Alexis de Tocqueville,
"Why the Americans are so Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity"
Democracy in America
In certain remote corners of the Old World you may still
stumble upon a small district that seems to have been forgotten amid the general
tumult, and to have remained stationary while everything around it was in
motion. The inhabitants, for the most part, are extremely ignorant
and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are
frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally
placid and their spirits light.
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men
placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to
me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious
and almost sad, even in their pleasures.
The chief reason for this contrast is that the former
do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter are forever brooding
over advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with
what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch
the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have
chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.
A native of the United States clings to this world's
goods as if he were certain never to die; he is so hasty in grasping at
all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not
living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he
holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh
In the United States a man builds a house in which
to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants
a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings
a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces
a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon
afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If
his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex
of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds
he has a few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast
extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a
few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes
him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete
felicity which forever escapes him.
At first sight there is something surprising in this
strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of
abundance. The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the
world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification
Their taste for physical gratifications must be
regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of
the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily afford fresh
examples. He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit
of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his
disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it. The recollection of
the shortness of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good
things that he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death
will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This
thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless
trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his
If in addition to the taste for physical well-being a
social condition be added in which neither laws nor customs retain any person
in his place, there is a great additional stimulant to this restlessness of
temper. Men will then be seen continually to change their track
for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness.
It may readily be conceived that if men passionately
bent upon physical gratifications desire eagerly, they are also easily
discouraged; as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach
that object must be prompt and easy or the trouble acquiring the gratification
would be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing
frame of mind, then, is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated.
Death is often less dreaded by them than perseverance in continuous
efforts to one end.
The equality of conditions leads by a still straighter
road to several of the effects that I have here described. When all
the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are
accessible to all, and a man's own energies may place him at the top of any one
of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will
readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But
this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience.
The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty
hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes
their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires.
Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every
step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive.
They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood
in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the
barrier has changed its shape rather than its position. When men are
nearly alike and all follow the same track, it is very difficult for any one
individual to walk quickly and cleave a way through the dense throng that
surrounds and presses on him. This constant strife between the
inclination springing from the equality of condition and the means it supplies
to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind.
It is possible to conceive of men arrived at a degree of
freedom that should completely content them; they would then enjoy their
independence without anxiety and without impatience. But men will
never establish any equality with which they can be contented. Whatever
efforts a people may make, they will never succeed in reducing all the conditions
of society to a perfect level; and even if they unhappily attained that
absolute and complete equality of position, the inequality of minds would still
remain, which, coming directly from the hands of God, will forever escape the
laws of man. However democratic, then, the social state and the
political constitution of a people may be, it is certain that every member of
the community will always find out several points about him which overlook his
own position and we may foresee that his looks will be doggedly fixed in
that direction. When inequality of conditions is the common law of
society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything
is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it.
Hence the desire of equality always become more insatiable in
proportion as equality is more complete.
Among democratic nations, men easily attain a certain
equality of condition, but they can never attain as much as they desire.
It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself
from their sight, and in retiring draws them on. At every moment
they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment from
their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off
to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted the delights, they
To these causes must be attributed that strange
melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the
midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon
them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances. Complaints are
made in France that the number of suicide increases; in America suicide
is rare, but insanity is said to be more common there than anywhere else.
These are all different symptoms of the same disease. The
Americans do not put an end to their lives, however disquieted they may be,
because their religion forbids it; and among them materialism may be said
hardly to exist, notwithstanding the general passion for physical gratification.
The will resists, but reason frequently gives way.
In democratic times enjoyments are more intense than in
the ages of aristocracy, and the number of those who partake in them is vastly
larger: but, on the other hand, it must be admitted that man's
hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed,
and care itself more keen.
SOURCE: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy
in America, vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945),
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