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

Alexis de Tocqueville

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.

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.”