A thousand apologies for failing to post last weekend. It seems that the book that I had pre-ordered has run into some difficulty with the publisher. In order to continue the edification of my esteemed audience, I have turned to another, older, book in our field: On Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, published in two parts in 1835 and 1840. The observations of a French nobleman who originally visited the States in order to write to study the American prison system, this book is one of the central documents in the study of American identity, judged by some as the classic volume on the subject. The Hon. John J. Ingalls writes this in his introduction:
“Though not originally written for Americans, “Democracy in America” must always remain a work of engrossing and constantly increasing interest to citizens of the United States as the first philosophic and comprehensive view of our society, institutions, and destiny. No one can rise even from the most cursory perusal without clearer insight and more patriotic appreciation of the blessings of liberty protected by law, nor without encouragement for the stability and perpetuity of the Republic.”
De Tocqueville’s observations are extremely wide-ranging, and his discussions delve deeply into the philosophical and political situation of his world, both in Europe and the United States, so I am afraid that my discussion of his text will hardly do it justice. Rather than being a thorough review of his every thought, these blog posts will fasten on one or two particulars in each chapter, and look at them in the light of our nation’s current condition, almost two hundred years after De Tocqueville published. I will invite reader comment, especially from those better acquainted with the text!
To begin at the beginning, in his Introductory Chapter, in the very first sentence, De Tocqueville says that “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions” (emphasis mine). What does he mean by equality of conditions? He means that, in terms of wealth, of sophistication, of learning, of quality of life, the poorest in society were not far removed from the wealthiest and most powerful. Throughout the introductory chapter, he traces the ways in which Europe, starting in a state of extreme disparity between the nobility and peasantry in the high middle ages, gradually moved, throughout the modern period, into a state of things where the lowest had risen, and the highest fallen. In consequence, while there was less of an extreme of luxury at the top of society, there was less of an extreme of misery at the bottom. While this equalizing condition, which moved high and low both toward the middle, varied throughout Europe, he observed it at its most pronounced in the United States. By equality, De Tocqueville did not mean simply equal justice before the law. He meant a widely distributed mediocrity in all things. And this evenly distributed mediocrity he identified as essential to the American character.
The questions of the week are these: is a general equality of conditions still a unique characteristic of the United States? Is it a necessary characteristic of the United States? Many these days are lamenting the tendency of the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and the middle class to shrink. Is this tendency a threat to what it means to be American?