Front Page Titles (by Subject) How the Omnipotence of the Majority in America Increases the Legislative and Administrative Instability That Is Natural to Democracies - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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How the Omnipotence of the Majority in America Increases the Legislative and Administrative Instability That Is Natural to Democracies - 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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How the Omnipotence of the Majority in America Increases the Legislative and Administrative Instability That Is Natural to Democracies
How the Americans increase legislative instability, which is natural to democracy, by changing the legislator annually and by arming him with an almost limitless power.—The same effect produced in the administration.—In America a force infinitely greater, but less sustained than in Europe is brought to social improvements.
I spoke previously of the vices that are natural to the government of democracy; there is not one of them that does not grow at the same time as the power of the majority.
And, to begin with the most obvious of all.
Administrative instability is an evil inherent in democratic government, because it is in the nature of democracies to bring new men to power. But this evil is greater or lesser depending on the power and the means of action granted to the legislator.
In America sovereign power is handed over to the authority that makes the laws. That authority can rapidly and irresistibly abandon itself to each of its desires, and every year it is given other representatives. That is to say, what has been adopted is precisely the combination that most favors democratic instability and that allows democracy to apply its changeable will to the most important objects. [≠We have seen under the National Assembly and the Convention how, by granting omnipotence to the legislative body, the natural instability of law in republics increased more. These extreme consequences of a bad principle cannot recur in the same way in America because American society is not in revolution as French society then was and because there has been a long apprenticeship in liberty in America.≠]
America today is, therefore, the country in the world where laws have the shortest duration. Nearly all the American constitutions have been amended during the last thirty years. So, during this period, there is no American state that has not modified the principle of its laws.j
As for the laws themselves, it is sufficient to glance at the archives of the different states of the Union to be persuaded that in America the activity of the legislator never flags.k Not that the American democracy is by nature more unstable than another, but in the formation of the laws, it has been given the means to follow the natural instability of its inclinations.2
The omnipotence of the majority and the rapid and absolute manner in which its will is executed in the United States not only make the law unstable, but also exercise the same influence on the execution of the law and on the action of public administration.
Since the majority is the only power important to please, the works that it undertakes are ardently supported; but from the moment when its attention goes elsewhere, all efforts cease; whereas in the free States of Europe, in which administrative power has an independent existence and an assured position, the will of the legislator continues to be executed, even when he is occupied by other objects.
In America, much more zeal and activity is brought to certain improvements than is done elsewhere.
In Europe, an infinitely smaller, but more sustained social force is applied to the same things.
[I saw some striking examples of what I am advancing in a matter that I had particular occasion to examine in the United States.]
Several years ago some religious men undertook to improve the condition of prisons. The public was roused by their voice, and the regeneration of criminals became a popular undertaking.
Then new prisons arose. For the first time, the idea of reforming the guilty penetrated the jail at the same time as the idea of punishing him. But the happy revolution that the public joined with so much fervor and that the simultaneous efforts of citizens made irresistible could not be accomplished in one moment.
Alongside some new penitentiaries, the development of which was hastened by the desire of the majority, the old prisons still existed and continued to house a great number of the guilty. The latter seemed to become more unhealthy and more corrupting as the new ones became more reforming and healthier. This double effect is easily understood: the majority, preoccupied by the idea of founding the new establishment, had forgotten the one that already existed. By each person averting his eyes from the object that no longer attracted the regard of the master, supervision had ceased. At first the salutary bonds of discipline were seen to relax and then, soon after, to break. And alongside the prison, lasting monument of the mildness and enlightenment of our time, was found a dungeon that recalled the barbarism of the Middle Ages.
[In France, it would be very difficult to find prisons as good and as bad as in the United States.]
[j. ] In this place in the manuscript three paragraphs are found that Tocqueville will later add to chapter V of this second part. (It concerns the passage that begins with: “Many Americans consider . . .” and that concludes with the citation of Number 73 of the Federalist, pp. 155-56.)
[k. ] To the side: “≠The omnipotence of the majority is not the first cause of the evil, but it infinitely increases it.≠”
[2. ] The legislative acts promulgated in the state of Massachusetts alone, from 1780 to today, already fill three thick volumes. It must be noted as well that the collection of which I speak was revised in 1823, and that many former or pointless laws were discarded. Now, the state of Massachusetts, which is no more populated than one of our departments, can pass for the most stable state in the entire Union, and the one that puts the most coherence and wisdom into its enterprises.