Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, Ch. 1-4)

Alexis de Tocqueville begins his great work about democracy in America in an appropriate place: the beginning. He first talks about what America was like before the arrival of European settlers. The native population had a very different perspective than the Europeans and Tocqueville points out that they were mostly free to do as they pleased: “The Indian owed a debt only to himself: his virtues, vices, and prejudices were his own achievement: he had grown up in the primitive independence of his nature…” The native-born American was pretty much on his own because there was no urban culture. Whether this freedom from cultural influences was a blessing or a curse Tocqueville doesn’t say. But since there weren’t any cosmopolitan centers like London or Paris the Native Americans were forced to live their lives much closer to nature. Was this a good thing? In some ways it made them tougher than their European counterparts because “The Indian could live without necessities, suffer without complaining, die singing…” And there was certainly more equality and freedom than there was in Europe. Tocqueville points out that “the Indians, while they are ignorant and poor, are all equal and free…” So this was the situation when the Europeans arrived. There was plenty of equality and freedom within the native culture but it was also a culture filled with ignorance and poverty. Some people might argue that the Europeans were the ones who were ignorant about how to live in harmony with nature. It might also argued that the natives were poor in material possessions but rich in spiritual insight. Maybe. But it’s Tocqueville’s book and that was not his opinion of the situation at the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. It was Tocqueville’s opinion that the native population was doomed because “Their unforgiving prejudices, their indomitable passions, their vices, and, still more perhaps, savage virtues, exposed them to inevitable destruction. The ruin of these races began the day the Europeans landed on their shores.”

Who were these Europeans? What were they like when they settled in the New England colonies? For the most part they brought their own version of civilization with them. These first settlers weren’t poor and they weren’t ignorant. Tocqueville points out that “Relatively speaking, there was a greater number of intelligent men than in any present-day European nation.” Intelligence and civilization weren’t the only things they brought with them. They also brought their faith in God. These were the Puritans and at that time “Puritanism was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” They had come to the new world for a purpose. These were people on a mission. They had left their old lives behind to begin a new life in a new country. Living in an unsettled land meant they had to establish a new government, starting from scratch. They were searching for freedom and praying for wisdom. As Tocqueville puts it “…in America religion leads to wisdom; the observance of divine laws guides man to freedom.” So it’s no wonder that the first laws of this new government reflected the religious fervor of the settlers. In this new world there was “…the feeling of religious awe; one seems to breathe an atmosphere of ancient thought, a flavor of the Bible.” It seems strange to modern Americans that the earliest American laws were framed within a Biblical context. And yet Tocqueville assures us that the settlers wanted it that way: “We must not lose sight of the fact that there was no imposition of these strange and despotic laws. They were freely voted in by all the interested parties, whose customs were even more austere and puritanical than the laws.” The stage was set for a new way of life and they took full advantage of it. Their unspoken and half-developed philosophy was simple: “heaven in the other world, comfort and freedom in this.” They weren’t natives and they weren’t Europeans. They were something totally new: they were Americans.


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