Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 9: How Large Might a Republic Be? - The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America
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CHAPTER 9: How Large Might a Republic Be? - James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America 
The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Foreword by George W. Pierson (2nd edition) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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How Large Might a Republic Be?
Despite “Publius’s” assurances that America was unique among federal republics, Tocqueville concluded that growth in numbers (of both citizens and states) and the centrifugal forces natural to federations endangered the Union’s future. Equally disturbing to him was the threat posed by the immense area of the republic. Timothy Walker’s boasts, in December 1831, about the Union’s rapid increase in both territory and population first drew Tocqueville’s anxiety into the open. “Have you no fear,” he asked the Ohioan, “that it may be impossible to hold together this huge body?” Walker’s frank admission of uneasiness probably only increased Tocqueville’s own concern.1 A month later, Mr. Etienne Mazureau of New Orleans also addressed himself to this matter and voiced a time-honored opinion: “A small State ... is always able to govern itself. Hardly any of the troublesome consequences of the sovereignty of the people are to be feared in small societies.”2 Was a republic as large as the United States inherently unstable?
Later, while drafting a short essay on the problem of size,3 Tocqueville would write in the margin: “Perhaps this chapter should be transferred to the place where I will speak of the future of the Union.”4 Evidently he had decided that the Union’s future depended in part on the answer to an old query: could a vast republic long endure?
Several of Tocqueville’s American acquaintances shared his and Walker’s doubts about the durability of large republics, but they also insisted that the Union’s federal structure would surely overcome any risks involved in size.5 “What I find most favourable with us to the establishment and maintenance of republican institutions,” Mr. MacLean declared, “is our division into States. I do not think that with our democracy we could govern the whole Union for long, if it formed but one single people.... I hold too that the federal system is peculiarly favourable to the happiness of peoples.... By our federal organization we have the happiness of a small people and the strength of a great nation.”6
After reading the Federalist in December, Tocqueville reflected that “the federal constitution of the United States seems to me the best, perhaps the only arrangement that could allow the establishment of a vast republic,”7 and in January he found that Joel Poinsett agreed. “I do not believe,” Poinsett affirmed, “that a great republic can endure, at least unless it is a federation.”8
The idea that a federated republic could be extensive was not new. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, had reached the same conclusion nearly a century before his compatriot’s journey to America. “It is in the nature of a republic,” Montesquieu had written in his De l’esprit des lois, “that it have only a small territory; without that it can scarcely continue to exist.” He had added, however, that one constitutional form existed which combined the internal advantages of a republic with the strength of a monarchy. “I am speaking of the federated republic.... This kind of republic ... can sustain its greatness without becoming corrupt on the inside: the form of this society avoids all the disadvantages.”9
Having fiercely debated the optimum size of a republic during the struggle over ratification of the Federal Constitution, the American republicans were well aware of Montesquieu’s ideas. Opponents of the Constitution had often cited his writings to support their belief that the proposed Union would be too large, asserting that such an immense republic would either divide or become a consolidated monarchy. In vain had Alexander Hamilton revealed that his antagonists sadly misunderstood the famous Frenchman. “The opponents of the Plan proposed,” Hamilton had written, “have, with great assiduity, cited and circulated the observations of Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory for a republican government. But they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work.” Quoting at length from De l’esprit des lois, he had noted triumphantly that Montesquieu “explicitly treats of a Confederate Republic as the expedient for extending the sphere of popular government and reconciling the advantages of monarchy with those of republicanism.”10
James Madison had also grappled with the problem of size in his contributions to the Federalist, but unlike Hamilton he had done more than merely quote Montesquieu’s opinion. Turning the Frenchman’s assumptions on end, the American had contended that size benefited rather than threatened a republic.11
In a republic dedicated to the rule of the majority, the despotism of an unjust minority could be effectively circumvented. But what if the majority itself attempted oppression?12 Sheer size, Madison had theorized, was the best safeguard against that calamity. In a vast republic, no particular or local interest could bend the entire nation to its purposes; rival interests would check each other and only permit the formation of a majority clearly dedicated to justice and the common good. The difficulty of forming a despotic majority would increase in direct proportion to the size and the diversity of the nation. Thus, any republic huge enough to enclose a great variety of interests would be relatively secure, and if, by unhappy chance, a despotic majority did coalesce in an extensive republic, the very size of the nation would continue to hinder the execution of any oppressive schemes.
A federal republic, Madison had noted in addition, possessed an extra safeguard. Since each subordinate government would jealously guard its own prerogatives, the division into states automatically multiplied the number of interests enclosed within the nation. So a large republic was inherently superior to a small one, but a great federation was the best possible republican form.
During Tocqueville’s travels in the New World, no American had explained Madison’s argument to him, nor is there any evidence that in December he had read the particular Federalist papers which contained the statesman’s ideas.13 Apparently his first encounter with the perceptive thesis took place only after his return to France.
Nonetheless, while writing his book, he cited Madison’s Number 51 four times in his drafts and even copied a passage from the essay into one of them.14 In another, he reminded himself to see page 225 of his edition of the Federalist where a concise statement of Madison’s theory could be found.15 Declared Madison: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of the country and number of people comprehended under the same government.” The paper concluded: “The larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.”16
Tocqueville recognized the same argument in one of Thomas Jefferson’s letters and copied an excerpt into still another of his drafts.17 The letter read: “I suspect that the doctrine, that small States alone are fitted to be republics, will be exploded by experience, with some other brilliant fallacies accredited by Montesquieu and other political writers. Perhaps it will be found, that to obtain a just republic ... it must be so extensive that local egoisms may never reach its greater part; that on every particular question, a majority may be found in its councils free from particular interests, and giving, therefore, an uniform prevalence to the principles of justice. The smaller the societies, the more violent and more convulsive their schisms.”18
In both the working manuscript and the text of the 1835 Democracy, Tocqueville would assert that federalism made large republics feasible, thus adopting a thesis developed by Montesquieu, advocated by Hamilton, and repeated by MacLean and Poinsett.19 Occasionally, his discussion of the superiority of federalism would even echo the words of Madison and Jefferson. An elaboration of the idea that the federal system helped to preserve the American republic would note that the states acted as barriers to unhealthy partisan emotions. “The confederation of all the American states presents none of the ordinary inconveniences resulting from large associations of men ... and political passions, instead of spreading over the land like a fire on the prairies, spends its strength against the interests and the individual passions of every state.”20 And the towns and counties had a similar function. “Municipal bodies and county administrations are like so many hidden reefs retarding or dividing the flood of the popular will.”21
So Tocqueville would admit that federalism theoretically saved large republics from some of their most obvious perils. But even here there was a limit beyond which he would not go; he would credit federalism only up to a certain size. “I think that before that time has run out [the next hundred years], the land now occupied or claimed by the United States will have a population of over one hundred million and be divided into forty states.... but I do say that the very fact of their being one hundred millions divided into forty distinct and not equally powerful nations would make the maintenance of the federal government no more than a happy accident.... I shall refuse to believe in the duration of a government which is called upon to hold together forty different nations covering an area half that of Europe.”22
A large republic, if federal, was possible; but an excessively large republic, federal or not, was inconceivable. Perhaps Tocqueville simply could not imagine a self-governing nation of one hundred million people spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles.
Yet despite his qualified praise for federal republics, the author of the Democracy would either overlook or decline to accept Madison’s novel thesis about size and would continue to lament “the ordinary inconveniences resulting from large associations of men” and to warn against largeness. “What can be said with certainty is that the existence of a great republic will always be more exposed than that of a small one. All passions fatal to a republic grow with the increase of its territory, but the virtues which should support it do not grow at the same rate.”23
The perils which threatened a large republic—including personal ambition, partisan emotions, a disturbing contrast between the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many, large metropolitan areas, the decline of morality, and the “complication of interests”—could only be counteracted by the firm support of the majority. Unfortunately, however, “the more numerous a people is and the more varied its attitudes and interests, the harder it becomes to form a compact majority.”24
Tocqueville would thus persist in condemning the very feature which Madison had acclaimed. He had either missed or rejected the American’s brilliant observation that size itself was beneficial.
Madison’s argument had implications not only about the success of large republics, but also about a second problem of special interest to Tocqueville: the tyranny of the majority. Madison had indicated that in extended republics—with their greater varieties of interests and viewpoints—opposition to the majority’s opinions was more likely to be effective. So his exposition of the advantages of size was equally a demonstration of a very significant safeguard against despotic majorities. As we shall see, Tocqueville, normally so alert to possible checks on the power of the majority, curiously failed to respond to Madison’s idea. He saw how the states, counties, and towns, sanctioned by American federalism and decentralization, served to check potentially dangerous tides of opinion,25 but he overlooked the powerful additional barrier to majoritarian tyranny which Madison had suggested: size (and variety) itself.
Tocqueville’s final evaluation of American federalism was curiously ambivalent. The American federation was a brilliant new form in the gallery of political theory (un gouvernement national incomplet); it overcame some of the weaknesses of previous federations, made a moderately large republic possible, and even served as a possible barrier to majoritarian despotism. But the Union also suffered from inherent faults of structure and practical problems of growth and size which made its future dark.
The major culprits in the story were the states which, in their jealousy and ambition, effectively drained the central government of its power and authority. Yet, even here, Tocqueville’s attitude was somewhat contradictory, for if, on the one hand, the states threatened the durability of the Union, on the other, they actually benefited the maintenance of a just republic by helping to check “political passions” and “the popular will.”
On the topic of federalism, Tocqueville undertook a truly impressive and eminently successful effort to cure his initial lack of knowledge. His list of sources, especially his readings, was extensive and of the highest quality. In this endeavor was one of the best demonstrations of Tocqueville’s scholarship. Yet we have also seen that he depended heavily, and probably more than he realized, on a limited number of favorite authors and acquaintances. In the course of his research, the names of Sparks, Walker, and Poinsett and the volumes by “Publius” and Story recurred constantly. For much of what eventually became his completed analysis, the starting points were the words and works of these few men.
Finally, for a variety of reasons which we will examine later,26 it is significant that Tocqueville could not bring himself to embrace James Madison’s fascinating and original idea and thus to abandon the teachings of Montesquieu and the traditional European distrust of size. Here was one conviction that even “Publius” could not shake.
Democracy, Centralization, and Democratic Despotisms
[1. ]Second conversation with Mr. Walker, 3 December 1831, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, pp. 95–96.
[2. ]Conversation with Mr. Mazureau, New Orleans, 1 January 1832, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, ibid., pp. 101–2. Mazureau’s remark was clearly an echo of Montesquieu (see below).
[3. ]See the section entitled: “Advantages of the Federal System in General and Its Special Usefulness in America,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 158–63.
[4. ]From the section “Advantages of the Federal System ...,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 1.
[5. ]Justice Story argued from a more empirical point of view. See his Commentaries, pp. 169–70.
[6. ]Conversation with Mr. MacLean, 2 December, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 93. See Tocqueville’s remarks of 14 January 1832, Notebook E, ibid., pp. 234–35. In 1835, Tocqueville would reproduce the essence of MacLean’s comment; see Democracy (Mayer), p. 163.
[7. ]“Union: Central Government,” 29 December 1831, Notebook E, Mayer, Journey, p. 248.
[8. ]Conversations with Mr. Poinsett, 12–17 January 1832, Non-Alphabetic Notebooks 2 and 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 118. Poinsett prefaced this remark by citing the example of South America; and in 1835, Tocqueville would repeat his illustration, Democracy (Mayer), p. 162.
[9. ]De l’esprit des lois, edited by Gonzague Truc. The selections quoted are from “Propriétés distinctives de la république,” 1:131–32 and “Comment les républiques pourvoient à leur sureté,” 1:137–38; my translations.
[10. ]Number 9, Federalist (Mentor), pp. 71–76.
[11. ]Madison’s brilliant thesis is developed primarily in papers 10 and 51 (also see Number 14) and still stands as one of America’s most creative contributions to political theory. For analysis, consult two articles by Neal Riemer, “The Republicanism of James Madison” and “James Madison’s Theory of the Self-Destructive Features of Republican Government”; also two articles by Douglass Adair, “The Tenth Federalist Revisited” and “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” in which Adair discloses Madison’s debt to David Hume. Two more recent examinations are Paul F. Bourke, “The Pluralist Reading of James Madison’s Tenth Federalist,” and Robert Morgan, “Madison’s Theory of Representation in the Tenth Federalist.” Also pertinent is the study by Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, Size and Democracy, especially pp. 34–40. Concerning Madison’s creativity, see Edmund S. Morgan, “The American Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement.”
[12. ]Concerning the possible application of Madison’s theory to Tocqueville’s fears about the danger of tyranny of the majority, see chapter 15 below.
[13. ]Perhaps Tocqueville skimmed Number 10 during December 1831, but if he did so, he left no indication in his travel notebooks.
[14. ]Drafts, Yale, CVb, Paquet 13, pp. 25 (where two citations occur), 26; CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 1, p. 48. Tocqueville referred only to pages of the Federalist, not to papers, but a glance at his edition reveals that the essay which he repeatedly mentioned was Number 51; nowhere in the drafts or manuscript of the Democracy did he cite Number 10. (In 1835 he would quote a passage from Number 51; without any indication, however, he would delete from the excerpt the essence of Madison’s argument about size; Democracy [Mayer], p. 260.)
[15. ]Drafts, Yale, CVb, Paquet 13, p. 26.
[16. ]Number 51, Federalist (Mentor), pp. 324–25.
[17. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 5, p. 2. He cited an epistle from “Jefferson à Devernois [sic] 6 février 1795,” but did not indicate that the letter appeared in Conseil, Mélanges, 1:407–8. For the original English version, see letter to M. D’Ivernois, 6 February 1795, Jefferson, Memorial Ed., 9:299–300.
[18. ]Tocqueville’s draft contained all except the last sentence of this passage. Note that Jefferson had evidently not learned anything from Hamilton about Montesquieu’s complete opinions concerning large republics.
[19. ]See “Influence of the Laws upon the Maintenance of a Democratic Republic,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 1; and Democracy (Mayer), p. 287 (also pp. 161–62). Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 768–69, wrote that the resemblance between Tocqueville and Montesquieu was primarily outward. This is true in many ways, but on the question of the size of a republic the similarity is far more than superficial; the ideas of the two men are strikingly parallel. Compare Tocqueville’s comments in the Democracy (Mayer), pp. 158–63, with Montesquieu’s remarks in the sections from De l’esprit des lois cited above. For further discussion of similarities between Tocqueville and Montesquieu, see Melvin Richter’s stimulating essay, “The Uses of Theory: Tocqueville’s Adaptation of Montesquieu.”
[20. ]Democracy (Bradley), 1:170. Note the contrast between this idea and Tocqueville’s usual low opinion of the states and their selfish striving for power.
[21. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 263; also see p. 287.
[22. ]Ibid., pp. 377–78. See also pp. 376–77 and compare p. 381, where Tocqueville would state that a large federation could exist if none of the component parts had contradictory interests.
[23. ]Ibid., p. 159.
[24. ]Ibid., p. 160. Tocqueville seemed to define la majorité as underlying support within a society for the form and operation of its government, that is, as something essential to the continued orderly existence of a nation.
[25. ]See, for example, Democracy (Mayer), pp. 262–63.
[26. ]See chapter 15 below on Tocqueville’s concept of the majority.