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Democracy in America

The "First Democracy" (1835):
Argument
« A new world needs a new political science. »
(Democracy in America, I, Introduction)

Tocqueville suspected, however, that the virtually unanimous praise that greeted the first volume of Democracy in America was the result of a misunderstanding. In fact, as he explained in a letter to his friend Eugène Stoffels dated February 21, 1835, his ambition in writing that work was twofold: first, he aimed to persuade convinced democrats that there were dangers to democracy, which should not be adopted unless "certain conditions of enlightenment, private morality, and faith" were met, and France did not yet meet them; second, he hoped to persuade democracy's detractors that it had its desirable aspects and was not incompatible with property rights, liberty, or religion. Since Tocqueville believed that greater "equality of conditions" was inevitable in modern society, "the question was not whether aristocracy or democracy would prevail but rather whether democratic society would exhibit order and morality even in the absence of poetry and grandeur or, on the other hand, whether it would prove to be chaotic and depraved, subject to furious eruptions, or be forced to bear the heaviest yoke yet imposed on humankind since the fall of the Roman Empire."
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After claiming in the introduction that "a great democratic revolution" had been under way in Europe for the past seven hundred years, and especially in France, Tocqueville went on to provide in the first volume of Democracy a sort of primer on the subject, explaining to all readers, whether favorably or unfavorably disposed at the outset, how the dangers of democracy could be minimized and the merits recognized. To that end, Tocqueville hoped to inaugurate a "new political science" capable of seeing democracy whole rather than piecemeal. This was essential, he believed, if politicians were to judge the long term correctly and implement the lessons of his book properly. His goal was not to study American institutions for themselves or to propose a recipe for the French to follow but rather to write a primer of democracy. The first volume of Democracy, divided into two parts, was devoted to a detailed examination of the political institutions and mores of the United States. The long tenth chapter of part two is almost a third section unto itself. In part one, which begins with a brief preamble on the geography of the United States followed by a history of its origins and "the point of departure" of its people, Tocqueville describes in detail the country's institutions and laws. Part two is devoted to the way in which these institutions operate and relate to one another in practice, that is, to the "political mores" he observed in the course of his journey. But rather than accept the distinction between "laws" and "mores" indicated in the text, Françoise Mélonio suggests that the composition hides an implicit plan, in which Tocqueville began with the geography and social state of the American colonies and then showed how the initial conditions influenced American laws and institutions. He then examined those institutions in order of their historical emergence, starting with the "town," which he treats as "a quasi-natural community," the "location of the primitive social contract," followed by the county, the state, and finally the federal government. Thus the work aims to follow the constitution of the American institutional edifice from its local base to the summit of the Union, while honoring the contributions of human reason and will in adapting to the peculiar situation of the transplanted people of the New World with their naturally egalitarian mores.

'The Glory of the United States', Antoine Étex

The Glory of the United States, Antoine Étex
© RMN/Daniel Arnaudet

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Title page of 'Democracy in America'

Title page of Democracy in America, original edition, private collection
© AD Manche/A. Poirier

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