Tocqueville on the absence of government in America (1835)

Alexis de Tocqueville

Found in Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1

What struck Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) when he visited the U.S. in 1831-32 was the absence of visible signs of government compared to what he was used to seeing in Europe:

What most strikes the European who travels across the United States is the absence of what among us we call government or administration. In America, you see written laws; you see their daily execution; everything is in motion around you, and the motor is nowhere to be seen. The hand that runs the social machine escapes at every moment…

The Revolution in the United States was produced by a mature and thoughtful taste for liberty, and not by a vague and undefined instinct for independence. It was not based upon passions for disorder; on the contrary, it proceeded with love of order and of legality.

Compared to the very visible activities of the state in Europe, Tocqueville was pleasantly surprised at how little he could see of the activities of the American government as he moved about the country. As he put it, he could see objects in motion but could not see the motor which was moving them about. He attributed this happy situation to the degree of political de-centralization in America compared to the extensive centralization of power which he knew so well in France. Yet, he must have been aware of at least three areas in which the power of the American state was very visible and where one could see the motor of government spinning around: these areas were the government prison system which he and Beaumont had come to study on behalf of the French government, the existence of slavery which required a heavy legal hand to remain in existence, and the level of national tariffs which were considerably higher in the US than in Europe and the major source of the government’s funds. Nevertheless, he was not the only French liberal at that time to see the political future of the world in what Charles Dunoyer called “the municipalization of the world” which had begun in America and would likely spread to other countries like France.