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Tocqueville on Centralised Government in Canada and Decentralised Government in America (1856)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) believed that the true essence of the government of the old régime was revealed in the institutions it created in its Canadian colony, in very great contrast to what was happening in the British colonies:

The physiognomy of governments can be best detected in their colonies … (In Canada) One might fancy one’s self in the midst of modern centralization and in Algeria. Canada is, in fact, the true model of what has always been seen there. In both places the government numbers as many heads as the people; it preponderates, acts, regulates, controls, undertakes every thing, provides for every thing, knows far more about the subject’s business than he does himself—is, in short, incessantly active and sterile.

In the United States, on the contrary, the English anti-centralization system was carried to an extreme. Parishes became independent municipalities, almost democratic republics. The republican element, which forms, so to say, the foundation of the English constitution and English habits, shows itself and develops without hindrance. Government proper does little in England, and individuals do a great deal; in America, government never interferes, so to speak, and individuals do every thing.

How the administrative centralization of the old regime can be best judged in Canada.

The physiognomy of governments can be best detected in their colonies, for there their features are magnified, and rendered more conspicuous. When I want to discover the spirit and vices of the government of Louis XIV., I must go to Canada. Its deformities are seen there as through a microscope.

A number of obstacles, created by previous occurrences or old social forms, which hindered the development of the true tendencies of government at home, did not exist in Canada. There was no nobility, or, at least, none had taken deep root. The Church was not dominant. Feudal traditions were lost or obscured. The power of the judiciary was not interwoven with old institutions or popular customs. There was, therefore, no hindrance to the free play of the central power. It could shape all laws according to its views. And in Canada, therefore, there was not a shadow of municipal or provincial institutions; and no collective or individual action was tolerated. An intendant far more powerful than his colleagues in France; a government managing far more matters than it did at home, and desiring to manage every thing from Paris, notwithstanding the intervening 1800 leagues; never adopting the great principles which can render a colony populous and prosperous, but, instead, employing all sorts of petty, artificial methods, [300] and small devices of tyranny to increase and spread population; forced cultivation of lands; all lawsuits growing out of the concession of land removed from the jurisdiction of the courts and referred to the local administration; compulsory regulations respecting farming and the selection of land—such was the system devised for Canada under Louis XIV.: it was Colbert who signed the edicts. One might fancy one’s self in the midst of modern centralization and in Algeria. Canada is, in fact, the true model of what has always been seen there. In both places the government numbers as many heads as the people; it preponderates, acts, regulates, controls, undertakes every thing, provides for every thing, knows far more about the subject’s business than he does himself—is, in short, incessantly active and sterile.

In the United States, on the contrary, the English anti-centralization system was carried to an extreme. Parishes became independent municipalities, almost democratic republics. The republican element, which forms, so to say, the foundation of the English constitution and English habits, shows itself and develops without hindrance. Government proper does little in England, and individuals do a great deal; in America, government never interferes, so to speak, and individuals do every thing. The absence of an upper class, which renders the Canadian more defenseless against the government than his equals were in France, renders the citizen of the English colonies still more independent of the home power.

In both colonies society ultimately resolved itself into a democratic form. But in Canada, so long as it was a French possession at least, equality was an accessory of absolutism; in the British colonies it was the companion of liberty. And, so far as the material consequences of the two colonial systems are concerned, it is well known that in 1763, at the conquest, the population of Canada was 60,000 souls, that of the English provinces 3,000,000.

About this Quotation:

Tocqueville had a long standing interest in colonisation as his trips to Algeria in the 1840s attest. The kind of government which the metropole created there revealed a great deal about how senior political, military, and bureaucratic figures viewed the proper role of government and in many cases those colonial institutions and practices were repatriated back to the metropole if they had proven to be useful. When Tocqueville was writing a major issue which concerned him was the centralisation of state power which he considered to have been a key factor in both the old regime and the post-revolutionary regimes which followed it. In his history of the Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) he contrasted the French colonies in Canada with its top heavy bureaucracy and centralised power with the economic dynamism and political equality of the English colonies. What is curiously absent from his account is any mention of slavery and the state institutions which were needed to enforce it. Nevertheless, he saw democracy and equality emerging in both societies but with an important twist: in the French colonies in Canada “equality was an accessory of absolutism; in the British colonies it was the companion of liberty.”

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