Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Reflections on the United States From Abroad

Chapter 13: GOVERNMENT OF THE DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

I AM well aware of the difficulties that attend this part of my subject; but although every expression which I am about to use may clash, upon some points, with the feelings of the different parties which divide my country, I shall still speak my whole thought.

In Europe we are at a loss how to judge the true character and the permanent instincts of democracy, because in Europe two conflicting principles exist .... Such is not the case in America, however; ...In America democracy is given up to its own propensities; its course is natural and its activity is unrestrained, there, consequently, its real character must be judged. ...

MANY people in Europe are apt to believe without saying it, or to say without believing it, that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is that it entrusts the direction of affairs to men who are worthy of the public confidence. They ...aver that the people always wish the welfare of the state and instinctively designate those who are animated by the same good will and who are the most fit to wield the supreme authority. I confess that the observations I made in America by no means coincide with these opinions. On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government.

...I readily admit that the mass of the citizens sincerely wish to promote the welfare of the country; ...but it is always more or less difficult for them to discern the best means of attaining the end which they sincerely desire. Long and patient observation and much acquired knowledge are requisite to form a just estimate of the character of a single individual. Men of the greatest genius often fail to do it, and can it be supposed that the common people will always succeed? The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the more prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence.

...It cannot be denied that democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart; not so much because they afford to everyone the means of rising to the same level with others as because those means perpetually disappoint the persons who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy. ... The lower orders are agitated by the chance of success, they are irritated by its uncertainty; and they pass from the enthusiasm of pursuit to the exhaustion of ill success, and lastly to the acrimony of disappointment. ..., and there is no superiority, however legitimate it may be, which is not irksome in their sight. ...While the natural instincts of democracy induce the people to reject distinguished citizens as their rulers, an instinct not less strong induces able men to retire from the political arena, in which it is so difficult to retain their independence, or to advance without becoming servile...

WHEN serious dangers threaten the state, the people frequently succeed in selecting the citizens who are the most able to save it. It has been observed that man rarely retains his customary level in very critical circumstances; he rises above or sinks below his usual condition, and the same thing is true of nations. ..Great characters are then brought into relief as the edifices which are usually concealed by the gloom of night are illuminated by the glare of a conflagrations. At those dangerous times genius no longer hesitates to come forward; and the people, alarmed by the perils of their situation, for a time forget their envious passions. Great names may then be drawn from the ballot box. ...When America was struggling in the high cause of independence to throw off the yoke of another country, and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world, the spirits of its inhabitants were roused to the height which their great objects required. In this general excitement distinguished men were ready to anticipate the call of the community, and the people clung to them for support and placed them at their head. But such events are rare, and it is from the ordinary course of affairs that our judgment must be formed.

If passing occurrences sometimes check the passions of democracy, the intelligence and the morals of the community exercise an influence on them which is not less powerful and far more permanent. This is very perceptible in the United States..., [W]here education and liberty are the daughters of morality and religion, where society has acquired age and stability enough to enable it to form principles and hold fixed habits, the common people are accustomed to respect intellectual and moral superiority and to submit to it without complaint, although they set at naught all those privileges which wealth and birth have introduced among mankind. ...Consequently, the democracy makes a more judicious choice than it does elsewhere.

...It is difficult to say what degree of effort a democratic government may be capable of making on the occurrence of a national crisis. No great democratic republic has hitherto existed in the world. ... The United States affords the first example of the kind. The American Union has now subsisted for half a century, and its existence has only once been attacked; namely, during the War of Independence. At the commencement of that long war, extraordinary efforts were made with enthusiasm for the service of the country. But as the contest was prolonged, private selfishness began to reappear. No money was brought into the public treasury; few recruits could be raised for the army; the people still wished to acquire independence, but would not employ the only means by which it could be obtained. ...In order, therefore, to know what sacrifices democratic nations may impose upon themselves, we must wait until the American people are obliged to put half their entire income at the disposal of the government, as was done by the English; or to send forth a twentieth part of its population to the field of battle, as was done by France.

...It is incontestable that, in times of danger, a free people display far more energy than any other. But ...Democracy appears to me better adapted for the conduct of society in times of peace, or for a sudden effort of remarkable vigor, than for the prolonged endurance of the great storms that beset the political existence of nations. The reason is very evident; enthusiasm prompts men to expose themselves to dangers and privations; but without reflection they will not support them long. There is more calculation even in the impulses of bravery than is generally supposed; and although the first efforts are made by passion alone, perseverance is maintained only by a distinct view of what one is fighting for. A portion of what is dear to us is hazarded in order to save the remainder.

But it is this clear perception of the future, founded upon judgement and experience, that is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten. ...The noble exposes his life, indeed, but the chance of glory is equal to the chance of harm. If he sacrifices a large portion of his income to the state, he deprives himself for a time of some of the pleasures of affluence; but to the poor man death has no glory, and the imposts that are merely irksome to the rich often deprive him of the necessaries of life.

...I am of opinion that a democratic government tends, in the long run, to increase the real strength of society; but it can never combine, upon a single point and at a given time, so much power as an aristocracy or an absolute monarchy. If a democratic country remained during a whole century subject to a republican government, it would probably at the end of that period be richer, more populous, and more prosperous than the neighboring despotic states. But during that century it would often have incurred the risk of being conquered by them.

... a democracy can obtain truth only as the result of experience; and many nations may perish while they are awaiting the consequences of their errors. The great privilege of the Americans does not consist in being more enlightened than other nations, but in being able to repair the faults they may commit.

Images: 'The Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speach, Freedom From Want, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Fear' by Norman Rockwell
Text: de Tocqueville http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/toc_indx.html

5 comments:

Skyminder said...

Nice blogsite, Polly. I like the pictures. I need to figure out how to include pictures in my blogs: it would up the readership by like 50 percent. Keep it up! My only advice, however, is to write some flippant blogs. Those are the kind that really get people mad. Or if flippancy isn't your style, you should write very eloquently on a subject of which you are entirely ignorant--I know from experience that it gets 'em every time. . .

Filia Dei said...

Yay! Old Blue Eyes lives!

I'll teach you how to add pictures if you promise not to ever disappear for months like that again...

I'm afraid I'm not successful in flippancy, and there are too many things I'm naturally talented in for me to waste my energy on things I'll never be good at. Besides; what would all the flippant people do if there weren't any serious ones for them to incite?

And of course you know there are no subjects of which I am ignorant, (I am the very model of a modern major general...) so that option is out as well...

Alex said...

:O) Nice page!

Forget flippant or anything, keep doing what you are doing!

More pics are always nice, but I like the depth and content on this page. It contrasts well with your typical "my cat is cute" blogs I tend to find.

I like to spend 30 min a day just going from one blog to the next, and this is the kind of page that makes it all worth it.

Mark said...

That's a great citation; I think it's amazing how prescient de Toqueville's writing can be. I remember discussing this passage in an honors history class last semester; it's amazing how much his observations about the American character and the risks of democratic government still hold true.

Filia Dei said...

Thanks for visiting, Alex. I'm intrigued: can I ask how you found me?

And, Mark, despite the fact that I'm jealous of anyone who has the advantage of an honors class in anything, allow me to congratulate you on a fine application of vocab. 'Prescient' is exactly the word. (Although if it hadn't been for you I would have been forced to labor along under the limitations of 'freaky.')

What intrigues me most is how modern European observers still seem to echo de T. Or perhaps, like you, they have been educated by him and are now, like me, plagiarising?? I had a conversation with someone at my intership yesterday and they basically quoted that whole thing off to me over lunch, just with appropriate modern applications and examples. Now I just have to find his equivalent in an observer of Europe, so I can return critiques in kind...