and shameful passions that ordinarily take care to hide deep within the human heart. As for the interest of the country, no one considers it; and if someone speaks about it, it is a matter of form. The parties put it at the head of their articles of association, just as their fathers did, in order to conform to long-standing usage. It has no more relation to the rest of the work than the license of the king that our fathers printed on the first page of their books.
It is pitiful to see what a flood of coarse insults, what petty, malicious gossip, and what coarse slanders fill the newspapers that all serve as organs of the parties; with what shameless contempt for social proprieties, they bring the honor of families and the secrets of the domestic hearth before the court of opinion each day.
In a letter dated 1 October 1858 and addressed to William R. Greg (OCB, VI, pp. 455-56), Tocqueville comments on an article by the latter on political parties (“The State of the Parties,” National Review 7, no. 13 (1858): 220-43). He notes as well another danger tied to the absence of great political parties:
When there are no more great parties, well bound together by shared interests and passions, foreign policy hardly ever fails to become the primary element of parliamentary activity. . . . Now, I regard such a state of things as contrary to the dignity and security of nations. Foreign affairs, more than all other matters, need to be treated by a small number of men, with consistency, in secret.
And further on he adds:
I find that, with rare sagacity, you have indicated the conditions under which great parties, well disciplined, can exist in a free country. As you say, each of them must be the representative of one of the two great principles that eternally divide human societies, and that, to be brief, can be designated by the names aristocracy and democracy.
[b. ] The history of the Federalists and the Republicans owes a great deal to a conversation with Mr. Biddle, President of the Bank of the United States (non-alphabetic notebooks 2 and 3, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, pp. 122-23). The idea that, in America, there are no real parties had already appeared in April 1831, in a conversation with Mr. Schermerhorn on the Havre, during the crossing of the Atlantic (notebook E, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, pp. 292-93). Beaumont will report this conversation to his father in a letter of 16 May 1831 (Lettres d’Amérique, p. 40), and will mention it in Marie (I, p. 360).
On Tocqueville’s theory of parties, see especially Nicola Matteucci, “Il problema de partito politico nelle riflessioni d’Alexis de Tocqueville,” Pensiero politico 1, no. 1 (1968): 39-92; and Gerald M. Bonetto, “Alexis de Tocqueville’s Concept of Political Parties,” American Studies, 22, no. 2 (1981): 59-79.
[c. ] Parties./
.-.-.- great parties that shared the first times of the Union .-.-.- but their principles are found again. That one of the two, it is true, attained an immense superiority. That from there came the miserable party spirit of today. Principles no longer being in question, but men, or at least principles forced to hide behind interests and men. Analogous example in France. There was grandeur in the struggle of the liberal party with the royalist party. But since the first triumphed, there is only pettiness in the debates that stir within it (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 35).
[d. ] Gustave de Beaumont:
Is this a theory safe from criticism? So you call great parties only those that rest on a political theory, and you deny this name to those that have immense interests for their base. That is arbitrary.
I see clearly that the moral and political consequences of the different parties are not the same. They are parties nonetheless.
Do you get out of it well by saying: these are rival nations rather than parties?
But the parties concerned (for example, those for and against free trade) are not only from province to province, but also in each province, from citizen to citizen.
It would have been more correct, I believe, to establish a distinction between great parties that have political theories as objectives and great parties that are tied to material interests. Certainly America, turned upside down and threatened with dissolution by the question of free trade, has within it great parties; though different from ours, they are no less great. Note that these parties would be powerful among us, if we did not have others. After all, the developments of the author lead to the same result (YTC, CIIIb, 2, pp. 57-58).
[e. ] The manuscript says: “. . . and the South only in producing and the restrictive system . . .”
Édouard de Tocqueville: “Economists will find that this term only in producing is incorrect. Manufacturers being producers, like farmers or makers of sugar” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 51).
[f. ] “Cite the birth of the masons and the anti-masons to show how parties form and recruit in the United States” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 35). See the story of the freemason Morgan in Beaumont, Marie, I, pp. 353-55.
[g. ] In the manuscript: “. . . had no relation to the object of the book.”
Gustave de Beaumont: “I beg your pardon; all the licenses of the king were related to the book and to its objective. So say: that our fathers used to print on the first sheet of their works and incorporated into the book, even though it was not part of it” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 59).
[h. ] There is an often very effective means to reestablish peace in a country divided by opinion; it is to give so complete a preponderance to one of the parties that the other disappears or falls into silence. Experience has proved that this was buying peace at a high price. When Ferdinand and Isabella chased the Moors from Spain, they made a great cause of internal troubles disappear; but they impoverished the country and delivered a blow to its industry from which it has never recovered.
The democratic party acted in the same way in America. Once in power, it took exclusive possession of the leadership of public affairs and modeled the mores and laws after its desires (YTC, CVh, 4, pp. 40-41).
[j. ] “General picture. A mass, not impassioned, wanting the good. In the middle of it, parties that seek to create a majority to legalize their ideas” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 40).