Tocqueville on the “New Despotism” (1837)

Alexis de Tocqueville

For volume 2 of Democracy in America (1840) Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) drew up several drafts of his thoughts on the nature of what he called the “new despotism” which he predicted would gradually emerge and turn the nation into “a flock of timid and hardworking animals”. This draft is quoted at length in James Schleifer’s book on Tocqueville:

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial.

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped men to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

In the late 1830s when Tocqueville was getting the second volume of Democracy in America ready for publication (in 1840) his view of the kind of despotism which lay in wait for European and American societies changed. In correspondence with his friend Louis de Kergolay Tocqueville gradually shifted his view from seeing a form of military despotism being the major threat to liberty to thinking that a form of “democratic despotism” would be the way modern societies lost their liberties. His idea of military despotism came from his analysis of Julius Caesar and Napoléon Bonaparte whose depostism came about as a result of war. Following on from comments made by Kergolay, Tocqueville began to fear that a democracy might hand powers to a single person without the need for a crisis like a war providing the impetus. Equality and the demand for security would create a paternalistic “immense, protective power” which would take over running the lives of individuals, turning the nation into “a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.” It seems that Tocqueville did not imagine a case where bother factors could coexist at the same time.