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Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Ben: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. When people talk about America and when people talk about democracy, they talk first about one man: Alexis de Tocqueville and his book Democracy In America completed in eighteen thirty-five; that’s some hundred and sixty-five years ago. Why? To find out, “Think Tank,” is joined by Harvey Mansfield, Harvard University Professor of Government, who with his wife Delba co-translated and edited the most recent English translation of Tocqueville’s book. The topic before the House, America Democracy Tocqueville this week on “Think Tank.”
In May of 1831, twenty-six year-old Alexis de Tocqueville landed in Newport, Rhode Island, then a city of fewer than 16,000 residents. From there he began a ten-month journey across America. Tocqueville sought to answer the political riddle of the era: Why was it that democracy flourished in America? What was the secret of American success, and could it be brought home to France where, Tocqueville’s own aristocratic family had been jailed during the violent and terrorist French revolution of 1789. Tocqueville was convinced that there were many pitfalls along the road to democracy and that it could lead just as easily to terror and tyranny as it could to peace and prosperity. Tocqueville’s travelling companion, Gustave Beaumont, documented their expedition with sketches of the countryside. Tocqueville and Beaumont visited nearly every corner of the American Republic: from as far north as Boston, to the Gulf of Mexico in the South and even Green Bay, Wisconsin in what was then the Northwest part of America. Although Tocqueville generally came away with a positive opinion of Americans, he was critical of their leader. He wrote: 'General Jackson, whom the Americans have for the second time chosen to be at their head, is a man of violent character and middling capacities; nothing in the whole of his career indicated him to have the qualities needed for governing a free people.' The two Frenchmen witnessed some of the unfinished work of the democratic experiment that so characterized Jackson’s presidency, from the notorious treatment of Native Americans, to what Tocqueville would call the 'abomination' of slavery. But his greatest impression was of a young and vibrant democracy expanding westward, and he believed that the American experience held the key to the future of democratic governance around the world. He found Americans to be an industrious and dynamic people, and wrote most appreciatively of the virtuous American woman. Tocqueville’s observations on the American experiment in Democracy, and his predictions for its future, are considered among the most insightful and prophetic ever recorded. Can we still learn something about democracy from a twenty-six-year-old, French aristocrat who visited America a hundred and seventy years ago?
Professor Harvey Mansfield, thank you for joining us. You heard the introduction. When they say democracy and when they say America, why do they say Tocqueville?
Harvey: It still makes sense. Um, we say that, uh, Tocqueville’s book is the best book on democracy still and also the best book on America. And the reason why they go together is that he found democracy in America. He said…he said he came to America to find the image of democracy itself. He was unlike other Europeans who came to visit America and who (clears throat), uh, thought to see how European civilization would fare in the wilderness of the new world. But, no, Tocqueville thought that, uh, Europe was behind America, not ahead. The future was in America. The future is democracy even in Europe and American democracy was the most advanced. He came to America, he says right at the beginning, to find the image of democracy itself. In this he was unusual; other Europeans of his day came to America…
Ben: And…and in this he was looking for or saw the future?
Harvey: That’s right.
Ben: Is that correct?
Harvey: Because in America democracy was more advanced than in Europe. So Europeans could see what was going to happen to them by reading his book.
Ben: Was it popular?
Harvey: It was very popular, especially the first volume which was a best seller; one that he…that came out in eighteen thirty-five. The second volume, eighteen forty, didn’t make such a hit.
Ben: Now Tocqueville comes from a very aristocratic family?
Harvey: Yes.
Ben: Some of whom were beheaded?
Harvey: That’s right. Uh, he, um, uh, his relatives by marriage were beheaded. His father was imprisoned during the terror. And at the age of twenty-two, his hair turned snowy white, so daunting was the experience. His family was very aristocratic; it, uh, fought in the, um, Norman Conquest in England in ten sixty-six.
Ben: He…he was born, just to set the stage, about, uh, wanna use the program to sort of set the stage of nineteen century America or at least the early part of it, he was born about when Abraham Lincoln was born?
Harvey: That’s right – four years earlier, eighteen five. The Revolution, uh, French Revolution was over, Napoleon was in power, and the question for Frenchmen, and especially an aristocrat like himself was, what attitude to take towards the Revolution. And Tocqueville took on the whole, uh, a favorable attitude. He liked its first two years when Frenchmen took their lives in their hands and decided to make something of their own. That he thought was a…was an event of…of greatness in…in French history. But the—he saw great problems as well and, uh, the first of them was obviously the reign of Napoleon that came right after the Revolution. In other words democracy could bring tyranny as well as liberation.
Ben: And…and terror? Hence the…the reign of terror.
Harvey: Terror, uh, terror and…and tyranny.
Ben: Uh-huh. Did…did Tocqueville like Americans?
Harvey: Yes, he did. Uh, he found, uh, easy entrée, uh, in…into America. He…it…it was, um, it was no trick for him to get to meet prominent Americans he found. They were all eager to see a Frenchman visiting. And later on in his book, uh, Tocqueville speaks of how patriotic Americans are …
Ben: I mean you couldn’t get on the Concorde?
Harvey: … you’re there. He was—yes, he was able to see, uh, uh, very prominent people here when he came.
Ben: We…we are talking about a time period about forty years after the ratification of the Constitution?
Harvey: Yes.
Ben: And Tocqueville has a view about slavery?
Harvey: Ah.
Ben: Perhaps you could tell us about that?
Harvey: He thought that slavery was an abomination. He was though an aristocrat a liberal, and he thought that to enslave another human being was the worst thing you could do to him, somehow even worse than killing him. He feared for the future of America. He thought that there might be a…a race war in our future between Blacks and Whites. He couldn’t think that Blacks could continue to be enslaved, but he also didn’t see how they could be freed and live with…in peace with their former masters.
Ben: Did…did he actually predict a slaver rebellion?
Harvey: No, but he…he…he thought that was likely. It wasn’t one of his famous, uh, predictions by that name. But it…he…he certainly thought that was coming.
Ben: I mean e—eve—every…everything else he says is regarded as prophetic – you say well Tocqueville said that, Tocqueville said that. I mean he alludes to it but and that…that one he doesn’t go out and say, uh, Mark McGuire’s gonna hit seventy homeruns.
Harvey: Right. This one he missed, and maybe the reason he missed it is that he couldn’t have predicted Abraham Lincoln would become President of the United States, that there would be such a statesman to bring the two, uh, two, um, parts of America a…a slave and free together or at least to begin that process.
Ben: Does…does he deal or how does he deal with the Indians? I mean today if what happened the American Indians, uh, happened or was happening, the immediate word would be genocide. What does, uh, Tocqueville say about that? Does he get a sense of that?
Harvey: Yes, he compares the, uh, Anglo Americans, their attitude towards the, uh, Indians with that of that Spanish in, uh, Mexico and South America. The word genocide is used so frequently that I…I’m sure it would be used in this case too. But it…it wasn’t so much that, uh, Americans were going after the Indians and thought that the world would be a better place without them. It…It was rather that the Indians were in the way. And also as Tocqueville stresses, their way of life was simply incompatible with the, uh, way of life of modern civilization. The Indians depended for their livelihood on wild game. Whereas, uh, the Americans depended on agriculture.
Ben: And we made treaties with the Indians?
Harvey: We made treaties which, uh, of…of course we didn’t keep. Each treaty as it was broken was replaced with a new one, thus illustrating our legalism and at the same time our unconcern for the rights of the Indians.
Ben: Did…did he see an America from sea to shining sea? I mean at that time how far west were we?
Harvey: Yeah. Uh…
Ben: Uh, Wisconsin, not much further I…
Harvey: Wisconsin, uh, I don’t remember any statement of his on that.
Ben: But he saw a continental nation?
Harvey: He…a continental nation with a frontier.
Ben: Expanding?
Harvey: That was expanding and pushing west…westward with a kind of avaricious energy that, uh, yeah…
Ben: And…and…and he compared it to Russia?
Harvey: And he compared it to Russia.
Ben: Favorably or unfavorably?
Harvey: Uh, quite favorably – this is his famous comparison at the end of the first volume when he says, uh, America and Russia seem to hold the promise for the future: democratic liberty or democratic tyranny. It’s surprising but he considered that he…that he considered the…the…the czar to be a kind of…or the czarist regime to be a democratic regime.
Ben: I see. Uh, what did he think about American individualism; that’s the one that always comes up?
Harvey: He thought that equality gives us great ambitions because now each of us depends on himself alone and we think we can do anything. But at the same time when you look around, you’ll see everyone else is in your same situation. So instead of being strong, you’re actually in a weak position. And this situation of weakness he called individualism. Individualism isn’t just egoism, it’s a…an opinion that you being merely an individual can do nothing on your own. You are at the mercy of great historical forces. You have no control over them. So you retire into your own individual life, perhaps with your family and…and…and cower or you give over any common concern you might have to a centralized state.
Ben: Tell me about his…his views of associations and clubs? That’s another one that’s always cited.
Harvey: Right. Well associations are the remedy for individualism. It’s by associating with other people like yourself for some common purpose that you can’t achieve on your own just by yourself that you overcome this individualism that makes you sit in your house and feel impotent. And this can be something as commonplace as, um, volunteer fire department. Here’s a problem that you can’t really—you can’t protect your house only by yourself, you need your neighbors. And so you get together and form an organization, and this organization, uh, has officers so it appeals to people’s ambition, petty ambition but still ambition, as well as their sense of community. And that he says Americans are extremely good at doing. In his day he spoke of, uh, the temperance League, The Women’s Temperance League, I’m sorry.
Ben: That’s the next question is America is regarded then and today as a very religious society?
Harvey: Yes.
Ben: That’s compared to Europe?
Harvey: Yes. That’s right. And that’s another good thing about America together with its associations, re—religion makes you look upward and look beyond. Whereas democracy by itself tends to make you materialist – you’re by yourself and you look around for something to do with your life, and it seems that the only thing you can do is to look for material enjoyments that are right in front of you and that can be repeated and that are easy to grasp. Religion lifts you above that kind of life, which is really, um, a dehumanized life according to Tocqueville. It’s a life which depends too much on chance and not enough on human choice or planning. So religion for him is somewhat paradoxically a…a…a great elevator of mankind. Secularism by itself lowers mankind because it tends to keep us mat—uh, uh, absorbed in material enjoyments.
Ben: Um-hum. The…the, um, the America of Tocqueville’s day, the federal government was considerably less powerful than it is today. And yet as you get into these discussions, both liberals and conservatives say, “Aha, Tocqueville got it right.”
Harvey: Yes.
Ben: Now how can that be?
Harvey: Well maybe here he had a view to France and Napoleon. He did speak of a immense being, uh, of the state in which people place their fondest hopes. They’re by themselves; they feel they can’t do very much; and so they rely on the state to do anything that seems to require common action, and they become passive. Whereas in America with our tradition of association, with our history beginning with the Puritans, and with our New England townships, we have democratic practices – actual, uh, actual practice and participation in democracy that, uh, are…are much better than the democratic theories on their own.
Ben: Now he…he also said that Americans were more interested in commerce and money than in politics. Is that…
Harvey: Yeah.
Ben: …is that still true in your judgment?
Harvey: Definitely. You see that, uh, that, uh, um, there are some of course still who want to go into politics but so many more think that they can do more or less the same thing, uh, realize an ambition by going into business. And you can do it, uh, uh, in business you can much more easily be your own boss, which is really impossible in democratic politics where there’s always this scramble for accountability. In…in business you can be your own boss and you have your competitors, but, uh, what you do is you think at any rate, uh, your own work.
Ben: What…what did he mean by the tyranny of the majority?
Harvey: Right. Well in democracy there’s no traditional authority; no person is above or superior to any other person. So each person is left on his—to his own devices. But when you have no authority to look to, you look around an all you see to give yourself some guide is everybody else, the majority or public opinion. So this public opinion, uh, tends to become very powerful, very…and the society becomes very conformist in a democracy. And Tocqueville actually says that in America there’s less freedom of thought or…or freedom of spirit than anywhere else he knows because of the power of the tyranny of the majority.
Ben: What…what…what would Tocqueville have thought about feminism?
Harvey: There we know he made an uncomplimentary remark about European feminism in his…one of his five chapters on women in Democracy in America. He…he didn’t like it that, um, women tried to imitate men. He thought that came out badly. And he praised American women for their willingness to subject themselves to the bondage, he even said, of marriage. He seemed to think that women represented an alternative to the bourgeois commercial life of men. So it was good that they renounced going into politics and going outside the home and thereby kept alive a…an ideal in America of, uh, of a life that isn’t a life of power seeking or recognition seeking.
Ben: You…you have been called by yourself as the only conservative, uh, member of the political science faculty at Harvard University. Is that correct?
Harvey: Uh, that—certainly the only openly conservative in my department, sure.
Ben: How…how do you, uh, how do you find that? What…what do you think, uh, what do you think Tocqueville would think about that?
Harvey: Uh, I think he might connect it to the tyranny of a majority. But I find it…it’s actually quite congenial in a personal way. They, uh, people are very nice to me. They listen to me, but they never do what I suggest.
Ben: Well how…how…how come is it that, uh, there have—here’s this great book that there have only been three translations of it over the years? And one of the reviews of this one that I read said it’s a conservative version. Now how do you get a conservative translation?
Harvey: Well that review’s, uh, that we were, um, funded by conservative foundations. And that was true.
Ben: Right.
Harvey: But I don’t think that makes a conservative translation. It is conservative in this that we tried to make our translation more literal than other—than the other two translations. And that means, uh, we wanted people to look at Tocqueville more for what he said and to study him more as a thinker than they’ve been doing. And we also think this would make our translation more historically accurate, closer to what he meant to say. But I don’t think that’s conservative in a political sense.
Ben: You…you are called a Straussian after, uh, Leo Strauss the conservative philosopher. Uh, I like to end if…if…if we might because, uh, we—the, uh, conservative and semi conservative movement hear that phrase all the time. Perhaps you could, uh, explain it to us before we leave?
Harvey: Well I am a Straussian, a follower of Strauss. I was never his student but since I went to Harvard instead of Chicago, but I’m certainly a follower. Strauss wanted to revive political philosophy. Well he wanted to revive philosophy, but he thought that political philosophy was the crucial part of philosophy. And to do that, we had to once again take the beginning, the classical beginning, of political philosophy into consideration. So we had to turn our attention once again to Plato and Aristotle – those two great names, other besides but those two above all. And to do this we had to, um, um, rethink the notion that modern science makes Plato and Aristotle, um, impossible or that modern historical progress makes them obsolete.
Ben: Last question, uh, a hundred years from now will, uh, Tocqueville and that book Democracy in America still be remembered?
Harvey: I’m sure it will. As long as our society remains free and in need of instruction, we’ll need this book.
Ben: Okay. Thank you very much, Professor, uh, Harvey Mansfield of, uh, Harvard University and thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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