Democracy in America  

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“I am neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative...Liberty is my foremost passion.”

[...]

"But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” --Democracy in America

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

De la démocratie en Amérique (published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840) is a classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville on the democratic institutions of the United States in the 1830s and its strengths and weaknesses. A "literal" translation of its title is Of Democracy in America, but the usual translation of the title is simply Democracy in America. It is regarded as a classic account of the democratic system of the United States and has been used as an important reference ever since. The work is regarded as a seminal text in economics and a key work in the foundation of economic sociology.

In 1831, twenty-five-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling the United States, taking notes not only on prisons, but on all aspects of American society, including the nation's economy and its political system. The two also briefly visited Canada, spending a few days in the summer of 1831 in what was then Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario).

After they returned to France in February 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont submitted their report, entitled Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France, in 1833. When the first edition was published, Beaumont, sympathetic to social injustice, was working on another book, Marie, ou, L'esclavage aux Etats-Unis (two volumes, 1835), a social critique and novel describing the separation of races in a moral society and the conditions of slaves in America.

Importance

Democracy in America was published in numerous editions in the 19th century. It was immediately popular in both Europe and the United States, while also having a profound impact on the French population. By the twentieth century, it had become a classic work of political science, social science, and history. It is a commonly assigned reading for undergraduates of American universities majoring in the political or social sciences, and part of the introductory political theory syllabus at Oxford.

Tocqueville's work is often acclaimed for making a number of predictions that were eventually borne out. Tocqueville correctly anticipates the potential of the debate over the abolition of slavery to tear apart the United States (as it indeed did in the American Civil War) and the rise of the United States and Russia as rival superpowers, which they did become after World War II, with Russia as the central component of the Soviet Union. Noting the rise of the industrial sector in the American economy, Tocqueville also correctly predicted that an aristocracy will rise from the ownership of labor, warning that '...friends of democracy must keep an anxious eye peeled in this direction at all times', saying further that the route of industry was the gate by which a new found wealthy class may potentially dominate; Karl Marx would later expand on this theme. On the other hand, Tocqueville also somewhat incorrectly notes that a democracy's equality of conditions stifles literary development, spending numerous chapters lamenting the state of the arts; written just prior to America's own literary Renaissance (due in large part to writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman), his assertions proved to be inaccurate. Also mentioning the employment of science for the sole purpose of streamlining production of material goods, he also failed to properly predict America's dominant place on the stage of scientific endeavor.

American democracy was seen to have some unfavourable aspects: the despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of the majority; conformity for the sake of material security; and a lack of intellectual freedom, the deficiency in which he felt tended to degrade administration and to reduce statesmanship, learning, and literature to the lowest level. Democracy in America predicted the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Democracy in America" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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