French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville's classic treatise on the American way of life.
Over 175 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, an astute political scientist, came to the United States to evaluate the meaning and actual functioning of democracy. Here, Tocqueville discusses the advantages and dangers of majority rule—which he thought could be as tyrannical as the rule of a monarchy. He analyzes the influence of political parties and the press on the government and the effect of equality on the social, political, and economic life of the American people. He also offers some startling predictions about world politics, which history has borne out. So brilliant and penetrating are his comments and criticisms, they have vital meaning today for all who are interested in democracy.
Abridged and with an Introduction by Richard D. Heffner
and an Afterword by Vartan Gregorian
About the Author
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805 to a noble French family that had survived the French Revolution. His father gained some political power under the reign of the Bourbons, and after the July Revolution of 1830, the family was exiled along with the king. Tocqueville, then twenty-five years old, stayed in France, swearing allegiance to the new government. Shortly thereafter he and a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, sought and received a government assignment to study the prison system of the United States. They arrived in America in 1831. After extensive travels across the young nation, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840). The publication of the first volume made Tocqueville a well-known figure, but he led a quiet life, accepting modest governmental posts, traveling around Europe, and marrying an Englishwoman. In 1848, Tocqueville once again rose to political prominence after a prescient speech that foretold of revolution. After serving through the massive upheavals and overthrows of government, Tocqueville retired from political life in 1849. Always weak in health, his lung disease grew progressively worse from that period on. Moving south several times on doctor’s recommendations, Tocqueville succumbed to death in Cannes in 1859.
Richard D. Heffner received his A.B. and M.A. from Columbia University and has taught history and political science at the University of California, Sarah Lawrence College, and the New School for Social Research. He has been University Professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers since 1964. Mr. Heffner also produces and moderates his prize-winning weekly public television series, The Open Mind, and for twenty years was Chairman of the motion picture industry’s film rating system. In addition to Democracy in America, Mr. Heffner is the editor of the Mentor book A Documentary History of the United States.
Vartan Gregorian is the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. Prior to his current position, Gregorian served for nine years (1989-1997) as president of Brown University and for eight years (1981-1989) as President of the New York Public Library. He became founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 and four years later became its twenty-third provost. Gregorian, an historian, was a professor at San Francisco State University, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin, Penn, and Brown.
Read an Excerpt
Democracy in America
By Alexis de Tocqueville
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
On the Use That the Americans Make of
Association in Civil Life
I do not wish to speak of those political associations with the aid of
which men seek to defend themselves against the despotic action of a
majority or against the encroachments of royal power. I have already
treated this subject elsewhere. It is clear that if each citizen, as he
becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable in isolation
of preserving his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those
like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality.
Here it is a question only of the associations that are formed in civil
life and which have an object that is in no way political.
The political associations that exist in the United States form only a
detail in the midst of the immense picture that the sum of associations
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not
only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take
part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave,
futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small;
Americansuse associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build
inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the
antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.
Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a
sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere
that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France
and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an
association in the United States.
In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had
no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants
of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many
men and to get them to advance to it freely.
I have since traveled through England, from which the Americans took some
of their laws and many of their usages, and it appeared to me that there
they were very far from making as constant and as skilled a use of
It often happens that the English execute very great things in isolation,
whereas there is scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not
unite for it. It is evident that the former consider association as a
powerful means of action; but the latter seem to see in it the sole means
they have of acting.
Thus the most democratic country on earth is found to be, above all, the
one where men in our day have most perfected the art of pursuing the
object of their common desires in common and have applied this new science
to the most objects. Does this result from an accident or could it be that
there in fact exists a necessary relation between associations and
Aristocratic societies always include within them, in the midst of a
multitude of individuals who can do nothing by themselves, a few very
powerful and very wealthy citizens; each of these can execute great
undertakings by himself.
In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they
are kept very much together.
Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a
permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he
holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of
In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and
weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can
oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They
therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other
If men who live in democratic countries had neither the right nor the
taste to unite in political goals, their independence would run great
risks, but they could preserve their wealth and their enlightenment for a
long time; whereas if they did not acquire the practice of associating
with each other in ordinary life, civilization itself would be in peril. A
people among whom particular persons lost the power of doing great things
in isolation, without acquiring the ability to produce them in common,
would soon return to barbarism.
Unhappily, the same social state that renders associations so necessary to
democratic peoples renders them more difficult for them than for all
When several members of an aristocracy want to associate with each other
they easily succeed in doing so. As each of them brings great force to
society, the number of members can be very few, and, when the members are
few in number, it is very easy for them to know each other, to understand
each other, and to establish fixed rules.
The same facility is not found in democratic nations, where it is always
necessary that those associating be very numerous in order that the
association have some power.
I know that there are many of my contemporaries whom this does not
embarrass. They judge that as citizens become weaker and more incapable,
it is necessary to render the government more skillful and more active in
order that society be able to execute what individuals can no longer do.
They believe they have answered everything in saying that. But I think
they are mistaken.
A government could take the place of some of the greatest American
associations, and within the Union several particular states already have
attempted it. But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice
for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens
execute every day with the aid of an association?
It is easy to foresee that the time is approaching when a man by himself
alone will be less and less in a state to produce the things that are the
most common and the most necessary to his life. The task of the social
power will therefore constantly increase, and its very efforts will make
it vaster each day. The more it puts itself in place of associations, the
more particular persons, losing the idea of associating with each other,
will need it to come to their aid: these are causes and effects that
generate each other without rest. Will the public administration in the
end direct all the industries for which an isolated citizen cannot
suffice? and if there finally comes a moment when, as a consequence of the
extreme division of landed property, the land is partitioned infinitely,
so that it can no longer be cultivated except by associations of laborers,
will the head of the government have to leave the helm of state to come
hold the plow?
The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer
dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take
the place of associations everywhere.
Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the
human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one
I have shown that this action is almost nonexistent in a democratic
country. It is therefore necessary to create it artificially there. And
this is what associations alone can do.
When the members of an aristocracy adopt a new idea or conceive a novel
sentiment, they place it in a way next to themselves on the great stage
they are on, and in thus exposing it to the view of the crowd, they easily
introduce it into the minds or hearts of all those who surround them.
In democratic countries, only the social power is naturally in a state to
act like this, but it is easy to see that its action is always
insufficient and often dangerous.
A government can no more suffice on its own to maintain and renew the
circulation of sentiments and ideas in a great people than to conduct all
its industrial undertakings. As soon as it tries to leave the political
sphere to project itself on this new track, it will exercise an
insupportable tyranny even without wishing to; for a government knows only
how to dictate precise rules; it imposes the sentiments and the ideas that
it favors, and it is always hard to distinguish its counsels from its
This will be still worse if it believes itself really interested in having
nothing stir. It will then hold itself motionless and let itself be numbed
by a voluntary somnolence.
It is therefore necessary that it not act alone.
In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful
particular persons whom equality of conditions has made disappear.
As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived
a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek
each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite. From then
on, they are no longer isolated men, but a power one sees from afar, whose
actions serve as an example; a power that speaks, and to which one
The first time I heard it said in the United States that a hundred
thousand men publicly engaged not to make use of strong liquors, the thing
appeared to me more amusing than serious, and at first I did not see well
why such temperate citizens were not content to drink water within their
In the end I understood that those hundred thousand Americans, frightened
by the progress that drunkenness was making around them, wanted to provide
their patronage to sobriety. They had acted precisely like a great lord
who would dress himself very plainly in order to inspire the scorn of
luxury in simple citizens. It is to be believed that if those hundred
thousand men had lived in France, each of them would have addressed
himself individually to the government, begging it to oversee the cabarets
all over the realm.
There is nothing, according to me, that deserves more to attract our
regard than the intellectual and moral associations of America. We easily
perceive the political and industrial associations of the Americans, but
the others escape us; and if we discover them, we understand them badly
because we have almost never seen anything analogous. One ought however to
recognize that they are as necessary as the first to the American people,
and perhaps more so.
In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science;
the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.
Among the laws that rule human societies there is one that seems more
precise and clearer than all the others. In order that men remain
civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and
perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions
Excerpted from Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note on the Text xvii
The Text of Democracy in America 1
Tocqueville Letters 621
To Ernest de Chabrol, New York, 9 June 1831 621
To M. Louis de Kergolay, Yonkers, 20 June 1831 622
To Ernest de Chabrol, Hartford, 7 October 1831 626
To the Countess de Tocqueville, On the Mississippi, 25 December 1831 627
To Eugene Stoffels, Paris, 21 February 1835 628
To Henry Reeve, Paris, 22 March 1837 629
To John Quincy Adams, Paris, 4 December 1837 630
Reviews of Democracy in America 632
Le Temps, Paris, April 1835 632
Revue des deux mondes, July-September 1840 636
Preface to 1838 American Edition of Democracy in America 643
Preface to 1841 American Edition of Democracy in America 646
The North American Review, July 1836 650
The United States Democratic Review, October 1837 659
The Knickerbocker; or The New York Monthly Magazine, September 1838 670
London Review, October 1835 673
Edinburgh Review, October 1840 683
Tocquevilleas Ethnographer 707
Tocqueville and American Civilization 717
Many Tocquevilles 724
From Egoism to Individualism 739
Not by Preaching: Tocqueville on the Role of Religion in American Democracy 750
Archaism and Modernity 767
The Illiberal Tocqueville 777
Of Prophets and Prophecy 788
Individualism and Apathy in Tocqueville's Democracy 799
Many Democracies: On Tocqueville and Jacksonian America 809
Democracy and the Tyranny of the Majority 825
Life Everlasting: Tocqueville in America 834
Tocqueville and American Legal Studies: The Paradox of Liberty and Destruction 848
Selected Bibliography 855