Democracy in America

Play Audio | Get the Book |

De Tocqueville examined, with the care that is worthy the importance of the subject, the nature and value of the system of "local self-government," as we style this most important feature of our plan, and (as has often happened) when this or any subject has become a matter of anxious concern, his treatment of the questions is found to have been masterly and his preconceptions almost prophetic.

We are frequently indebted to him for able expositions and true doctrines relating to subjects that have slumbered in the minds of the people until they were suddenly forced on our attention by unexpected events.

In his introductory chapter, M. De Tocqueville says: "Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions." He referred, doubtless, to social and political conditions among the people of the white race, who are described as "We, the people," in the opening sentence of the Constitution. The last three amendments of the Constitution have so changed this, that those who were then negro slaves are clothed with the rights of citizenship, including the right of suffrage. This was a political party movement, intended to be radical and revolutionary, but it will, ultimately, react because it has not the sanction of public opinion.

If M. De Tocqueville could now search for a law that would negative this provision in its effect upon social equality, he would fail to find it. But he would find it in the unwritten law of the natural aversion of the races. He would find it in public opinion, which is the vital force in every law in a free government. This is a subject that our Constitution failed to regulate, because it was not contemplated by its authors. It is a question that will settle itself, without serious difficulty. The equality in the suffrage, thus guaranteed to the negro race, alone--for it was not intended to include other colored races--creates a new phase of political conditions that M. De Tocqueville could not foresee. Yet, in his commendation of the local town and county governments, he applauds and sustains that elementary feature of our political organization which, in the end, will render harmless this wide departure from the original plan and purpose of American Democracy. "Local Self-Government," independent of general control, except for general purposes, is the root and origin of all free republican government, and is the antagonist of all great political combinations that threaten the rights of minorities. It is the public opinion formed in the independent expressions of towns and other small civil districts that is the real conservatism of free government. It is equally the enemy of that dangerous evil, the corruption of the ballot-box, from which it is now apprehended that one of our greatest troubles is to arise.

The voter is selected, under our laws, because he has certain physical qualifications--age and sex. His disqualifications, when any are imposed, relate to his education or property, and to the fact that he has not been convicted of crime. Of all men he should be most directly amenable to public opinion.

The test of moral character and devotion to the duties of good citizenship are ignored in the laws, because the courts can seldom deal with such questions in a uniform and satisfactory way, under rules that apply alike to all. Thus the voter, selected by law to represent himself and four other non-voting citizens, is often a person who is unfit for any public duty or trust. In a town government, having a small area of jurisdiction, where the voice of the majority of qualified voters is conclusive, the fitness of the person who is to exercise that high representative privilege can be determined by his neighbors and acquaintances, and, in the great majority of cases, it will be decided honestly and for the good of the country. In such meetings, there is always a spirit of loyalty to the State, because that is loyalty to the people, and a reverence for God that gives weight to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.

Next Page