American Exceptionalism's Early Prophet

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By Paul RaheAuthor/Professor of Western Heritage, Hillsdale College

Today, April 16, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, a classic work of both commentary and political science, first published in 1835. So today provides a proper occasion for reflecting on the political character of our country--as it existed at the time of his tour of America in the early 1830s, and how it exists now.

In a nutshell, I believe that if he were with us today, Tocqueville would be heartened to see that Americans are still thinking and acting for themselves, that they make their own decisions, based on argument and debate--and that those have mostly been the right decisions.

But Tocqueville would worry that this great capacity for self-government--which he so admired in the early 19th century--could yet be extinguished in the 21st century.

Tocqueville, born in France in 1805, grew up in the shadow cast by the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte. Where others among his contemporaries looked forward to the rule in France of a technocratic elite armed with authority conferred by a nominally democratic regime, Tocqueville feared that the modern democratic tide would eventuate in something much more ominous: the establishment of a "social body"--that is, a government or other kind of governing elite--intent on exercising foresight with regard to everything; on acting as a "second providence," nourishing men from birth and protecting them from "perils"; and on functioning as a "tutelary power." Such power might render men "gentle" and "sociable" in such a manner that "crimes" would become "rare." Crimes would become rare, in this scenario, but virtues, too, would become rare.

Under the rule of this "tutelary power," Tocqueville foresaw that the human soul would enter into a "long repose." In the process, individual energy would be "almost extinguished"; and, when action was required, men would "rely on others," and not themselves.

In effect, a peculiar brand of inwardness and passivity would reign, he suggested, when everyone would withdraw into himself. Thus the notion of public-minded activism--which Tocqueville so admired, and which we have seen, for example, in the Tea Party movement--could be extinguished. People would become mere pawns for others, most obviously in the government.

The new and unprecedented "species of servitude" that Tocqueville had in mind was, Tocqueville observed, "regulated, gentle or soft."

This fear Tocqueville brought with him to North America. He came, hoping against hope that he would discover in our country an antidote to the process that had produced a Napoleon--a leader-turned-tyrant who brought his country to ruin in vainglorious wars--and that seemed likely to eventuate in something far less impressive than the great Bonaparte.

And here on these shores he discovered what he was looking for: a country of individuals, who worked together when they needed to, but who maintained their spirit of independence.

In decentralized administration, local self-government, civic associations, an unfettered press, Biblical religion, and the marital solidarity characteristic of Jacksonian America (that's Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, 1829-1837), Tocqueville found what he took to be a check on the soft despotism that he rightly saw as democracy's drift.

Where there is centralized administration and individual citizens find themselves alone facing the state, Tocqueville was persuaded, they will gradually become passive subjects. But where there is considerable local autonomy, and the citizens experience civic agency and learn the art of association thereby; where there is genuine and spirited public debate; where the citizens find in Biblical religion a moral anchor and a foundation for their own dignity; and where they are sustained by domestic tranquillity, he believed, they will be anything but passive and have the confidence to join together and face down officials intent on lording it over them. Whether we still possess what he found here is now in question.

Paul A. Rahe, who holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College, is the author of "Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect" which was released today by Yale University Press.