Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy and Religion

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However ready to accept Tocqueville’s belief in the passion for equality as a dynamic factor in modern industrial nations, Mill in comparing Britain and the United States saw and illustrated other influences. He agreed with Tocqueville that in the two countries the middle classes were remarkably alike in structure and aspirations. Both experienced social instability, the restless drive of individuals to improve their lot, the ceaseless pursuit of wealth, and the enlargement of the middle class through constant recruitment from below. But in one respect they differed. Britain, unlike America, had a governing and landed aristocracy, and also a leisured class and a learned class, larger and more significant in influence than their counterparts in the republic. Such class features produced between the two countries differences in the quality of political life. Mill admitted that in Britain profound changes then occurring narrowed the divergences. The strongholds of aristocratic powers were weakening. The House of Lords, for all its pretensions and authority, failed to defeat the Reform Bill. Peers were now influenced by bourgeois opinion and even taste. The edifice of government might still rest on an impressive aristocratic base, but its transformation had begun, and Mill and the Philosophic Radicals were determined that it must be carried to ultimate success.

tocqueville's essay on american government and religion TOCQUEVILLE'S ESSAY ON AMERICAN GOVERNMENT AND RELIGION *

Materialism and Religion in Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy ..

Nothing is farther from our intention than to say that the experience of America throws no light upon principles of government, or that America is not a proper theatre in which to study the tendencies of democracy. Whoever has read our review of M. de Tocqueville’s book, knows that we think the contrary. Democracy may be studied in America—but it must be; its effects are not apparent on the mere surface of the facts; a greater power of discriminating essentials from non-essentials than travellers or politicians usually possess, is required for deducing from the phenomena of American society inferences of any kind with respect to democracy. The facts themselves must first be sifted, more carefully than they ever are by any but a most highly-qualified observer. Next, we have to strike off all such of the facts as, from the laws of human nature, democracy can have nothing to do with, and all those which are sufficiently accounted for by other causes. The residuum alone can, by even a plausible conjecture, be traced home to democracy.

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Another circumstance which has important consequences, both as to society and national character, is the unrivalled prosperity of the United States. This circumstance enables the country to do with less government than any other country in existence. It is easy to keep the peace among a people all of whom are not only well off, but have unlimited means of making themselves still better off without injury to any one. The facilities of acquiring riches are such, that according to M. de Tocqueville, that is the career which engrosses all the ambitious spirits. But this same industrial prosperity has some undesirable effects. Both wages and profits being higher than in any other part of the world, the temptation is strong to all classes (but especially to those who, as managers of their own capital, can unite both sources of emolument) to as it is called, in other words, to plunge into money-getting, at the earliest possible age. It is affirmed that hardly any American remains at a place of general education beyond the age of fifteen. Here again we recognise the habits and ways of thinking of a middle class; the very causes which are accountable for the comparative failure of the London University. Further, the chances of rapid gain, combined with the facility of recovering after a fall, offer a temptation to hazardous speculations greater than in any other country. In Europe, a person who loses his all, falls into beggary; in America, only into a condition from whence, in a few years, he may emerge restored to affluence. A most adventurous spirit may, therefore, be expected to prevail in the conduct of business. Not only does this appear to be the fact, but the sympathy of the public generally with that adventurous spirit, seems to produce extraordinary indulgence even to its ill success. It is a remarkable circumstance, that although the power is expressly reserved to Congress, of framing a general law of bankruptcy for the United States, public opinion has never permitted any such law to be enacted. The laws of some of the states are lenient to excess towards even fraudulent bankruptcy; and failures inflict no discredit in the opinion of society. One cause of this indulgence towards bankruptcies may be their extreme frequency. “A short time,” says M. de Beaumont (Vol. I, pp. 284-6),

TOCQUEVILLE'S ESSAY ON AMERICAN GOVERNMENT AND RELIGION * excerpted from Tocqueville and Beaumont in America by George Wilson Pierson.


Tocqueville on Christianity and American Democracy | …

The other great political advantage which our author ascribes to Democracy, requires less illustration, because it is more obvious, and has been oftener treated of; that the course of legislation and administration tends always in the direction of the interest of the number. Although M. de Tocqueville is far from considering this quality of Democracy as the in politics which it has sometimes been supposed to be, he expresses his sense of its importance, if in measured, in no undecided terms. America does not exhibit to us what we see in the best mixed constitutions—the class interests of small minorities wielding the powers of legislation, in opposition both to the general interest and to the general opinion of the community; still less does she exhibit what has been characteristic of most representative governments, and is only gradually ceasing to characterize our own—a standing league of class interests—a tacit compact among the various knots of men who profit by abuses, to stand by one another in resisting reform. Nothing can subsist in America that is not recommended by arguments which, in appearance at least, address themselves to the interest of the many. However frequently, therefore, that interest may be mistaken, the direction of legislation towards it is maintained in the midst of the mistakes; and if a community is so situated or so ordered that it can “support the transitory action of bad laws, and can await without destruction the result of the of the laws,” that country, in the opinion of M. de Tocqueville, will prosper more under a democratic government than under any other. But in aristocratic governments, the interest, or at best the honour and glory, of the ruling class, is considered as the public interest; and all that is most valuable to the individuals composing the subordinate classes, is apt to be immolated to that public interest with all the rigour of antique patriotism.

he also notes the role that American religion ..

For the particulars of this education of the American people by means of political institutions, we must refer to the work itself; of which it is one of the minor recommendations, that it has never been equalled even as a mere statement and explanation of the institutions of the United States. The general principle to which M. de Tocqueville has given the sanction of his authority, merits more consideration than it has yet received from the professed labourers in the cause of national education. It has often been said, and requires to be repeated still oftener, that books and discourses alone are not education; that life is a problem, not a theorem: that action can only be learnt in action. A child learns to write its name only by a succession of trials; and is a man to be taught to use his mind and guide his conduct by mere precept? What can be learnt in schools is important, but not all-important. The main branch of the education of human beings is their habitual employment; which must be either their individual vocation, or some matter of general concern, in which they are called to take a part. The private money-getting occupation of almost every one is more or less a mechanical routine; it brings but few of his faculties into action, while its exclusive pursuit tends to fasten his attention and interest exclusively upon himself, and upon his family as an appendage of himself; making him indifferent to the public, to the more generous objects and the nobler interests, and, in his inordinate regard for his personal comforts, selfish and cowardly. Balance these tendencies by contrary ones; give him something to do for the public, whether as a vestryman, a juryman, or an elector; and, in that degree, his ideas and feelings are taken out of this narrow circle. He becomes acquainted with more varied business, and a larger range of considerations. He is made to feel that besides the interests which separate him from his fellow-citizens, he has interests which connect him with them, that not only the common weal is his weal, but that it partly depends upon his exertions. Whatever might be the case in some other constitutions of society, the spirit of a commercial people will be, we are persuaded, essentially mean and slavish, wherever public spirit is not cultivated by an extensive participation of the people in the business of government in detail; nor will the desideratum of a general diffusion of intelligence among either the middle or lower classes be realized, but by a corresponding dissemination of public functions and a voice in public affairs.