All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1969

As Tocqueville Saw Us


Dr. Winston, after twenty-five years of parish ministry, now devotes full time to lecturing and writing, with emphasis on history. His latest book, on privateering and piracy, is soon to be released by Houghton Mifflin.

My friend had trimmed me at squash, and I tried to recover a bit of self-esteem in the coffee shop afterward. “I’ve been read­ing Tocqueville,” I remarked, counting on his blank look.

“Read him in college,” he picked me up. To prove it he spelled out the name. “Alexis, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I growled into my chowder bowl, “Alexis.”

Small wonder, really, that my friend had run across Democracy in America. Since its publication in 1835 it has ranked as a classic appraisal of the American scene. The freshness of its observations show that although much water has passed under the bridge in our national history since that date, the same river still flows — noisy, turbulent, and productive. This French aristocrat praised the new nation even when he was not sure that he liked it. Yet he suffered little from bias and tried to understand our baffling ways; his sub­tle mind possessed the paradoxical but precious gift of detached en­gagement with his subject; and he commanded a literary style of limpid elegance. Altogether, an admirable critic.

Democracy in America is pro­vocative even when its conclusions are off-target. And occasionally Tocqueville did miss. He insisted, for one thing, that equality is our ruling passion. “Equality is their idol,” he declared. “Nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather perish than lose it.”

But if we examine equality with care, we see that in its political form it is always abstract; and no one, above all a pragmatic Amer­ican, is likely to man the barri­cades for an abstraction. In a strict sense, we are equal only when we fall into the same general class. Thus, all apples are equally apples (though no two are identi­cal); all humans human, from a New Guinea Stone-Age man to Einstein; every couple is a member of the class of two; and noses that are deliciously snub, pointed, flat, or bony as a hawk’s, answer equally to the single word “nose.” Hardly a cause for pride. Would you lay down your life for it?

Political equality narrows the scope of this general principle without reducing its abstractness. In their impartiality, our rights and liberties apply in the same way to all, and therefore, by their nature, transcend the individual. Every citizen (whoever he be) has the right to worship, speak, as­semble with his fellows, vote, and petition for redress of grievances; every citizen (whoever he be) has the protection of the law in his person and property, and shall be deprived of these only by due process, at the hands of a jury of his peers. Cherished rights, all. But when one of our forefathers oiled his musket and whetted his sword to gain them, he fought for his rights. The equality was inci­dental, as a correlative act of jus­tice, and to guarantee the preser­vation of those liberties to each by assuring them to all.

With basic rights secured, Amer­icans have lately pushed the idea of “equal opportunity.” We rec­ognize that a spindly youngster from Appalachia or a ghetto child may be handicapped through no fault of his own; that Negroes have been confined to inferior education, poor housing, and menial jobs; that Puerto Ricans labor under the difficulty of language, women are down-graded in the pay scale for no reason but their sex, American Indians wear out lives of poverty and ignorance on neg­lected reservations, and so on.

In recent decades a flood of money and energy has poured out in an effort to alleviate the condi­tion of these minorities. The mid­dle-class American groans at the burden, but he does not seriously doubt his obligation. In the race of life everyone deserves a fair run, we maintain; no one, there­fore, should be allowed to jump the gun because his aunt married the starter, or shove his rival in the homestretch because the finish judge owes him money. “I must say,” commented Tocqueville, “that I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have re­marked a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to each other.”

Vital as they are, equal oppor­tunities never quite reach the in­dividual. They wait for him, as a voting booth waits for the voter, a jury for the accused, a job for the man. Our laws of fair employ­ment, reapportionment, open hous­ing, or bussing school children, are little more than permissive. They open up residential suburbs with­out providing money to buy a house, they make jobs available without necessarily training for them, extend the franchise but do not educate the voter to use it, and bus underprivileged children to over privileged schools in the hope — but only the hope — that they will learn more when they get there. Legislated opportunities fall on everyone like rain. Never mind your name, just enter your Social Security number. What does it matter that you grow African vio­lets or collect Bach or sleep on your left side or prefer hamburg­ers rare or usher in church or love your wife or weep for a drop­out child or have a cataract com­ing on an eye or once felt God so close that you could touch Him with your hand? Just write your number in this space where my finger is; thank you, yes, you qualify. Hardly a ruling passion.

Is there, then, no equality that recognizes the person, with all his singular hopes, fears, ambitions, and foibles? There is, indeed, and it is more precious than rubies. Every man wants to be respected for himself, without regard to his birth or station. That is why the founders of this nation barred titles of nobility and hereditary privilege; they had had enough of peasants knuckling their caps when the gentry rode by. Men will endure poverty and pain without whimpering, but not contempt. The honest carpenter deserves the same courtesy as the honest presi­dent of a giant corporation. Every rank of life has its integrity.

Within the intimate circle of the family this respect intensifies to love. Love is perfectly individ­ual; it feeds on particulars, on what distinguishes the loved one from every other; and yet, within the family, who can claim more or less of it? When I was a small boy my parents would tease me by asking which one of them I liked the better. The question embar­rassed me hugely, and I hastened to cry, “Both the same!” A mother loves her different children “all the same,” and they count on it. Any other strict equality between indi­viduals turns into despised same­ness. We are not flattered to be mistaken for someone else, nor told that our names are the same; we shudder at drab rows of look-alike houses, and if two ladies ap­pear in identical dresses, the party is ruined for both. But in the re­spect of our fellows, family love, and God’s beneficence, we ask only equality.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Peel from a man his artifices, habits, skills, philoso­phies, and loves, as you would an onion, until you expose his core, and you lay bare not the desire for equality or political liberty, but an essential need for personal free­dom. He must be able to choose among ends which he holds good, intelligently consider the means effectual to the chosen end, and have the power to use those means to that end. In the free act he at­tains his selfhood, his individ­uality, his lonely grandeur. Other­wise he is no more than a thumbed mammal or, like the galley slave chained to his oar, simply a ma­chine that sweats. The straight path of instinct or servitude is now full of forks, and the free man may agonize under the pressure of decision, but he will not go back. Freedom is his ruling passion.

Widely distributed freedom gen­erated on this continent a loose-knit, flexible, competitive society with tendencies the very opposite of static equalism. “The spirit of improvement is constantly alive,” Tocqueville reported. He marveled at its audacity. “The inhabitants of the United States are never fet­tered by the axioms of their pro­fession; they escape from all the prejudices of their present sta­tion; they are not more attached to one line of operation than to another; they are not more prone to employ an old method than a new one; they have no rooted habits, and they easily shake off the influence which the habits of other nations might exercise upon them, from a conviction that their country is unlike any other, and that its situation is without a prec­edent in the world. America is a land of wonders, in which every­thing is in constant motion, and every change seems an improve­ment. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and, in his eyes, what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.”

The scene struck Tocqueville as both awesome and monotonous, like an unending sea of choppy waves, for radical democracy is bound to do some leveling down while it levels up. The government must tax the luxuries of the more affluent if it is to provide neces­sities for the poor, so who can build a Versailles? Educational in­stitutions that admit less qualified students will surely dull the in­tellectual edge of the brilliant ones. Art and craftsmanship may be good in a democracy, but seldom match in polish the single bauble created by the aristocratic artisan for an exacting lord. The result is a dead level of achievement higher than the worst possible and lower than the best desired.

Tocqueville missed the concen­tration of power that made kings and nobles heroic figures, with their romantic gestures and mem­orable follies, and in place of these saw the petty goals, cheap tastes, and drab sameness of an egalitar­ian society. Historians of democ­racy, he noted, record the massive flow of whole peoples, and look for impersonal causes, whereas his­torians of Europe’s monarchies recorded the lives of great men and looked for motives. The citizen of a democracy, thought Tocque­ville, is extremely enterprising within the depressingly minute confines of his private affairs. Lacking the impressive authority that permits a duke to summon armies and topple thrones, the democrat keeps his nose glued to the account book. His low aims and mediocre desires make mere animal comfort seem to him Para­dise regained; to Tocqueville it was hell, with plumbing.

The general leveling-out, he feared, coupled with the dispersion of power throughout the citizenry, invited the most insidious of des­potisms — that of the majority. The majority is always right in a democracy, and its influence on the common man is stealthy, perva­sive, and, above all, psychological. It doesn’t put the rebel to the rack, but ostracizes him, for rebellion against the infallible majority is rebellion against the whole state. The small fragments of power scattered throughout the popula­tion must flow inexorably into the central government if they are to be concentrated on a sufficient scale to do anything. The danger is that after the citizens have cast their periodic votes, they will settle back into the comfortable illusion that they are still exerting their sovereignty, while in fact the gov­ernment is supervising them with smiling good will, like the Big Brother of Orwell’s frightful vision, keeping them happy and helpless, protecting them in their ease from either the hazards of action or the rigors of thought. “Men would not have found the means of independent life; they would simply have discovered (no easy task) a new physiognomy of servitude.”

Expressing fears is a pastime which has no known limits. Toc­queville also viewed with alarm the possible abuse of unrestricted as­sembly, apathy in the electorate, a military coup, armed revolt by black slaves, a separate nation in the agrarian South, and even a peaceful take-over by some reso­lute minority.

He had a sharp eye for incipient danger, we must admit. In abuse of assembly, students now biv­ouac in the private offices of col­lege presidents. Black Panthers make sounds like armed revolt. Government grows ever more gargantuan and minutely regulative. The erstwhile stalwart American too often sums up the good life as two cars, color TV, and Medicare. And though the Founding Fathers dared to write our Constitution behind locked doors, the modern politician frets about his image and keeps his ear cupped for the latest whiff of the consensus.

Most of Tocqueville’s troubles (as Mark Twain would put it) never happened, never shattered the republic, for a reason so sim­ple that it sounds preposterous, namely, that the people wouldn’t put up with it. For the viability of any social system depends, in the last analysis, upon the mental habits of its citizens. Tocqueville suggests this stubborn factor when he contrasts the divergent histories of the Anglo-Saxons (as he called them — and they were) in North America and the Spanish to the south, or, again, when he attributes the superiority of America’s merchant marine to the mentality of her seamen. In esti­mating any nation’s capacity to achieve, or to change in a given direction, ingrained attitudes of mind must be reckoned with. “We thought we could jimmy things around here and pf-f-f-f! the new age,” a social worker once told me in Sicily. “We found out that you have to change their minds, too. That’s slow, and it’s tough.” Lib­erties don’t come down like manna from heaven; they are won, and their responsibilities discharged, by free men.

Royal tyranny vanished in Eng­land because the English com­moner just would not put up with it. Commoners took the field against Charles I and beheaded that troublesome monarch; later they drove James II from the throne and in his stead elected a Dutchman willing to respect Par­liament’s prerogatives. In the same century commoners settled New England, resolved to extend their mutual privileges; they worked the land together, should­ered their muskets with a single motion in the face of danger, formed governments, built schools, and worshipped side by side in the same pew as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And it was, since they thought it was. Every colonist granted justice to all because he expected it for himself. He spoke his mind as conscience bade him, and the only way to silence him was to kill him. He was his own man.

Fortunately, the right mind can be as tenacious as the wrong one. The American colonists had the right mind for planting the seeds of democracy on these shores. If we can keep that mind, we will keep a free society.