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Democracy in America (Penguin Classics) [Paperback]

Alexis de Tocqueville , Isaac Kramnick , Gerald Bevan
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 1, 2003 0140447601 978-0140447606

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing democratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His insightful work has become one of the most influential political texts ever written on America and an indispensable authority on democracy.
This new edition is the only one that contains all Tocqueville's writings on America, including the rarely-translated Two Weeks in the Wilderness, an account of Tocqueville's travels in Michigan among the Iroquois, and Excursion to Lake Oneida.

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

The French sociologist and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was active in the law and served for a time as foreign minister. He also wrote L'Ancien Regime. Gerald Bevan is the translator. Issac Kramnick is Professor of Government at Cornell and edited The Federalist Papers for Penguin.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter III: Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans

A social condition is commonly the result of circumstances, sometimes of laws, oftener still of these two causes united; but wherever it exists, it may justly be considered as the source of almost all the laws, the usages, and the ideas which regulate the conduct of nations; whatever it does not produce it modifies. It is therefore necessary, if we would become acquainted with the legislation and the manners of a nation, to begin by the study of its social condition.

The Striking Characteristic of the Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans in its Essential Democracy

The first emigrants of New England—Their equality—Aristocratic laws introduced in the South—Period of the Revolution—Change in the law of descent—Effects produced by this change—Democracy carried to its utmost limits in the new States of the West—Equality of education.

Many important observations suggest themselves upon the social condition of the Anglo-Americans, but there is one which takes precedence of all the rest. The social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; this was its character at the foundation of the Colonies, and is still more strongly marked at the present day. I have stated in the preceding chapter that great equality existed among the emigrants who settled on the shores of New England. The germ of aristocracy was never planted in that part of the Union. The only influence which obtained there was that of intellect; the people were used to reverence certain names as the emblems of knowledge and virtue. Some of their fellow-citizens acquired a power over the rest which might truly havebeen called aristocratic, if it had been capable of transmission from father to son.

This was the state of things to the east of the Hudson: to the south-west of that river, and in the direction of the Floridas, the case was different. In most of the States situated to the south-west of the Hudson some great English proprietors had settled, who had imported with them aristocratic principles and the English law of descent. I have explained the reasons why it was impossible ever to establish a powerful aristocracy in America; these reasons existed with less force to the southwest of the Hudson. In the South, one man, aided by slaves, could cultivate a great extent of country: it was therefore common to see rich landed proprietors. But their influence was not altogether aristocratic as that term is understood in Europe, since they possessed no privileges; and the cultivation of their estates being carried on by slaves, they had no tenants depending on them, and consequently no patronage. Still, the great proprietors south of the Hudson constituted a superior class, having ideas and tastes of its own, and forming the centre of political action. This kind of aristocracy sympathized with the body of the people, whose passions and interests it easily embraced; but it was too weak and too short-lived to excite either love or hatred for itself. This was the class which headed the insurrection in the South, and furnished the best leaders of the American revolution.

At the period of which we are now speaking society was shaken to its centre: the people, in whose name the struggle had taken place, conceived the desire of exercising the authority which it had acquired; its democratic tendencies were awakened; and having thrown off the yoke of the mother country, it aspired to independence of every kind. The influence of individuals gradually ceased to be felt, and custom and law united together to produce the same result.

But the law of descent was the last step of equality. I am surprised that ancient and modern jurists have not attributed to this law a greater influence on human affairs. It is true that these laws belong to civil affairs; but they ought nevertheless to be placed at the head of all political institutions; for, whilst political laws are only the symbol of a nation's condition, they exercise an incredible influence upon its social state. They have, moreover, a sure and uniform manner of operating upon society, affecting, as it were, generations yet unborn.

Through their means man acquires a kind of preternatural power over the future lot of his fellow-creatures. When the legislator has regulated the law of inheritance, he may rest from his labor. The machine once put in motion will go on for ages, and advance, as if self-guided, towards a given point. When framed in a particular manner, this law unites, draws together, and vests property and power in a few hands: its tendency is clearly aristocratic. On opposite principles its action is still more rapid; it divides, distributes, and disperses both property and power. Alarmed by the rapidity of its progress, those who despair of arresting its motion endeavor to obstruct it by difficulties and impediments; they vainly seek to counteract its effect by contrary efforts; but it gradually reduces or destroys every obstacle, until by its incessant activity the bulwarks of the influence of wealth are ground down to the fine and shifting sand which is the basis of democracy. When the law of inheritance permits, still more when it decrees, the equal division of a father's property amongst all his children, its effects are of two kinds: it is important to distinguish them from each other, although they tend to the same end.

In virtue of the law of partible inheritance, the death of every proprietor brings about a kind of revolution in progeny; not only do his possessions change hands, but their very nature is altered, since they are parcelled into shares, which become smaller and smaller at each division. This is the direct and, as it were, the physical effect of the law. It follows, then, that in countries where equality of inheritance is established by law, property, and especially landed property, must have a tendency to perpetual diminution. The effects, however, of such legislation would only be perceptible after lapse of time, if the law was abandoned to its own working; for supposing the family to consist of two children (and in a country peopled as France is the average number is not above three), these children, sharing amongst them the fortune of both parents, would not be poorer than their father or mother.

But the law of equal division exercises its influence not merely upon the property itself, but it affects the minds of the heirs, and brings their passions into play. These indirect consequences tend powerfully to the destruction of large fortunes, and especially of large domains. Among nations whose law of descent is founded upon the right of primogeniture landed estates often pass from generation to generation without undergoing division, the consequence of which that family feeling is to a certain degree incorporated with the estate. The family represents the estate, the estate family; whose name, together with its origin, its glory, power, and its virtues, is thus perpetuated in an imperishable memorial of the past and a sure pledge of the future.

When the equal partition of property is established by law, the intimate connection is destroyed between family feeling and the preservation of the paternal estate; the property ceases to represent the family; for as it must inevitably be divided after one or two generations, it has evidently a constant tendency to diminish, and must in the end be completely dispersed. The sons of the great landed proprietor, if they are few in number, or if fortune befriends them, may indeed entertain the hope of being as wealthy as their father, but not that of possessing the same property as he did; the riches must necessarily be composed of elements different from his.

Now, from the moment that you divest the landowner of that interest in the preservation of his estate which he derives from association, from tradition, and from family pride, you may be certain that sooner or later he will dispose of it; for there is a strong pecuniary interest in favor of selling, as floating capital produces higher interest than real property, and is more readily available to gratify the passions of the moment.

Great landed estates which have once been divided never come together again; for the small proprietor draws from his land a better revenue, in proportion, than the large owner does from his, and of course he sells it at a higher rate. The calculations of gain, therefore, which decide the rich man to sell his domain will still more powerfully influence him against buying small estates to unite them into a large one.

What is called family pride is often founded upon an illusion of self-love. A man wishes to perpetuate and immortalize himself, as it were, in his great-grandchildren. Where the esprit de famille ceases to act individual selfishness comes into play. When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for the establishment of his succeeding generation, and no more. Either a man gives up the idea of perpetuating his family, or at any rate he seeks to accomplish it by other means than that of a landed estate. Thus not only does the 1aw of partible inheritance render it difficult for families to preserve their ancestral domains entire, but it deprives them of the inclination to attempt it, and compels them in some measure to co-operate with the law in their own extinction.

The law of equal distribution proceeds by two methods: by acting upon things, it acts upon persons; by influencing persons, it affects things. By these means the law succeeds in striking at the root of landed property, and dispersing rapidly both families and fortunes.

Most certainly it is not for us Frenchmen of the nineteenth century, who daily witness the political and social changes which the law of partition is bringing to pass, to question its influence. It is perpetually conspicuous in our country, overthrowing the walls of our dwellings and removing the landmarks of our fields. But...

Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140447601
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140447606
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5.6 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
145 of 152 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great edition but... October 14, 2004
This is a classic book. One that belongs on the bookshelf of any person with a serious interest in civil society and politics in America. This book comes in the familiar classic Penguin style binding which means it's an affordable but solid paperback which will still be in one piece even after years of thumbing your way through it (and I think I'm somehow addicted/comforted by the smell of their pages).

But the one unforgivable defect of this 900+ page edition is that it contains no index!! de Tockville wrote lots of chapters with descriptive titles, so you can kind of find your way around, but still it substantially diminishes the usefulness of the text.
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80 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bevan Translation April 26, 2004
This translation of Democracy in America is the one to buy. As you would expect from a Penguin edition, the typeface is clear and the paper is of good quality. The book as an object is a pleasure to hold and inviting to read.
But the real joy of this edition is that it is the only one to contain the two short essays that are tucked away at the back. It is worth beginning the book with these essays. They work in their own right but they also serve well as an introduction to the America of De Tocqueville.
'Excursion to Lake Oneida',the second essay, is a beautiful vignette of that time and that place; a rare gem that deserves to be read more widely.
If you intend to read De Tocqueville, read this translation. It is lucid, informative, entertaining and hugely readable. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling through America with De Tocqueville, and I will carry the story of the 'Excursion to Lake Oneida' with me for along time.
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
Alexis de Tocqueville looks at the United States and examines its political, social, and cultural intricacies in DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA AND TWO ESSAYS ON AMERICA. This edition of DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA is well introduced and translated by Gerald Bevan and Isaac Kramnick. This is not a basic travelogue of a French aristocrat -Intellect - statesman's journey through the American wilderness in a span of nine months, but it is a significant documentary that compares and contrasts European Aristocracy to American Democracy. At the time that Tocqueville wrote DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, both Europe and the United States experienced an enormous shift in its political and social structure. On the US side, several events occurred, Andrew Jackson was president, the Anti-Slavery movement, Indian Removal commenced, immigration was on the rise, and the industrial age was emerging; for the French and European side, the Revolution of 1830 and autocracy took precedence as well as a radical shake-up of the social class. Possibly, for Tocqueville his travels to the United States served as a respite from France's revolutionary tendencies, and the opportunity to observe US history in the making. In terms of chronology, 55 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 30 years before the Civil War. In essence, Tocqueville's accounts bear much significance to how the United States progressed, and where it was headed.

Tocqueville writes and thinks in a Jeffersonian stance. With Bevan's translation, the book is readable. Throughout DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA Tocqueville suggests that productivity cannot occur while a man remains idle, and that action must take place in some form or another - the rule of law or through communication. No doubt, this annotates Jeffersonian politics and ideology.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
This is a truly amazing book.

As noted above, de Tocqueville predicted both American and Russian ascendency over one hundred years before they actually occured.

However, beyond that, de Tocqueville applied a keen and discerning to then emergent trends in the United States and where they would lead. For example:

--On Tocqueville noted the inherent problems with extracting work from people who themselves were not compensated for doing the work;

--On North/South Tocqueville recognized that its reliance on slave labor put the South at a competitive advantage relative to the North in terms of developing a strong economic infrastructure;

--On the fate of African Tocqueville recognized that if revolution was to occur in the United States, the fate of African Americans would play critically in it because once the process of giving people an equal stake in society was started it would have a self propogating effect;

--On the status of Tocqueville though he was more careful here to hedge his bets allowed for the idea that the power of equality would eventually include American women as well;

--On the Tocqueville perhaps at his most prescient recognized that equality could be a recipe for government either of the people or alternatively a dictatorship imposed on those same people.

This last observation is perhaps still most salient for our times as we come to see that even an oligarchy can be a dictatorship. Maybe even all governments, however started, are ultimately destined to oligarchy, a status that will change only when enough of the right excluded demand a change and in so doing start the process all over again.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading!
Once I required all my students to read this book. When the old Soviet Union still existed, this book and one other quintessential American book, THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, were... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Robert Kavanaugh
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding
Every American should read this book. Prescient in it's predictions about the development of the nation and the eventual tyranny of democracy.
Published 3 months ago by Jack O'Spades
5.0 out of 5 stars An Old analysis of the American system that still applies to modern...
Read an abridged version of this book over 25 years ago. Decided I needed to remind myself why I enjoyed the book by rereading the entire version. I do not regret it. Read more
Published 3 months ago by LeVelle T. Henry
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Done but lacking in Translation
Well done but a bit disappointed with the translation. It appears to be significantly different than many of the other translations in print to the extent that many well known... Read more
Published 3 months ago by John L. Haas
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as described
The book is good but the condition was described as good when it should have been fair. Cover was creased and pages fairly worn. Oh well, I can still read it!
Published 4 months ago by Strategio
5.0 out of 5 stars Description of American democracy
The author travels the United States and provides a description of how democracy works there. It's really surprised what he see. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Eric Mascarin Perigault
5.0 out of 5 stars Tocqueville's Masterpiece.......
Because it is an excellent historical text that arrived in great shape and packed in what was almost a bullet-proof padded wrapped envelope. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Ray
5.0 out of 5 stars classic idealized look at Democracy in America.
written through the eyes of a Frenchman it ilutrates a look at the birth of American and compares the birth to other Revolutions.
Published 10 months ago by ila blake
5.0 out of 5 stars God did It -- A Foreign View Mirrors US Perception
What I find most amazing about this work is how much this foreigner attributes to destiny, fate and providence as if he were lulled in by the very arguments of many of the founding... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Charlotte A. Hu
5.0 out of 5 stars Democracy in America
I wanted to read Tocqueville's wriitings about his visit to America and I wasn't disappointed Every American should read his book. Highly reccomended.
Published 14 months ago by James D Hankins
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