Democracy in America

Democracy in America Summary and Analysis of Vol. II, Part 1, Chapters 1-21

Part I: Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States

Chapter I: Concerning the Philosophical Approach of the Americans

The American people pay little attention to philosophy, yet they all think according to the same method. Most people rely on individual effort and judgment for their decisions. There is a distaste for accepting anything on the basis of authority, and they think that everything can be explained by human intelligence. As a result they have an aversion to the supernatural. Basically, the Americans are following Descartes's method perfectly, allowing all traditional ideas to be open for attack. This method can only take root in a society where there is a high degree of equality.

Why is it that the French apply the Cartesian method more strictly than the Americans although the Americans have more liberty? The first reason is the peculiar power of religion in America. Religion is believed without discussion, because it has set its own limits so that laws and politics can change without affecting beliefs. The second reason is that there was no democratic revolution in America, and consequently no anarchy extreme social animosities to upset all traditional ideas.

Chapter 2: Concerning the Principal Source of Beliefs Among Democratic Peoples

Societies needs at least some dogmatic beliefs‹that is, opinions taken on trust without discussion‹because without common ideas common action is impossible, and without common action society cannot exist, much less prosper. Even individually, man needs dogmatic beliefs because there is simply not enough time in life to examine and prove all the truths which he makes use of in daily life. Anyone who refused to accept anything without proving it himself would never be firmly convinced of anything. Therefore authority also plays a part in intellectual and moral life.

Equality tends to give make men overestimate the power of human reason, and generally look to themselves or those around them for the truth. People are very unlikely to believe in the ideas of any one man or class, but are very willing to trust public opinion. Since all are considered to be equally capable of knowing the truth, people assume that truth must lie with the majority. Even the strength of religion is based mostly on public opinion.

Equality can have two results: inducing men to think innovatively, or leading him to stop thinking entirely, completely bound by the will of the greatest number.

Chapter 3: Why the Americans Show More Aptitude and Taste for General Ideas Than Their English Forefathers

In aristocratic societies where there is much inequality, people are so different that there is little incentive to make generalizations about humanity. In democracies, however, people tend to think that truths applicable to one person are applicable to all. Until the coming of Jesus Christ, the idea that all people are equal was unheard of. In times of equality people tend to generalize because there is little time to think and generalizing saves them the time needed to analyze particular cases.

Chapter 4: Why the Americans Have Never Been as Eager as the French for General Ideas About Political Affairs

The Americans have much more practical experience in political affairs than the French. The democratic institutions which force each citizen to take a hand in the practical realities of government force them to look at particular cases rather than general political theories.

Chapter 5: How Religion in the United States Makes Use of Democratic Instincts

Almost every human action results from some general conception of God and the duties one owes to one's fellow man. These ideas are therefore extremely important. Yet, preoccupied by the daily duties, people often lack the time to think these matters over seriously. Religion provides the answers to the necessary questions of life. Even if the religion is not true, it greatly contributes to man's happiness and dignity.

When a people's religion is destroyed people despair of finding the answers to the ultimate questions of human existence. This state debilitates the soul and prepares a people to hand over their freedom in search of some sort of stability.

Religion is especially important to combat the negative results of egalitarianism, such as materialism and egoism. Since religion is so crucial in democracies, it is important for religion to confine itself to its proper sphere; otherwise the antipathy to dogmatic beliefs will lead to complete loss of faith. In a sense, however, democracy can be helpful to Christian beliefs because people naturally accept the unity of God and the moral law because such ideas are consistent with equality.

The taste for well-being is the most dominant passion of democratic peoples, and consequently a religion which attempts to completely detach people from the goods of this world would be doomed to fail. Rather, religion needs moderate the excessive taste for well-being and encourage the use of honest means for its pursuit. In addition, all matters that are not essential articles of faith religion needs to acquiesce with the majority's opinion, because the opinion of the majority rules. The American clergy are aware of these needs and act accordingly. As a result, religion is very strong in America both from its own power and from the support of public opinion.

Chapter 6: Concerning the Progress of Roman Catholicism in the United States

In America Roman Catholicism seems to be growing in popularity, because the people are attracted by Catholicism's discipline and unity.

Chapter 7: What Causes Democratic Nations to Incline Toward Pantheism

The concept of unity is very attractive to the democratic mentality, and thus pantheism, which includes God and the universe in one great whole, has been growing in popularity.

Chapter 8: How Equality Suggests to the Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man

In democratic nations where all are equal, laws and ideas are always changing, and new truths are constantly discovered, people tend to think that there is an unlimited capability for progress and human perfectibility.

Chapter 9: Why the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude or Taste for Science, Literature, or the Arts

There were special circumstances which gave the Americans a distaste for the arts, such as their religion, their ambitious drive for wealth. In addition, they were able to simply to take theoretical knowledge from Europe rather than having to think of it themselves.

In general, however, democracy ought to favor the increase of enlightenment in its own way. Since all legal inequalities are abolished, the only source of disparity in fortunes will be natural talents and intellect. Therefore people will begin to appreciate the value of knowledge since they see that it yields prosperity.

Chapter 10: Why the Americans Are More Concerned With the Applications Than With the Theory of Science

Americans concern themselves only with the practical side of science, because theoretical, abstract knowledge requires deep thought and meditation, for which democratic society is not conducive. People in democratic nations tend to be involved in continual activity, which does not allow time to reflect deeply on the basis of their ideas before acting upon them. Democratic people are always concerned primarily with bettering their lot, and consequently are only interested in practical methods and innovations which will allow to increase their material prosperity. While the danger of this attitude is not immediately apparent, it could lead to a dwindling away of civilization if people become so preoccupied with the material and practical that they forget the basic principles altogether.

Chapter 11: In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts

Democratic peoples tend to have a taste for the useful more than a love of beauty. Since all people want access to as many goods as possible, they are willing to sacrifice the quality of those goods in order to be able to afford them. "Quantity increases; quality goes down." People are concerned more with appearances than with reality.

Chapter 12: Why the Americans Erect Some Petty Monuments and Others That Are Very Grand

Individuals are very divided and weak in a democracy, but the state which represents them all is very strong. As a result, public monuments are conceived on a grand scale.

Chapter 13: Literary Characteristics of Democratic Centuries

Americans have no real literature of their own; they always read English works. The true American writings are in journalism. In democracy people will tend to pursue literature only as a form of relaxation or entertainment. As a result, they will not tend to produce works of great depth or erudition.

Chapter 14: The Industry of Literature

In democracies, literature tends to take on an industrial spirit and writers look at it as a trade by which to earn a living, rather than as a passionate intellectual endeavor.

Chapter 15: Why the Study of Greek and Latin Literature is Useful in Democratic Societies

Greek and Latin literature is excellent for democracies because it emphasizes precisely those qualities which democratic literature tends to lack and provides an antidote to its defects.

Chapter 16: How American Democracy Modified the English Language

The restlessness and constant change prevalent in democracies affects language as all else. Many new words are created, especially for purposes of industry or politics. Rules of style and formalities of expression tend to vanish.

Chapter 17: On Some Sources of Poetic Inspiration in Democracies

Democracies are not concerned about the past, but the future can be a great source of poetic inspiration for them. They will also focus mostly on humanity, with its passions, doubts, and fortunes.

Chapter 18: Why American Writers and Speakers are Often Bombastic

Since most of the time democratic people are thinking of petty individual concerns, when they think of grander subjects they tend to take them entirely out of proportion.

Chapter 19: Some Observations on the Theater Among Democratic Peoples

Drama is the most natural of all literary tastes for democratic peoples because it requires the least study and effort. Dramatic and literary conventions are entirely ignored, and drama generally appeals to the emotions. The theater is still not very popular, however, because of the Puritan abhorrence for it.

Chapter 20: Some Characteristics Peculiar to Historians in Democratic Centuries

Democratic historians tend to downplay the influence of individuals and relate everything to great general causes. They also tend to exhibit a certain fatalism, making them doubt free will entirely and question the ability of individual actions to have any impact on the course of events.

Chapter 21: Of Parliamentary Eloquence in the United States

Democratic representatives think more about their constituents than about their party. As a result, congressmen tend to speak often simply to prove to their constituents that they are fighting for their interests.


The philosophical tendencies of the Americas may be a great danger to their liberty. The Americans' sense of equality leads them to doubt any sort of authoritative claims and at the same time to confidently assert that "everything in the world can be explained and that nothing passes beyond the limits of intelligence," placing extreme faith in the abilities of human reason. At the same time, it is clear that "since life is too short . . . and human faculties are too limited [to prove all truths for oneself], man has to accept as certain a whole heap of facts and opinions which he has neither leisure nor power to examine and verify for himself." Therefore, the combined influence of equality, the exaltation of human reason, and the need accept some truths on authority, leads to the establishment of public opinion as the absolute arbiter of truth. This philosophical tendency only amplifies the political tendency leading toward tyranny of the majority. As Tocqueville writes, "If democratic peoples substituted the absolute power of a majority for all the various powers that used excessively to impede or hold back the upsurge of individual thought, the evil itself would only have changed its form. . . . They would only have succeeded in the difficult task of giving slavery a new face. . . . For myself, if I feel the hand of power heavy on my brow, I am little concerned to know who it is that oppresses me; I am no better inclined to pass my head under the yoke because a million men hold it for me."

Democracy, combined with the historical situation of America, seems to condemn the Americans to a future of intellectual and literary mediocrity. While this lack of intellectualism may not be good for the society, it is not nearly so great a harm or danger of the tendency toward democratic despotism.