America's Civil War
History 393
 Professor John C. Willis

Alexis de Tocqueville,

"Government of the Democracy in America"


Democracy in America

. . . When serious dangers threaten the state, the people frequently succeed in selecting the citizens who are the most able to save it.   It has been observed that man rarely retains his customary level in very critical circumstances;  he rises above or sinks below his usual condition, and the same thing is true of nations.   Extreme perils sometimes quench the energy of a people instead of stimulating it;  they excite without directing its passions;  and instead of clearing they confuse its powers of perception.   The Jews fought and killed one another amid the smoking ruins of their temple.   But it is more common, with both nations and individuals, to find extraordinary virtues developed from the very imminence of danger.   Great characters are then brought into relief as the edifices which are usually concealed by the gloom of night are illuminated by the glare of a conflagration.   At those dangerous times genius no longer hesitates to come forward;  and the people, alarmed by the perils of their situation, for a time forget their envious passions.   Great names may then be drawn from the ballot box. 

I have already observed that the American statesmen of the present day are very inferior to those who stood at the head of affairs fifty years ago.   This is as much a consequence of the circumstances as of the laws of the country.   When America was struggling in the high cause of independence to throw off the yoke of another country, and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world, the spirits of its inhabitants were roused to the height which their great objects required.   In this general excitement distinguished men were ready to anticipate the call of the community, and the people clung to them for support and placed them at their head.   But such events are rare, and it is from the ordinary course of affairs that our judgment must be formed. 

If passing occurrences sometimes check the passions of democracy, the intelligence and the morals of the community exercise an influence on them which is not less powerful and far more permanent.   This is very perceptible in the United States. 

In New England, where education and liberty are the daughters of morality and religion, where society has acquired age and stability enough to enable it to form principles and hold fixed habits, the common people are accustomed to respect intellectual and moral superiority and to submit to it without complaint, although they set at naught all those privileges which wealth and birth have introduced among mankind.   In New England, consequently, the democracy makes a more judicious choice than it does elsewhere. 

But as we descend towards the South, to those states in which the constitution of society is more recent and less strong, where instruction is less general and the principles of morality, religion, and liberty are less happily combined, we perceive that talents and virtues become more rare among those who are in authority. 

Lastly, when we arrive at the new Southwestern states, in which the constitution of society dates but from yesterday and presents only an agglomeration of adventurers and speculators, we are amazed at the persons who are invested with public authority, and we are led to ask by what force, independent of legislation and of the men who direct it, the state can be protected and society be made to flourish. 

There are certain laws of a democratic nature which contribute, nevertheless, to correct in some measure these dangerous tendencies of democracy.   On entering the House of Representatives at Washington, one is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly.   Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number.   Its members are almost all obscure individuals, whose names bring no associations to mind.   They are mostly village lawyers, men in trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society.   In a country in which education is very general, it is said that the representatives of the people do not always know how to write correctly. 

At a few yards' distance is the door of the Senate, which contains within a small space a large proportion of the celebrated men of America.   Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career:   the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe. 

How comes this strange contrast, and why are the ablest citizens found in one assembly rather than in the other?   Why is the former body remarkable for its vulgar elements, while the latter seems to enjoy a monopoly of intelligence and talent?   Both of these assemblies emanate from the people;  both are chosen by universal suffrage;  and no voice has hitherto been heard to assert in America that the Senate is hostile to the interests of the people.   From what cause, then, does so startling a difference arise?   The only reason which appears to me adequately to account for it is that the House of Representatives is elected by the people directly, while the Senate is elected by elected bodies.   The whole body of the citizens name the legislature of each state, and the Federal Constitution converts these legislatures into so many electoral bodies, which return the members of the Senate.   The Senators are elected by an indirect application of the popular vote;  for the legislatures which appoint them are not aristocratic or privileged bodies, that elect in their own right, but they are chosen by the totality of the citizens;  they are generally elected every year, and enough new members may be chosen every year to determine the senatorial appointments.   But this transmission of the popular authority through an assembly of chosen men operates an important change in it by refining its discretion and improving its choice.   Men who are chosen in this manner accurately represent the majority of the nation which governs them;  but they represent only the elevated thoughts that are current in the community and the generous propensities that prompt its nobler actions rather than the petty passions that disturb or the vices that disgrace it. 

The time must come when the American republics will be obliged more frequently to introduce the plan of election by an elected body into their system of representation or run the risk of perishing miserably among the shoals of democracy. 

I do not hesitate to avow that I look upon this peculiar system of election as the only means of bringing the exercise of political power to the level of all classes of the people.   Those who hope to convert this institution into the exclusive weapon of a party, and those who fear to use it, seem to me to be equally in error. 

SOURCE:   Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (New York:   Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), pages 202-205.

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