Tocqueville on Civic Engagement

I’ve just read through both volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I had never read before in full.

Tocqueville’s task throughout the book was to take the splintering-off of America from Europe as a controlled experiment on the grandest scale — and by identifying the independent variables, thereby to come to a deeper understanding of the nature of both democracies and aristocracies. It was an enormously ambitious project, but such was the strength of his formidable intellect that he brought it to a breathtakingly successful conclusion. His insights are as relevant now as they were in the 1830’s, and his prescience seems at times almost superhuman.

Given that I prefer old sources to newer ones, the version I’ve just read was the original (1839) translation by Henry Reeve. It was not until I was very far along that I learned that Tocqueville himself didn’t like the job that Reeve had done, thinking it to show a somewhat aristocratic bias. (Really, I should read the book in French, but I fear my command of that language is unequal to the task. On the other hand, it would be hard to find a better way to brush up.)

I highlighted many passages as I went through the books, and will be posting them here from time to time. Here’s one in which Tocqueville contrasts the civic-mindedness of the free and equal Americans with the disengagement of their European counterparts. This is due, Tocqueville had earlier argued, to the radically local structure of American political life, in which townships generally managed their own affairs, and in which the governing hand of the Federal sovereign (or, for that matter, even of the State) was hardly felt at all. In America (at least the America of the 1830’s), a citizen’s “vertical” relationships with the people and powers above him were a negligible part of his life, whereas in aristocratic, post-feudal European societies — where even the administration of local municipalities was conducted in large part by an aloof and distant central authority — they were everything.

Granting for an instant that the villages and counties of the United States would be more usefully governed by a remote authority which they had never seen than by functionaries taken from the midst of them – admitting, for the sake of argument, that the country would be more secure, and the resources of society better employed, if the whole administration centred in a single arm – still the political advantages which the Americans derive from their system would induce me to prefer it to the contrary plan.

It profits me but little, after all, that a vigilant authority should protect the tranquility of my pleasures and constantly avert all dangers from my path, without my care or my concern, if this same authority is the absolute mistress of my liberty and of my life, and if it so monopolizes all the energy of existence that when it languishes everything languishes around it, that when it sleeps everything must sleep, that when it dies the State itself must perish.

In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live. The greatest changes are effected without their concurrence and (unless chance may have apprised them of the event) without their knowledge; nay more, the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance. This same individual, who has so completely sacrificed his own free will, has no natural propensity to obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer; but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is removed: his oscillations between servitude and license are perpetual. When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct. Such communities are a natural prey to foreign conquests, and if they do not disappear from the scene of life, it is because they are surrounded by other nations similar or inferior to themselves: it is because the instinctive feeling of their country’s claims still exists in their hearts; and because an involuntary pride in the name it bears, or a vague reminiscence of its bygone fame, suffices to give them the impulse of self-preservation.

Which of these societies America of 2013 more closely resembles I leave to the reader’s opinion.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    That second paragraph is amazing. Wow.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    (That second quoted paragraph, I mean.)

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    What, you didn’t like MY second paragraph? You cut me to the quick, sir.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink