Friday, January 29, 2010


This month and last I spent an agreeable time reading the entirety of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Penguin, tr. Gerald E. Bevan, 860 pp.).

Naturally, I had read segments in abbreviated editions, but this was the first time I had read the entire book from beginning to end. The experience was enormously rewarding. His understanding of the effect of equality in a new nation was profound, and he saw in the death of the old aristocracy the wave of the future. He also found it difficult to fully understand the nature of government in America, since it seemed to him that there was little or none. He saw that people were independent, free, and beholden to no one. He saw that the primary impulse in America was the love of money, and thus that individualism (he is among the first to use the term) was a power to reckon with. This was in 1830, and clearly little has changed.

He also thought that the real power in America was in the individual states and not in the federal government. Even with Andrew Jackson, a potential "tyrant," in position of president–the man Tocqueville says, "is supposed to be working for the institution of a dictatorship in the United States" (461) has actually very little power to force any state, especially South Carolina, to his will. He has little regard for Jackson ("a man of a violent disposition and mediocre ability" [324]), and he deduces that the federal government's power will probably never soon compete with the power of the 24 confederated states of the union.

He has much to say about the possibility of civil war in the democracy of the United States, and concludes that it is virtually unthinkable. And he concludes this after the 1830sTariff incident in which South Carolina armed its militia in a threat to leave the union over perceived damages to its economy. Jackson backed down and the militia returned home. Twenty five years later the brutal Civil War was begun, Lincoln prevailed, and federalism became the power that forced the states to adhere to law.

De Tocqueville's is one of the most important books in American political history, so, for me, reading it was a really important experience, especially in light of the 2010 State of the Union speech by president Obama. Unlike many politicians he did not quote from de Tocqueville, but he was aware of some of the same stresses in political opinion as are expressed in Democracy in America.

In a moment of intense irony, the Governor of Virginia gave the rebuttal for the Republican party. He stood in the Capitol rotunda of Richmond, the center of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis spoke, in a building designed by Jefferson and built by slaves--a truly symbolic act on his part--and what he did, by quoting Jefferson's comment that local government was the best government, was to reopen the dispute between strong federal government and strong states rights governments, the very things that de Tocqueville focuses on for more than 500 pages. I was amazed.

The Governor ignored the Civil War and the result of Lincoln's decisions to make the federal government strong enough to enforce laws in rebel states. The ignorance of the governor appalled me. But I know he was following an ideology that insists that the federal government be reigned in. Of course, that ideology also forgets that in the 1960s, a hundred years after Fort Sumter, we had to send our young people south to enforce federal rules regarding segregation. If we go back to the states rights version of government, we'll have subtle Jim Crow laws and much other undemocratic legislation designed to restrict abortion, gay rights, and free speech. If that happens, Alexis de Tocqueville would surely recognize the nation he saw in 1830 and feel that his prophecy of a possible tyranny of the majority could come true.

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