What is the best book ever written on America? What is the best book ever written on democracy? Amazingly, at a well-seasoned 177 years old (the first volume was published in 1835, the second in 1840), Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America can make a strong claim to be the answer to both of those questions. It is simply indispensible reading for anyone who wishes to understand the context in which we live and minister in the United States.
Tocqueville visited the adolescent United States in 1831 and carefully observed this phenomenal new nation for nine months. The central fact which captured his attention was the equality of conditions and its pervasive effects upon the spirit of the country: “It gives a certain direction to the public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed.” He pondered deeply what he saw. Tocqueville was a classical liberal himself, though a chastened and thoughtful one, for he drank frequently from the works of Pascal. When he set pen to paper, his objective was not merely to describe. He wanted to understand, and from that understanding to predict.
This effort is what makes his book so worthwhile to this day. He did not merely rehash clichés. He did not seek to advance any agenda or promote any party. He closed his introduction with these memorable words, “This book is not precisely in anyone’s camp; in writing it I did not mean either to serve or to contest any party; I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future.”
In Tocqueville’s eyes, there was a great democratic revolution occurring in the world. This he considered a good thing, but he saw dangers, too. Democracy could turn into soft despotism and the tyranny of the majority. He explored the connection between democracy and the sentiments of the population, which in turn influenced the mores of the nation. He saw that the fundamental commitment to equality and individualism naturally led to materialism. He also argued that the isolation produced by equality and individualism would eventually make a kind of soft despotism on the part of the state seem desirable (think Huxley’s Brave New World, written a century later).
Nevertheless, Tocqueville saw potential for good in the way Americans handled democracy. All the voluntary associations he observed, whether religious, political, social, or intellectual, helped to combat democracy’s drift. He considered local governments and judiciaries crucial. He respected Americans’ religious vigor, even while noting that religion in America tended to fit into the mold of democratic ideals. He was impressed with marriages and family life in America, but he was almost in awe of American women. “If one asked me to what do I think one must principally attribute the singular prosperity and growing force of this people, I would answer that it is to the superiority of its women.” Thus religion, the family, and decentralization of political power were important to Tocqueville so that democratic conditions would not destroy the very character which created them in the first place.
Today, we are living in the future that he pondered, and our vantage point from two centuries later can be put to good use. Of course, Tocqueville did not attempt anything like a biblical evaluation of what he saw, but conservative Christians who engage with Tocqueville will find stimulating opportunities for biblical reflection on every page. Considering Tocqueville just might help many American believers to see beyond the individualistic, equalitarian lenses they wear when reading and applying the Scriptures. We might be made more aware of our characteristic weaknesses. We might be more humble and teachable. If nothing else, your mind will be enlarged by reading Democracy in America to appreciate a bit more of God’s providence in this world.
P.S. I have benefitted from using the excellent translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000) (see the paperback version here), which is what I have quoted from in this article. You can also find the entire work from the old Henry Reeve translation freely available online.