Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
Volume 1, Chapter 13, Government of the Democracy in the United States
I AM well aware of the difficulties that attend this part of my subject; but although every expression which I am about to use may clash, upon some points, with the feelings of the different parties which divide my country, I shall still speak my whole thought.
In Europe we are at a loss how to judge the true character and the permanent instincts of democracy, because in Europe two conflicting principles exist and we do not know what to attribute to the principles themselves and what to the passions that the contest produces. Such is not the case in America, however; there the people reign without impediment, and they have no perils to dread and no injuries to avenge. In America democracy is given up to its own propensities; its course is natural and its activity is unrestrained, there, consequently, its real character must be judged. And to no people can this inquiry be more vitally interesting than to the French nation, who are blindly driven onwards, by a daily and irresistible impulse, towards a state of things which may prove either despotic or republican, but which will assuredly be democratic.
I HAVE already observed that universal suffrage has been adopted in all the states of the Union; it consequently exists in communities that occupy very different positions in the social scale. I have had opportunities of observing its effects in different localities and among races of men who are nearly strangers to each other in their language, their religion, and their modes of life; in Louisiana as well as in New England, in Georgia as in Canada. I have remarked that universal suffrage is far from producing in America either all the good or all the evil consequences which may be expected from it in Europe, and that its effects generally differ very much from those which are attributed to it.
THE CHOICE OF THE PEOPLE, AND THE INSTINCTIVE PREFERENCES OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. In the United States the ablest men are rarely placed at the head of affairs–Reason for this peculiarity–The envy which prevails in the lower orders of France against the higher classes is not a French but a purely democratic feeling–Why the most distinguished men in America frequently seclude themselves from public affairs.
MANY people in Europe are apt to believe without saying it, or to say without believing it, that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is that it entrusts the direction of affairs to men who are worthy of the public confidence. They admit that the people are unable to govern of themselves, but they aver that the people always wish the welfare of the state and instinctively designate those who are animated by the same good will and who are the most fit to wield the supreme authority. I confess that the observations I made in America by no means coincide with these opinions. On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government. It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has exceeded all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.
Several causes may be assigned for this phenomenon. It is impossible, after the most strenuous exertions, to raise the intelligence of the people above a certain level. Whatever may be the facilities of acquiring information, whatever may be the profusion of easy methods and cheap science, the human mind can never be instructed and developed without devoting considerable time to these objects.
The greater or lesser ease with which people can live without working is a sure index of intellectual progress. This boundary is more remote in some countries and more restricted in others, but it must exist somewhere as long as the people are forced to work in order to procure the means of subsistence; that is to say, as long as they continue to be the people. It is therefore quite as difficult to imagine a state in which all the citizens are very well informed as a state in which they are all wealthy; these two difficulties are correlative. I readily admit that the mass of the citizens sincerely wish to promote the welfare of the country; nay, more, I even grant that the lower classes mix fewer considerations of personal interest with their patriotism than the higher orders; but it is always more or less difficult for them to discern the best means of attaining the end which they sincerely desire. Long and patient observation and much acquired knowledge are requisite to form a just estimate of the character of a single individual. Men of the greatest genius often fail to do it, and can it be supposed that the common people will always succeed? The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the more prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence.
Moreover, democracy not only lacks that soundness of judgment which is necessary to select men really deserving of their confidence, but often have not the desire or the inclination to find them out. It cannot be denied that democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart; not so much because they afford to everyone the means of rising to the same level with others as because those means perpetually disappoint the persons who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy. This complete equality eludes the grasp of the people at the very moment when they think they have grasped it, and “flies,” as Pascal says, “with an eternal flight; the people are excited in the pursuit of an advantage, which is more precious because it is not sufficiently remote to be unknown or sufficiently near to be enjoyed. The lower orders are agitated by the chance of success, they are irritated by its uncertainty; and they pass from the enthusiasm of pursuit to the exhaustion of ill success, and lastly to the acrimony of disappointment. Whatever transcends their own limitations appears to be an obstacle to their desires, and there is no superiority, however legitimate it may be, which is not irksome in their sight.
It has been supposed that the secret instinct which leads the lower orders to remove their superiors as much as possible from the direction of public affairs is peculiar to France. This is an error, however; the instinct to which I allude is not French, it is democratic; it may have been heightened by peculiar political circumstances, but it owes its origin to a higher cause.
In the United States the people do not hate the higher classes of society, but are not favorably inclined towards them and carefully exclude them from the exercise of authority. They do not fear distinguished talents, but are rarely fond of them. In general, everyone who rises without their aid seldom obtains their favor.
While the natural instincts of democracy induce the people to reject distinguished citizens as their rulers, an instinct not less strong induces able men to retire from the political arena, in which it is so difficult to retain their independence, or to advance without becoming servile. This opinion has been candidly expressed by Chancellor Kent, who says, in speaking with high praise of that part of the Constitution which empowers the executive to nominate the judges: “It is indeed probable that the men who are best fitted to discharge the duties of this high office would have too much reserve in their manners, and too much austerity in their principles, for them to be returned by the majority at an election where universal suffrage is adopted.”1 Such were the opinions which were printed without contradiction in America in the year 1830!
I hold it to be sufficiently demonstrated that universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice. Whatever its advantages may be, this is not one of them.
CAUSES WHICH MAY PARTLY CORRECT THESE TENDENCIES OF THE DE. Contrary effects produced on nations as on individuals by great dangers–Why so many distinguished men stood at the head of affairs in America fifty years ago–Influence which intelligence and morality exercise upon the popular –Example of New England–States of the Southwest –How certain laws influence the choice of the people–Election by an elected body–Its effects upon the composition of the Senate.
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 the 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 conflagrations. 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.
INFLUENCE WHICH THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY HAS EXERCISED ON THE LAWS RELATING TO ELECTIONS. When elections are rare, they expose the state to a violent crisis–When they are frequent, they keep up a feverish excitement–The Americans have preferred the second of these two evils–Mutability of the laws-Opinions of Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson on this subject.
WHEN elections recur only at long intervals, the state is exposed to violent agitation every time they take place. Parties then exert themselves to the utmost in order to gain a prize which is so rarely within their reach; and as the evil is almost irremediable for the candidates who fail, everything is to be feared from their disappointed ambition. If, on the other hand, the legal struggle is soon to be repeated, the defeated parties take patience.
When elections occur frequently, their recurrence keeps society in a feverish excitement and gives a continual instability to public affairs. Thus, on the one hand, the state is exposed to the perils of a revolution, on the other to perpetual mutability; the former system threatens the very existence of the government, the latter prevents any steady and consistent policy. The Americans have preferred the second of these evils to the first; but they were led to this conclusion by instinct more than by reason, for a taste for variety is one of the characteristic passions of democracy. Hence their legislation is strangely mutable.
Many Americans consider the instability of their laws as a necessary consequence of a system whose general results are beneficial. But no one in the United States affects to deny the fact of this instability or contends that it is not a great evil.
Hamilton, after having demonstrated the utility of a power that might prevent or at least impede the promulgation of bad laws adds: “It may perhaps be said, that the power of preventing bad laws includes that of preventing good ones, and may be used to the one purpose as well as to the other. But this objection will have little weight with those who can properly estimate the mischiefs of that inconstancy and mutability in the laws which form the greatest blemish in the character and genius of our governments.” ( Federalist, No. 73.)
And again, in No. 62 of the same work, he observes: “The facility and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable.”
Jefferson himself, the greatest democrat whom the democracy of America has as yet produced, pointed out the same dangers.
“The instability of our laws,” said he, “is really a very serious inconvenience. I think that we ought to have obviated it by deciding that a whole year should always be allowed to elapse between the bringing in of a bill and the final passing of it. It should afterwards be discussed and put to the vote without the possibility of making any alteration in it; and if the circumstances of the case required a more speedy decision, the question should not be decided by a simple majority, but by a majority of at least two thirds of each house.” 2
PUBLIC OFFICERS UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. Simple exterior of American public officers–No official costume–All public officers are remunerated–Political consequences of this system–No public career exists in America– Results of this fact. PUBLIC officers in the United States are not separate from the mass of citizens; they have neither palaces nor guards nor ceremonial costumes. This simple exterior of persons in authority is connected not only with the peculiarities of the American character, but with the fundamental principles of society. In the estimation of the democracy a government is not a benefit, but a necessary evil. A certain degree of power must be granted to public officers, for they would be of no use without it. But the ostensible semblance of authority is by no means indispensable to the conduct of affairs, and it is needlessly offensive to the susceptibility of the public. The public officers themselves are well aware that the superiority over their fellow citizens which they derive from their authority they enjoy only on condition of putting themselves on a level with the whole community by their manners. A public officer in the United States is uniformly simple in his manners, accessible to all the world, attentive to all requests, and obliging in his replies. I was pleased by these characteristics of a democratic government; I admired the manly independence that respects the office more than the officer and thinks less of the emblems of authority than of the man who bears them.
I believe that the influence which costumes really exercise in an age like that in which we live has been a good deal exaggerated. I never perceived that a public officer in America, while in the discharge of his duties, was the less respected because his own merit was set off by no adventitious signs. On the other hand, it is very doubtful whether a peculiar dress induces public men to respect themselves when they are not otherwise inclined to do so. When a magistrate snubs the parties before him, or indulges his wit at their expense, or shrugs his shoulders at their pleas of defense, or smiles complacently as the charges are enumerated (and in France such instances are not rare ), I should like to deprive him of his robes of office, to see whether, when he is reduced to the garb of a private citizen, he would not recall some portion of the natural dignity of mankind.
No public officer in the United States has an official costume, but every one of them receives a salary. And this, also, still more naturally than what precedes, results from democratic principles. A democracy may allow some magisterial pomp and clothe its officers in silks and gold without seriously compromising its principles.
Privileges of this kind are transitory; they belong to the place and not to the man. But if public officers are unpaid, a class of rich and independent public functionaries will be created who will constitute the basis of an aristocracy; and if the people still retain their right of election, the choice can be made only from a certain class of citizens.
When a democratic republic requires salaried officials to serve without pay, it may safely be inferred that the state is advancing towards monarchy. And when a monarchy begins to remunerate such officers as had hitherto been unpaid, it is a sure sign that it is approaching a despotic or a republican form of government. The substitution of paid for unpaid functionaries is of itself, in my opinion, sufficient to constitute a real revolution.
I look upon the entire absence of unpaid offices in America as one of the most prominent signs of the absolute dominion which democracy exercises in that country. All public services, of whatever nature they may be, are paid; so that everyone has not merely a right, but also the means of performing them. Although in democratic states all the citizens are qualified to hold offices, all are not tempted to try for them. The number and the capacities of the candidates more than the conditions of the candidateship restrict the choice of the electors.
In nations where the principle of election extends to everything no political career can, properly speaking, be said to exist. Men arrive as if by chance at the post which they hold, and they are by no means sure of retaining it. This is especially true when the elections are held annually. The consequence is that in tranquil times public functions offer but few lures to ambition. In the United States those who engage in the perplexities of political life are persons of very moderate pretensions. The pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. The vast number of very ordinary men who occupy public stations is quite as attributable to these causes as to the bad choice of democracy. In the United States I am not sure that the people would choose men of superior abilities even if they wished to be elected; but it is certain that candidates of this description do not come forward.
ARBITRARY POWER OF MAGISTRATES 3 UNDER THE RULE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. For what reason the arbitrary power of magistrates is greater in absolute monarchies and in democratic republics than it is in limited monarchies–Arbitrary power of the magistrates in New England.
IN two kinds of government the magistrates exercise considerable arbitrary power: namely, under the absolute government of an individual, and under that of a democracy. This identical result proceeds from very similar causes.
In despotic states the fortune of no one is secure; public officers are not more safe than private persons. The sovereign, who has under his control the lives, the property, and sometimes the honor of the men whom he employs, thinks he has nothing to fear from them and allows them great latitude of action because he is convinced that they will not use it against him. In despotic states the sovereign is so much attached to his power that he dislikes the constraint even of his own regulations, and likes to see his agents acting irregularly and, as it were, by chance in order to be sure that their actions will never counteract his desires.
In democracies, as the majority has every year the right of taking away the power of the officers whom it had appointed, it has no reason to fear any abuse of their authority. As the people are always able to signify their will to those who conduct the government, they prefer leaving them to the* own free action instead of prescribing an invariable rule of conduct, which would at once fetter their activity and the popular authority.
It may even be observed, on attentive consideration, that, under the rule of a democracy the arbitrary action of the magistrate must be still greater than in despotic states. In the latter the sovereign can immediately punish all the faults with which he becomes acquainted, but he cannot hope to become acquainted with all those which are committed. In democracies, on the contrary, the sovereign power is not only supreme, but universally present. The American functionaries are, in fact, much more free in the sphere of action which the law traces out for them than any public officer in Europe. Very frequently the object which they are to accomplish is simply pointed out to them, and the choice of the means is left to their own discretion.
In New England, for instance, the selectmen of each township are bound to draw up the list of persons who are to serve on the jury; the only rule which is laid down to guide them in their choice is that they are to select citizens possessing the elective franchise and enjoying a fair reputation.4 In France the lives and liberties of the subjects would be thought to be in danger if a public officer of any kind was entrusted with so formidable a right. In New England the same magistrates are empowered to post the names of habitual drunkards in public houses and to prohibit the inhabitants of a town from supplying them with liquor.5 Such a censorial power would be revolting to the population of the most absolute monarchies; here, however, it is submitted to without difficulty.
Nowhere has so much been left by the law to the arbitrary determination of the magistrate as in democratic republics, because they have nothing to fear from arbitrary power. It may even be asserted that the freedom of the magistrate increases as the elective franchise is extended and as the duration of the term of office is shortened. Hence arises the great difficulty of converting a democratic republic into a monarchy. The magistrate ceases to be elective, but he retains the rights and the habits of an elected officer, which lead directly to despotism.
It is only in limited monarchies that the law which prescribes the sphere in which public officers are to act regulates all their measures. The cause of this may be easily detected. In limited monarchies the power is divided between the king and the people, both of whom are interested in the stability of the magistrate. The king does not venture to place the public officers under the control of the people, lest they should be tempted to betray his interests; on the other hand, the people fear lest the magistrates should serve to oppress the liberties of the country if they were entirely dependent upon the crown; they cannot, therefore, be said to depend on either the one or the other. The same cause that induces the king and the people to render public officers independent suggests the necessity of such securities as may prevent their independence from encroaching upon the authority of the former or upon the liberties of the latter. They consequently agree as to the necessity of restricting the functionary to a line of conduct laid down beforehand and find it to their interest to impose upon him certain regulations that he cannot evade.
INSTABILITY OF THE ADMINISTRATION IN THE UNITED STATES. In America the public acts of a community frequently leave fewer traces than the actions within a family–Newspapers the only historical remains–Instability of the administration prejudicial to the art of government.
THE authority which public men possess in America is so brief and they are so soon commingled with the ever changing population of the country that the acts of a community frequently leave fewer traces than events in a private family. The public administration is, so to speak, oral and traditional. But little is committed to writing, and that little is soon wafted away forever, like the leaves of the Sibyl, by the smallest breeze.
The only historical remains in the United States are the newspapers; if a number be wanting, the chain of time is broken and the present is severed from the past. I am convinced that in fifty years it will be more difficult to collect authentic documents concerning the social condition of the Americans at the present day than it is to find remains of the administration of France during the Middle Ages; and if the United States were ever invaded by barbarians, it would be necessary to have recourse to the history of other nations in order to learn anything of the people who now inhabit them.
The instability of administration has penetrated into the habits of the people; it even appears to suit the general taste, and no one cares for what occurred before his time: no methodical system is pursued, no archives are formed, and no documents are brought together when it would be very easy to do so. Where they exist, little store is set upon them. I have among my papers several original public documents which were given to me in the public offices in answer to some of my inquiries. In America society seems to live from hand to mouth, like an army in the field. Nevertheless, the art of administration is undoubtedly a science, and no sciences can be improved if the discoveries and observations of successive generations are not connected together in the order in which they occur. One man in the short space of his life remarks a fact, another conceives an idea; the former invents a means of execution, the latter reduces a truth to a formula, and mankind gathers the fruits of individual experience on its way and gradually forms the sciences. But the persons who conduct the administration in America can seldom afford any instruction to one another; and when they assume the direction of society, they simply possess those attainments which are widely disseminated in the community, and no knowledge peculiar to themselves. Democracy, pushed to its furthest limits, is therefore prejudicial to the art of government; and for this reason it is better adapted to a people already versed in the conduct of administration than to a nation that is uninitiated in public affairs.
This remark, indeed, is not exclusively applicable to the science of administration. Although a democratic government is founded upon a very simple and natural principle, it always presupposes the existence of a high degree of culture and enlightenment in society.6 At first it might be supposed to belong to the earliest ages of the world, but maturer observation will convince us that it could come only last in the succession of human history.
CHARGES LEVIED BY THE STATE UNDER THE RULE OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. In all communities citizens are divisible into certain classes–Habits of each of these classes in the direction of public finances–Why public expenditure must tend to increase when the people govern–What renders the extravagance of a democracy less to be feared in America–Public expenditure under a democracy.
BEFORE we can tell whether a democratic government is economical or not we must establish a standard of comparison. The question would be of easy solution if we were to draw a parallel between a democratic republic and an absolute monarchy. The public expenditure in the former would be found to be more considerable than in the latter; such is the case with all free states compared with those which are not so. It is certain that despotism ruins individuals by preventing them from producing wealth much more than by depriving them of what they have already produced; it dries up the source of riches, while it usually respects acquired property. Freedom, on the contrary, produces far more goods than it destroys; and the nations which are favored by free institutions invariably find that their resources increase even more rapidly than their taxes.
My present object is to compare free nations with one another and to point out the influence of democracy upon the finances of a state.
Communities as well as organic bodies are subject in their formation to certain fixed rules from which they cannot depart. They are composed of certain elements that are common to them at all times and under all circumstances. The people may always be mentally divided into three classes. The first of these classes consists of the wealthy- the second, of those who are in easy circumstances; and the third is composed of those who have little or no property and who subsist by the work that they perform for the two superior orders. The proportion of the individuals in these several divisions may vary according to the condition of society, but the divisions themselves can never be obliterated.
It is evident that each of these classes will exercise an influence peculiar to its own instincts upon the administration of the finances of the state. If the first of the three exclusively possesses the legislative power, it is probable that it will not be sparing of the public funds, because the taxes which are levied on a large fortune only diminish the sum of superfluities and are, in fact, but little felt. If the second class has the power of making the laws, it will certainly not be lavish of taxes, because nothing is so onerous as a large impost levied upon a small income. The government of the middle classes appears to me the most economical, I will not say the most enlightened, and certainly not the most generous, of free governments.
Let us now suppose that the legislative authority is vested in the lowest order: there are two striking reasons which show that the tendency of the expenditures will be to increase, not to diminish.
As the great majority of those who create the laws have no taxable property, all the money that is spent for the community appears to be spent to their advantage, at no cost of their own, and those who have some little property readily find means of so regulating the taxes that they weigh upon the wealthy and profit the poor, although the rich cannot take the same advantage when they are in possession of the government.
In countries in which the poor 7 have the exclusive power of making the laws, no great economy of public expenditure ought to be expected; that expenditure will always be considerable either because the taxes cannot weigh upon those who levy them or because they are levied in such a manner as not to reach these poorer classes. In other words, the government of the democracy is the only one under which the power that votes the taxes escapes the payment of them.
In vain will it be objected that the true interest of the people is to spare the fortunes of the rich, since they must suffer in the long run from the general impoverishment which will ensue. Is it not the true interest of kings also, to render their subjects happy, and of nobles to admit recruits into their order on suitable grounds? If remote advantages had power to prevail over the passions and the exigencies of the moment, no such thing as a tyrannical sovereign or an exclusive aristocracy could ever exist.
Again, it may be objected that the poor never have the sole power of making the laws; but I reply that wherever universal suffrage has been established, the majority unquestionably exercises the legislative authority; and if it be proved that the poor always constitute the majority, may it not be added with perfect truth that in the countries in which they possess the elective franchise they possess the sole power of making the laws? It is certain that in all the nations of the world the greater number has always consisted of those persons who hold no property, or of those whose property is insufficient to exempt them from the necessity of working in order to procure a comfortable subsistence. Universal suffrage, therefore, in point of fact does invest the poor with the government of society.
The disastrous influence that popular authority may sometimes exercise upon the finances of a state was clearly seen in some of the democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasure was exhausted in order to relieve indigent citizens or to supply games and theatrical amusements for the populace. It is true that the representative system was then almost unknown, and that at the present time the influence of popular passions is less felt in the conduct of public affairs; but it may well be believed that in the end the delegate will conform to the principles of his constituents and favor their propensities as much as their interests.
The extravagance of democracy is less to be dreaded, however, in proportion as the people acquire a share of property, because, on the one hand, the contributions of the rich are then less needed, and, on the other, it is more difficult to impose taxes that will not reach the imposers. On this account universal suffrage would be less dangerous in France than in England, where nearly all the taxable property is vested in the hands of a few. America, where the great majority of the citizens possess some fortune, is in a still more favorable position than France.
There are further causes that may increase the amount of public expenditure in democratic countries. When an aristocracy governs, those who conduct the affairs of state are exempted, by their very station in society, from any want: content with their lot, power and renown are the only objects for which they strive; placed far above the obscure crowd, they do not always clearly perceive how the well-being of the mass of the people will redound to their own grandeur. They are not, indeed, callous to the sufferings of the poor; but they cannot feel those miseries as acutely as if they were themselves partakers of them. Provided that the people appear to submit to their lot, the rulers are satisfied and demand nothing further from the government. An aristocracy is more intent upon the means of maintaining than of improving its condition.
When, on the contrary, the people are invested with the supreme authority, they are perpetually seeking for something better, because they feel the hardship of their lot. The thirst for improvement extends to a thousand different objects; it descends to the most trivial details, and especially to those changes which are accompanied with considerable expense, since the object is to improve the condition of the poor, who cannot pay for the improvement. Moreover, all democratic communities are agitated by an ill-defined excitement and a kind of feverish impatience that creates a multitude of innovations, almost all of which are expensive.
In monarchies and aristocracies those who are ambitious flatter the natural taste which the rulers have for power and renown and thus often incite them to very costly undertakings. In democracies, where the rulers are poor and in want, they can be courted only by such means as will improve their well-being, and these improvements cannot take place without money. When a people begin to reflect on their situation, they discover a multitude of wants that they had not before been conscious of, and to satisfy these exigencies recourse must be had to the coffers of the state. Hence it happens that the public charges increase in proportion to the civilization of the country, and taxes are augmented as knowledge becomes more diffused.
The last cause which renders a democratic government dearer than any other is that a democracy does not always lessen its expenditures even when it wishes to do so, because it does not understand the art of being economical. As it frequently changes its purposes, and still more frequently its agents, its undertakings are often ill-conducted or left unfinished; in the former case the state spends sums out of all proportion to the end that it proposes to accomplish; in the latter the expense brings no return.
TENDENCIES OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AS REGARDS THE SALARIES OF PUBLIC OFFICERS. In democracies those who establish high salaries have no chance of profiting by them–Tendency of the to increase the salaries of subordinate officers and to lower those of the more important functionaries-Reason f or this–Comparative statement of the salaries of public officers in the United States and in France.
THERE is a powerful reason that usually induces democracies to economize upon the salaries of public officers. Those who fix the amount of the salaries, being very numerous, have but little chance of obtaining office so as to be in receipt of those salaries. In aristocratic countries, on the contrary, the individuals who appoint high salaries have almost always a vague hope of profiting by them. These appointments may be looked upon as a capital which they create for their own use, or at least as a resource for their children.
It must be allowed, moreover, that a democratic state is most parsimonious towards its principal agents. In America the secondary officers are much better paid and the higher functionaries much worse than elsewhere.
These opposite effects result from the same cause: the people fix the salaries of the public officers in both cases, and the scale of remuneration is determined by a comparison with their own wants. It is held to be fair that the servants of the public should be placed in the same easy circumstances as the public themselves; 8 but when the question turns upon the salaries of the great officers of state, this rule fails, and chance alone guides the popular decision. The poor have no adequate conception of the wants which the higher classes of society feel. The sum which is scanty to the rich appears enormous to him whose wants do not extend beyond the necessities of life; and in his estimation, the governor of a state, with his twelve hundred or two thousand dollars a year, is a fortunate and enviable being.9 If you try to convince him that the representative of a great people ought to appear with some splendor in the eyes of foreign nations, he will at first assent to your assertion, but when he reflects on his own humble dwelling and the small earnings of his hard toil, he remembers all that he could do with a salary which you judge to be insufficient, and he is startled and almost frightened at the view of so much wealth. Besides, the secondary public officer is almost on a level with the people, while the others are raised above them. The former may therefore excite his sympathy, but the latter begin to arouse his envy.
This is clearly seen in the United States, where the salaries seem, if I may so speak, to decrease as the authority of those who receive them is augmented.10
Under the rule of an aristocracy, on the contrary, the high officers receive munificent salaries, while the inferior ones often have not more than enough to procure the necessaries of life. The reason for this fact is easily discoverable from causes very analogous to those that I have just pointed out. As a democracy is unable to conceive the pleasures of the rich or to witness them without envy, so an aristocracy is slow to understand the privations of the poor, or rather is unacquainted with them. The poor man is not, properly speaking, of the same kind as the rich one, but a being of another species. An aristocracy therefore cares but little for the condition of its subordinate agents; and their salaries are raised only when they refuse to serve for too scanty a remuneration.
It is the parsimonious conduct of democracy towards its principal officers that has caused more economical propensities to be attributed to it than it really possesses. It is true that it scarcely allows the means of decent maintenance to those who conduct its affairs; but it lavishes enormous sums to succor the wants or facilitate the enjoyments of the people.11 The money raised by taxation may be better employed, but it is not economically used. In general, democracy gives largely to the people and very sparingly to those who govern them. The reverse is the case in aristocratic countries, where the money of the state profits the persons who are at the head of affairs.
DIFFICULTY OF DISTINGUISHING THE CAUSES THAT INCLINE THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT TO ECONOMY
WE ARE liable to frequent errors in seeking among facts for the real influence that laws exercise upon the fate of mankind, since nothing is more difficult to appreciate than a fact. One nation is naturally fickle and enthusiastic; another is sober and calculating; and these characteristics originate in their physical constitution or in remote causes with which we are unacquainted.
There are nations which are fond of parade, bustle, and festivity, and which do not regret millions spent upon the gayeties of an hour. Others, on the contrary, are attached to more quiet enjoyments and seem almost ashamed of appearing to be pleased. In some countries high value is set upon the beauty of public edifices; in others the productions of art are treated with indifference, and everything that is unproductive is regarded with contempt. In some, renown, in others, money, is the ruling passion.
Independently of the laws, all these causes exercise a powerful influence upon the conduct of the finances of the state. If the Americans never spend the money of the people in public festivities, it is not merely because the taxes are under the control of the people, but because the people take no delight in festivities. If they repudiate all ornament from their architecture and set no store on any but practical and homely advantages, it is not because they live under democratic institutions, but because they are a commercial nation. The habits of private life are continued in public; and we ought carefully to distinguish that economy which depends upon their institutions from that which is the natural result of their habits and customs.
WHETHER THE EXPENDITURE OF THE UNITED STATES CAN BE COMPARED WITH THAT OF FRANCE. Two points to be established in order to estimate the extent of the public charges: viz., the national wealth and the rate of taxation–The wealth and the charges of France not accurately known–Why the wealth and charges of the Union cannot be accurately known–Researches of the author to discover the amount of taxation of Pennsylvania-General symptoms that may serve to indicate the amount of the public charges in a given nation–Result of this investigation f or the Union.
MANY attempts have recently been made in France to compare the public expenditure of that country with the expenditure of the United States. All these attempts have been fruitless, however, and a few words will suffice to show that they could not have a satisfactory result.
In order to estimate the amount of the public charges of a people, two preliminaries are indispensable: it is necessary, in the first place, to know the wealth of that people; and, in the second, to learn what portion of that wealth is devoted to the expenditure of the state. To show the amount of taxation without showing the resources which are destined to meet it would be a futile task; for it is not the expenditure, but the relation of the expenditure to the revenue that it is desirable to know. The same rate of taxation which may easily be supported by a wealthy contributor will reduce a poor one to extreme misery.
The wealth of nations is composed of several elements- real property is the first of these, and personal property the second. It is difficult to know precisely the amount of cultivable land in a country and its natural or acquired value; and it is still more difficult to estimate the whole personal property which is at the disposal of a nation, and which eludes the strictest analysis because of the diversity and the number of shapes under which it may occur. And, indeed, we find that the nations of Europe which have been the longest civilized, including even those in which the administration is most centralized, have not succeeded as yet in determining the exact amount of their wealth.
In America the attempt has never been made; for how would such an investigation be possible in a new country, where society has not yet settled into fixed and tranquil habits, where the national government is not assisted by a multitude of agents whose exertions it can command and direct to one end, and where statistics are not studied because no one is able to collect the necessary documents or find time to peruse them? Thus the primary elements of the calculations that have been made in France cannot be obtained in the Union; the relative wealth of the two countries is unknown: the property of the former is not yet accurately determined, and no means exist of computing that of the latter.
I consent therefore, for the moment, to abandon this necessary term of the comparison, and I confine myself to a computation of the actual amount of taxation, without investigating the ratio of the taxation to the revenue. But the reader will perceive that my task has not been facilitated by thus narrowing the circle of my researches.
It cannot be doubted that the central administration of France, assisted by all the public officers who are at its disposal, might determine precisely the amount of the direct and indirect taxes levied upon the citizens. But this investigation, which no private individual can undertake, has not hitherto been completed by the French government, or at least its results have not been made public. We are acquainted with the sum total of the charges of the state, we know the amount of the departmental expenditure; but the expenses of the communes have not been computed, and the total of the public expenses of France is consequently unknown.
If we now turn to America, we perceive that the difficulties are multiplied and enhanced. The Union publishes an exact return of the amount of its expenditure; the budgets of the four-and-twenty states publish similar returns; but the expenses of the counties and the townships are unknown.12
The Federal authority cannot oblige the state governments to throw any light upon this point; and even if these governments were inclined to give their simultaneous aid, it may be doubted whether they are able to furnish a satisfactory answer. Independently of the natural difficulties of the task, the political organization of the country would hinder the success of their efforts. The country and town magistrates are not appointed by the authorities of the state and are not subjected to their control. It is therefore allowable to suppose that even if the state was desirous of obtaining the returns which we require, its design would be counteracted by the neglect of those subordinate officers whom it would be obliged to employ.13 It is in fact useless to inquire what the Americans might do to forward this inquiry, since it is certain that they have hitherto done nothing. There does not exist a single individual at the present day, in America or in Europe, who can inform us what each citizen of the Union annually contributes to the public charges of the nation.14
Hence we must conclude that it is no less difficult to compare the social expenditure than it is to estimate the relative wealth of France and America. I will even add that it would be dangerous to attempt this comparison, for when statistics are not based upon computations that are strictly accurate, they mislead instead of guiding aright. The mind is easily imposed upon by the affectation of exactitude which marks even the misstatements of statistics; and it adopts with confidence the errors which are appareled in the forms of mathematical truth.
We abandon, therefore, the numerical investigation, with the hope of meeting with data of another kind. In the absence of positive documents, we may form an opinion as to the proportion that the taxation of a people bears to its real wealth, by observing whether its external appearance is flourishing; whether, after having paid the dues of the state, the poor man retains the means of subsistence, and the rich the means of enjoyment; and whether both classes seem contented with their position, seeking, however, to ameliorate it by perpetual exertions, so that industry is never in want of capital, nor capital unemployed by industry. The observer who draws his inferences from these signs will undoubtedly be led to the conclusion that the American of the United States contributes a much smaller portion of his income to the state than the citizen of France. Nor, indeed, can the result be otherwise.
A portion of the French debt is the consequence of two invasions; and the Union has no similar calamity to fear. The position of France obliges it to maintain a large standing army; the isolation of the Union enables it to have only six thousand soldiers. The French have a fleet of three hundred sail; the Americans have only fifty-two vessels.15 How, then, can the inhabitant of the Union be taxed as heavily as the inhabitant of France? No parallel can be drawn between the finances of two countries so differently situated.
It is by examining what actually takes place in the Union, and not by comparing the Union with France, that we can judge whether the American government is really economical. On casting my eyes over the different republics which form the confederation, I perceive that their governments often lack perseverance in their undertakings, and that they exercise no steady control over the men whom they employ. I naturally infer that they must often spend the money of the people to no purpose, or consume more of it than is really necessary for their enterprises. Faithful to its popular origin, the government makes great efforts to satisfy the wants of the lower classes, to open to them the road to power, and to diffuse knowledge and comfort among them. The poor are maintained, immense sums are annually devoted to public instruction, all services are remunerated, and the humblest agents are liberally paid. This kind of government appears to be useful and rational, but I am bound to admit that it is expensive.
Wherever the poor direct public affairs and dispose of the national resources, it appears certain that, as they profit by the expenditure of the state, they will often augment that expenditure.
I conclude, therefore, without having recourse to inaccurate statistics, and without hazarding a comparison which might prove incorrect, that the democratic government of the Americans is not a cheap government, as is sometimes asserted; and I do not fear to predict that, if the United States is ever involved in serious difficulties, taxation will speedily be raised as high there as in most of the aristocracies or the monarchies of Europe.
CORRUPTION AND THE VICES OF THE RULERS IN A DEMOCRACY, AND CONSEQUENT EFFECTS UPON PUBLIC MORALITY. In aristocracies, rulers sometimes endeavor to corrupt the people–In democracies, rulers frequently show themselves to be corrupt-ln the former, their vices are directly prejudicial to the morality of the people–In the latter, their indirect influence is still more pernicious.
A DISTINCTION must be made when aristocracies and democracies accuse each other of facilitating corruption. In aristocratic governments, those who are placed at the head of affairs are rich men, who are desirous only of power. In democracies, statesmen are poor and have their fortunes to make. The consequence is that in aristocratic states the rulers are rarely accessible to corruption and have little craving for money, while the reverse is the case in democratic nations.
But in aristocracies, as those who wish to attain the head of affairs possess considerable wealth, and as the number of persons by whose assistance they may rise is comparatively small, the government is, if I may so speak, put up at auction. In democracies, on the contrary, those who are covetous of power are seldom wealthy, and the number of those who confer power is extremely great. Perhaps in democracies the number of men who might be bought is not smaller, but buyers are rarely to be found; and, besides, it would be necessary to buy so many persons at once that the attempt would be useless.
Many of the men who have governed France during the last forty years have been accused of making their fortunes at the expense of the state or its allies, a reproach which was rarely addressed to the public men of the old monarchy. But in France the practice of bribing electors is almost unknown, while it is notoriously and publicly carried on in England. In the United States I never heard anyone accused of spending his wealth in buying votes, but I have often heard the probity of public officers questioned; still more frequently have I heard their success attributed to low intrigues and immoral practices.
If, then, the men who conduct an aristocracy sometimes endeavor to corrupt the people, the heads of a democracy are themselves corrupt. In the former case the morality of the people is directly assailed; in the latter an indirect influence is exercised which is still more to be dreaded.
As the rulers of democratic nations are almost always suspected of dishonorable conduct, they in some measure lend the authority of the government to the base practices of which they are accused. They thus afford dangerous examples, which discourage the struggles of virtuous independence and cloak with authority the secret designs of wickedness. If it be asserted that evil passions are found in all ranks of society, that they ascend the throne by hereditary right, and that we may find despicable characters at the head of aristocratic nations as well as in the bosom of a democracy, the plea has but little weight in my estimation. The corruption of men who have casually risen to power has a coarse and vulgar infection in it that renders it dangerous to the multitude. On the contrary, there is a kind of aristocratic refinement and an air of grandeur in the depravity of the great, which frequently prevent it from spreading abroad.
The people can never penetrate into the dark labyrinth of court intrigue, and will always have difficulty in detecting the turpitude that lurks under elegant manners, refined tastes, and graceful language. But to pillage the public purse and to sell the favors of the state are arts that the meanest villain can understand and hope to practice in his turn.
Besides, what is to be feared is not so much the immorality of the great as the fact that immorality may lead to greatness. In a democracy private citizens see a man of their own rank in life who rises from that obscure position in a few years to riches and power; the spectacle excites their surprise and their envy, and they are led to inquire how the person who was yesterday their equal is today their ruler. To attribute his rise to his talents or his virtues is unpleasant, for it is tacitly to acknowledge that they are themselves less virtuous or less talented than he was. They are therefore led, and often rightly, to impute his success mainly to some of his vices; and an odious connection is thus formed between the ideas of turpitude and power, unworthiness and success, utility and dishonor.
EFFORTS OF WHICH A DEMOCRACY IS CAPABLE. The Union has only had one struggle hitherto for its existence–Enthusiasm at the commencement of the war–Indifference towards its close– Difficulty of establishing military conscription or impressment of seamen in America–Why a democratic people is less capable than any other of sustained effort.
I WARN the reader that I here speak of a government that follows the real will of the people, and not of a government that simply commands in their name. Nothing is so irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people, because, while wielding the moral power which belongs to the will of the greater number, it acts at the same time with the quickness and persistence of a single man.
It is difficult to say what degree of effort a democratic government may be capable of making on the occurrence of a national crisis. No great democratic republic has hitherto existed in the world. To style the oligarchy which ruled over France in 1793 by that name would be an insult to the republican form of government. The United States affords the first example of the kind.
The American Union has now subsisted for half a century, and its existence has only once been attacked; namely, during the War of Independence. At the commencement of that long war, extraordinary efforts were made with enthusiasm for the service of the country.16 But as the contest was prolonged, private selfishness began to reappear. No money was brought into the public treasury; few recruits could be raised for the army; the people still wished to acquire independence, but would not employ the only means by which it could be obtained. “Tax laws,” says Hamilton, in The Federalist (No. 12), “have in vain been multiplied; new methods to enforce the collection have in vain been tried; the public expectation has been uniformly disappointed; and the treasuries of the States have remained empty. The popular system of administration inherent in the nature of popular government, coinciding with the real scarcity of money incident to a languid and mutilated state of trade, has hitherto defeated every experiment for extensive collections, and has at length taught the different legislatures the folly of attempting them.”
Since that period the United States has not had a single serious war to carry on. In order, therefore, to know what sacrifices democratic nations may impose upon themselves, we must wait until the American people are obliged to put half their entire income at the disposal of the government, as was done by the English; or to send forth a twentieth part of its population to the field of battle, as was done by France.
In America conscription is unknown and men are induced to enlist by bounties. The notions and habits of the people of the United States are so opposed to compulsory recruiting that I do not think it can ever be sanctioned by the laws. What is termed conscription in France is assuredly the heaviest tax upon the people; yet how could a great Continental war be carried on without it? The Americans have not adopted the British practice of impressing seamen, and they have nothing that corresponds to the French system of maritime conscription; the navy as well as the merchant service is supplied by volunteers. But it is not easy to conceive how a people can sustain a great maritime war without having recourse to one or the other of these two systems. Indeed, the Union, which has already fought with honor upon the seas, has never had a numerous fleet, and the equipment of its few vessels has always been very expensive.
I have heard American statesmen confess that the Union will with difficulty maintain its power on the seas without adopting the system of impressment or maritime conscription; but the difficulty is to induce the people, who exercise the supreme authority, to submit to such measures.
It is incontestable that, in times of danger, a free people display far more energy than any other. But I incline to believe that this is especially true of those free nations in which the aristocratic element preponderates. Democracy appears to me better adapted for the conduct of society in times of peace, or for a sudden effort of remarkable vigor, than for the prolonged endurance of the great storms that beset the political existence of nations. The reason is very evident; enthusiasm prompts men to expose themselves to dangers and privations; but without reflection they will not support them long. There is more calculation even in the impulses of bravery than is generally supposed; and although the first efforts are made by passion alone, perseverance is maintained only by a distinct view of what one is fighting for. A portion of what is dear to us is hazarded in order to save the remainder.
But it is this clear perception of the future, founded upon judgement and experience, that is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.
Another cause tends to render the efforts of a democratic government less persevering than those of an aristocracy. Not only are the lower less awake than the higher orders to the good or evil chances of the future, but they suffer more acutely from present privations. The noble exposes his life, indeed, but the chance of glory is equal to the chance of harm. If he sacrifices a large portion of his income to the state, he deprives himself for a time of some of the pleasures of affluence; but to the poor man death has no glory, and the imposts that are merely irksome to the rich often deprive him of the necessaries of life.
This relative weakness of democratic republics in critical times is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the foundation of such a republic in Europe. In order that one such state should exist in the European world, it would be necessary that similar institutions should be simultaneously introduced into all the other nations.
I am of opinion that a democratic government tends, in the long run, to increase the real strength of society; but it can never combine, upon a single point and at a given time, so much power as an aristocracy or an absolute monarchy. If a democratic country remained during a whole century subject to a republican government, it would probably at the end of that period be richer, more populous, and more prosperous than the neighboring despotic states. But during that century it would often have incurred the risk of being conquered by them.
SELF CONTROL OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. The American people acquiesce slowly, and sometimes do not acquiesce, in is beneficial to their interests–The faults of the American democracy are, for the most part, reparable.
THE difficulty that a democracy finds in conquering the passions and subduing the desires of the moment with a view to the future is observable in the United States in the most trivial things. The people, surrounded by flatterers, find great difficulty in surmounting their inclinations; whenever they are required to undergo a privation or any inconvenience, even to attain an end sanctioned by their own rational conviction, they almost always refuse at first to comply. The deference of the Americans to the laws has been justly applauded; but it must be added that in America legislation is made by the people and for the people. Consequently, in the United States the law favors those classes that elsewhere are most interested in evading it. It may therefore be supposed that an offensive law of which the majority should not see the immediate utility would either not be enacted or not be obeyed.
In America there is no law against fraudulent bankruptcies, not because they are few, but because they are many. The dread of being prosecuted as a bankrupt is greater in the minds of the majority than the fear of being ruined by the bankruptcy of others; and a sort of guilty tolerance is extended by the public conscience to an offense which everyone condemns in his individual capacity. In the new states of the Southwest the citizens generally take justice into their own hands, and murders are of frequent occurrence. This arises from the rude manners and the ignorance of the inhabitants of those deserts, who do not perceive the utility of strengthening the law, and who prefer duels to prosecutions.
Someone observed to me one day in Philadelphia that almost all crimes in America are caused by the abuse of intoxicating liquors, which the lower classes can procure in great abundance because of their cheapness. “How comes it,” said I, “that you do not put a duty upon brandy?” “Our legislators,” rejoined my informant, “have frequently thought of this expedient; but the task is difficult: a revolt might be anticipated; and the members who should vote for such a law would be sure of losing their seats.” “Whence I am to infer,” replied I, “that drunkards are the majority in your country, and that temperance is unpopular.”
When these things are pointed out to the American statesmen, they answer: “Leave it to time, and experience of the evil will teach the people their true interests.” This is frequently true: though a democracy is more liable to error than a monarch or a body of nobles, the chances of its regaining the right path when once it has acknowledged its mistake are greater also; because it is rarely embarrassed by interests that conflict with those of the majority and resist the authority of reason. But a democracy can obtain truth only as the result of experience; and many nations may perish while they are awaiting the consequences of their errors. The great privilege of the Americans does not consist in being more enlightened than other nations, but in being able to repair the faults they may commit.
It must be added that a democracy cannot profit by past experience unless it has arrived at a certain pitch of knowledge and civilization. There are nations whose first education has been so vicious and whose character presents so strange a mixture of passion, ignorance, and erroneous notions upon all subjects that they are unable to discern the causes of their own wretchedness, and they fall a sacrifice to ills of which they are ignorant.
I have crossed vast tracts of country formerly inhabited by powerful Indian nations who are now extinct; I have passed some time among remnants of tribes, which witness the daily decline of their numbers and of the glory of their independence; and I have heard these Indians themselves anticipate the impending doom of their race. Every European can perceive means that would rescue these unfortunate beings from the destruction otherwise inevitable. They alone are insensible to the remedy; they feel the woes which year after year heaps upon their heads, but they will perish to a man without accepting the cure. Force would have to be employed to compel them to live.
The incessant revolutions that have convulsed the South American states for the last quarter of a century are regarded with astonishment, and we are constantly hoping that before long, they will return to what is called their natural state. But who can affirm that revolutions are not, at the present time, the most natural state of the South American Spaniards? In that country society is struggling in the depths of an abyss whence its own efforts are insufficient to rescue it. The inhabitants of that fair portion of the Western hemisphere seem obstinately bent on the work of destroying one another. If they fall into momentary quiet, from exhaustion, that repose soon prepares them for a new frenzy. When I consider their condition, alternating between misery and crime, I am tempted to believe that despotism itself would be a blessing to them, if it were possible that the words “despotism” and “blessing” could ever be united in my mind.
Conduct OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS BY THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. Direction given to the foreign policy of the United States by Washington and Jefferson–Almost all the defects inherent in democratic institutions are brought to light in the conduct of foreign affairs; their advantages are less perceptible.
We have seen that the Federal Constitution entrusts the permanent direction of the external interests of the nation to the President and the Senate,17 which tends in some degree to detach the general foreign policy of the Union from the direct control of the people. It cannot, therefore, be asserted with truth that the foreign affairs of the state are conducted by the democracy.
There are two men who have imparted to American foreign policy a tendency that is still being followed today; the first is Washington and the second Jefferson. Washington said, in the admirable Farewell Address which he made to his fellow citizens, and which may be regarded as his political testament:
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.
“Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?
“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense; but in my opinion it is unnecessary, and would be unwise, to extend them.
“Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, in a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”
In a previous part of the same address Washington makes this admirable and just remark: “The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”
The political conduct of Washington was always guided by these maxims. He succeeded in maintaining his country in a state of peace while all the other nations of the globe were at war; and he laid it down as a fundamental doctrine that the true interest of the Americans consisted in a perfect neutrality with regard to the internal dissensions of the European powers.
Jefferson went still further and introduced this other maxim into the policy of the Union, that “the Americans ought never to solicit any privileges from foreign nations, in order not to be obliged to grant similar privileges themselves.”
These two principles, so plain and just as to be easily understood by the people, have greatly simplified the foreign policy of the United States. As the Union takes no part in the affairs of Europe, it has, properly speaking, no foreign interests to discuss, since it has, as yet, no powerful neighbors on the American continent. The country is as much removed from the passions of the Old World by its position as by its wishes, and it is called upon neither to repudiate nor to espouse them; while the dissensions of the New World are still concealed within the bosom of the future.
The Union is free from all pre-existing obligations, it can profit by the experience of the old nations of Europe, without being obliged, as they are, to make the best of the past and to adapt it to their present circumstances. It is not, like them, compelled to accept an immense inheritance bequeathed by their forefathers an inheritance of glory mingled with calamities, and of alliances conflicting with national antipathies. The foreign policy of the United States is eminently expectant; it consists more in abstaining than in acting.
It is therefore very difficult to ascertain, at present, what degree of sagacity the American democracy will display in the conduct of the foreign policy of the country; upon this point its adversaries as well as its friends must suspend their judgment. As for myself I do not hesitate to say that it is especially in the conduct of their foreign relations that democracies appear to me decidedly inferior to other governments. Experience, instruction, and habit almost always succeed in creating in a democracy a homely species of practical wisdom and that science of the petty occurrences of life which is called good sense. Good sense may suffice to direct the ordinary course of society; and among a people whose education is completed, the advantages of democratic liberty in the internal affairs of the country may more than compensate for the evils inherent in a democratic government. But it is not always so in the relations with foreign nations.
Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient. Democracy is favorable to the increase of the internal resources of a state, it diffuses wealth and comfort, promotes public spirit, and fortifies the respect for law in all classes of society: all these are advantages which have only an indirect influence over the relations which one people bears to another. But a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience. These are qualities which more especially belong to an individual or an aristocracy; and they are precisely the qualities by which a nation, like an individual, attains a dominant position.
If, on the contrary, we observe the natural defects of aristocracy, we shall find that, comparatively speaking, they do not injure the direction of the external affairs of the state. The capital fault of which aristocracies may be accused is that they work for themselves and not for the people. In foreign politics it is rare for the interest of the aristocracy to be distinct from that of the people.
The propensity that induces democracies to obey impulse rather than prudence, and to abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary passion, was clearly seen in America on the breaking out of the French Revolution. It was then as evident to the simplest capacity as it is at the present time that the interest of the Americans forbade them to take any part in the contest which was about to deluge Europe with blood, but which could not injure their own country. But the sympathies of the people declared themselves with so much violence in favor of France that nothing but the inflexible character of Washington and the immense popularity which he enjoyed could have prevented the Americans from declaring war against England. And even then the exertions which the austere reason of that great man made to repress the generous but imprudent passions of his fellow citizens nearly deprived him of the sole recompense which he ever claimed, that of his country’s love. The majority reprobated his policy, but it was afterwards approved by the whole nation.18
If the Constitution and the favor of the public had not entrusted the direction of the foreign affairs of the country to Washington it is certain that the American nation would at that time have adopted the very measures which it now condemns.
Almost all the nations that have exercised a powerful influence upon the destinies of the world, by conceiving, following out, and executing vast designs, from the Romans to the English, have been governed by aristocratic institutions. Nor will this be a subject of wonder when we recollect that nothing in the world is so conservative in its views as an aristocracy. The mass of the people may be led astray by ignorance or passion; the mind of a king may be biased and made to vacillate in his designs, and, besides, a king is not immortal. But an aristocratic body is too numerous to be led astray by intrigue, and yet not numerous enough to yield readily to the intoxication of unreflecting passion. An aristocracy is a firm and enlightened body that never dies.
1 Kent’s Commentaries, Vol. I, p. 272.
2 Letter to Madison, December 20, 1787, translation of M. Conseil.
3 I here use the word magistrates in its widest sense; I apply it to all officers to whom the execution of the laws is entrusted.
4 See the law of February 27, 1813, General Collection of the Laws of Massachusetts, Vol. II, p. 331. It should be added, that the jurors are afterwards drawn from these lists by lot.
5 Law of February 28, 1787. See General Collection of the Laws of Massachusetts, Vol. I, p. 302. The text is as follows: “The select-men of each township shall post in the shops of tavern-keepers, inn-keepers, and tradesmen a list of persons known to be drunkards, gamblers, and who are accustomed to spend their time and their money in such places; and the proprietor of the aforesaid establishments who, after posting such notice, shall allow the aforesaid persons to drink or gamble on his premises, or sell them spiritous liquors shall be subject to a fine.”
6 It is unnecessary to observe that I speak here of the democratic form of government as applied to a people and not merely to a tribe.
7 The word poor is used here and throughout the remainder of this chapter in a relative, not in an absolute sense. Poor men in America would often appear rich in comparison with the poor of Europe; but they may with propriety be styled poor in comparison with their more affluent countrymen.
8 The easy circumstances in which lower officials are placed in the United States result also from another cause, which is independent of the general tendencies of democracy: every kind of private business is very lucrative, and the state would not be served at all if it did not pay its servants well. The country is in the position of a commercial house, which is obliged to meet heavy competition, notwithstanding its inclination to be economical.
9 Ohio, which has a million inhabitants, gives its governor a salary of $1,200 or 6,504 francs.
10 To render this assertion perfectly evident, it will suffice to examine the scale of salaries of the agents of the Federal government. I have added the salaries of the corresponding officers in France to complete the comparison.
Clerk with lowest salary 1,000
Clerk with highest salary Chief Clerk 2,000
Secretary of State 6,000
Ministäre de Finances
Messenger 1,500 fr
Clerk with lowest salary
1,000 to 1,800 fr.
Clerk with highest salary
3,200 to 3,600 fr
Secretary-General 20,000 fr
The Minister 80,000 fr.
The King 12,000,000 fr.
I have perhaps done wrong in selecting France as my standard of comparison. In France, as the democratic tendencies of the nation exercise an ever increasing influence on the government, the Chambers show a disposition to raise the low salaries and to lower the principal ones. Thus the Minister of Finance, who received 160,000 fr. under the Empire, receives 80,000 fr. in 1835; the Directors-General of Finance, who then received 50 000 fr., now receive only 20,000 fr.
11 See the American budgets for the support of paupers and for public instruction. In 1831 over $250,000 or 1,290,000 francs were spent in the state of New York for the maintenance of the poor; and at least $1,000,000 or] 5,240,000 francs were devoted to public instruction. (Williams’s New York Annual Register, 1832, pp. 205 and 243.) The state of New York contained only 1,900,000 inhabitants in the year 1830, which is not more than double the amount of population in the DÇpartement du Nord in France.
12 The Americans, as we have seen, have four separate budgets: the Union, the states, the counties, and the townships having each its own. During my stay in America, I made every endeavor to discover the amount of the public expenditure in the townships and counties of the principal states of the Union; and I readily obtained the budget of the larger townships, but found it quite impossible to procure that of the smaller ones. Hence for these latter I have no exact figures. I possess, however, some documents relating to county expenses which, although incomplete, may still interest the reader. I have to thank Mr. Richards, former Mayor of Philadelphia, for the budgets of thirteen of the counties of Pennsylvania: viz., Lebanon, Centre, Franklin, Fayette, Montgomery, Luzerne, Dauphin, Butler, Allegheny, Columbia, Northampton, Northumberland, and Philadelphia, for the year 1830. Their population at the time consisted of 495,207 inhabitants. On looking at the map of Pennsylvania it will be seen that these thirteen counties are scattered in every direction, and so generally affected by the causes which usually influence the condition of a country that they may fairly be supposed to furnish a correct average of the financial state of the counties of Pennsylvania in general. The expenses of these counties amounted in the year 1830 to about 1,800,221, or nearly 3 fr. 64 cent. for each inhabitant; and, calculating that each of them contributed in the same year about 12 fr. 70 cent towards the Union, and about 3 fr. 80 cent. to the state of Pennsylvania, it appears that they each contributed, as their share of all the public expenses (except those of the townships), the sum of 20 fr. 14 cent. This calculation IS doubly incomplete, as it applies only to a single year and to one part of the public expenditure; but it has at least the merit of being exact.
13 Those who have attempted to demonstrate a similarity between the expenses of France and America have at once perceived that no such comparison could be drawn between the total expenditures of the two countries but they have endeavored to compare detached portions of this expenditure. It may readily be shown that this second system is not at all less defective than the first. If I attempt to compare the French budget with the budget of the Union it must be remembered that the latter embraces far fewer objects than the centralized government of the former country, and that the American expenditure must consequently be much smaller. If I contrast the budgets of our departments with those of the states that constitute the Union, it must be observed that as the states have the supervision of more numerous and important interests than the departments, their expenditure is naturally more considerable. As for the budgets of the counties, nothing of the kind occurs in the French system of finances; and it is doubtful whether the corresponding expenses in France should be referred to the budget of the state or to those of the municipal divisions. Municipal expenses exist in both countries, but they are not always analogous. In America the townships discharge a variety of offices which are reserved in France to the departments or to the state. Moreover, it may be asked what is to be understood by the municipal expenses of America. The organization of the municipal bodies or townships differs in the several states. Are we to be guided by what occurs in New England or in Georgia, in Pennsylvania or in Illinois? A kind of analogy may very readily be perceived between certain budgets in the two countries; but as the elements of which they are composed always differ more or less, no fair comparison can be drawn between them.
14 Even if we knew the exact pecuniary contributions of every French and American citizen to the coffers of the state, we should only arrive at a portion of the truth. Governments not only demand supplies of money, but call for personal services, which may be looked upon as equivalent to a given sum. When a state raises an army, besides the pay of the troops, which is furnished by the entire nation, each soldier must give up his time, the value of which depends on the use he might make of it if he were not in the service. The same remark applies to the militia; the citizen who is in the militia devotes a certain portion of valuable time to the maintenance of the public security, and in reality surrenders to the state those earnings that he is prevented from gaining. Many other instances might be cited. The governments of France and America both levy taxes of this kind, which weigh upon the citizens; but who can estimate with accuracy their relative amount in the two countries?
15 This, however, is not the last of the difficulties which prevent us from comparing the expenditure of the Union with that of France. The French government contracts certain obligations which are not assumed by the state in America, and vice versa. The French government pays the clergy; in America the voluntary principle prevails. In America the state provides for the poor, in France they are abandoned to the charity of the public. All French public officers are paid a fixed salary; in America they are allowed certain perquisites. In France contributions in labor take place on very few roads, in America upon almost all the thoroughfares: in the former country the roads are free to all travelers; in the latter toll roads abound. All these differences in the manner in which taxes are levied in the two countries enhance the difficulty of comparing their expenditure; for there are certain expenses which the citizens would not be subject to, or which would at any rate be less considerable, if the state did not undertake to act in their name.
16 See the budget of the Ministry of Marine for France and, for America the National Calendar ( 1833), p. 228.
17 One of the most singular, in my opinion, was the resolution that the Americans took of temporarily abandoning the use of tea. Those who know that men usually cling more to their habits than to their life will doubtless admire this great though obscure sacrifice, which was made by a whole people.
18 “The President,” says the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, # 2, “shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” The reader is reminded that the Senators are returned for a term of six years, and that they are chosen by the legislature of each state.
19 See the fifth volume of Marshall’s Life of Washington. “In a government constituted like that of the United States,” he says, at p. 314, “it is impossible for the chief magistrate, however firm he may be, to oppose for any length of time the torrent of popular opinion; and the prevalent opinion of that day seemed to incline to war. In fact, in the session of Congress held at the time, it was frequently seen that Washington had lost the majority in the House of Representatives.” The violence of the language used against him in public was extreme, and, in a political meeting, they did not scruple to compare him indirectly with the traitor Arnold (p. 265). “By the opposition,” says Marshall (p. 355), “the friends of the administration were declared to be an aristocratic and corrupt faction, who, from a desire to introduce monarchy, were hostile to France, and under the influence of Britain that they were a paper nobility, whose extreme sensibility at every measure which threatened the funds induced a tame submission to injuries and insults which the interests and honor of the nation required them to resist.”
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. Unlike many of the texts The Moral Liberal has posted online, we feel the original of Democracy In America, in its use of language, spelling, and paragraph size is quite accessible as is, therefore we’ve refrained from our usual editing, only altering the formatting to our taste. Formatting of Democracy In America as found on this website 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.