Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
Aside from all those who do not think at all and those who dare not say what they think, the immense majority of Americans will still be found to appear satisfied with their political institutions; and I believe they really are so. I look on this state of public opinion as an indication, but not as a proof, of the absolute excellence of American laws. National pride, the gratification, by legislation, of certain ruling passions, fortuitous circumstances, unperceived defects, and, more than all the rest, the influence of the majority which shuts the mouth of all opponents, may long perpetuate the delusions of a people as well as those of a man.
Look at England throughout the eighteenth century. No nation was ever more prodigal of self-applause, no people were ever better satisfied with themselves; then every part of their constitution was right, everything, even to its most obvious defects, was irreproachable. At the present day a vast number of Englishmen seem to be occupied only in proving that this constitution was faulty in a thousand respects. Which was right, the English people of the last century, or the English people of the present day?
The same thing occurred in France. It is certain that, during the reign of Louis XIV the great bulk of the nation was devotedly . attached to the form of government which then governed the community. It is a vast error to suppose that there was anything degraded in the character of the French of that age. There might have been some instances of servitude in France at that time, but assuredly there was no servile spirit among the people. The writers of that age felt a species of genuine enthusiasm in raising the power of their King over all other authority; and there was no peasant so obscure in his hovel as not to take a pride in the glory of his sovereign, or who would not die cheerfully with the cry “Vive le Roi!” upon his lips. These same forms of loyalty have now become odious to the French people. Which were wrong, the French of the age of Louis XIV or their descendants of the pres- ent day?
Our judgment of the laws of a people, then, must not be founded exclusively upon its inclinations, since those inclinations change from age to age; but upon more elevated principles and a more general experience. The love which a people may show for its laws proves only this: that we should not be in a hurry to change them.
The original copyright for Alexis de Tocqueville’s, “Democracy In America,” Translated by Henry Reeve, 1899, is held in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. Formatting of this digital copy of Democracy In America Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal. Non-commercial, educational use of individual chapters is encouraged with a live link back to the original copy at The Moral Liberal and a courtesy note to the editors.