The Moral Universe – What Would Tocqueville Say About American Democracy Now?


If you had told me when I was in high school that there would come a day when I would be interested in what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say about Democracy in America, I would have laughed myself silly.

At the time, I barely understood a word of it. I remember it as a painful experience. Ironically, it was the 1960s, and we were spouting the words “democracy” and “freedom” and “equality” without having a true understanding of what we were talking about.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

So when I spotted a Great Coursessm CD volume called Tocqueville and the American Experiment, no one was more surprised than I was when I eagerly took it off the library shelf. Taught and read by the very engaging Professor William R. Cook of the State University of New York at Geneseo (think Wallace Shawn), the course reveals not only what Tocqueville thought and wrote about democracy, but also his deep insight into the human condition and an almost prescient vision of American democracy and what might happen to it over the course of the years.

The most amazing thing is that Tocqueville was only in his 20s when he wrote Democracy in America. Trained as a lawyer, he came to the United States for 10 months between 1831 and 1832 with a friend, Gustave Beaumont. Both young men were working at the court of law in Versailles when they were given a leave of absence to travel to America, ostensibly to study the new penal system here. That new system engaged the philosophy that prison should be a place where a criminal would become repentant (hence, penitentiary) rather than just a place of punishment.

However, Tocqueville’s true interest was in government systems. He wanted to study American democracy as a prelude to envisioning how democracy could work in Europe.

In political science courses, much is made of Tocqueville’s ground-breaking study, but a facet of his book that most interests me, and which Professor Cook says is usually overlooked, is his view of the treatment of African-Americans and Native Americans.

Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled much of the country, as it was then, speaking with ordinary and extraordinary citizens, including former President John Quincy Adams and current President Andrew Jackson who, in a few years, would send the Cherokee nation on the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

marieIt was in Baltimore that Tocqueville and Beaumont were first exposed to large numbers of blacks, some slaves, some free. Slavery appalled both of them, but they expressed their observations of it in different ways. Beaumont, apparently the more passionate of the two, would later write an anti-slavery novel called Marie, or Slavery in the United States and set it in Baltimore.

Tocqueville, the analyst, incorporated his views among the general picture of democracy as practiced in America. One of his keen observations was that slavery made white men lazy. This may seem obvious, but considered in the zeitgeist of the time, it is telling. Tocqueville, though of the French nobility, believed that the aristocracy in Europe was doomed and that democracy was the future. He saw the South as ruled by whites who had built up their own kind of aristocracy, thereby being able to justify class and race distinctions. What were plantations, after all, but fiefdoms where the owner had absolute control over everyone living and working on them? Abolishing slavery would not only take away their means of acquiring wealth, but would also take away their very notion of themselves as aristocrats; would take away the very meaning of their lives.

“In the first paragraph of Democracy in America, Tocqueville introduces the concept of equality of conditions as the foundation for the democratic enterprise. This, rather than freedom, is the bedrock principle of democracy,” writes Professor Cook in the course guidebook.

The distinction Tocqueville makes is that people can have equality without freedom and vice versa, and here is where my special interest comes in. If equality of conditions is the bedrock of a democracy, then every citizen has the right to seek equal opportunities, in housing, employment, etc. If they do not, then they have the right to seek redress.

And there’s the rub, for Tocqueville also found that the judicial system in America did not promote equality of conditions and favored the wealthy (read “white” for the time at which he was writing). Isn’t the same true today? The Supreme Court finds that corporations have the same rights as human beings; how does that promote equality of conditions? How does gutting the most significant parts of the Voting Rights Act promote equality of conditions?

American terrorist groups such as the League of the South rant and rave about freedom from a government that believes the Constitution applies to all, but they obviously have no interest in equality. They are based on white supremacy and can’t see farther than their own very narrow (and psychotic, in my opinion) beliefs. They have no interest in looking at other points of view and, in fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, have murdered other “skinheads” who are anti-racist (yes, there really are such groups!).

One can’t help but wonder what Tocqueville would make of America today. Can there be said to be democracy here now? Equality of conditions is at a low ebb; violence against blacks and other non-whites is terrifyingly high, with new reports coming in daily. Young black men are murdered by vigilantes and police; prisons are overcrowded with black men whose punishments are disproportionate to those given to whites for the same crimes. The Supreme Court is ruled by conservative ideologues. Affirmative action is a four-letter word. Wages and job opportunities are vastly unequal.

That’s American democracy? Tocqueville wept.


2 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – What Would Tocqueville Say About American Democracy Now?

  1. Your sentiments about the first reading of “Democracy in America,” echo mine. We were way too young to appreciate a book of this depth. I will definitely reread, perhaps listen to it through a great courses edition the way you did.


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