Join me in discussing Three Key American Revolutions

I vaguely remember reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of society in America as a high school student. As I recall it, I learned that a Frenchman touring America in the late-1830s found Americans to be friendly, industrious, and obsessed with making money. When I reread his commentary many years later, I learned something far different: Tocqueville thought America would become what I call a Tyranny of Benevolence. Tocqueville said this in Part II, Book IV of Democracy in America:

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

      I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest,– his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindness still remains to him, he may be said any rate to have lost his country.

      Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of their property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.

. . . After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained form acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” [Democracy in America. Richard D. Heffner, Editor. New York. Mentor Books. Part II: Book IV – What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear. 302–304.]

How could a Frenchman, whose tour of America lasted only a few months, foresee such an amazing change? More amazing, his strange prediction has come true!

For many years, I have studied and written about events in America’s past. Gradually, almost by accident, I came to understand how America fulfilled Tocqueville’s prediction. This is the history I relate in my American Revolutions Series.

The narrative in these four books is not like what you have read before. It does not normalize an ideology. It reports what once happened. If I have missed something or misinterpreted something, perhaps together we can straighten in an open exchange.

Leave a Comment