Front Page Titles (by Subject) Of the Power That American Democracy Generally Exercises over Itself - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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Of the Power That American Democracy Generally Exercises over Itself - 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 the Power That American Democracy Generally Exercises over Itself
That the American people only go along with something in the long run, and sometimes refuse to do what is useful for their well-being.—Ability that the Americans have to make mistakes that can be corrected.
This difficulty that democracy has in vanquishing passions and silencing the needs of the moment with the future in mind is noticeable in the United States in the smallest things.
The people, surrounded by flatterers [and sycophants], succeed with difficulty in triumphing over themselves. Every time you want them to impose a privation or discomfort on themselves, even for an end their reason approves, they almost always begin by refusing. The obedience that Americans give to laws is rightly praised. It must be added that in America legislation is made by the people and for the people. So in the United States, the laws appear favorable to those who, everywhere else, have the greatest interest in violating it. Thus, it may be believed that a bothersome law, which the majority felt had no present utility, would not be put into effect or would not be obeyed.
In the United States, no legislation exists relating to fraudulent bankruptcies. Would it be because there are no bankruptcies? No, on the contrary, it is because there are many of them. The fear of being prosecuted as a bankrupt surpasses, in the mind of the majority, the fear of being ruined by bankruptcies; and in the public conscience there is a sort of culpable tolerance for the crime that each person condemns individually.
In the new states of the Southwest, the citizens almost always take justice into their own hands, and murdersx happen constantly. That stems from the habits of the people being too rough and enlightenment being spread too little in these wilderness areas for anyone to feel the utility of giving the law some force. There they still prefer duelsy to trials.
Someonez said to me one day, in Philadelphia, that nearly all crimes in America were caused by the abuse of strong liquors that the lower classes could use at will, because it was sold to them at a very low price. “Why,” I asked, “don’t you put a duty on brandy?” “Our legislators have often considered it,” he replied, “but it is a difficult undertaking. They fear a revolt; and besides, the members who voted for such a law would very surely not be reelected.” “So,” I responded, “among you, drinkers are the majority, and temperance is unpopular.”
When you point out these things to statesmen, they simply respond: Let time pass; feeling the evil will enlighten the people and will show them what they need. This is often true. If democracy has more chances to make a mistake than a king or a body of nobles, it also has more chances to return to the truth, once enlightenment comes; within a democracy there are generally no interests that are contrary to the interest of the greatest number and that fight reason. But democracy can only gain the truth by experience, and many peoples cannot wait for the results of their errors without perishing.
So the great privilege of the Americans is not only to be more enlightened than others, but also to have the ability to make mistakes that can be corrected.
Add that, in order to profit easily from the experience of the past, democracy must already have reached a certain degree of civilization and enlightenment.
We see some peoples whose first education has been so perverted, and whose character presents such a strange mixture of passions, of ignorance and erroneous notions about everything, that they cannot by themselves discern the cause of their miseries; they succumb to evils that they do not know.
I have traveled across vast countries formerly inhabited by powerful Indian nations that today no longer exist; I have lived among already mutilated tribes that, everyday, see their number decline and the splendor of their savage glory disappear; I have heard these Indians themselves foretell the final destiny reserved to their race. There is no European, however, who does not see what would have to be done to preserve these unfortunate peoples from inevitable destruction. But they do not see it; they feel the misfortunes that, each year, accumulate on their heads, and they will perish to the last man while rejecting the remedy. Force would have to be used to compel them to live.
We are astonished to see the new nations of South America stir, for a quarter century, amid constantly recurring revolutions; and each day we expect to see them recover what is called their natural state. But who can assert that today revolutions are not the most natural state of the Spanish of South America? In this country, society struggles at the bottom of an abyss from which it cannot escape by its own efforts.
The people who inhabit this beautiful half of a hemisphere seem obstinately bound to eviscerate themselves; nothing can divert them. Exhaustion makes them come to rest for an instant, and rest soon brings them back to new furies. When I consider them in this alternating state of miseries and crimes, I am tempted to believe that for them despotism would be a benefit.
But these two words will never be found united in my thought.
[x. ] In the manuscript: “are more frequent than fistfights among us.” The expression had been unanimously rejected by the readers: YTC, CIIIb, 1, p. 107 (Édouard de Tocqueville?), p. 105 (Gustave de Beaumont), and CIIIb, 2, p. 1 (Hervé de Tocqueville).
[y. ] Édouard de Tocqueville (?): “The word duel does not apply well to a half-civilized people. Couldn’t you say: the majority still prefers fights to trials?” (YTC, CIIIb, 1, pp. 107-8).
[z. ] Mr. Washington Smith (in pocket notebook 3, 25 October 1831, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, p. 184). See George W. Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, p. 459.