Tocqueville’s Patriotic Republic: Nationalist Themes in “Democracy in America,” Part 1


Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America[1] is one of the great classics of the American political tradition, alongside the best writings of Thomas Jefferson or the Federalist Papers. This is no small achievement for a Frenchman. Indeed, Tocqueville’s magnum opus is, I believe, the only foreign-language book to be included in the Library of America series.

One can see why Democracy in America was so popular in American civics classes. The book is a highly nuanced portrait of the early American Republic, with many insights which help to explain the differences that endure to this day between Europe and North America, such as why the United States is “a nation of lawyers” or how America has steadily risen to being a global superpower. The work, being about Americanism and democracy, is highly relevant both for understanding the world’s leading superpower and indeed the nature of today’s heavily Americanized and “democratic” Europe.

Beyond this however, Tocqueville’s Democracy is a profound and subtle meditation on the nature of the ideal society and government. And unlike many classic works, Tocqueville’s reflections are eminently easy to grasp. Of interest to the Right is the fact that Tocqueville believed in the unalterable fact of human inequality. The work is therefore an education for a would-be responsible ruling class: some kind of democracy is inevitable in the modern age, Tocqueville says, but he warns against that system’s dangers, ultimately providing an apology for having democracy be informed by an enlightened patriotic elite.

In this article, I would like to examine the place of nationhood (especially ethno-cultural homogeneity), patriotism, and (civil-)religious sentiment in Tocqueville’s thought. As we shall see, Tocqueville believed all three were absolutely essential to the successful development of the early American Republican. I would then like to make the case for Tocqueville as a proto-nationalist thinker. Interestingly, Tocqueville specifically paired nationalism and religion together as the only two forces which could unite a society: “there is in this world only patriotism, or religion, which can make all citizens walk for long towards a common goal” (159).

Tocqueville fits well within the wider Western tradition. His observations on nationhood can be taken as reflecting the simple common sense that was omnipresent in Western thought from the Ancient Greeks through the Enlightenment, until the triumph of pseudoscientific blank-slate theories in the 1960s cultural revolution.[2] I will furthermore argue that Tocqueville’s conception of patriotism and religiosity, and their potentially positive role in fostering in-group cohesion, largely joins up with later scientific discoveries concerning ethnocentrism and religion (e.g. Philippe Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory, Nicholas Wade’s synthesis on religion[3]).

The Iron Law of Inequality

Tocqueville makes a number of elementary observations which would, no doubt, save a great deal of time for teenage socialists and libertarians today. The basic problem he identifies is that of individuals’ living in society. They clearly depend upon collective conditions, but their intelligence and will are to a large degree individual. How can these individuals be reconciled? In particular, how can they be reconciled when intelligence and wisdom are so unevenly distributed in the population? How do we ensure that government is wise and does not abuse its power? He presents his utopia:

I conceive then a society in which all, considering the law to be their own work, would love it and submit to it painlessly; where the authority of the government would be respected as necessary and not as divine, the love one would have for the head of State would not be a passion, but a reasoned and tranquil sentiment. Each would have rights, and having assured himself of keeping his rights, would be established among all classes a virile confidence, and a sort of reciprocal condescension, as far from arrogance as from lowness. (45)

For Tocqueville, every individual is an atom of intelligence. This individual, Americans believe (as Tocqueville repeatedly notes), knows his own affairs best and is thus best equipped to manage them. At the very least, one must concede the individual is often best equipped, especially on economic matters, and this is one of the rationales for a mixed market economy.

Tocqueville however repeatedly notes that men are extremely unequally endowed with intelligence and wisdom (les lumières or “enlightenment”). The dreams of egalitarians are utterly vain and misguided, for “intellectual inequality comes directly from God and man cannot prevent that it always be there” (103). Cultural action can certainly improve a people but “it is impossible, whatever one does, to elevate the enlightenment of the people beyond a certain level” (299). The inevitability of inequality means democracy is an inherently enervating and unsatisfying regime: “Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to completely satisfy it” (300).

The best equipped to rule are therefore the exceptional minority — “this natural aristocracy which stems from enlightenment and virtue” (101). Aristocracy, echoing the ancient Greeks, is best according to Tocqueville:

A mass of people can be seduced by its ignorance or its passions; one can surprise the mind of a king or make him waver in his project; and incidentally a king is not immortal. But an aristocratic body is too numerous to be captured, too few in number to cede easily to the inebriation of thoughtless passions. An aristocratic body is a firm and enlightened man who does not die. (345-46)

While the masses are beholden to prejudice, the most thoughtful and enlightened portion of society is by definition minuscule: “As for this other kind of belief, thoughtful and master of itself, which is born of science and elevates itself amidst agitations of doubt, it will only be within reach of the efforts of a very small number of men” (285).

Tocqueville strongly emphasizes the benefits of a common identity and common interests between the governed and those governing, as a way of preventing abuses (350). Obviously, he would not be a proponent of multiculturalism or of leadership by alien ethnic elites hostile to the majority population.

In practice, Tocqueville also sees many advantages in democracy and disadvantages in centralized rule. A strong central government is certainly better when the latter is more enlightened than the people, but the state being inefficient and hardly omniscient, there are limits to its action. Furthermore, Tocqueville laments that strong central governments tend to make the people passive and lose civic virtue. He frequently contrasts the sullen peasants of French villages with the vigorous settlers of American township democracy.

Through participation in public affairs, the people interest and invest themselves in the common good. Thus, when the people are relatively enlightened, they should rule: “Among the Americans, the strength which administers the State is far less regulated, less enlightened, less knowledgeable, but a hundred times greater than in Europe” (156).

Tocqueville saw society as, ideally, developing slowly and organically towards greater freedom, rather than through brutal, unpredictable, and often self-destructive revolutions:

What we understand by republic in the United States is the slow and tranquil action of society on itself. It is a regulated state genuinely based upon the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliatory government, where resolutions take long to mature, are discussed slowly, and are executed with maturity. (574)

For Tocqueville there is something of an impasse: the best regime is one of aristocratic excellence not of the democratic average. However, in an age of mass communications and modernization, he does not see how discrete classes could maintain themselves or how democracy could be avoided. Tocqueville sees one way to, if not resolve, then at least attenuate the contradictions: the development of a patriotic civil-religious virtue in all individuals through daily participation in political life.

Nationhood: An Obvious Prerequisite and Goal

Tocqueville’s ideal takes nationhood — understood here as an objectively high degree of ethno-cultural homogeneity — as both an obvious good and an equally obvious goal. It almost goes without saying that such a social condition is a necessary prerequisite, not only to avoiding the problems that inevitably arise when members of a society do not identify with one another as part of the same people, but also to achieving the positive good which is patriotism.

Tocqueville emphasizes on numerous occasions the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious homogeneity of the Thirteen Colonies and the later United States:

Almost all the men who inhabit the territory of the Union stem from the same blood. They speak the same language, pray to the same God in the same way, submit to the same material causes, obey the same laws. (454)[4]

Tocqueville also takes “homogeneity of civilization,” meaning the level of economic prosperity or development, as a good that makes the sharing of a common government easier (258).

The United States formed then a “great Anglo-American family,”[5] despite the real differences between North and South, and had a “national character” (73, 70). This character and its customs, Tocqueville suggests, are the critical difference with the neighboring Mexicans who, though they adopted a virtual carbon copy of the U.S. Constitution, were incapable of producing the same quality of government. He expresses confidence that even through wars and revolutions, the Anglo-Americans would maintain “the distinctive character of their race,” including “the taste for well-being and the spirit of enterprise” (595).[6]

Tocqueville contrasts Americans’ homogeneity with others’ lack of it on several occasions. Concerning English and French Canadians: “Canada has only a million inhabitants, its population is divided into two hostile nations” (261). Indeed, Tocqueville considers Anglo-Canadians to be essentially indistinguishable from Americans. Similarly, he points out that Old World Europeans shared a broad White racial and Christian religious identity, but are divided concerning almost everything else (596). Furthermore, Tocqueville correctly predicted that immigration of Anglo-Americans to then-Mexican Texas would lead to an Americanization of that region (490).

The Thirteen Colonies were fortunate in already being very similar ethno-culturally and politically. However, Tocqueville goes further, asserting that the Founding Fathers had sought, from this sound basis, to fuse these into one people: “they had declared that the confederation formed but one and the same people within the circle traced by the constitution” (230). While state and regional identities were obviously real, particularly the worrying division between North and South, Tocqueville argued the American nation was indeed maturing: “At the same time as the Americans are mixing, they are assimilating each other; the differences which climate, origin, and institutions had made among them, are diminishing. They are all approaching more and more a common type” (560). Acknowledging the cultural dominance of New England, this American nation’s culture, Tocqueville asserted, would be of the northern, post-puritanical Yankee type. Despite the division into states, Tocqueville thought the Americans formed “one single people” to a greater degree than the peoples of certain European monarchies (544).

Tocqueville’s observations can be taken as a refreshing example of pre-1960s common sense before the invasion of Western academic thought with typically Marxist-inspired claims that nations are essentially imaginary or social constructed.[7] Against this one can make the elementary observation: early America was fortunate in already objectively having a great amount of common identity, but that there was an obvious interest in further reinforcing this so as to achieve the highest degree of nationhood.[8]

Tocqueville also incidentally strongly emphasizes the importance of political and economic independence to having any real sovereignty: “Strength is then often one of the first conditions for the happiness and even existence of nations. [. . .] I know of no more deplorable condition than that of a people which cannot defend or depend upon itself” (249).

Racial Diversity: “The Most Dangerous of Ills”

For Tocqueville, America’s division into three races — White, Red, and Black — was a terrible danger to the young nation. “The men spread in this space do not form, as in Europe, so many children of a same family,” but rather “almost enemy races” (467). Tocqueville expresses considerable sympathy for the Amerindians and Africans who suffered in a White man’s America. Both had been deprived of their “fatherland” and lost their identity (477).

Concerning the Amerindians, Tocqueville regrets the lack of miscegenation with White Americans, all the while admitting that in Canada mixing between French and natives had led to poor results (the métis tended to “go native” and remain wild, 485). He presents an interesting early example of what we might call “dependency theory” in explaining Amerindians’ chronic inability to compete economically with Whites (488). He concludes, however, that there was little doubt that the Reds will be run out and/or swamped.

The situation of Blacks was far more worrisome for Tocqueville: “The most dangerous of ills which is threatening the future of the United States is born of the presence of the Blacks on its soil” (499). He is rather evasive on the question of racial inequality, generally satisfying himself with paraphrasing American opinions, notably Thomas Jefferson’s.

Tocqueville did not believe in the possibility of a harmonious multiracial society: “I do not think that the white race and the black race could anywhere live together as equals” (520). He quotes from Jefferson’s memoirs: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [Blacks] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” Jefferson justified his pessimistic position on grounds of White prejudice, Black grievances, and natural difference.

Tocqueville says racial mixing might be a solution, but argues that white racial pride made this all but impossible. Only a dictatorship, he believed, could force integration:
A despot who would put the Americans and their former slaves under the same yoke could perhaps succeed in mixing them: so long as American democracy remains in charge, none would dare attempt such an undertaking, and one can foresee that, as long as the Whites in the United States remain free, they will seek to isolate themselves. (520)

Tocqueville rejects the idea that emancipation would solve the problem and asserts that Blacks would “abuse” their freedom. He notes that “everywhere where the Negroes have been the stronger, they have destroyed the Whites” (502). Tocqueville feared that slaves’ high fertility meant the South could fall to Black revolution (as occurred in formerly French Haiti). He even asserts that, without the Union, “sympathies of race” would probably not lead the North to the South’s rescue in case of a Black revolution (523). Tocqueville intriguingly observes: “In America, as in the rest of the earth, servitude is then born in the South” (504).

White European identity was a simple fact for Tocqueville, evident for example in Europeans’ physical difficulty in adjusting to tropical climates. It may be that Tocqueville was vague on racial inequality because this might have been unpopular among a French public already famously prone to egalitarian sentiment. What is unambiguous however is that Tocqueville strongly believed in the benefits of racial homogeneity and saw no solutions to racial diversity except a restoration of homogeneity, either through total separation or through miscegenation. Tocqueville considered the latter impossible however: “The White man in the United States is proud of his race and proud of himself” (521).

Go to Part 2.

[1]In this article, I will quote be quoting from Alexis de Tocqueville, De la Démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), volume 1. To those seeking to find the equivalent passages in English translations, I can only say that Tocqueville’s text begins after a lengthy preface on page 33 and concludes with footnotes at page 625.

[2]See for instance Herodotus, the very first Western historian, and his concept of nationality: Martin Aurelio, “The Four Elements of National Identity in Herodotus,” North American New Right, June 15, 2016. The American Founding Fathers similarly universally praised the homogeneity of the early United States: Jared Taylor, “What the Founding Fathers Really Thought About Race,” National Policy Institute, January 17, 2012. Even postwar German leaders, educated before the 1960s and despite the excesses of National Socialism, expressed the common-sense position that maintaining their nation’s ethnic homogeneity was an obvious good: Guillaume Durocher, “Merkel’s Betrayal: From the Ethno-National Principle to an Afro-Islamic Germany,” The Occidental Observer, September 16, 2015.

[3]Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and White It Endures (London: Penguin, 2009).

[4]Other examples:

  • “The bond of language is perhaps the strongest and the most durable which can unite men. All the emigrants [to America] spoke the same language; they were all children of the same people [the English]” (71-72).
  • Thirteen Colonies had “the same religion, the same language, the same customs, almost the same laws” (181-182).

Incidentally, one is struck at the similarities between Tocqueville’s vocabulary and nuanced conciliatory style on the one hand, and that of the Jewish-French liberal-conservative thinker Raymond Aron. Aron too would almost always speak of “Anglo-Americans,” concerning the British and Americans, rather the more typical French term “Anglo-Saxon.”

[5]Another example: “All the English colonies had then between them, at the time of their birth, the look of a family” (73).

[6]Such language of course should not be taken as suggesting that Anglo-Americans’ traits were 100% genetically-determined, but Tocqueville evidently sees a hereditary element. He writes elsewhere that the early explorers and gold-hunters followed by “workers and farmers, a more moral and tranquil breed [race]” (74).

[7]Example of this include the Jewish historian Eric Hobsbawm, widely celebrated by mainstream media, and Benedict Anderson. Students of such thought have often come to absurd conclusions, arguing that there is no such thing as an ethnically homogenous society and that claims of historic nationhood are entirely fantasized. A particularly egregious example of this was provided by European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who argued in a speech: “those politicians trying to sell to their electorates a society that is exclusively composed of people from one culture, are trying to portray a future based on a past that never existed, therefore that future will never be.” This argument was obviously teleological and politically-motivated, as Timmermans expounded a dark and bizarre prophecy: “there is not going to be, even in the remotest places of this planet, a nation that will not see diversity in its future.” Guillaume Durocher, “Feckless European Leaders,” The Occidental Observer, April 15, 2016.

[8]One is astounded at at the number of people, brainwashed by Marxoid drivel, who are able to convince themselves that national identity is entirely imagined and reflects no underlying reality. Indeed, they are capable of the most incredible rationalizations in defense of this belief. There are however obviously objective markers of nationhood or lack thereof: compare monolingual France with bilingual Belgium, compare monoethnic Poland with multiethnic Yugoslavia. The reality of nationhood, and the conflict that results from the lack of it, are obvious from these cases.

Nationality is obviously to a certain degree conventional and represents a useful simplification of a reality too complex for words. One could say that humanity’s treatment of nationality is somewhat analogous to that of the colors of the spectrum: “orange” or “yellow” do not actually exist in any sense in nature as neatly-separated categories and in fact blur perfectly into one another, nonetheless, colors are obviously socially useful human conventions, as in the case of the traffic light.

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