Democracy in America

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Were literary excellence the sole claim of "Democracy in America" to distinction, the splendor of its composition alone would entitle it to high place among the masterpieces of the century. The first chapter, upon the exterior form of North America, as the theatre upon which the great drama is to be enacted, for graphic and picturesque description of the physical characteristics of the continent is not surpassed in literature: nor is there any subdivision of the work in which the severest philosophy is not invested with the grace of poetry, and the driest statistics with the charm of romance. Western emigration seemed commonplace and prosaic till M. de Tocqueville said, "This gradual and continuous progress of the European race toward the Rocky Mountains has the solemnity of a providential event; it is like a deluge of men rising unabatedly, and daily driven onward by the hand of God!"

The mind of M. de Tocqueville had the candor of the photographic camera. It recorded impressions with the impartiality of nature. The image was sometimes distorted, and the perspective was not always true, but he was neither a panegyrist, nor an advocate, nor a critic. He observed American phenomena as illustrations, not as proof nor arguments; and although it is apparent that the tendency of his mind was not wholly favorable to the democratic principle, yet those who dissent from his conclusions must commend the ability and courage with which they are expressed.

Though not originally written for Americans, "Democracy in America" must always remain a work of engrossing and constantly increasing interest to citizens of the United States as the first philosophic and comprehensive view of our society, institutions, and destiny. No one can rise even from the most cursory perusal without clearer insight and more patriotic appreciation of the blessings of liberty protected by law, nor without encouragement for the stability and perpetuity of the Republic. The causes which appeared to M. de Tocqueville to menace both, have gone. The despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of majorities, the absence of intellectual freedom which seemed to him to degrade administration and bring statesmanship, learning, and literature to the level of the lowest, are no longer considered. The violence of party spirit has been mitigated, and the judgment of the wise is not subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.

Other dangers have come. Equality of conditions no longer exists. Prophets of evil predict the downfall of democracy, but the student of M. de Tocqueville will find consolation and encouragement in the reflection that the same spirit which has vanquished the perils of the past, which he foresaw, will be equally prepared for the responsibilities of the present and the future.

The last of the four volumes of M. de Tocqueville's work upon American institutions appeared in 1840.

In 1838 he was chosen member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. In 1839 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He became a member of the French Academy in 1841. In 1848 he was in the Assembly, and from June 2nd to October 31st he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. The coup d'etat of December 2, 1851 drove him from the public service. In 1856 he published "The Old Regime and the Revolution." He died at Cannes, April 15, 1859, at the age of fifty-four.

Hon. John J. Ingalls

Introductory Chapter

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. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed. I speedily perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.

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