While there are de Tocqueville Societies in the United States, their stated function is to encourage individual private charity for worthy causes, thereby obviating the presumed necessity for State assistance. This is a distant and foggy understanding of de Tocqueville's analysis of what American democracy meant in the 1830s. Taking de Tocqueville's observations about America as manifestations of personal philanthropy may even serve to blunt our full awareness of de Tocqueville's achievement, as well as our comprehension of how the people of the day understood what it meant to be an American.
We can appreciate de Tocqueville's analysis properly only by referencing George Mason's tacit reconciliation, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, of humanity as both individual and social — that is, political — in nature. De Tocqueville took as his thesis that in America western civilization saw something entirely new on the stage of history, something that transcended the usual conflict between individualism and collectivism. In England, for example, government and great works were considered the bailiwick of individuals, while in France people looked to the State for virtually everything.
The distinctive manner in which Americans related to their institutions and to the common good as a whole is the subject matter of Democracy in America. This they did not purely as individuals, nor as mere cogs in the machinery of the State, but as something uniquely human: politically. Nor was this in the limited fashion that Aristotle assumed, a limited and indirect access to the common good. Americans somehow had what appeared to be full and direct access to the common good.
This was not the chaotic mess that many European commentators affected to observe in the United States. On the contrary, democracy in America appeared to operate by definite rules in conformity with the natural moral law, many of which de Tocqueville described. As he explained,
It may fairly be believed that a certain number of Americans pursue a peculiar form of worship from habit more than from conviction. In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common; but there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth. ("Causes Which Tend to Maintain Democracy," Volume I, Ch. XVII)De Tocqueville discerned a number of "rules" by means of which democracy is maintained in America — or at least was maintained in the America of the 1830s. Many of these are intimately connected with the necessity of restoring the natural law and maintaining the freedom of association that de Tocqueville observed as the chief characteristic of American life, consistent with liberty, although inspired by the drive for equality. This, according to de Tocqueville, was a situation that, while in many respects superficially similar to what prevailed in Europe, was actually something new on the world scene, and something vital to the survival of democracy. As he declared,
The first of the duties that are at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs is to educate democracy, to reawaken, if possible, its religious beliefs; to purify its morals; to mold its actions; to substitute a knowledge of statecraft for its inexperience, and an awareness of its true interest for its blind instincts, to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it according to men and to conditions. A new science of politics is needed for a new world. ("Author's Introduction," Volume I)First, an orderly society is of the utmost importance. That network of institutions within which each individual carries out even the most mundane aspects of life, thereby working to acquire and develop virtue, must be maintained. This is consistent with Aquinas's observation in De Regimine Principum that social order is a great good — so great, in fact, that we must be willing to submit to great injustice, even tyranny, if removal of the tyranny or correction of the injustice will cause material harm to the social order. This is because the business of daily life, of acquiring and developing virtue (whether at the lowest level of subsistence, or the highest of self-actualization), requires an orderly society. As de Tocqueville explains,
The passions that agitate the Americans most deeply are not their political, but their commercial passions; or, rather, they introduce the habits of business into their political life. They love order, without which affairs do not prosper; and they set an especial value upon regular conduct, which is the foundation of a solid business. ("Causes Which Tend to Maintain Democracy," Volume I, Ch. XVII)Second, despite their oft-touted individualism, Americans had a strong tendency to subsume their private interests, join with others, and cooperate in order to achieve a desired end. As de Tocqueville explains,
When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had at first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his co-operation. ("That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions," Volume II, Book II, Ch. IV)Third, Americans had integrated into their social habits the principle that, in order to optimize one's particular good, they first had to secure the common good. That is, Americans had somehow concluded that each individual's primary particular good consisted of his or her place in the common good, and that the general welfare is, in a real sense, each person's particular welfare, for the complex network of institutions that make up the common good are the chief means by which each individual acquires and develops virtue, and so benefits him- or herself. As de Tocqueville explains,
A man comprehends the influence which the well-being of his country has upon his own; he is aware that the laws permit him to contribute to that prosperity, and he labors to promote it, first because it benefits him, and secondly because it is in part his own work. ("Advantages of Democracy: Public Spirit in the United States," Volume I, Ch. XIV)Fourth, de Tocqueville noted that every American as a general rule believed him- or herself to be personally responsible for the condition of society. If something needed fixing, it was the individual's responsibility to do something, not sit around waiting for somebody else to undertake the task. In consequence, when a situation came up that required correction, the individual either handled it alone, or organized with his or her neighbors and got on with the job. As de Tocqueville described this tendency,
The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it. This habit may be traced even in the schools, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined. The same spirit pervades every act of social life. If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare and the circulation of vehicles is hindered, the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to a pre-existing authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned. ("Political Associations in the United States," Volume I, Ch. XII)Fifth, Americans had internalized what today is known as the "principle of subsidiarity." That is, they realized that the agency to handle social situations is not automatically the highest or the lowest level of society, but the one closest to the situation. Thus, the "higher" institutions, such as the state or the federal governments, should never take over the functions properly assigned to local institutions. Further (something de Tocqueville was to highlight later in The Old Régime and the French Revolution, 1856), neither should "lower" institutions take over the function of the "higher" ones. As de Tocqueville explains,
The township, taken as a whole, and in relation to the central government, in only an individual, like any other to whom the theory [sovereignty of the people] I have just described is applicable. Municipal independence in the United States is therefore a natural consequence of the very principle of the sovereignty of the people. All the American republics [de Tocqueville characterizes the individual states as "republics"] recognize it more or less, but circumstances have peculiarly favored its growth in New England.Sixth, possibly the most striking characteristic of American life as far as de Tocqueville was concerned was the incredible proclivity to organize and form associations. As he observed,
In this part of the Union political life had its origin in the townships; and it may almost be said that each of them originally formed an independent nation. When the kings of England afterwards asserted their supremacy, they were content to assume the central power of the State. They left the townships where they were before; and although they are now subject to the State, they were not at first, or were hardly so. They did not receive their powers from the central authority, but, on the contrary, they gave up a portion of their independence to the State. This is an important distinction and one that the reader must constantly recollect. The townships are generally subordinate to the State only in those interests which I shall term social, as they are common to all the others. They are independent in all that concerns themselves alone; and among the inhabitants of New England I believe that not a man is to be found who would acknowledge that the State has any right to interfere in their town affairs. ("Townships and Municipal Bodies," Volume I, Ch. V)
In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals. ("Political Associations in the United States," Volume I, Ch. XII)Seventh, and finally (at least for our limited purposes), this habit of forming associations was so great that Americans of the 1830s, according to de Tocqueville, couldn't even imagine doing things differently. If something needed to be done, and it was at all important, it was vital that people organize and form themselves into associations in order to accomplish whatever end they had in mind. Thus, as de Tocqueville explains,
The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospital, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. . . . The English often perform great things singly, whereas the Americans form associations for the smallest undertakings. It is evident that the former people consider association as a powerful means of action, but the latter seem to regard it as the only means they have of acting. ("Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life," Volume II, Book II, Ch. V)It should therefore come as no surprise that the intellectual elite of Europe (at least those most closely in touch with the Thomist and Aristotelian concept of the natural moral law, such as Pope Leo XIII), saw in the United States a great sign of hope, even (as Abraham Lincoln was to characterize it in the next generation in his Second Inaugural Address), the last, best hope of mankind. We will begin to look at how the United States both lived up to that expectation and fell short of it in the next posting in this series.