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Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

A Preview of Democracy

Democracy in America.
by Alexis De Tocqueville.
A new edition, edited Knopf. 1945. Vol. 1, 434 pp. Vol. 11, 401 pp. $6.00.

What Europeans have said about America and what Americans have said about Europe is at times mere verbiage, and at other times highly prophetic.

From this two-hundred-year-old discussion one voice still rings out: that of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. The first volume of his work, De la Démocratie en Amérique, came out in 1831, the second in 1840. This classic work has now been brought out anew with a hundred-page introduction by Philips Bradley of Queens College. Harold J. Laski writes in a short preface: “It is, perhaps, the greatest work ever written on one country by the citizen of another.” One can ascribe even greater merits to this book. It contains the most sagacious analysis of modem society before Marx.

De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat. One of his grandfathers and an aunt had been guillotined during the French Revolution. After Napoleon’s fall, his father held official positions under the returned Bourbons. The son travelled to America under orders from a French minister of the interior (but at his own cost) in the year 1831, in order to study the prison system here. The fruits of his nine-months stay were two books. One was: Du systeme pénitentiaire aux États Unis et son application en France. The other was De la Démocratie en Amérique. He could have added to this title “. . . and its application to France.”

For his book was addressed to France, to Europe. To the French and European aristocracy it said: it is not true that rule by the people has to be rule by the mob. Look at America! And to the restless masses of citizens, artisans and laborers in ferment under the bourgeois regime of Louis Philippe, it said: democracy is no dream, no fancy, but a very common and not very brilliant phenomenon. Look at America! Aristocrats took from his work weapons against liberalism, and liberals drew upon it for arms against reaction.

For America this book had still another function. At that time, Americans had not yet been spoiled by European travel-authors. They still had to read a lot of nonsense and much libel about themselves. And now, a very positive book about America appeared which had knowledge, honesty, fairness and a large insight into social connections, as well as a scintillating style.

What does this work mean to us? It is first of all an excellent and prophetic presentation of America before the Civil War and on the threshold of the industrial age.

But above all it is one of the first, one of the deepest and most accurate judgments ever handed down on our present age of mass culture, which had barely begun in de Tocqueville’s own time. His book concerns itself not only with America but even more with “Americanism”—and Americanism now has become world-destiny. As an aristocrat stemming from the oldest and highest of European cultures, de Tocqueville knew that great civilizations had much for which to thank their aristocracies. He realized to what extent the higher activities of the mind tend to be subjugated to the principle of utility by democratic mass culture. He observed with worry the tendency to leveling, to uniformity and standardization.

Yet he was penetrating and just enough to understand that the shadows cast by democratic mass culture were caused by a great light. He knew that this was the price of greater justice. In 1848 de Tocqueville was for a short time foreign minister of the French Republic. In this year he wrote a preface to the twelfth edition of his book in which he underlined the following sentences in particular: “The gradual development of the principle of equality is a providential fact. It has all the chief characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as men contribute to its progress. Would it be wise to imagine that a social movement the causes of which lie so far back can be checked by the efforts of one generation? Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists? Will it stop now that it is grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?”

In the principle of equality Tocqueville saw the great driving force of world-history in his time. By this principle he explained many of the accomplishments of this country—and many of its shortcomings as well.

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