Alexis Clérel (1805–59)
[All] the particular circumstances which tend to make the state of a democratic community agitated and precarious … lead private persons more and more to sacrifice their rights to their tranquillity.
The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst.
But it depends on themselves whether equality is to lead to
- servitude or freedom,
- knowledge or barbarism,
- prosperity or wretchedness. …
In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. …
The fact that the political laws of Americans are such that the majority rules the community with sovereign sway, materially increases the power which the majority naturally exercises over the mind [of the individual.]
For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor.
In the United States, where the poor rule, the rich have always some reason to dread the abuses of their power.
(p 288, emphasis added)
[It] is easy to perceive that the wealthy members of the community entertain a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country.
The populace is at once the object
- of their scorn and
- of their fears.
I know of no country … where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.
In no country in the world do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal; and I am acquainted with no people which has established
- schools as numerous and as efficacious,
- places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or
- roads kept in better repair.
In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.
Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in the penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes.
The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.
[However, religions] ought to confine themselves within their own precincts; for in seeking to extend their power beyond religious matters, they incur a risk of not being believed at all.
The circle within which they seek to bound the human intellect ought therefore to be carefully traced, and beyond its verge the mind should be left in entire freedom to its own guidance.
[Patriotism] and religion are the only two motives in the world which can permanently direct the whole of a body politic to one end.
The English … rarely abuse the right of association [through resort to violence,] because they have long been accustomed to exercise it.
In France the passion for war is so intense that there is no undertaking so mad, or so injurious to the welfare of the State, that a man does not consider himself honored in defending it, at the risk of his life.
It is in the general and permanent interest of mankind that men should not kill each other: but it may happen to be the peculiar and temporary interest of a people or a class to justify, or even to honor, homicide.
It should … be the unceasing object of the legislators of democracies, and of all the virtuous and enlightened men who live there, to raise the souls of their fellow-citizens, and keep them lifted up towards heaven. …
If amongst the opinions of a democratic people any of those pernicious theories exist which tend to inculcate that all perishes with the body, let men by whom such theories are professed be marked as the natural foes of such a people. …
The materialists are offensive to me in many respects; their doctrines I hold to be pernicious, and I am disgusted at their arrogance. …
Materialism is, amongst all nations, a dangerous disease of the human mind; ; but it is more especially to be dreaded amongst a democratic people, because it readily amalgamates with that vice which is most familiar to the heart under such circumstances.
Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification: this taste, if it become excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only …
Most religions are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
That is the greatest benefit which a democratic people derives from its belief, and hence belief is more necessary to such a people than to all others.
[Therefore, seek] not to supersede the old religious opinions of men by new ones; lest in the passage from one faith to another, the soul being left for a while stripped of all belief, the love of physical gratifications should grow upon it and fill it wholly.
(Democracy in America, 1835)
Democracy in America
Populism in America
A Thousand Years of Freedom
ALEXIS CLÉREL (1805–59)
Viscount de Tocqueville.
- Democracy in America, 1835-40, Bantam, 2011.
[Prior to European settlement] North America was only inhabited by wandering tribes, who took no thought of the natural riches of the soil, and that vast country was still, properly speaking, an empty continent, a desert land awaiting its inhabitants.
Three of four thousand soldiers drive the wandering races of the aborigines before them; these are followed by the pioneers, who pierce the woods, scare off the beasts of prey, explore the courses of the inland streams, and make ready the triumphal procession of civilization across the waste.
This gradual and continuous progress of the European race towards the Rocky Mountains has the solemnity of a providential event; it is like a deluge of men rising unabatedly, and daily driven onwards by the hand of God.
[The Indian] has nothing to oppose our perfection in the arts but the resources of the desert, to our tactics nothing but undisciplined courage; whilst our well-digested plans are met by the spontaneous instincts of savage life, who can wonder if he fails in this unequal contest?
[The] State of Texas is a part of Mexico, and lies upon the frontier between that country and the United States.
In the course of the last few years the Anglo-Americans have penetrated into the province [and it] may easily be foreseen that if Mexico takes no steps to check this change, the province of Texas will very shortly cease to belong to that government.
(Footnote s, p 404)
It is difficult to describe the rapacity with which the American rushes forward to secure the immense booty which fortune proffers to him.
The growth of European habits has been remarkably accelerated among [the mixed race Cherokees.]
Deriving intelligence from their father's side, without entirely losing the savage customs of the mother, the half-blood forms the natural link between civilization and barbarism. …
[Their success] proves that the Indians are capable of civilization, but it does not prove that they will succeed in it.
The Indians, in the little which they have done, have unquestionably displayed as much natural genius as the peoples of Europe in their most important designs; but nations as well as men require time to learn, whatever may be their intelligence and their zeal.
Whilst the savages were engaged in the work of civilization, the Europeans continued to surround them on every side, and to confine them within narrower [and narrower limits. …]
[Thus were they] isolated in their own country, and their race only constituted a colony of troublesome aliens in the midst of a numerous and domineering people.
[And] as the limits of the the earth will at last fail them, their only refuge is the grave.
America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion, and every movement seems an improvement. …
This perpetual change which goes on in the United States, these frequent vicissitudes of fortune, accompanied by such unforeseen fluctuations in private and in public wealth, serve to keep the minds of the citizens in a perpetual state of feverish agitation, which admirably invigorates their exertions, and keeps them in a state of excitement above the ordinary level of mankind.
The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.
When I contemplate the ardor with which the Anglo-Americans prosecute commercial enterprise, the advantages which befriend them, and the success of their undertakings, I cannot refrain from believing that they will one day become the first, maritime power of the globe.
They are born to rule the seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world.
I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.
The majority lives in the perpetual practice of self-applause …
[There] can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.
… I do not regard the American Constitution as the best … which a democratic people may establish.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the American legislation, taken collectively, is extremely well adapted to the genius of the people and the nature of the country which it is intended to govern.
Nothing is more irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people, because, whilst it exercises that moral influence which belongs to the decision of the majority, it acts at the same time with the promptitude and the tenacity of a single man.
However enlightened and however skillful a central power may be, it cannot itself embrace all the details of the existence of a great nation.
Such vigilance exceeds the powers of man .
And when it attempts to create and set in motion so many complicated springs, it must submit to a very imperfect result, or consume itself in bootless efforts.
It is certain that despotism ruins individuals by preventing them from producing wealth, much more than by depriving of wealth they have produced; it dries up the source of riches, whilst it usually respects acquired property.
Freedom, on the contrary, engenders far more benefits than it destroys; and the nations which are favored by free institutions invariably find that their resources increase even more rapidly than their taxes. …
The government of the middle classes appears to me to be the most economical, though perhaps not the most enlightened, and certainly not the most generous, of free governments.
In general, democracy gives largely to the community, and very sparingly to those who govern it.
The reverse is the case in aristocratic countries, where the money of the State is expended to the profit of persons who are at the head of affairs.
In the United States, where the public officers have no interest in promoting the interests of their caste, the general and constant influence of government is beneficial, although the individuals who conduct it are frequently unskilful and sometimes contemptible.
In the United States the persons who engage in the perplexities of political life are individuals of very moderate pretensions.
The pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and of great passions from the pursuit of power, and it very frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortune of the State until he has discovered his incompetence to conduct his own affairs.
When the conditions of men are almost equal, they do not easily allow themselves to be persuaded by each other.
- As they all live in close intercourse,
- as they have learned the same things together, and
- as they lead the same life,
Men seldom take the opinion of their equal, or of a man like themselves, upon trust.
Not only is confidence in the superior attainments of certain individuals weakened amongst democratic nations … but the general notion of the intellectual superiority which any man whatsoever may acquire in relation to the rest of the community is soon overshadowed.
As men grow more like each other, the doctrine of the equality of the intellect gradually infuses itself into their opinions; and it becomes more difficult for any innovator to acquire or to exert much influence over the minds of a people.
In such communities sudden intellectual revolutions will therefore be rare; for, if we read aright the history of the world, we shall find that great and rapid changes in human opinions have been produced far less by the force of reasoning than by the authority of a name.
Observe, too, that as the men who live in democratic societies are not connected with each other by any tie, each of them must be convinced individually; whilst in aristocratic society it is enough to convince a few — the rest follow.
If Luther had lived in an age of equality, and had not had princes and potentates for his audience, he would perhaps have found it more difficult to change the aspect of Europe.
If at all times education enables men to defend their independence, this is most especially true in democratic ages.
When all men are alike, it is easy to found a sole and all-powerful government, by the aid of mere instinct.
But men require much intelligence, knowledge, and art to organize and to maintain secondary powers [and thus] to create amidst the independence and individual weakness of the citizens such free associations as may be in a condition to struggle against tyranny without destroying public order.
Hence the concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations, not only in the same proportion as their equality, but in the same proportion as their ignorance.
The foremost, or indeed the sole, condition which is required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it.