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Democracy in America

The "Second Democracy" (1840):
Reception and Argument
« The first and liveliest of the passions to which equality of conditions gives rise is, I hardly need mention, love of equality itself. »
(Democracy in America, II)

The second volume of Democracy in America appeared at last on August 15, 1840, to a much less enthusiastic reception than the first volume had received in 1835. Apparently, the change in Tocqueville's perspective between volumes one and two disappointed his readers, who had been waiting five years for the sequel promised at the end of volume one and who were unhappy to see the picturesque American case reduced to the role of a mere example. The disappointment was all the greater because the title of the work (which Gosselin had insisted remain the same as the title of volume one for commercial reasons) and the descriptions of its four parts ("Influence of Democracy on Intellectual Development in the United States," "Influence of Democracy on the Sentiments of the Americans," "Influence of Democracy on Mores Properly So-Called," and "On the Influence of Democratic Ideas on Political Society") may have been misleading. Indeed, although the American case often serves as a starting point for Tocqueville's reflections, his comments on it account for only about a fifth of the first three parts and barely two percent of the final part. But Tocqueville's growing disaffection with the American example, which is subsumed in a more general argument as the work progresses, is easy to understand in light of the author's new ambition, namely, to identify all the consequences that equality of conditions would inevitably have for the state of democratic society understood as an ideal type. To describe this ideal type he often invoked characteristics of American democratic society, but he also incorporated certain democratic social tendencies that had begun to emerge in France. This accounts for the frequent comparisons between the two countries, which were intended more to teach the French "about the evil tendencies to which equality may give rise in order to prevent my contemporaries from succumbing to them" (letter to Henry Reeve, November 15, 1839) than to shed further light on American society.

« I therefore state some often harsh truths about French society today and about democratic societies in general, but I state them as a friend and not a censor. »
(Letter to Henry Reeve, November 15, 1839)

The "second Democracy" thus aimed to describe the effects of equality on society and its individual members in the realms of ideas, sentiments, mores, and politics. In part one, Tocqueville therefore sought in particular to describe the effects of democracy on religion, science, and arts and letters. In part two, which is devoted "to the influence of democracy on the sentiments of the Americans," he tried to home in more closely on homo democraticus, that is, on the typical citizen of a democratic society, so as to shed light on his peculiar inclinations, reflexes, sentiments, and motives. In part three, which deals with the effect of democracy on "mores properly so-called," Tocqueville reviews the nature of social relations of every kind (from family relationships to employer-employee relations) in a democratic society: what kinds of relations does democratic man entertain with his fellow men. Finally, in part four, today celebrated for its prophetic and troubling image of an all-powerful and oppressive democratic state, Tocqueville offers a final warning against what he regards as the major risk of democracy, namely, the potential for democratic despotism.

Study for American figures for 'The Glory of the United States', Antoine Étex

Study for American figures for The Glory of the United States, Antoine Étex
© RMN/Daniel Arnaudet

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