Tocqueville on the spirit of association (1835)

Alexis de Tocqueville

The French aristocrat and liberal politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was intrigued by “the spirit of association” which he saw everywhere in North America and came to the conclusion that there would be considerable benefits if men and women were “to associate freely in everything”:

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it.

When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.

After his and Beaumont’s visit to the United States in 1835 Tocqueville identified quite quickly one of the unique aspects of American society of that time, namely the part played by voluntary private associations in the organization of social, political, and economic affairs. He thought that people had the right to “associate freely in everything” and that the “art of association” was the “mother science” which could be used to explain both how American society functioned as well as how complex social and economic problems might be solved. However Tocqueville felt obliged to reassure his conservative readers that free “political associations” were not dangerous to the state (as they were in France since the Revolution) in the long term. He admitted that that “after disturbing the State for a time, liberty of association strengthens it.”