The crowd of English politicians, whether public men or public writers, who live in a truly insular ignorance of the great movement of European ideas, will be astonished to find, that a conclusion which but few among them, in their most far-reaching speculations, have yet arrived at, is the point from which the foremost continental thinkers theirs; and that a philosopher, whose impartiality as between aristocracy and democracy is unparalleled in our time, considers it an established truth, on the proof of which it is no longer necessary to insist, that the progress of democracy neither can nor ought to be stopped. Not to determine whether democracy shall come, but how to make the best of it when it does come, is the scope of M. de Tocqueville’s speculations.
In no country in Europe has the great social revolution which I have been describing made such rapid progress as in France; but it has always been borne on by chance. The heads of the State have never thought of making any preparation for it, and its victories have been obtained in spite of their resistance, or without their knowledge. The most powerful, the most intelligent, and the most moral classes of the nation have never attempted to connect themselves with it in order to guide it. Democracy has consequently been abandoned to its untutored instincts, and it has grown up like those outcasts who receive their education in the public streets, and who are unacquainted with aught of society but its vices and its miseries. The existence of a democracy was seemingly unknown, when on a sudden it took possession of the supreme power. Everything then servilely submitted to its smallest wish; it was worshipped as the idol of strength; until, when it was enfeebled by its own excesses, the legislator conceived the rash project of annihilating it, instead of instructing it and correcting its bad tendencies. No attempt was made to fit it to govern; the sole thought was of excluding it from the government.
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The first volume, the only one of which a translation has yet appeared, describes chiefly the institutions of the United States: the second, the state of society, which he represents to be the fruit of those institutions. We should have been glad to assume that the reader possessed a general acquaintance with the subject of the former volume, and to refer him, for details, to the work itself. But it so happens that in no one point has M. de Tocqueville rendered a greater service to the European public, than by actually giving them their first information of the very existence of some of the most important parts of the American constitution. We allude particularly to the municipal institutions; which, as our author shows, and as might have been expected, are the very fountain-head of American democracy, and one principal cause of all that is valuable in its influences; but of which English travellers, a race who have eyes and see not, ears and hear not, have not so much as perceived the existence.
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Meanwhile, we are satisfied if it be admitted, that the government of England is progressively changing from the government of a few, to the government, not indeed of many, but of many;—from an aristocracy with a popular infusion, to the of the middle class. To most purposes, in the constitution of modern society, the government of a numerous middle class is democracy. Nay, it not merely democracy, but the only democracy of which there is yet any example; what is called universal suffrage in America arising from the fact that America is middle class; the whole people being in a condition, both as to education and pecuniary means, corresponding to the middle class here. The consequences which we would deduce from this fact will appear presently, when we examine M. de Tocqueville’s view of the moral, social, and intellectual influences of democracy. This cannot be done until we have briefly stated his opinions on the purely political branch of the question. To this part of our task we shall now proceed; with as much conciseness as is permitted by the number and importance of the ideas which, holding an essential place among the grounds of his general conclusions, have a claim not to be omitted even from the most rapid summary.