De Tocqueville’s Prophecy of American Tyranny

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Prophecy
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Alexis De Tocqueville wrote the following in Democracy in America, published in 1834-35.  I offer it to you for deep thought and reflection.  It is somewhat lengthy, but please read it.  I believe he was writing prophetically.  This is not a Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal thing, for those carrying all banners have advanced tyranny.  This is about the existence of freedom in our country:

“I had noted in my stay in the United States that a democratic state of society similar to the American model could lay itself open to the establishment of despotism with unusual ease…

When the Roman emperors were at the height of their powers, the various nations inhabiting the Roman world still preserved their different customs and manners: although they obeyed the same monarch, most of the provinces were administered separately: they abounded in powerful and energetic townships and, although the whole government of the empire was concentrated in the emperor’s hands and he remained the arbiter of everything when the need arose, the small details of social life and private everyday existence normally eluded his control…their tyranny was an excessive burden on a few people but never spread over a great number; it latched on to a few main objects, leaving the rest alone; it was violent but its extent was limited.

If despotism were to be established in present-day democracies, it would probably assume a different character; it would be more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them

I, too, am having difficulty finding a word which will exactly convey the whole idea I have formed; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. This is a new phenomenon which I must, therefore, attempt to define since I can find no name for it.

I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, father-like, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it.  It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principle concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances.

Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?  Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize, but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the needed to be directed as well as the desire to remain free…They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government but one elected by the citizens…Under this system citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it.

At the present time, many people very easily fall in with this type of compromise between a despotic administration and the sovereignty of the people and they think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to a national authority. That is not good enough for me. The character of the master is much less important to me than the fact of obedience…

Equally, I realize that when the ruling power represents and is dependent upon the nation, the powers and rights taken from each citizen do not simply serve the head of state but the state itself, and that private individuals derive some advantage from the sacrifice of their independence to the public good…

We forget that it is, above all, in the details that we run the risk of enslaving men. For my part, I would be tempted to believe that freedom in the big things of life is less important than in the slightest, if I thought that we could always be guaranteed the latter when we did not possess the former.

Subjection in the minor things of life is obvious every day and is experienced indiscriminately by all citizens. It does not cause them to lose hope, but it constantly irks them until they give up the exercise of their will. It gradually blots out their mind and enfeebles their spirit, whereas obedience demanded only in a small number of very serious circumstances involves enslavement on rare occasions and burdens only a certain number of people.  It will be useless to call upon those very citizens, who have become so dependent upon central government, to choose from time to time the representative of this government; this very important but brief and rare exercise of their free choice will not prevent their gradual loss of the faculty of autonomous thought, feeling, and action so that they will slowly fall below the level of humanity.

I may add that they will soon lose the capacity to exercise the great and only privilege open to them.  The democratic nations which introduced freedom into politics at the same time that they were increasing despotism in the administrative sphere have been led into the strangest of paradoxes.  Faced with the need to manage small affairs where common sense can be enough, they reckon citizens are incompetent; when it comes to governing the whole state, they give these citizens immense prerogatives.  They turn them by degrees into playthings of the ruler or his masters, higher than kings or lower than men. Having exhausted all the various electoral systems without finding one which suited them, they look surprised and continue to search, as if the defects they see had far more to do with the country’s constitution than with that of the electorate.

It is indeed difficult to imagine how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them, and no one will be convinced that a liberal, energetic, and prudent government can ever emerge from the voting of a nation of servants…

The vices of those who govern and the ineptitude of those governed would soon bring it to ruin, and the people, tired of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or would soon revert to its abasement to one single master. 

  1. Wonderful posting. Very useful information! More thinking from that wonderful Trancendentalist period. I like those guys!

  2. Hi, everything is going sound here and ofcourse every one is sharing facts, that’s actually good, keep up writing.

  3. Magnificent site. Plenty of useful information here.
    I’m sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you on your effort!

  4. Pat says:

    Cannot read toqueville without appreciating his early warnings of what would likely be the fate for america, but for all of us, it is hindsight that brings such revelation. His works should be in every high school history class.

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