Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835; reprinted, New York: A Bantam Classic, 2000)
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, is an important work for both United States historians and comparative historians. Although his work purports to be solely about America, as the title would imply, it is actually a comparison of France and the United States, particularly in the realms of democracy and liberty. With the stated goal of examining the American system, yet actually comparing the United States and France, it would seem that de Tocqueville is, to some extent, an implicit comparativist. Yet there are places within the book in which he makes his comparisons quite explicit. The way in which he switches between the two types of comparison is an interesting avenue for examination. Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s writing could be interpreted as an argument for the exceptional nature of American history, and should be considered in light of the debate over American exceptionalism.
Although de Tocqueville came to the United States with the stated intention of studying the prison system in this country, it seems more likely that he wanted to study the American system as a whole. His publication of Democracy in America lends substantial credence to this theory. In this book, he covers nearly every imaginable aspect of American government, politics, society, and culture. The amount of data he presents is overwhelming, but, as Joseph Epstein states in his introduction to the book: “de Tocqueville seems to have understood from the outset that, if his work was to have any power, it would not be through the data he might gather but through what he could make of it-through, in other words, the power of his generalizations.” (p. xxx) By comparing what he had observed in the United States to what he knew of France and, on occasion, England, de Tocqueville was able to show the ways in which liberty and democracy had flourished in America and how it differed from the “normal” progression of such things.
It is clear from the very beginning of the book that this is a comparative work. de Tocqueville’s main area of comparison begins with the assumption that “[t]he gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.” (pp. 6-7) With this as the primary similarity between the nations in question, he then proceeds to compare the ways in which this equality of conditions can be found in several countries.
Many of de Tocqueville’s comparisons are implicit. Epstein suggests that much of de Tocqueville’s concern with American democracy was directly tied to his concern for democracy in his native France. de Tocqueville himself states this point clearly: “It is not, then, merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find instruction by which we may ourselves profit.” (p. 15) His comparisons play into this fact; by studying a nation in which democracy was highly successful and contrasting it with a country in which he had hopes for democracy to be equally successful, de Tocqueville hoped to find ideas from the American experience that could be applied in France.
Democracy is not the only theme on which de Tocqueville compares the United States and other countries, however; he writes: “[t]he revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and dignified taste for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence. It contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy; but its course was marked, on the contrary, by an attachment to whatever was lawful and orderly.” (p. 78) Without actually stating such, it seems that this is a comparison to revolutions in Europe, which ostensibly differed from the American Revolution in that they were not mature or well-defined, and that they were involved with anarchy rather than law and order.
It is, as is to be expected, far easier to identify places in which de Tocqueville is an explicit comparativist. References to the ways in which things are done in the United States, followed by a paragraph detailing the ways in which the same things are done elsewhere, abound. In most of these instances, de Tocqueville finds striking differences between the United States and European countries.
de Tocqueville is certainly a proponent of American exceptionalism. Despite the problems with calling a nation exceptional, de Tocqueville frequently returns to unique aspects of American politics, society, and culture, particularly when he brings these aspects into comparison with European models. For example, on discussing the federal system, he notes: “I have shown the advantages which the Americans derive from their federal system; it remains for me to point out the circumstances which rendered that system practicable, as its benefits are not to be enjoyed by all nations.” (p. 187) In addition, he observes that “America is the only country in which it has been possible to witness the natural and tranquil growth of society, and where the influences exercised on the future condition of states by their origin is clearly distinguishable.” (p. 30) Through these and similar phrases, de Tocqueville reveals the multitude of differences between the United States and European nations, all the while giving explanations as to why things are the way they are in America.
Epstein notes that “[i]n Democracy in America, de Tocqueville provided a mirror in which each age and every political persuasion could see its own concerns reflected.” (p. xxxiv) Through comparisons between the United States, France, England, and other European nations, de Tocqueville is able to develop a full picture of democratic institutions and sentiments in the United States.