Democracy in America

Democracy in America Summary and Analysis of Vol. I, Part 2, Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1: Why It Can Strictly Be Said That the People Govern in the United States

The people both make and execute the laws in the United States, by electing their representatives and serving on juries. "The majority rules in the name of the people."

Chapter 2: Parties in the United States

"Parties are an evil inherent in free government." Great parties are those which are attached to lofty principles rather than private interest, and their action can often cause a revolution. Small parties are pettier and only agitate and corrupt society. America used to have great parties, but it no longer does. After the Revolution, there were two great parties, one of which‹the Federalists‹wanted to restrict popular power and the other of which‹the Republicans‹wanted to extend it. The Federalists had power only until Jefferson was elected, but this period was extremely important for America because during that time they worked against the negative tendencies of democracy, and when the Republicans gained power they adopted many of the Federalist's ideas. As a result, there are no longer any great political parties in the United States. Still, beneath the petty differences of the parties there is the underlying battle between restricting and extending public power.

Remains of the Aristocratic Party in the United States

The rich are somewhat excluded from government, and their can often even be a disadvantage in trying to gain political power. As a result, they close in on themselves and go about pursuing their own private interests. They act as if they support republican government, but in reality they "have a great distaste for their country's democratic institutions."


The key point in this chapter once again revolves around the dangerous democratic tendency to fall into tyranny of the majority. The Federalist party's ability to gain power was crucial precisely because the Federalists wanted to restrict public power, and as a result they began a tradition which acted as a moderating influence on the demands of the majority.

Chapter 3: Freedom of the Press in the United States

Freedom of the press is necessary because the only real alternative to it is complete despotism. Especially in a society where the people are sovereign, censorship would be inherently contradictory to the overriding societal principles.

The press has less power in the United States than it does in France, because attacking existing laws in the United States is not revolutionary; in fact it is perfectly acceptable. The force of the press is also lessened because freedom of the press is not a novelty in the United States, it is decentralized, and the people tend not to react passionately to anything that does not affect their material interests. Decentralization has particularly strong effects. It prevents people from being unified by a single current of opinion, but it also tends to result in poor journalism because there is an excessive number of papers and not enough talented journalists. Recognizing the lack of journalistic competence, the people generally do not take the journalists' opinions seriously, but simply focus on the facts. Still, the power of the press is immense simply because it allows all people to remain informed about politics.

People in America tend to stubbornly stick to their own opinions, simply because they chose them. So many opinions are floating about that people tend to distrust all of them, and end up focusing mostly on tangible, material interests.


The press can clearly be a means both of keeping liberty alive and of fostering the tyranny of the majority. It maintains liberty by keeping the people informed of politics and thereby encouraging political activity and the exercise of freedom. It can, however, foster the tyranny of the majority by influencing vast numbers of people at once. The decentralization of the American press, however, makes this unifying and all-encompassing influence unlikely.

Two other democratic tendencies are also brought out in this brief chapter: materialism and relativism. Toqueville notices that people are concerned primarily about their material interests. In addition, the people superficially adopt an opinion and cling to it not because they are convinced it is true but because they do not think they can discover what is true, and consider most opinions to be generally equal. Volume 2 addresses these issues in more detail.

Chapter 4: Political Association in the United States

Americans use the right of assembly more frequently and effectively than anywhere else in the world. The right of association is related to the freedom to write, but associations are more powerful than the press. Political associations can become extremely powerful, even dangerously so. While freedom of the press is "the constitutive element in freedom" and therefore cannot be limited, the freedom of association may have to be limited. In America, however, there are no limitations. Its danger has been seen already, however, in the nullification crisis South Carolina. Yet in spite of the danger, unlimited freedom of association is good in the United States because it is a guarantee against the tyranny of the majority.

Association is natural to human beings, and is therefore an inalienable right. In the United States, as opposed to Europe, associations are primarily peaceful and use legal means, precisely because they know that such means can indeed have an effect. Universal suffrage is perhaps the best guarantee against the violence of political associations in the United States, because no association can claim to represent a majority. It is obvious that association represent only a minority, and thus their moral force is diminished.


While they can be dangerous in some situations and political climates, associations are highly beneficial in the United States, because they guard against the tyranny of the majority and are not inclined to violence or revolution. Tocqueville writes that "the omnipotence of the majority seems to me such a danger to the American republics that the dangerous expedient used to curb it is actually something good." In a sense, this dynamic is quite ironic, because it demonstrates how, at least in this case, "extreme democracy forestalls the dangers of democracy."

Chapter 5: Government By Democracy In America

Universal Suffrage

All the states in the Union have universal suffrage (as defined by the times).

The People's Choice and the Instincts of American Democracy in Such Choices

In the United States the common people generally have more good qualities than the rulers. The level of intelligence of a society as a whole is limited by the amount of leisure that the people have. Because the lower classes have little leisure they often lack the education to discern who will be the best person to rule in their interests. In addition, the people may not always want to elect the person with the highest merit, because, with their dominant passion for equality, superiority annoys them. The Americans do not hate the higher classes, but simply keep them from power. At the same time, men of distinction of repelled from political power because they feel cheapened by being up for election.

Elements Which May Provide a Partial Corrective to These Instincts of Democracy

In times of great distress, great virtue is often brought to the fore in people. Thus, in the time of the American Revolution and immediately following it, great leaders rose up.

Mores are also an important means of correcting democracy's negative tendencies. In New England, where liberty and morality are well-established in the habits of the people, the citizens tend to make better choices in electing their leaders. In other areas the situation is much worse.

The House of Representative is filled with people of "vulgar demeanor," while the Senate is filled with eloquent and well-educated statesmen. The reason for this dichotomy is that Representative are directly elected while Senators are indirectly elected. Perhaps the Americans will need to modify their system to use indirect election more frequently.

Influence of American Democracy Upon Electoral Laws

Rare elections expose the state to the danger of violent crisis, but frequent elections result in a state of inconstancy and agitation. Americans have chosen the latter danger over the former, and as a result their laws are often highly unstable and incoherent.

Public Officers Under the Rule of American Democracy

Public officials have no external signs of their power, such as uniforms, and all officials receive salaries so that the lower classes have access to all positions. Yet while all citizens are eligible for office, not many desire it because it is an inherently unstable and unpredictable occupation. Ambitious men generally avoid public office to pursue private wealth. Thus, those who run for office do so because they do not think they can manage their own private affairs successfully. This problem is another cause responsible for the "large number of vulgar men holding public positions."

The Arbitrary Power of Magistrates Under the Sway of American Democracy

In democracy the people are confident of their ability to take power away from the magistrates, and consequently are not concerned about allowing to have a great amount of arbitrary power.

Administrative Instability in the United States

Few historical records exist in the United States; the only source is newspapers. The administrations are unstable, and do not bother to keep records or look to past records to decide how to act.

Public Expenses Under the Rule of American Democracy

Expenses in free states are always greater than in despotic ones. Every society will different economic classes ranging from the rich to the poor. The economic laws depend on which class is in power. If the middle class rules, the laws will be the most economical. However, in countries with universal suffrage, generally the poor make the laws, because they are in the majority, and the poor will have a tendency to spend too much, because very few taxes fall upon them.

Democracies also tend to spend a lot because they have a constant and feverish desire for improvement and innovation, both of which are costly. Its expenditures can also be unproductive because people change their minds often and projects may remain uncompleted.

The Instincts of American Democracy in Fixing the Salaries of Officials

High officials generally are given low salaries, because those who vote to fix the salaries have little chance of ever receiving that position. Secondary officials, however, are relatively well paid because the people consider them more on their level, and are more sympathetic to them. "Democracy gives little to the rulers and much to the ruled." In aristocracies, the case is the opposite.

Can the Public Expenditure of the United States Be Compared with That of France?

To judge the extent of public expenditure one needs to know both the national wealth and the proportion of it which is used for state expenses. A nation's wealth is composed of real property and personal property. The value of property is extremely difficult to judge. Yet even judging the amount of taxation is not an easy task, because each individual township has its own separate expenses. Therefore one cannot really compare either the expenditure or the wealth of the United State and France.

Yet by observing other external factors one can get a sense of which country taxes a larger proportion of its citizens' income. It is clear that America has much lower taxes than France. France, however, needs more money because it needs maintain a large army.

In spite of the fact that taxes are lower in America, it is still possible that the country is not economical, because it seems that a lot of money is wasted. In addition, a lot of money is spent to help the lower classes, a good but expensive practice. Therefore the government of America is not an inexpensive one.

Corruption and Vices of the Rulers in a Democracy and Consequent Effect on Public Morality

In aristocracies, rulers are much more likely to attempt to use their influence and wealth to bribe the governed, but in democracies the rulers themselves are much more corruptible. This tendency can be dangerous because it gives people the example that immorality may result in success and honor. "There comes about an odious mingling of the conceptions of baseness and power, of unworthiness and success, and of profit and dishonor."

The Efforts of Which Democracy is Capable

It is difficult to tell how much sacrifice a democracy can impose on itself, because there has not been a great war in America since the War of Independence. In that war, people made great sacrifices at the beginning but toward the end stopped giving money and volunteering for the army. There is no conscription in America.

Democracies are not well-suited for waging wars, because the people are more inclined to quick bursts of enthusiasm than sustained effort. There is less glamour to warfare in a democratic country than in an aristocracy. In addition, a democracy cannot pull together its resources as quickly as an aristocracy.

American Democracy's Power of Self-Control

Democracy is endangered by the people's shortsightedness and their tendency to choose momentary pleasures over long-term gain. They only obey laws of which they see the utility. An example is that, although most crimes are the result of drunkenness, legislators are afraid to impose a tax on alcohol for fear of a revolt. It takes democracies a long time to see reason, because they cannot come to the truth merely intellectually; they need to experience it.

How American Democracy Conducts the External Affairs of the State

Washington and Jefferson have set the course for American foreign policy. Washington directed the country to steer clear of foreign alliances and never to get involved in the internal quarrels of Europe. American foreign policy is more a matter of abstention than action.

In general, democratic governments are inferior in their control of foreign affairs. Democracies have little patience to plan out and sustain a great undertaking as is necessary in foreign affairs. Aristocracies are excellent in directing foreign affairs, and it almost always the case that in such matters the interests of the aristocrats are the same as the interests of the people. Democracies tend to abandon long-term, well-thought out plans in favor of momentary passions and sympathies.


In this chapter, Tocqueville brings out a lot of the weaknesses of democracies. At the root of these weaknesses is the inability of democratic peoples to make well-reasoned, dispassionate choices. This weakness is due for the most part to the tendency of democratic peoples to be swayed more by whims and passions than by reason. The results of the people's whimsical nature is evident in several areas: the election of government officials, the inefficient use of money, and the lack of skill in conducting foreign affairs.

In choosing government officials, democracies have a double problem: the people tend to choose poorly because their passion for equality makes them dislike those who are superior, and those who have the capacity to rule do not want the position it is unstable and has few rewards. The means of counteracting this problem is, for the most part, good mores, formed especially by good education in virtue and the experience of local liberties. New England is exemplary in this regard. Institutionally, the problem can be solved by using indirect election.

Democracies tend to waste a lot of money because the people, governed more by impulse than by reason, embark on a wide range of projects and explore every possible innovation, most of which are impractical and many of which are never even finished because people tire of an idea when it ceases to become a novelty. The poor, being in the majority, are the ones who can have the largest influence on laws. As a result, taxes tend to be high because the poor are exempt from them and receive the greatest benefit from government services.

Conducting foreign affairs well requires patience, reason, and fortitude, but in democracies "the people feel more strongly than they reason; and if present ills are great, it is to be feared that they will forget the greater evils that perhaps await them in case of defeat." On a personal level, the citizens tend have little capacity for sustained self-sacrifice, a necessary requirement for winning a war.

There may, however, be an ever more profound danger lurking in this democratic tendency to follow the passions rather than reason. The passions and whims of the people cloud their ability to see the truth and realize which laws would actually be in their best interests. They cannot come to the truth without a long experience of trial and error which brings them eventually to find the best course of action. Tocqueville writes that "a democracy cannot get at the truth without experience, and many nations may perish for lack of the time to discover their mistakes." America was fortunate to have time to fix its mistakes because there was no immediate danger threatening it. Yet this inability to see the truth may be a problem hurts society internally in the long run.