Democracy in America

In the very beginning of this nation’s history, Americans were under the power of England’s monarchy - Democracy in America introduction. The Americans were able to overthrow the shackles of bondage and created a Constitution that declares its steadfast belief in the ideals of freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. But immediately after the Declaration of Independence and even after the Constitution was signed and accepted by leaders of the new government, not every American citizen is treated fairly. And a good example would be the Negroes and other minorities such as Asians and more so their women.  The book of Alexis de Tocqueville entitled, Democracy in America[1], is an examination of the functional aspects of democracy in America.  Tocqueville’s observations concerning the practice of democracy in America during that time were not just on society under American democracy, but on its comparison with societies under European aristocratic and democratic systems.  The purpose of Tocqueville is writing this book is not to highlight the democratic model as it exists in America but to actually shed light on the failings of democracy in France.  While Tocqueville was able to provide numerous insights and predictions concerning the future of democracy in America, one of the key insights remains his view on the coexistence of slavery and democratic principles and practices in the United States.

In understanding this in the context of the direction that the United States has taken, one of the main premises of Tocqueville must first be considered.  The main premise of Tocqueville is that balance of property determined the balance of political power: industriousness was a dominant ethic, and middling values began taking root.  The passion to amass great fortunes of the inhabitants of America, according to Tocqueville, had begun to erode old-world ethics and social arrangements.  It must be remembered also at this point that it was the South that practiced slavery and produced a landed aristocratic class and a web of patronage and dependence.

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The slavery that Tocqueville witnessed was merely a result of the freedom that men enjoyed in America during the early years.  In America, there was a vast expanse of land for explorers and commoners to own and any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life in contrast to the social and economic structure in Europe during that time where power was concentrated in the few elite.  Tocqueville, who came from an aristocratic family in Europe, presented an interesting insight on the origin of slavery as caused by not merely the desire to be rich but also pride.  Tocqueville said, “The pride of origin, which is natural to the English, is singularly augmented by the personal pride which democratic liberty fosters amongst the Americans: the white citizen of the United States is proud of his race, and proud of himself (Tocqueville, Chapter XVIII).”  This, Tocqueville states, is the reason why the South is hesitant to abolish slavery: “The Americans of the Southern States have two powerful passions which will always keep them aloof; the first is the fear of being assimilated to the negroes, their former slaves; and the second the dread of sinking below the whites, their neighbors (Tocqueville, Chapter XVIII).”

Since the assimilation of power was based on the property controlled under the democracy, then the situation of the South as one where there existed a landed aristocratic class and a web of patronage and dependence would necessarily result in the cultivation of slavery as a means of amassing wealth.  As such, it is necessary to examine just how democracy is currently being practiced in the United States.        In order to understand this, it is important to first determine what the foundations of current American democracy are.  A democratic system is often mistakenly characterized as the rule of the majority.  While there is usually a large group of middle class individuals that comprise this democratic system, it does not necessarily mean that the majority rule.  This only means that the majority usually elects the representative to office but the hallmark of any democracy is still the protection of the rights of the minority.

The democratic system also has a feature that is unlike other systems in that there is a system of checks and balances to ensure its stability.  An example of this would be the separation of powers in the United States government where the three (3) different bodies, the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive branch, are all considered as co-equals.  While this was apparent during the time of Tocqueville, it did not exist to the extent that it does in the present.

As Tocqueville so aptly pointed out, “The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.  This leads to another important foundation of any democratic system which is the protection of civil rights.  The civil rights such as the Bill of Rights or the First ten (10) amendments of the United States Constitution are prime examples of such civil liberties.  These are essential in the preservation of the democracy because they act as further checks and balances against the party who is in power.  It prevents the democratic government from being used to oppress the rights of the people.

These observations of Tocqueville on the coexistence of slavery and democracy in America reveal Tocqueville’s personal criticism of slavery as an “abomination” and the direction he envisions the United States Democracy as taking.  Despite being from an aristocratic family, Tocqueville held a firm belief that to enslave another human being was the worst thing you could do to him.  Tocqueville theorized that the continued coexistence of slavery and democracy in the United States would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves.

Whatever may be the efforts of the Americans of the South to maintain slavery, they will not always succeed. Slavery, which is now confined to a single tract of the civilized earth, which is attacked by Christianity as unjust, and by political economy as prejudicial; and which is now contrasted with democratic liberties and the information of our age, cannot survive. By the choice of the master, or by the will of the slave, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue. If liberty be refused to the negroes of the South, they will in the end seize it for themselves by force; if it be given, they will abuse it ere long. (Tocqueville, Chapter XVIII)

 

This section from clearly shows one of the predictions that Tocqueville is known for and that was the end of slavery in the democratic system of the United States.

Democracy in America clearly highlights the observations of Tocqueville regarding the issue of slavery and its existence in democracy as something that was borne out of the democratic system as an offshoot of the pride and desire to amass great fortunes and also the view that the “abomination” of slavery was something that would never last in that system.  As the general elections draw near, the foundations of a democratic system become all the more evident.  The right of the people to vote and to choose who they will elect as president is one of the important foundations of a representative democratic system. Without these foundations in place, there would be no way to ensure that the rights of the people are protected.  The right to select a representative ensures that everyone has a chance to be heard.  In the wise words of Abraham Lincoln, Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

In view of Tocqueville and the relevance of these teachings, it must be remembered today that there is nothing more sacred to a democracy than the protection of Civil Rights.  The right to be heard and the right to speak freely is an important aspect of every government that is accorded such a primacy in the hierarchy of rights.  The reason for this is that every government is primarily established for the benefit of the people and when that government, for one reason or another, fails in its solemn obligation the citizens have these Civil Rights to try to rectify the situation.

Over the years, many have died to protect this right.  Influential people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King have felt passionately about this and in recent decades, social groups have become more vocal.  These movements and sacrifices are now apparent in Affirmative Action which exists today.  America has to be rudely awakened by the Civil Rights Movement to realize that there is still much work to be done with regards to racism in this country. When Martin Luther King, Jr. died, the nation was ready for a major change. Ending segregation in the South and improving the status of the Negro race is now the correct thing to do. It was the late John F. Kennedy, the first U.S. President since Abraham Lincoln who signed another landmark law, a directive that will improve the lives of all African-Americans in this country.

As the United States continues to grow in population size, the impact that the minorities have on the future of America will no longer be a minor one, to say the least.  Without any effective action, these minorities will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities that America has to offer.  Affirmative action was supposed to be the future of a great America.  An America as envisioned by the forefathers who declared that no person shall be denied the right to life, liberty or property just on the basis of the color of his skin.   Any effective action with regard to improving society should not be about segregating people or creating a different class.  It should instead focus on creating opportunities for those who have none and building relationships that will ensure that America can remains as the great country that it has been and is for ages to come.

This is how Tocqueville has influenced American Democracy.  Over the years, there has been an evolution from slavery into a more progressive form of Democracy that does not discriminate.  As the first minority President, Barack Obama, prepares to lead the United States, it remains to be seen whether or not further progress will be made and how the principle of equality, as Tocqueville envisioned it will be made manifest.

[1] De la démocratie en Amérique, literal translation of its title is Of the Democracy in America, but the common translation of the title is Democracy in America

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