Alexis de Tocqueville,
"Government of the Democracy in America"
Democracy in America
. . . 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 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 conflagration. 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.
SOURCE: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy
in America, vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), pages 202-205.
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