Front Page Titles (by Subject) Of the Corruption and Vices of Those Who Govern in Democracy; Of the Effects on Public Morality That Result from That Corruption and Those Vices - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Of the Corruption and Vices of Those Who Govern in Democracy; Of the Effects on Public Morality That Result from That Corruption and Those Vices - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
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.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Of the Corruption and Vices of Those Who Govern in Democracy; Of the Effects on Public Morality That Result from That Corruption and Those Vices
In aristocracies, those who govern sometimes seek to corrupt.— Often, in democracies, they prove to be corrupt themselves.—In the first, vices directly attack the morality of the people.—In the second, vices exercise an indirect influence on the morality of the people that is still more to be feared.
Aristocracy and democracy mutually reproach each other with facilitating corruption; it is necessary to distinguish.
In aristocratic governments, the men who come to public affairs are rich men who only want power. In democracies, the statesmen are poor and have their fortune to make.
It follows that, in aristocratic States, those who govern are not very open to corruption and have only a very moderate taste for money, while the opposite happens among democratic peoples.
But, in aristocracies, since those who want to arrive at the head of public affairs have great riches at their disposal, and since the number of those who can make them succeed is often circumscribed within certain limits, the government finds itself, in a way, up for sale.o In democracies, on the contrary, those who aspire to power are hardly ever rich, and the number of those who contribute to gaining power is very great. Perhaps, in democracies, men are for sale no less, but there are hardly any buyers, and, besides, too many people would have to be bought at once to achieve the end. [≠As a result of this difference, in democracies corruption acts upon those who govern and in aristocracies upon the governed. In the one, public officials are corrupted; in the other, the people themselves.≠
Thus, corruption finds some way to be exercised in the two governments: its object alone varies.]
Among the menp who have occupied power in France during the past forty years, several have been accused of having made a fortune at the expense of the State and its allies; a reproach that was rarely made to the public men of the old monarchy. But, in France, there is almost no example of someone buying the vote of an elector for money,q while this is notoriously and publicly done in England.
[In aristocracies corruption is generally exercised in order to gain power. In democracies it is linked to those who have gained power. So in democratic States corruption harms the public treasury more than the morality of the people. It is the opposite in aristocracies.]
I have never heard it said that in the United States someone used his riches to win over the governed; but I have often seen the integrity of public officials called into question. Still more often I have heard their success attributed to low intrigues or to guilty maneuvers.
[It must be said, moreover, that the result is not as fearsome in America as it would be in Europe.
Great robberies can only be practiced among powerful democratic nations in which the government is concentrated in few hands and in which the State is charged with executing immense enterprises.]r
So if the men who lead aristocracies sometimes seek to corrupt, the heads of democracies are corrupted themselves. In the one, the morality of the people is directly attacked; in the other, an indirect action is exerted on the public conscience that must be feared even more.
Among democratic peoples, those who head the State are almost always exposed to deplorable suspicions; so they give the support of the government, in a way, to the crimes of which they are accused. Thus they present dangerous examples to still struggling virtue, and provide glorious comparisons to hidden vice.
You would say in vain that dishonest passions are met at all levels; that they often accede to the throne by the right of birth; that deeply despicable men can thus be found at the head of aristocratic nations as well as within democracies.
This response does not satisfy me. In the corruption of those who gain power by chance, something crude and vulgar is disclosed that makes it contagious to the crowd; on the contrary, there reigns, even in the depravities of great lords, a certain aristocratic refinement, an air of grandeur that often prevents its spread.s
The people will never penetrate the dark labyrinth of court spirit; it will always be difficult for them to discover the baseness hidden beneath the elegance of manners, the pursuit of taste, and the grace of language. But to rob the public treasury or to sell State favors for money, that the first wretch understands and can claim to be able to do in turn.
What is to be feared, moreover, is not so much the sight of the immorality of the great as that of immorality leading to greatness. In democracy, simple citizens see a man who emerges from their ranks and who in a few years achieves wealth and power; this spectacle excites their surprise and envy; they try to find out how the one who was their equal yesterday is today vested with the right to lead them. To attribute his elevation to his talents or his virtues is uncomfortable, for it means admitting that they themselves are less virtuous and less skillful than he. So they place the principal cause in some of his vices, and often they are right to do so. In this way, I do not know what odious mixture of the ideas of baseness and power, of unworthiness and success, of utility and dishonor comes about.
[o. ] Hervé de Tocqueville:
It is clear that in this picture the author has England in view, but all aristocracies are not like that of England, which, however omnipotent it is, needs the people. There were other aristocracies, such as that of Venice and I believe that of Berne, that were self-sufficient, the people remaining outside; was corruption at work in the last ones? The author cites a mixed government rather than a clear-cut aristocracy. Some would probably object to him about it; to avoid it I would like him to put: “in aristocracies in which the popular vote is necessary” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 5).
[p. ] In the manuscript: “Nearly all the men . . .”
Édouard de Tocqueville (?):
That reproach was not addressed to anyone during the fifteen years of the Restoration. I do not know if it was generally addressed to Bonaparte’s ministers, M. de Talleyrand excepted, although it was addressed to his generals. So we are left then with the ministers of the Republic and, above all, those of the Directory. A great number of the ministers of the Restoration entered power poor and still remain so. So you cannot with justice say: during the past forty years nearly all the men, etc. Couldn’t you say: “Nearly all the men who have occupied power after the establishment of the French republic and during its existence, that is to say, when citizens, until then obscure and poor, suddenly found themselves carried to the head of public affairs, nearly all these men, I say, have been accused . . .”? (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 4).
Hervé de Tocqueville: “In this paragraph what Alexis says is not true. Most of the ministers since the Directory were beyond suspicion of mischief, and several ministers under the old regime were regarded as great knaves” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 5).
[q. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “It is true that they are rarely bought for cash money, but often enough by the lure of places or other advantages, which is a corruption that differs only by the means. The government candidate at Cherbourg had promised the same place of juge de paix to 15 persons” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 6).
[r. ] Édouard de Tocqueville (?): “What, so the United States is not a powerful democratic nation? And then the word robbery seems inadmissible to me in an elevated style; great misappropriations or great embezzlements is needed. Finally, how can power be concentrated in few hands in a democratic nation? That to me would seem impossible. This small paragraph must be revised” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, pp. 4-5).
What follows this paragraph, until the end of the section, does not exist in the manuscript.
[s. ] “There, I confuse two things: corruption and embezzlements.
“There is corruption when you seek to obtain something which is not your due by sharing some stake with the one who gives it.
“There is corruption on the part of the candidate who pays for the votes of the voter.
“There is corruption on the part of the individual who obtains a favor from an official for money.
“But when officials draw for their own account from the State treasury, it is not corruption; it is theft” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 88).