Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 12 a: Why the Americans Erect Such Small and Such Large Monuments at the Same Time - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
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chapter 12 a: Why the Americans Erect Such Small and Such Large Monuments at the Same Time - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
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. 3.
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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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Why the Americans Erect Such Small and Such Large Monuments at the Same Time
I have just said that, in democratic centuries, the monuments of art tended to become more numerous and smaller. I hasten to point out the exception to this rule.
Among democratic peoples, individuals are very weak; but the State, which represents them all and holds them all in its hand, is very strong.b Nowhere do citizens appear smaller than in a democratic nation. Nowhere does the nation itself seem greater and nowhere does the mind more easily form a vast picture of it. In democratic societies, the imagination of men narrows when they consider themselves; it expands indefinitely when they think about the State. The result is that the same men who live meanly in cramped dwellings often aim at the gigantic as soon as it is a matter of public monuments.c
The Americans have laid out on the site that they wanted to make into the capital the limits of an immense city that, still today, is hardly more populated than Pontoise, but that, according to them, should one day contain a million inhabitants; already they have uprooted trees for ten leagues around, for fear that they might happen to inconvenience the future citizens of this imaginary metropolis. They have erected, in the center of the city, a magnificent palace to serve as the seat of Congress, and they have given it the pompous name of the Capitol.
Every day, the particular states themselves conceive and execute prodigious undertakings that would astonish the genius of the great nations of Europe.
Thus, democracy does not lead men only to make a multitude of petty works; it also leads them to erect a small number of very large monuments. But between these two extremes there is nothing. So a few scattered remnants of very vast structures tell nothing about the social state and institutions of the people who erected them.
I add, although it goes beyond my subject, that they do not reveal their greatness, their enlightenment and their real prosperity any better.
Whenever a power of whatever kind is capable of making an entire people work toward a sole undertaking, it will succeed with little knowledge and a great deal of time in drawing something immense from the combination of such great efforts; you do not have to conclude from that that the people is very happy, very enlightened or even very strong.d The Spanish found the city of Mexico full of magnificent temples and vast palaces; this did not prevent Cortez from conquering the Mexican Empire with six hundred foot soldiers and sixteen horses.
If the Romans had known the laws of hydraulics better, they would not have erected all these aqueducts that surround the ruins of their cities; they would have made better use of their power and their wealth. If they had discovered the steam engine, perhaps they would not have extended to the extreme limits of their empire those long artificial stone lines that are called roman roads.
These things are magnificent witnesses to their ignorance at the same time as to their grandeur.
People who would leave no other traces of their passage than a few lead pipes in the earth and a few iron rods on its surface could have been more masters of nature than the Romans.e
[b. ] In a note: “It is their very weakness that makes its strength . . . “A piece from ambition could go well there.”
[c. ] “In democracies the State must take charge of large and costly works not only because these large works are beautiful, but also in order to sustain the taste for what is great and for perfection” (in rubish of the chapters on the arts,Rubish, 1).
In Beaumont’s papers you find this note drafted during the journey that they made together to England in 1835:
Public institutions./ One thing strikes me when I examine the public institutions in England: it is the extreme luxury of their construction and maintenance. In the United States I saw the government of democracy do most of its institutions with an extreme economy. Example: prisons, hospitals. It seems to me that these institutions cannot be done more cheaply. In England it is entirely the opposite: the government or the administration appears to try to construct everything at the greatest possible expense. What magnificence in the construction of Milbank! What luxury in the slightest details!! 20 million francs spent to hold 2,000 prisoners! And Beldlan [Bedlam (ed.)]! for 250 of the insane, 2 million 500 thousand francs (cost of construction), 200,000 pounds sterling. Isn’t it the spirit of aristocracies to do everything with grandeur, with luxury, with splendor, and with great expenditures! And Greenwich! And Chelsea!
(14 May , London) (YTC, Beaumont, CX).
[d. ] Many men judge the state of the civilization of a people by its monuments, that is a very uncertain measure.
I will admit that it proves that these peoples were more aristocratic, but not that they were more civilized and greater.
Ruins of Palenque in Mexico. Mexicans who still knew only hieroglyphic writing and vanquished so easily by the Spanish (Rubish of the previous chapter, Rubish, 1).
In 1845, concerning French monuments, Tocqueville made the following reflection to his friend Milnes:
France has the appearance of noticing since only ten years ago, that it is still covered with masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The idea of repairing them, of completing them, of preserving them above all from complete ruin preoccupies a great number of cities, several of which have already made great sacrifices. Do not conclude from it that society is returning to old ideas and institutions. It is the sign of precisely the opposite. Nothing indicates better that the Revolution is finished and that the old society is dead. As long as the war between the old France and the new France presented for the first the least chance of success, the nation treated the monuments of the Middle Ages like adversaries; it destroyed them or left them to perish; it saw in them only the physical representation of the doctrines, beliefs, mores and laws that were hostile to it. In the middle of this preoccupation, it did not even notice their beauty. It is because it no longer fears anything from what they represent that it is attached to them as if to great works of art and to curious remnants of a time that no longer exists. The archeologist has replaced the party man (Paris, letter of 14 April 1845. With the kind permission of Trinity College, Cambridge. Houghton papers, 25/201).
[e. ] The rubish continues:
Large monuments belong to the middle state of civilization rather than to a very advanced civilization. Man ordinarily erects them when his thoughts are already great and his knowledge is still limited and when he does not yet know how to satisfy it except at great expense.
On the other hand, the ruins of a few large monuments cannot teach us if the social state of the people who erected them was aristocratic or democratic since we have just seen that democracy happens to build similar ones.
In the rough drafts of the previous chapter: “They [large monuments (ed.)] are the product of centralization. Here introduce the thought that centralization is not at all the sign of high civilization. It is found neither at the beginning nor at the end of civilization, but in general at the middle” (rubish of chapters on the arts,Rubish, 1).
And in another place in the same jacket: “Large monuments prove nothing but the destruction of large monuments proves. Warwick castle, aristocratic. Cherbourg sea wall, democratic” (rubish of the previous chapter. Rubish, 1). It was during his stay in England in 1833 that Tocqueville visited the ruins of Warwick castle, setting for Kenilworth of Walter Scott. To his future wife, Mary Mottley, he sent a short account of his visit entitled Visit to Kenilworth (YTC, CXIb, 12, reproduced in OCB, VII, pp. 116–19).