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Tocqueville, Democracy, Involvement and the ISHLT

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

"The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens." - Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville was born of noble descent in Paris on July 29, 1805 and died at age 53 with tuberculosis on April 16, 1859. He got his name from a village near the city of Cherbourg in Normandy. Raised as an aristocrat, he was a liberal who rejected the old French regime of aristocracy. From his father's library he explored and studied the provocative French Enlightenment authors Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. While studying law, he read the 18th century philosophes and concluded that democracy would replace aristocracy everywhere and that America was more advanced in democracy than any other nation on earth. As a result Tocqueville wanted to study America to determine what could be learned about democracy, and possibly be applied to France. Therefore, he and his close friend, who became his alter ego, Gustave de Beaumont, received official permission to study the uncontroversial problem of prison reforms as a pretext to learn about democracy in the United States in order to shape the political future of France.

On April 2, 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont boarded the American ship Le Havre. After enduring four days of seasickness and 38 days at sea, they arrived in New York City. In nine months with sharp-eyes, great listening skills, restlessness, keen awareness, astute powers of observation and reflective insight they traveled from Boston to New Orleans with brief forays west of the Alleghenies. They dined with Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, in Baltimore. They rejoiced how aristocrats, unlike European counterparts, accepted the new democracy. They described their time shared with a crowd of Choctaw warriors being forcibly moved west on a Mississippi steamship. They saw the Mohawk River Valley, the setting for James Fenimore Cooper's bestselling novel The Last of the Mohicans. They met with President Andrew Jackson and spent time with Senator Daniel Webster, former President John Quincy Adams and Texas adventurer Sam Houston, among many other notable Americans.

Soon after leaving America on February 20, 1832, they began writing the Système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (1833; On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France). Although they talked about collaborating on a book about America, their divergent interests resulted in Beaumont's Marie, ou l'esclavage aux Etats-Unis (1835; Marie, or Slavery in the United States) with his focus on America's race problems and slavery. Tocqueville was more fascinated with American social and political life. The difficulties his own country had developing institutions favorable to liberty resulted in his most enduring works published as two volumes: De la démocratie en Amérique (1835/1840; Democracy in America). The scholarly works of Harvey Mansfield and his remarkable wife, Delba Winthrop, claimed this as both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America. In Tocqueville's last great work, L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856; The Old Regime and the Revolution), he interpreted the French Revolution, which ignited war throughout Europe. Here, by confronting the demon of centralized government, he produced what is, today, regarded a classic study of the French Revolution.

Today, your Chief Editor of the Links is 53-years-old, without tuberculosis and far less accomplished than Tocqueville. We take for granted a trip by air across an ocean within a day, which for Tocqueville required nearly six weeks by sea. At an age where many of us were nearly completing our professional training, he completed the first volume of Democracy in America which still greatly influences us nearly 200 years later. The rest of this article will highlight salient features essential for a successful democracy from this prize winning publication and how they apply to us, and the ISHLT, today.

According to Tocqueville, it was not freedom that was the central tenet to democracy, but rather equality of conditions; he stated democracy was not merely a form of government but a way of life in America. A prevailing belief was that wisdom of many was greater than that of one, thus applying theory of equality to the intellect. Progress on equality of conditions in France was evident, but was much farther along in America. However, aristocratic tendencies, such as setting of bail and punishment by fines which favor the wealth and that the South was more aristocratic than the North, still remained in America. He rationalized that equality eliminated barriers across people, but, he prophesized, it was the inequality of conditions experienced by people of African descent in early 19th Century America that would lead to a revolution.

Another point Tocqueville brought up was that equality of conditions could lead to either prosperity or misery. Individuals, who are equal pursue more wealth, a pursuit which severs bonds between individuals but can lead to commerce and industry. Growth of industry leads to inequality, which can become permanent, thus resulting in an aristocracy. Was this inevitable? Did this occur?

Tocqueville viewed equality and freedom differently; where equality can bring pleasure, freedom requires sacrifices. Moreover, equality can exist without freedom; everyone is equal under a despot. Nevertheless, he explained that freedom was necessary for equality of conditions. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Assemblies or Associations were essential for a democratic society to flourish. Regarding speech and all the talk Tocqueville had observed during his nine month tour, he discovered less independence of the American mind. The majority who agreed on certain topics created a circle. Those inside the circle, similar interests, had the freedom to think and discuss particular matters. Those with ideas outside the circle kept their privileges, but they were regarded as strangers and their privileges, useless.

Regarding the press, he discovered the press was less powerful in America than in France. The French newspapers delivered news while American papers provided advertisements. In France, there were very few newspapers with a controlling group. In America, nearly every small town had a newspaper. Tocqueville recognized that the way to restrain the influence of the press was to increase the number of newspapers. Newspapers curtailed administrative centralization, such that if administrative centralization emerged, newspapers would diminish in numbers and censorship would prevail. However, fragmented administration would greatly increase the number of newspapers, and thus decrease censorship.

Another salient feature highlighted was that democracy, "trickles up", rather than "trickles down." He suggested that frequent elections and numerous offices were important and gave society members the opportunity to practice democracy and see results in organizations at the local level. Involvement was, and remains, a much better teacher than just reading about it and served to prepare those who might advance to the state and federal levels of politics. In democracy, popular sovereignty for all citizens became the rule. However, because of the strong conviction for equality in democracy, centralized administration of government could emerge through "majoritarian government," one of the most dangerous threats of a democratic society.

Those with strong opinions who can persuade the masses can create the circle of belief, and those outside the circle who might disagree may find themselves in isolation and despair. It would be difficult to believe what the majority rejects. Moreover, the minority would be persuaded, and not necessarily constrained. In pre-revolutionary France, the king cannot fail. In America, majority cannot fail. Eventually the power of the majority leads to instability and the minorities are tyrannized. As a result, according to Tocqueville, tyranny of the majority and administrative centralization greatly threatens freedom in a democracy or any democratic organization.

The freedom of association and assembly can guard against the tyranny of the majority. Any membership, in any association or organization, can represent a minority and frequently it's a small minority of the population. Such a small organization, such as ISHLT, can have a great deal of influence because of specialized interest and focus. Associations carry out their objectives peaceably by speaking publicly and petitioning openly. Newspapers or newsletters are necessary to unite members consistently and conveniently. Today, we also have blogs, tweets, chat rooms and, for the ISHLT, discussion groups. Take note, individual members or citizens in a democracy are weak. Working together they are stronger. Participation and serving others implies that participants are serving themselves through whatever organization, private or civil association, thus potentially maintaining individual rights.

Finally and most importantly, the longest chapter in Democracy in America was devoted to the three distinct races inhabiting America in the 1830's: the American Indians, the whites and the African Americans. Tocqueville piercingly pointed out that the Indians and the blacks suffered the effects of the same tyrant, giving us the two great scars of 19th Century America: the extermination of Indian tribes and the institution of slavery. A couple examples and explanations are in order and the effects of democratic tyranny were witnessed by Tocqueville on America's waterways. Along the Mississippi River in Memphis, he wrote:

There was a general air of ruin and destruction in this sight, something which gave the impression of a final farewell, with no going back; one couldn't witness it without a heavy heart. The Indians were calm but gloomy and taciturn. One of them knew English. I asked him why the Choctaws were leaving their country. 'To be free,' he answered. I couldn't get anything else out of him. Tomorrow we will set them down in the Arkansas wilderness. I must confess it is an odd coincidence that we should have arrive in Memphis to witness the expulsion, or perhaps the dissolution, of one of the last vestiges of one of the oldest American nations.

Another angry analysis by Tocqueville focused on the subject of slavery. He stated that in America, slavery is racial and attitudes would be difficult to change. He forecasted that slavery would be abolished but it would not eliminate prejudice of the master, prejudice of race or prejudice of the white. It was the "American Syndrome: - morality, independence, enlightenment, industry, commerce, and success, which did not work where slavery existed. When traveling west on the Ohio River he contrasted the "industrious" Ohio (free state) with "idle Kentucky" (slave state).

The State of Ohio is separated from Kentucky just by one river; on either side of it the soil is equally fertile, and the situation equally favorable, and yet everything is different…But Kentucky, because of slavery is inhabited by a people without energy, without ardor, without a spirit of enterprise.

In Ohio, work was honored and there was liberty. The land was cultivated by whites, there was industry, prosperity and improvement. In Kentucky, work was dishonored and there was servitude. The land was not cultivated. Slaves were never remunerated for their toil. They were corrupted by their masters, lost the memory of their origins and language and were separated from their families. Slavery corrupted the masters.

These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery. It degrades the black population and enervates the white…Slavery threatens the future of those who maintain it, and it ruins the state…Slavery is incompatible with democratic freedom and the enlightenment of the age.

In summary, the ISHLT functions democratically with a variety of councils, workforces and other small work groups that serve our democratic ISHLT which severely limits the likelihood of a tyranny of the majority. There is no subjugation and no extermination. When members get involved with different activities they are practicing what Tocqueville calls "self-interest properly understood". To further guard against despotic behavior frequent elections, changes in our leadership, listening to and working through the many differences, and the preservation of individual rights all can work against uniformity within the ISHLT. The goal is consensus. Our society is quite diverse, with many nations represented. Each member is on equal footing with "equality of conditions." To have your voice heard, get involved! ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

1. In Search of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. http://www.tocqueville.c-span.nsatc.net/
2. Translations: Stealing Tocqueville?
http://prospect.org/article/translations-stealing-tocqueville 3. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America: Edited and Translated by Harvey C Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
4. Reinhardt, Mark. The Art of Being Free: Taking Liberties with Tocqueville, Marx, and Arendt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
5. Reeves, Richard. American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

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