Democracy in America

Democracy in America Summary and Analysis of Vol. I, Part 1, Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1: Physical Configuration of North America

Tocqueville begins within almost poetic description of the geographical layout of North America. There are two regions, bordered on the north by the pole and on the south by the equator, and separated in the middle by the Great Lakes. The region more suitable for human habitation is the southern one because it has more natural divisions. The Mississippi River valley, still a largely uninhabited wilderness, "is the most magnificent habitation ever prepared by God for man." The areas east of the Alleghenies where the population is concentrated are much less suitable for agriculture. When settlers first went to America, it was not completely uninhabited. The native tribes had a unique social organization, which was rudimentary and coarse in comparison to Europe, but which had a particular dignity as well. Though they were ignorant, they were not servile like many of the poor in aristocratic countries. Remains of previous civilizations have been found, but no one knows anything about them. Because the Indians were hunters, they did not actually possess the land. One gains possession of land through agriculture. The area around the Mississippi and in the plains is so well-suited for trade and industry that civilized man was destined to build a society there.


Although it is straightforward and mostly descriptive, this first chapter still provides a few insights into key themes of Tocqueville's philosophy. First of all, the notion of a divine plan guiding history‹a crucial underlying assumption of Tocqueville's thought‹is evident. Tocqueville speaks of the Mississippi valley as "prepared by God for man" and asserts that the European conquest of Indian territory was destined by Providence.

Some of Tocqueville's ideas about inequality and aristocracy also begin to surface when Tocqueville speaks about the Indians. He contrasts their simple dignity with the "coarseness of the common people" in civilized countries, explaining that this coarseness is exacerbated by contact with the upper classes. The reason for this phenomenon is that "where there are such rich and powerful men, the poor and weak feel themselves weighed down by their inferiority; seeing no prospect of gaining equality, they quite give up hope for themselves and allow themselves to fall below the proper dignity of mankind." On the other hand, though the Indians may be "poor and ignorant," they are also "equal and free." These comments point to Tocqueville's later, more developed analysis of the continual growth in equality of conditions, its benefits and drawbacks, and in particular its often problematic relation to freedom. These ideas are discussed at length in Volume II, Part II, but are constantly alluded to and almost taken for granted throughout the book.

Chapter 2: Concerning Their Point of Departure and its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans

One needs to understand the origin of a nation in order to understand its social conditions and laws. America is the only great nation for which we can see the origins. This chapter is important because it "provides the germ of all that is to follow."

Immigrants to America all shared a common language. In addition, their English heritage provided them with the knowledge and experience of local self-government, and the idea of the sovereignty of the people was deeply rooted in the Tudor monarchy. Because of religious influences, the people had chaste mores.

The land in America is not suitable for aristocracy because it is too difficult to handle and not fertile enough to provide enough support for both a landlord and tenant. As result, a large middle class formed.

There are two branches of colonies: the South and the North. The South began with Virginian settlers who were in search of gold and profit. These settlers had generally low moral standards, and almost immediately established slavery. These factors explain the mores and social conditions in the South.

In the North, all the immigrants came from educated classes. They left the comforts of home because of their belief in Puritanism, which is not just a religious doctrine but also contains the most absolute democratic theories. The Pilgrims established an orderly society immediately upon landing in 1620, and the colony grew rapidly because of continued immigration. It was "a society homogeneous in all its parts," the most perfect democracy that ever existed.

The English government encouraged the colonists and was actually glad that they left England because they were seen as potential revolutionaries. The colonies enjoyed great internal freedom. The settlers did not deny England's rule, but they did not take their internal ruling power from England. They organized themselves independently.

Criminal law in New England was based on Biblical moral codes. The laws were extremely strict and invasive. However, these were self-imposed and freely agreed upon. The people's mores were even more austere than their laws.

The political laws were well ahead of their time, and included such features as participation of the people in public affairs, individual freedom, trial by jury, etc. There was almost perfect equality of wealth and intellect among the citizens. While the state was officially a monarchy, local independence flourished, and each township was organized as a republic.

The laws demonstrated great knowledge of advanced social and political theory. They included provisions for the poor and public education (on the grounds that ignorance is an ally of the Devil). In this way, the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom were combined. In the sphere of morality everything was absolute, but in the sphere of politics everything was open to debate. As a result, religion and political freedom mutually supported one another. Religion is better off if it gains support without state coercion, and political freedom is strengthened by religion because it helps to create and maintain good mores, which are necessary for the responsible use of freedom.

Reasons for Some Peculiarities in the Laws and Customs of the Anglo-Americans

One needs to distinguish between elements of Puritan origin and elements of English origin. There are some laws in America which do not seem to fit their ideology, but which are simply a result of English influence. Such laws provide a slight aristocratic element.


This chapter provides an introduction to two of the central themes of the work: the extreme equality of conditions and its relation to political freedom, and the importance of religion for the maintenance of freedom.

Tocqueville believes that history progresses with the inevitable growth of equality of conditions, and he sees America as the furthest progression of this growth. The extraordinary level of equality can be both a help and a hindrance to freedom. On the one hand, one cannot have complete equality without complete freedom (see Volume II, Part II, Chapter II). Yet at the same time, Tocqueville recognizes that in almost every situation, freedom is endangered by an overly ardent passion for equality. The reason that freedom and equality have been able to coexist in America is the existence of deeply rooted local self-government, which provides the citizens with a means for exercising their freedom. The crucial importance of these local liberties is discussed in detail in Chapter 5, Volume 1.

Another key factor that has allowed America to maintain freedom is the influence of religion. Good mores‹or the habits, customs and values of a society‹are crucial especially in a democracy precisely because there is so much freedom and people tend to adopt a relativistic attitude. Religion is the best means of preserving wholesome mores and teaching people how to use their freedom well. As Tocqueville writes, "Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself." Tocqueville speaks at length about this idea in Chapter 9, Volume 1.

Tocqueville also briefly addresses the topic of separation of church and state. This separation is mutually beneficial for both the church and state. In Tocqueville's view, which he elaborates in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, the reason for the struggles between the church and state in France was precisely the unnatural combination of the two before the French Revolution.

Chapter 3: Social State of the Anglo-Americans

The Striking Feature in the Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans is that it is Essentially Democratic

The social state is the primary cause of most laws, and in America the social state is "eminently democratic." There was a high degree of equality among immigrants, and people are respected on the basis of intellect and virtue.

The South has rich landowners and slaves, but is not quite an aristocracy because there are no aristocratic privileges.

The laws of inheritance in America yielded the final advance of equality. If inheritance law requires equal sharing of property among the children, the land will be continually broken up and great landed fortunes will be nearly impossible to sustain. The connection between the land and the family name which exists when there are laws of primogeniture is eradicated. As a result, wealth circulates in America with great rapidity.

There is not only equality in wealth, but also equality in education. None are totally ignorant, and few are highly educated. There is no class with both the taste and leisure for intellectual pleasures. This state of affairs creates a "middling standard." There is no aristocratic element in the society.

Political Consequences of the Social State of the Anglo-Americans

For equality in the political sphere, either every citizen or no citizen can have rights. The passion for equality often overrides the desire for freedom; consequently people often surrender freedom for the sake of equality.


This chapter essentially continues to explain the equality that exists in America and the tension between equality and freedom. A negative element of equality which Tocqueville mentions briefly is its tendency to act as a leveler, bringing down those who would, in a more aristocratic society, become outstanding individuals. While Tocqueville is saddened by this loss, he sees it as inevitable. The second, more serious danger of the democratic passion for equality is its tendency to be pursued at the cost of liberty. Tocqueville will speak later on in the book about the specific dangers of the tyranny of the majority and democratic despotism. (See Volume 1: Chapter 7; Volume 2: Part II, Chapter 1; Part IV, Chapter 6)

Chapter 4: The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America

The sovereignty of the people is recognized by both mores and laws in America. In the colonies, this principle spread secretly within the provincial assemblies. With the advent of the Revolution, the dogma of the sovereignty of the people took possession of the government and was coded into law. The upper classes acquiesced to this principle in order to gain the goodwill of the people and enacted legislation which strengthened it. Voting qualifications were progressively eradicated. In America, the people really do rule.


Recognizing the sovereignty of the people is essential for a democratic government. The Americans have done this and followed this principle to its logical conclusions to an extraordinary degree, largely as a result of their strong passion for equality. This principle can become dangerous, however, in that it may lead to a tyranny of the majority.

Chapter 5: The Need to Study What Happens in the States Before Discussing the Government of the Union

The American System of Townships

There are really two separate governments in America, the state government and the federal government, even to the extent that there almost seem to be twenty-four little sovereign nations. Because of the limited and specific scope of action of the federal government, the state government is the normal authority. The states were the original center of power and the place where American political principles were formed.

There are three centers of power in the state: the township, the country, and the state. The township is rooted in nature and in man's natural sociability. But local freedom is rare, hard to establish and highly vulnerable to being lost. To survive, freedom needs to be entrenched in mores. This type of freedom is very elusive. No one in Europe understands it. Yet this freedom is absolutely essential and is the people's strength. The only means for a nation to have true freedom is through local institutions. New England is an excellent example because it has local liberties which are deeply rooted in tradition, law and mores.

Powers of the New England Township

The township is the place where the people most directly exercise power to rule. Administrative duties are in the hands of a few men, called "selectmen," elected on a yearly basis. Selectmen generally act on already established principles agreed upon by the majority. To change anything they need summon all the voters by calling a town meeting

Many other municipal officials are elected to perform the various town duties. There are nineteen main officials, and all citizens are bound to accept these positions if elected.

Life in the Township

In America the principles of sovereignty and equality of the people are supreme. An American obeys society because union with others is useful and he recognizes that authority is necessary for this union. But in personal matters a person does what he wants.

Municipality liberty derives from principle of sovereignty of the people. Just as a person is sovereign in all private matter, a township is sovereign in all matters only affecting the township.

Spirit of the Township in New England

The township has independence and power over its own sphere. Because of its power and strength it wins the affection of its inhabitants. Taking away this local self-governance will give a country docile subjects but not citizens. People are unwilling generally to work for matters that do not affect their private interest. As a result. few are willing to try for high government offices which are hard to get and which are out of direct sphere of personal interests. Therefore, since practical service is necessary to maintain patriotism, giving people the responsibility to govern in areas directly related to their interest is necessary for the fostering of a sense of civic duty. In the townships the government really emanates from the governed, so people are proud of and respect it. This practice of governing in the township acts as civic education, giving citizen clear ideas of duties and rights.

Administration in New England

The administration is almost invisible in America. Europeans think that weakening authority by taking away rights of society is the way to achieve liberty, but in America, through the division of power, authority is kept in check without diminishing its effectiveness. In the United States, the revolution was guided by mature desire for freedom. While the law has much force, no one person has extreme power. For example, in a small township there are nineteen officials, each with limited sphere of authority

The Americans solve the problem of making the elected officials obey the central government by making the official subject to the courts. Justices of the peace serve an administrative function, and the sheriff makes sure the township obeys laws of state. If an official commits a crime, he is tried in ordinary court.

The weakness in the system is that the administrative tribunal doesn't have the right to supervise officials, and must rely on reports of misconduct or negligence. The reasoning for this is that in America legislators appeal to private interest to ensure the execution of laws. The problem is that in some cases no one may be so directly effected as to want to complain.

General Ideas Concerning Administration in the United States

As one goes farther from New England one sees the diminishing power of the township and the increasing power of the county. The main governing principle that underlies the organization of the township and county is that each is the best judge of his own interest and is best able to provide for his own needs.

Tocqueville summarizes his description municipal government in America by stating: "Election of administrative officers, irremovability from office, absence of administrative hierarchy, and the use of judicial weapons to control secondary authorities are the chief characteristics of American administration from Maine to the Floridas". The most striking feature of the government is its decentralization.

Of the State

Tocqueville will speak only briefly on this subject because the constitution is based on familiar, simple, rational theory which most constitutional governments have in common.

Legislative Power of the State

There are two legislative bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate exists to strengthen authority and the House to ensure representation of interests. The advantages deriving from a bicameral legislature are slowing down the movement of assemblies and providing a means for revision of laws. Americans are convinced that the division of powers is of utmost necessity.

The Executive Power of the State

The governor is the representative of executive power in the state. He is head of the military, and is responsible for keeping order and for seeing that laws are executed. Because his term in office is short, he is highly dependent on his constituents.

Political Effects of Administrative Decentralization in the United States

There are two types of centralization: governmental (dealing with nation-wide interests) and administrative (dealing with more specialized concerns). Combining the two results in extremely strong government, as in France under Louis XIV. Government centralization is necessary for the country, but administrative centralization diminishes civic spirit.

In the United States there is no administrative centralization but high government centralization. The strength of government centralization can be a danger because it can lead to a tyranny of the majority. Administrative decentralization is beneficial because the citizens are better able to handle their own affairs than the government, since the central power can not see all the small details of daily life. In contrast with France, uniform rules are absent but this absence is good because it allows for freedom. The problem in Europe is that people have no control over or no interest in management of local affairs. As a result they become dependent on the government to come to their aid for everything; they are subjects but not citizens.

The only solid and lasting foundation for a state's power is the free agreement of citizens, going forward toward the same goal. The two things that can provide such a consensus are religion and patriotism. Tocqueville admires the political effects of decentralization, because it makes people care personally about the country's interests.

In the United States, as opposed to Europe, the people do not obey men; they obey justice or law. Crime is almost always punished in America although power to investigate and to arrest is small, because people see crime as a public offense and all try to contribute to catching the criminal.

A country and its citizens need liberty in small matters in order to be able to exercise it in larger ones. The lack of these small liberties was a key factor in the failure of the French Revolution. The French Revolution had two tendencies, one toward freedom and the other toward despotism. Its centralizing tendencies made falling into tyranny easy.

While Americans disagree on almost everything, they are unanimous in their love of provincial freedom.


This chapter is one of the most essential parts of the book for understanding Tocqueville's views on the nature of liberty and how to preserve it. Tocqueville's definition of liberty is highly ambivalent. On the one hand, there is his relatively straightforward characterization of liberty as the ability to govern oneself as much as possible through the administration of local affairs. Yet along this political definition of liberty there is always a mention of how mysterious and elusive freedom is, and how only a few noble souls can really appreciate freedom enough to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve it. This idea is brought to the forefront in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a work which is thematically complementary to Democracy in America. In a striking passage of The Old Regime, Tocqueville writes about freedom's "intrinsic glamour," and calls it a "lofty aspiration which . . . defies analysis." He goes on to say that freedom is "something one must feel and logic has no part in it. It is a privilege of noble minds which God has fitted to receive it, and it inspires them with a generous fervor. But to meaner souls, untouched by the sacred flame, it may well seem incomprehensible." Keeping this passage in mind is helpful in understanding what Tocqueville really means when he states at the beginning of this chapter in Democracy in America that communal freedom "is seldom created, but rather springs up of its own accord. It grows, almost in secret, amid a semi-barbarous society." This freedom is difficult to establish and even more difficult to sustain over time.

The problem of maintaining freedom amidst the growing equality of conditions both in the United States and Europe is Tocqueville's central concern in Democracy in America. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that trying to resolve this problem was the primary goal of his life's work, both intellectual and political. His motivation for traveling to America was to study how this fledgling democracy maintained freedom although it had a high degree of equality. The key to this success, in Tocqueville's view, is the administrative decentralization which allows people to exercise their liberty through self-government in the townships: "Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty." For this reason, although Tocqueville recognizes that administrative centralization may greatly increase the efficiency and uniformity of the government, he admires the decentralized American system because of its political effects in allowing the people to exercise their freedom. There is an implicit contrast here with France, where Tocqueville blames the loss of liberty and in particular the failure of the French Revolution to gradual erosion of local self-government in France throughout the nation's history since the Middle Ages. This idea is Tocqueville's main thesis in The Old Regime. Tocqueville also speaks more specifically (and more pessimistically) about the tension between liberty and equality in Volume II, particularly in Parts II and IV.

In this chapter, Tocqueville also mentions the need for the cultivation of proper mores in order to maintain freedom in a democracy. He speaks at length about this idea, and particularly about the importance of certain legal institutions and of religion as the basis of these mores, in Chapter Nine. But in this chapter one begins to see the emergence of this theme in several places, particularly in the statement that "until communal freedom has come to form part of mores, it can easily be destroyed."

Another idea that is only briefly addressed in this chapter but developed more fully in Chapter Seven and in Part IV of Volume II, is the danger that a democracy will degenerate into a tyranny of the majority or a "democratic despotism." When speaking in this chapter about governmental centralization, Tocqueville observes that "In America the legislature of each state is faced by no power capable of resisting it. Nothing can check its progress, neither privileges, nor local immunities, nor personal influence, nor even the authority of reason, for it represents the majority, which claims to be the unique organ of reason." This passage has an ominous sense to it, and it seems to act almost as a warning of the ease with which the government could become tyrannical. Tocqueville even tells the reader directly that he will elaborate on this subject in later chapters when he states that "far from being inadequately centralized, one can assert that the American governments carry it much too far; that I will demonstrate later. . . . It is because of its very strength, not its weakness that it [the social power] is threatened with destruction one day."