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Of What Efforts Democracy Is Capable - 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 What Efforts Democracy Is Capable
The Union has fought for its existence only a single time.— Enthusiasm at the beginning of the war.—Cooling at the end.— Difficulty of establishing conscription or registration of sailors in America.—Why a democratic people is less capable than another of great sustained efforts.
I forewarn the reader that here I am speaking about a government that follows the real will of the people, and not about a government that restricts itself only to commanding in the name of the people.
There is nothing so irresistible as a tyrannical power that commands in the name of the people, because, while vested with the moral power that belongs to the will of the greatest number, it acts at the same time with the decisiveness, promptitude and tenacity that a single man would have.
It is quite difficult to say what degree of effort a democratic government is capable of in time of national crisis.
A great democratic republic has never been seen until now. It would be an insult to republics to give this name to the oligarchy that reigned over France in 1793.t The United States alone presents this new spectacle.
Now, since the Union was formed a half-century ago, its existence has been put in question only once, at the time of the War of Independence. At the beginning of this long war, there were extraordinary acts of enthusiasm for serving the country.15 But as the struggle continued, you saw individual egoism reappear. Money no longer arrived at the public treasury; men no longer presented themselves for the army; the people still wanted independence, but they drew back from the means to obtain it.[*] [≠This languor of public spirit, the only motivating force [doubtful reading (ed.)] of democracies, put the liberty of America in danger several times, and yet the nature of the country alone and its expanse made conquest impossible.≠] “Tax laws have in vain been multiplied; new methods to enforce the collection have in vain been tried,” says Hamilton in the Federalist (No. 12):
the public expectation has been uniformly disappointed, and the treasuries of the States have remained empty. The popular system of administration, inherent in the nature of popular government, coinciding with the real scarcity of money incident to a languid and mutilated state of trade, has hitherto defeated every experiment for extensive collections, and has at length taught the different legislatures the folly of attempting them.
Since this period, the United States has not had to sustain a single serious war.
To judge what sacrifices democracies know how to impose on themselves, we must therefore await the time when the American nation will be forced to put into the hands of its government half of the revenue of its property, like England, or must throw one twentieth of its population all at once onto the field of battle, as France did.
In America, conscription is unknown; men are enrolled there for money. Forced recruitment is so contrary to the ideas and so foreign to the habits of the people of the United States that I doubt that anyone would ever dare to introduce it in the laws. What is called conscription in France assuredly is the heaviest of our taxes; but, without conscription, how would we be able to sustain a great continental war?
The Americans have not adopted English impressment. They have nothing that resembles our registration of sailors. The navy, like the merchant marine, recruits by voluntary enlistments.
Now, it is not easy to conceive that a people could sustain a great maritime war without resorting to one of the two means indicated above. Consequently, the Union, which has already fought with glory at sea, has never had large fleets, and the cost of manning the small number of its ships has always been very expensive.
I have heard American statesmen admit that the Union will have difficulty maintaining its rank on the seas, if it does not resort to impressment or to registration of sailors; but the difficulty is to force the people, who govern, to bear impressment or registration of sailors.u
Incontestably, free peoples, when in danger, generally display an infinitely greater energy than those who are not free, but I am led to believe that this is true, above all, for free peoples among whom the aristocratic element predominates.v
Democracy seems to me much more appropriate for leading a peaceful society, or for making a sudden and vigorous effort as needed, than for braving for a long time the great storms in the political lives of peoples. The reason for it is simple. Men expose themselves to dangers and privations out of enthusiasm, but they remain exposed for a long time only from reflection. In what is called instinctive courage itself, there is more calculation than we think; and although, in general, passions alone bring about the first efforts, efforts continue with the result in mind. You risk a portion of what is dear in order to save the rest.w
Now, this clear perception of the future, based on learning and experience, must often be missing in democracy. The people feel much more than they reason; and if the present difficulties are great, the fear is that they will forget the greater difficulties that perhaps await them in case of defeat.
Still another cause must make the efforts of a democratic government less long-lasting than the efforts of an aristocracy.
The people not only see less clearly than the upper classes what can be hoped or feared in the future, but the people also suffer the troubles of the present quite differently from the upper classes. The nobleman, by exposing his person, runs as many chances for glory as perils. By giving the State the greater part of his income, he temporarily deprives himself of some of the pleasures of his wealth. But, for the poor man, death has no prestige, and the tax that bothers the rich man often attacks the poor man’s sources of life.
This relative weakness of democratic republics in time of crisis is perhaps the greatest obstacle opposing the establishment of such a republic in Europe. For the democratic republic to survive without difficulty among a European people, it would have to be established at the same time among all the other European peoples.
I believe that the government of democracy must, in the long run, increase the real forces of society; but it cannot assemble all at once, at one place, and at a given moment, as many forces as an aristocratic government or an absolute monarchy. If a democratic country remained under republican government for a century, you can believe that at the end of the century it would be richer, more populated and more prosperous than neighboring despotic States; but during this century, it would have run the risk several times of being conquered by them.
[t. ] Variant in the margin, under a paper glued into place: “The name republic given to the oligarchy of 1793 has never been anything except a bloody veil behind which was hidden the tyranny of some and the oppression of all.”
[15. ] One of the most singular, in my opinion, was the resolution by which the Americans temporarily renounced the use of tea. Those who know that men generally cling more to their habits than to their life will undoubtedly be astonished by this great and obscure sacrifice obtained from an entire people.
[[*]. ] See the Life of Washington by Marshall.
[u. ] On the back of the page: “≠Difficulty of establishing conscription as in France. Even impressment does not exist, though of English origin. Impossibility, however, of navy without impressment. See opinion Gallatin, non-alphabetic notebook 1, p. 25.≠” See YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, p. 62.
[v. ] In a first version: “It is not that the first impulse of democracy is often to assist the evil. Nothing is more impetuous than the movements of democracy, but enthusiasm, like all the other passions, soon burns itself out. In men [who (ed.)] expose themselves to dangers for a long time and submit to great sacrifices to attain an end, there is a great mixture of passion and calculation.”
[w. ] Hervé de Tocqueville:
The entire paragraph preceding these words is very well put, and yet I have an observation to make that does not seem unimportant. Free countries make more efforts when in danger, because love of country predominates there more than in monarchies; this point granted, it seems that the devotion to public things should be greater in democracies than in aristocracies, for the author has proved well in the preceding chapters that democratic government is the one in which the people are attached to the State by the most bonds; I know that there is nothing to bring up against the fact. But here the fact appears to me in contradiction with the theory, and the author, with Montesquieu. Perhaps it would be necessary for him to develop his idea a bit more. The following paragraph begins, moreover, to explain it well (YTC, CIIIb, 1, p. 110).