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In Tocqueville’s Words

March 2023
2min read


There is one thing that America demonstrates invincibly of which I was hitherto doubtful. This is that the middle classes are capable of governing a state. I don’t know if they would come off honorably from really difficult political situations, but they are adequate for the ordinary conduct of society, despite their petty passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar manners. Clearly they can supply practical intelligence, and that is sufficient.


When I arrived in the United States I discovered with astonishment that good qualities were common among the governed but rare among the rulers. In our day it is a constant fact that the most outstanding Americans are seldom summoned to public office, and it must be recognized that this tendency has increased as democracy has gone beyond its previous limits. It is clear that during the last fifty years the race of American statesmen has strangely shrunk.


Sunday is rigorously observed. And yet, either I am much mistaken or there is a great depth of doubt and indifference hidden under these external forms. … One follows a religion as our fathers took medicine in the month of May. If it doesn’t do any good, one seems to say, at least it can do no harm.


I admit that I do not feel toward freedom of the press that complete and instantaneous love which one accords to things by their nature supremely good. I love it more from considering the evils it prevents than on account of the good it does.


Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure. … Democracy, which shuts the past against the poet, opens the future before him.

Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.


The man you left behind in the streets of New York, you will find him again in the midst of almost impenetrable solitudes: same dress, same spirit, same language, same habits and the same pleasures. An American takes up ten occupations in a lifetime, leaving them and returning to them again: he continually changes his place of abode, and perpetually undertakes new enterprises. Less than any man does he fear to jeopardize the fortune he has acquired, for he knows with what ease he can found a new one.


A singular spectacle, a city which seems to want to rise too quickly for people to have any system or plan about it. Great buildings, thatched cottages, streets encumbered with debris, houses under construction, no names on the streets, no numbers on the houses.… All that there is of good or of bad in American society is to be found there in such strong relief, that one would be tempted to call it one of those books printed in large letters for teaching children to read; everything there is in violent contrast, exaggerated.


As for dinner itself, it represented the infancy of the art: the vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert. In a word, complete barbarism.


Men in general are neither very good nor very bad, but mediocre. … Man with his vices, his weaknesses, his virtues, this confused medley of good and ill, high and low, goodness and depravity, is yet, take him all in all, the object on earth most worthy of study, of interest, of pity, of attachment, and of admiration. And since we haven’t got angels, we can attach ourselves to nothing greater and more worthy of our devotion than our own kind.

I know that several of my contemporaries have thought that the peoples of the earth are never their own masters, and that they must of necessity obey I know not what dark and unconquerable forces generated from early experiences of the race, from the soil, and from the climate. These are false and cowardly doctrines, which can produce only weak individuals and faint-hearted nations. Providence has created man neither wholly independent nor wholly enslaved. Doubtless each man has his own circle of destiny from which he cannot escape, but within its wide circumference he is powerful and free; and the same is true of nations.

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