Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
DEMOCRACY. I. Meaning of the word Democracy in Ancient and in Modern Times. By democracy the ancients understood, following the etymology of the word, government by the people. Such a meaning necessarily implied the division of society into several classes, each with a sort of stability. The sovereignty resided sometimes in one of these classes, sometimes in another. When the great body of citizens who did not belong to the nobility were invested with the power of making laws, and choosing the chief magistrates, the government was called democratic. Neither this name nor the preponderance of the element it designated, abolished the fundamental distinction between nobles and plebeians, any more than it abolished that between freemen and slaves, who were deprived of all rights. Hence we may perceive that civil and political equality was restricted within rather narrow limits in ancient times. The result of long contests, this equality could not maintain itself, even within these limits, without a struggle. At Rome the popular element, whose advent is marked by the tribunate, which became its most powerful arm, contended for a long time against the aristocracy which gave form to the Roman republic. It never completely triumphed until the downfall of that republic. Under the empire there was less liberty and more equality, but it was the equality of despotism. The court of the Cæsars took its counselors and its favorites from all classes, it even chose them from among the freedmen and the sons of freedmen. Merit sometimes succeeded under it, the favored still more frequently. Emulation in baseness became the rule under the bad emperors. Under the good emperors there were honest men, devoted to their prince and the public service; great men disappeared. Even admitting that the empire was an improvement as compared with the republic, in the social order, it is incontestably true that it meant decline morally and ruin politically. The amount of prosperity and private virtue which flourished during its long continuance does not blot out this stain. The public virtue which continued to exist assumed, in the stoics, the character of a powerless protest.
—In the states of antiquity, when the patricians were, as frequently happened, the conquerors and rulers of a country subject to their yoke, it was natural that the vanquished should seek to regain the rank from which they had fallen, and to recover their share of right, influence, prosperity and dignity. Besides, ability is never absolutely concentrated in a minority. It must inevitably happen that the ability that exists among the masses shall win for itself recognition and place. There are few political societies that do not make place to some extent for individual merit, independently of birth. But, under the name of the people, it was frequently the crowd that carried the day. The multitude introduced into the government—such was ancient democracy. Hence the bad reputation it has left behind it, and the preference which the political writers of antiquity, without exception, manifested for the aristocratic form of government, which they considered more favorable to moderation, to the maturity and proper sequence of the measures useful to the state, as less capricious, not so easily influenced or corrupted, and more enlightened. Plato and Aristotle had a decided leaning toward aristocracy, and showed themselves most severe judges of democracy, whose fickleness and vices so forcibly impressed them; of that democracy which had just sent Socrates to death. These philosophers considered that democracy almost inevitably ended in the tyranny of one man; a form of government which excited the repugnance of these liberal minds. They had no greater liking, however, for that other species of tyranny which the majority exercises over the minority. The sanguinary colors in which Plato painted the demagogues, proves what were the sentiments of those whom we may call the honest men, respecting the men who made themselves masters of the multitude by basely flattering their worst instincts. Their very imperfect notions of liberty and right, together with the fickleness and other inherent weaknesses of the popular element, serve to explain this opinion of democracy among the ancients. They too often confounded, as is well known, liberty with sovereignty. To be free was to have a share in the framing of the laws, whether or not these laws were intended to limit or hamper the liberty of individuals, the liberty of private life, which the moderns put before every other. As to the idea of right, how completely was it mingled with and subordinated to that of force! The will of the people passed for right, and what was judged useful, even though contrary to justice, became the sovereign rule of public action. It was in vain that Aristides, at Athens, protested against this doctrine, in the name of a select minority. It had the approval of the people, who applauded Themistocles as the defender of these convenient maxims of government, the only ones that were popular, the only ones that were practiced.
—In modern times democracy has not, nor could it have, the same meaning as in antiquity. If the ultra-democratic governments are not exempt from the vices and dangers which characterized those of antiquity, it is none the less true that the very notion of democracy differs profoundly from that which the ancients formed of it, and that it no longer responds to the same ideas, or expresses exactly the same facts. The meaning attached to the ideas of liberty and equality is different in many respects. These differences are explained by the influence of Christianity upon ideas and manners, by the rise of a new moral and political philosophy, and by the development of industry and wealth.
—Modern nations were formed under the influence of Christianity, which has completely changed the general point of view from which man and society are regarded. Man, according to the conception which has prevailed for nearly eighteen centuries, even among those who do not adopt to the letter the dogmas and mysteries of the Christian religion, but who nevertheless feel the influence of its moral teachings, is sacred inasmuch as he is man, sacred in his own eyes, and sacred in the eyes of his fellow-men. According to Christian teaching man has an immense value, since God himself, to purchase and redeem him, did not disdain to assume his humanity. God has revealed to us the mystery of our immortal destiny, and all the means which can regenerate us and work out our salvation. This is the foundation of Christianity: a free, responsible soul, fallen, it is true, but in a condition to raise itself. What duty after this is there greater than to respect this responsibility in one's self and in others, than to develop the moral man in others and in ourselves? All the children of God are brothers; all the sons of Adam are equal in their fall; all the members of Christ are equal in their redemption. Let it not be said that these beliefs have been without effect, and remained dead doctrine. What could be more completely contrary to the laws of human nature, to the irresistible logic which draws facts from principles, moral and religious order from social order? and finally, what more contrary to historic truth? The belief in responsible liberty, in a common redemption, in equality before God, came into existence with Christianity itself. If a state of conquest and violence, if barbarity for a long time retarded its civil effects, it is none the less true that since the middle ages the slavery of antiquity has disappeared, protective institutions for the weak have multiplied, under the empire of a sentiment of charity until then unknown. The poorest, the humblest, the most oppressed, regarded themselves as the equals of kings and lords, inasmuch as they were subject to the same religious obligations, and believed themselves called to the same chances of happiness in another life. The self, overburdened with misery, cast a glance toward the heavens as toward the future home of equality. The victim of injustice, in the depths of his own soul, he cited his master before the tribunal of the supreme Judge. These ideas of equality, born of a community of faith and hope, and which resulted from Christian dogma itself, found a visible expression in the organization of the church. There the fact of birth was long accounted nothing. Merit was everything. The bishops and popes frequently came, like the apostles, from the mass of the people. The simple sons of peasants exercised over princes an almost absolute empire. Election was the mark of equality. With time this democratic character of the church was modified, but did not disappear; and in 1789 it was advocated by a majority of the members of the clergy who were seated in the constituent assembly. Did not the ideas of equality and Christian brotherhood, as applied to society, manifest themselves at the time of the foundation of the English colonies of America? Who, then, will deny that American democracy was born of Christianity?
—From this we may estimate the distance which separates the ancient from the modern idea of democracy. The thoroughly democratic idea that men are responsible solely as men, have rights because they are men, are valued solely as men, and as men should mutually love and help one another, is pre-eminently a Christian idea. Neither the maxim, "render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's," nor the precepts of resignation and obedience, can do away with this truth. It was not sufficient for Christianity to espouse the cause of the oppressed and the feeble; it was not sufficient for it to curse the bad rich man, and make of the poor its chosen children; it was not sufficient for it that the apostles and their successors were themselves of the number of the poor; the sentiment of their rights came to men only with that of their moral value.
—If democracy finds its title to recognition in the ideas of liberty, equality and Christian fraternity, why can we not see that it finds it also in philosophy? The principle of liberty has been incessantly vindicated by philosophers, under one form or another, since the seventeenth century. Descartes claimed it for pure thought; Montesquieu introduced it into political philosophy; Voltaire became its defender in the interest of universal inquiry. Philosophy proclaims the inviolability of the human person, without regard to race, color or opinion. In spite of differences and inequalities, it finds the same human nature in all, and founds upon this identity an equality of rights. Its desire is to develop man; to see every individual raise himself to the height of excellence and happiness of which he is capable. It exalts sociability, the fraternity of sympathies and interests; it maintains in the hearts of men the idea of right; it attacks unjust distinctions and odious privileges: in a word, it presses onward, with the aid of the weapons which are its own, that is to say, by enlightenment and reason, toward liberty and civil equality.
—Must we not say as much of the modern development of industry and wealth? Do not these modern powers manifest the same tendency toward freedom and a greater effective equality? Nor is there any more necessity to-day than at any other epoch, of supposing that equality of conditions could or should always be absolute; for this would be the very destruction of civilization. But if wealth continues to develop with its inevitable and desirable inequalities, is it not now more equitably divided than ever before? does it not more than ever depend upon labor? Landed property is considerably divided up: this was remarked to be the case even before the French revolution. Movable property has increased prodigiously. Restrictions on labor have in great part disappeared. Exchange of wealth is carried on in most countries without meeting with any artificial obstacles at home; and as to international commerce the idea of the solidarity of nations mutually interested in each other's enrichment has taken the place of their commercial antagonism. Industry, in fine, with its improved processes, places its products within the reach of almost all. The circle of those who are able to enjoy bodily comfort and intellectual advantages increases daily. This is the social condition called democracy.
—In the last analysis modern democracy, which we first consider in its most general character and in its most favorable traits, tends toward a state in which, conformably to the data of Christianity, of moral and political philosophy, and of the development of wealth, a greater number of men continually enter into the possession of intellectual, moral and material benefits. The diffusion of knowledge, a more equal division of the gratifications which constitute comfort, a more general participation in civil and political rights, essentially characterize it. It proposes to substitute merit for chance, and right for injustice. It shelters itself under the shield of the doctrine of perfectibility, which is applicable not only to the works of the human mind, to the discoveries of science, and to the inventions of industry, but also to the social condition and to the political and economic combinations which may serve to improve it. Modern democracy thus seems to be the result of a great progress in ideas and beliefs, of a slow transformation already effected in part, and which still continues, in manners, customs and laws. That each man may be more and more a man, that is to say, better realize the type of humanity, by the development of all that constitutes it, is the end to which it aspires. The development of power for the individual and for the species, the increase of dignity and comfort, such is its ideal.
—This ideal will never be attained, even in part, without great difficulties. The first of these difficulties is human imperfection. Would a pure and absolute democracy suit men? Rousseau himself doubted it. But in order to approach even to the ideal which we have just outlined, man has need of constant efforts over himself, of learning, of wisdom, of virtue. It is not in consequence of a vain and declamatory reminiscence of ancient republics that Montesquieu made virtue the soul of democracy. A state which calls man to an energetic and complete control of his being, and which bids him govern himself, by emancipating him from the guardians to whose hands he intrusted the care of his destiny, evidently can not sustain itself but by the continual sentiment of responsibility and duty. How, for example, would democracy, taken in the favorable sense which we have just given it, maintain itself, if the taste for immoderate enjoyment should prevent work, destroy economy and attack probity; if the desire of living upon the fruits of other people's labor, if the contempt for justice, trodden under foot by an unrestrained egotism, should be substituted for moderation, for the spirit of equity and right? Moral disorder such as this could not but prepare the way for slavery: anarchy would not be slow to open the way for despotism, following an accustomed formula, of which history furnishes the elements and the proofs.
—We shall now consider democracy, first under its civil, then under its political form, in society, and in the government. The real and grave reasons for this distinction will soon be seen.
—II. Of Democracy in the Civil Law and in Society. We have distinguished the democracy which determines the civil relations of citizens from that which gives to power its political form. A sensible proof of the reality of this distinction may be found in France, where society has long been democratic to a remarkable degree, and where power is not purely democratic in its composition, and has retained in the main the monarchical form down to a very recent date. The democratic nature of society is recognized especially by the equality of rights which is manifested in industry by free competition, and in the professions by the admissibility of all citizens to practice them. Who does not know that property and labor are no longer monopolies? The extreme mobility of property, on the one hand, and on the other the facility which each one has of choosing his own state in life, of freely carrying on his trade or business; are not these living and familiar proofs of this equality of rights which refuses no one access to the goods and labors which lead to it? A certain equality of condition results, and must result, from this equality of rights. In fact, as soon as liberty presides over the distribution of wealth, the chances are equal for all. Vast accumulations of wealth are now only exceptional, and are subject to the laws of change common to all, to exempt themselves from which was the aim of the privileged aristocrats and nobles. If a clever man, who has become rich by fortunate speculation, leaves a great amount of wealth to his children, this wealth will be reduced by division among several heirs, and will perhaps be lost by incapacity or dissipation. Thus will the democratic tendency of the different classes of society to intermingle find an increased facility for further growth. Thus will the advantages of merit and of good fortune, which are purely personal, be substituted for hereditary family renown. This tendency, which is the result of the doctrine of laisser-faire, receives in France a new force from the law, which makes the equal division of property among the children of the same father obligatory. The inability, under which the father of a family in France is placed, of favoring one of his children to the prejudice of the others beyond a certain limit, is, as all admit, one of the instruments of democratic equality. But must we believe, with some publicists, that equality is inseparably attached to such a law? The proof of the contrary is found in the fact that the same equality exists in the United States, although it is not there prescribed by law, but remains optional. To make the eldest son sole heir would seem as iniquitous to an American as it seems natural and just to an Englishman. Custom seems to have the same tendency, and almost the same intensity, on this point, in France. How could it be otherwise, when we remember that equal partition had become firmly fixed in the customs of the third estate, long before the French revolution, as M. Augustin Thierry has proven in his introduction to the "History of the Third Estate"? It is not probable, therefore, that, if full liberty were left to fathers of families to dispose of their property, it would not have worked any such great change as is generally believed in a society so saturated as ours is with the idea of the equality of all the children of the same father? Without here entering into details which would lead us beyond the limits of our subject, we still believe that there are serious objections to absolute liberty in the making of wills. Let us admit, with its advocates, that by its means many a bad son would be punished by the deprivation of his inheritance, and that some children who had been unfortunate in their business, or who had contracted disadvantageous marriages, would receive a larger share. Some cases of extreme partition of landed property might be more easily prevented by its means, although means of preventing excesses of this sort are not wanting even now. On the other hand, the well-known evils which result from absolute liberty in making wills would have full away, to the prejudice of families and society. To resume: there is nothing to make us foresee the abrogation of the law of descent in France, and it is not to be believed that democracy, assured as it feels of the power of established customs, would long consent to completely lose such a weapon. Moreover, whether deservedly or not, unpopularity would, in France, attend any too absolute measure of this nature, though it were authorized by the purest theories of liberty, by the intention of regenerating the family by respect and fear, and even by the intention of manifesting greater regard for property. People would see in the omnipotence of paternal power, in this sense, but an inhuman desertion of the children, and an unpleasant possibility of the re-establishment of the right of primogeniture and of substitution.
—Another feature of equality in democracy is the necessity under which each citizen is placed of contributing to the national expenses in proportion to his power. This is the only truly liberal interpretation of democracy. It makes of the payment of taxes a true title to citizenship, even for the poor, instead of numbering them among the crowd as individuals without duties and without ties to society; while at the same time it subjects the well-to-do and the rich, who receive from the state a greater protection for their property and their persons, to the necessity of bearing a greater portion of the expenses. But this manner of looking at taxation does not satisfy all democratic schools. Many believe that democracy ought to exempt citizens, not in very easy circumstances, and not having a certain minimum income, from all taxation. Some desire the establishment of a progressive tax, that is to say, of a tax increasing progressively with the fortune of the individual, and which, therefore, would take, not ten times more from him who had ten times more, but fifteen or twenty times more, according to the arbitrary will of the legislator. This is not the place to consider all the economic and political consequences of graduated taxation, which most fortunately has had but a very limited application in practice. But we should observe that it gives rise, in the democratic schools which sustain it, to a false idea of democracy, that of the state constituting itself the judge and equalizer of fortunes. Nothing is more incompatible than such a pretension with respect for liberty and property, which is the first duty of modern democracy. Liberal democracy ought, above all things, to avoid yielding to theories that recognize in the state the right to do everything. If it establish the arbitrary division of fortunes, if it introduce progressive taxation, is it not evident that it places itself, whether it will or not, upon the very verge of communism? It can check itself by moderation, but this would be the abandonment of its principle. We to the democracy which would make of leveling by the state a dogma and a point of departure! It would betray itself, and sacrifice liberty. How entirely right was the chief whom the French republican-democratic party mourned 50 years ago, when he thus replied to the manifesto of the democratic levelers and more or less openly avowed communists, who had their centre of action in the society of the rights of man, in 1832: "Graduated taxation, the taxation of jealousy and not of justice, would not distinguish between idle and laborious wealth. Graduated taxation would punish all wealth without distinction, under the false notion that every rich man devours the substance of a certain number of poor men. * * Between this system (the liberal system which confines itself to abolishing unjust privileges in the matter of taxes) and that which would consist in declaring the state alone rich, the sole proprietor, the sole producer, the sole consumer, the sole regulator of national activity, the sole inventor, the sole creator in the arts, in industry, in the general movement of civilization; between these two systems, we say, graduated taxation would hold but a hypocritical middle course; it would have for its object, while concealing this end, the destruction of all wealth."
—This system of the monopoly of industry and wealth by the state, described with so much force by Armand Carrel, is to too great an extent the temptation and danger of democracy for us not to insist upon it here. For the very reason that the natural course of events, the free play of interests, bring more equality into democratic nations, the need of equality becomes a veritable passion, and shows itself more shocked at the inequalities which exist. It pretends to do away with these inequalities, and to bring the different classes, which are so variable in their composition, to one common and tyrannical level; it wishes to have no longer either rich or poor, either masters or workmen; it insists that all shall be equal in fact as in right; and the most consistent of its advocates do not recoil before the thought of absolute equality of wages for all producers, regardless of condition, as well for the minister of state who governs, the incumbent of a high office, for the head of a manufacturing establishment, if there remain any such, as for the meanest laborer.
—An unenlightened but generous desire for the amelioration of the lot of the poorer classes, together with the far less noble sentiments of cupidity and envy, concur in inspiring democracy with such thoughts. How many accomplices and dupes it easily finds! It therefore becomes the duty of publicists and economists, of the men of good sense in democratic nations, constantly to combat them and to propagate sound ideas upon this subject. Is it not clearly evident that inequality of conditions enters into the divine plan; that it results, in society, from the inequality of the talents which we receive from nature, from opportunities more or less favorable, and finally and above all, from the more or less judicious use of our moral and bodily faculties, which is the result of our free will? All can not be generals in industrial pursuits and in the professions, any more than in the army; and it is difficult to see what society would gain if all should remain in the rank of common soldiers under pretext of democratic equality. On the contrary, is it not clear that society would lose much by such an arrangement? Science and its applications; arts and letters, with their grandeur; wealth, with its almost indefinite faculty of development; civilization, in fine, do not prosper but on condition of vast accumulations of capital, and a hierarchy established in the division of labor. Liberty, therefore, with the inequalities which it engenders, is as necessary to them as air and exercise are to human life and development.
—Nor can we readily understand, once we cease dreaming of an absolute equality as chimerical as it is unjust, how democracy can, under the influence of liberty in all human transactions, fear the encroachments of an inequality which nothing in the law favors. Liberty constantly aims at removing all inequality except such as is absolutely necessary to the progress and advancement of human society. Human action, under a thousand forms, always on the alert; always busy divining and satisfying the wants of others, in order to obtain the satisfaction of its own wants; sharing, as the price of its exertion, the mass of social wealth; agreeing upon the share of remuneration which shall belong to each: such is the spectacle presented by democratic society. Industry, which desires an extensive market, endeavors to produce what will be of universal use in consumption. Useful discoveries are of profit to all. The possession of property, by becoming more general, seems itself an instrument conducive to a community among men, so much does it lose of its exclusive character, so much does it diffuse its blessings among the masses in the shape of labor, profit, wages, and in enjoyments which become accessible to all classes of society. From this point of view it seems surprising that M. de Tocqueville, the eminent writer who has expressed such profound views on democracy, should have seen any reason to fear that liberty was destined to lead to such accumulations of capital in the hands of a few as would give rise to an oppressive aristocracy. He repeated an accusation believed by many, an opinion not wanting in adherents, but which has, it seems to us, but little foundation, when he professed to believe that the great manufacturing interests would engender a sort of industrial feudalism more oppressive than the old. "The territorial aristocracy of past ages," he writes (De la Démocratie en Amerique, vol. iii., part ii., chap. 20), "was bound by the law, or believed itself bound by custom, to aid its servants, and to relieve their misery. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our day, after impoverishing and brutalizing the men whom it uses, leaves them to be supported by public charity in times of crises. This is the natural consequence of the preceding. Between the workman and his master there are many relations, but there is no real association. I think that, all things considered, the manufacturing aristocracy which we see growing up before us is one of the hardest which has appeared in the world; but it is at the same time one of the most limited and least dangerous. Nevertheless, it is thither that the friends of democracy should incessantly and anxiously turn their gaze: for, if aristocracy and a permanent inequality of conditions ever again make their way into, the world, it may be safely predicted that they will enter by this door." Whatever favor this opinion of M. de Tocqueville may enjoy to-day, a lasting and excessive inequality of conditions can never enter by this door; and the economic reasons which forbid it are too numerous for us to mention them all here. De Tocqueville clearly exaggerates the importance of the great manufacturing interests in a country as thickly settled and as extensively engaged in every sort of industry as France, for instance, when he attributes to them such influence. Everything opposes it; the partition of estates, the association of small sums of capital, the diffusion of wealth, the progress of the working classes, which prevents their return to a state of slavery. We can not justly style aristocrats the great manufacturers who enjoy no privileges, and to whom competition makes life one incessant struggle. Besides, is the opinion of M. de Tocqueville consistent with itself? Does he not admit that this aristocracy, if it be an aristocracy, is one of the most limited and least dangerous? Except in case of certain articles of general use, such as cotton, wool and iron, for example, it will very likely be with parceling out of industrial labor, at least in part, as with land. The small manufactures will maintain their rights. The law of the division of labor favors, it is true, in industry, vast agglomerations; but they have their limits, and they can not do everything with a sufficient degree of perfection. Perhaps democratic equality will have more to fear from the monopolies of large companies than from manufactures. The problem is a difficult one, we admit. Democracy, or, to speak more correctly, the common weal, finds itself between two dangers; either to allow great companies to abuse their monopoly, or to place some important industries under the exclusive control of the state, which has already too great a tendency to encroach upon private enterprise. The reasonable remedy is to have the fewest monopolies possible, instead of increasing their number, and to hold them to a strict account.
—The consideration of what is, and what may be in the future, the influence of democracy upon morals and upon the human mind, is of an entirely different nature from the foregoing. The author of "Democracy in America" devoted the last two volumes of his work to this important inquiry. He does not concede, as is so often done nowadays, the necessary abasement of the human intelligence by democracy; he thinks that there will always be found there, by the side of vulgar taste and the vast amount of work destined to satisfy it by its cheapness, higher tastes for art and science, represented by a gifted class, and rewarded by the wealthy class. He explains with great nicety the reasons why the example of the Americans does not prove that a democratic people can not be possessed of an aptitude for the higher sciences, literature and the arts. What is styled its vulgarity, is not, however, the only moral danger to which democracy is exposed. Another is the excessive individualism which is developed by the idea and habitual practice of the sovereignty of the individual, who is constituted judge of what is right and true, and sole judge of his own affairs. The pride of individualism easily engenders envy and contempt for superiority. It has, nevertheless, no matter how serious the danger, its natural correctives. No one feels more than the individual member of such a society the importance of isolation. He has no support, unless he create it for himself. He therefore seeks associates. The idea of the great association, his country, will address itself to his imagination all the more forcibly, perhaps, as the individual sees nothing between it and himself. The collective sentiment of patriotism has undoubtedly worked wonders in the democratic states. The great danger of our day is to be apprehended from the purely humanitarian doctrines which destroy patriotism, and from the predominance which is given to questions of wages, by which the workman is tempted to see a brother in a workman of a foreign country, in league with him, and an enemy in the capitalist who is his fellow-countryman. This danger is great. It must be watched and combated, in order to be warded off. It is asked [in Catholic countries, like France.—ED.], in the matter of faith and opinions, if democratic individualism does not lead necessarily either to philosophy, which appeals to reason alone, or to Protestantism, which accords a greater part than Catholicism to freedom of choice and investigation. Whatever may be said on the point, there is nothing to prove that Catholicism is not perfectly compatible with democracy. There are even serious reasons for believing that democracy and a religion founded on authority have some affinity. Is there not reason to believe that a superior authority, speaking in the name of God, will have more chance of being heard and obeyed where every individual considers his reason equal to his neighbor's, and is unwilling to defer to others, while at the same time he has not the leisure to form religious opinions for himself? Equality could not but rejoice in such an authority; and that exaggerated taste for authority and for unity, which in democracies serves as a counterpoise to individualism, would find herein wherewith to satisfy its longings. We see, therefore, that if, in a democratic society, certain motives urge toward philosophy and Protestantism, the opposite current, which carries men off toward Catholicism, has also its force.
—Another essential characteristic of democracy, when we examine its influence upon public thought, is, that it is, perhaps, less favorable to full and entire individual liberty of opinion than is generally believed. The tyranny of custom, the despotism of the majority, reigns sometimes in democratic countries in a more absolute manner than under any other form of the state. It seems that the deposit of beliefs, ideas and opinions upon which society lives, not being the property of any particular body, but frequently a sort of common property, each one constitutes himself its guardian, and a guardian all the more watchful and suspicious for that reason. No writer of our day has marked more forcibly than J. Stuart Mill, in his remarkable work on "Liberty," this violent pressure of all upon the individual, and this tendency to impose the same type of mind upon all. It is for brave and energetic spirits to clear a way for themselves between false originality, which aims at effect, and excessive docility, which swims along with the stream.
—One of the happiest effects of democracy among the nations of modern times is the softening of their manners. How can we help remarking that a good share of this improvement must be credited to the spirit of equality, although recent and terrible events have but too clearly shown how much still remains to be done in this direction, and how much activity is still retained by the fierce passions which produced the cruel excesses of 1792 and 1793, in France. The dire recollections of the Paris commune of 1871, and of such atrocities as the massacre of its hostages, should keep us from a too confident optimism. Nevertheless, this refinement of manners may be regarded as an advance made by the mass of the people and preserved by them under ordinary circumstances. A more real and more lively sympathy exists among like classes. The ages of aristocracy afforded a favorable opportunity for the display of generosity and devotion, but not of that pity and mutual commiseration which exist among equals.
—The tempering of punishment for crime and the improvements in the international code, in like manner, have a similar origin to a great extent, whatever may be said of the ideas of parity and inequality. Such results may be expected to disappear with the democratic manners which have produced and preserved them.
—In the family, also, democracy has very appreciable effects. It tends to substitute pleasant, unrestrained and affectionate family relations for relations purely hierarchical, founded on respect and fear. But, by the side of its advantages, it has its inconveniences. Women dream that they may easily find in it for themselves the rôle of active citizens, sharing political sovereignty, and a still more direful emancipation. Insubordination and precocious independence become the frequent defects of children in their intercourse with their parents. Where shall we find the remedies for this evil? In the strength of natural sentiments which we need not mistrust too much under the influence of a good education, which must ever remain our sole anchor of safety. Is it not a general truth that the more a law has lost of the sway which it owes to fear, the more deeply should it be engraved on the heart? This truth may be applied to the whole moral system of democracy. No form of government supposes men are better instructed in their duty than democracy, nor expects from them more seriousness in thought and feeling. To instruct democracy is well, but it is not everything. It can not do without those two elements of the moral order which too often appear to be wanting to it—respect and devotedness. Without these, there is for democracy but the hazard of intestine broils, anarchy, and a sceptre of iron, to supply the place of respect and duty, which were wanting.
—III. Of Political Democracy or of the Organization of Power in Democratic States. Democracy in the social order involves, to a certain extent, democracy in the political order, because a certain participation of the masses in enlightenment, in prosperity, and in the enjoyment of civil liberty, has for its natural consequence a certain participation in power, that is to say, in the exercise of sovereignty. But let us understand to what degree the government ought to be democratic. There are three conflicting opinions on this point. One, the most extreme of the three, holds that democracy, to be real democracy, requires the direct government of the people, without the intervention of a national representative body, which, according to them, soon distinguishes itself from the mass of the people, and which is even distinct from them by the position of its members when elected. They deny that a representative body can truly express the changeable desires and wills of the mass of the people; the national will, they say, can not be delegated. Rousseau is the leader of this school, and the "Social Contract" is its gospel. Who can not perceive how false and impracticable such a system is in populous countries? We can indeed, with an effort, picture to ourselves the citizens of Athens constantly occupied in voting, although the poor had to be induced to take part in the elections by pecuniary considerations. But is such a state of things conceivable in France, England or the United States? Have the citizens of these countries the time, the inclination or the means to spend their lives in the public square? Who does not understand that, even if they were willing to do it, there could result from this daily contest of opinions and of votes but a frightful anarchy? Are all citizens, without exception and without difficulty, fit to choose their deputies? Have all citizens the degree of fitness which would enable them to pronounce, from their knowledge of the case, upon all matters in home and foreign affairs? Representation is, therefore, an absolute necessity in large political communities. The representative system, without aiming at perfection, has no insurmountable inconvenience. The temporary character of the representative's commission affords an opportunity to restore the concord which may have ceased to exist between representatives and their constituents. The restriction of deliberation on public affairs to a limited number of competent men is an advantage. The final vote on matters of general interest is protected from the unreflecting fancies of the multitude. The important point is, that the election, deliberation and vote of representatives should possess the qualities of freedom and honesty. How can it be believed that, under such conditions, national sovereignty must cease to reside in the people? Is it not the people who choose? Can they not recall those whom they have appointed, at the expiration of their term of office? Finally, has not every constitution, which is in the least degree imbued with a liberal spirit, recognized the necessity and furnished the manner of appealing from the deputies to the people themselves in the case of certain solemn and decisive questions which concern the destiny of the country, or its general policy?
—Of the two other opinions upon the constitution of power in democratic states, one, which is also radical, though less so than the one which we have examined, favors the greatest simplicity of power; no mingling, no balancing; but the democratic element in all its purity. One single omnipotent house and an executive power entirely dependent upon it: this is rigorous democratic orthodoxy. The other opinion far different from this, alleges, on the contrary, that democracy has no more dangerous enemy than this radical simplicity, which leads directly to tyranny. If the popular element alone is represented; if no account is taken of social distinctions; if that portion of natural aristocracy which exists in the most democratic state, not subject to the leveling despotism of communism, has not its representation in the state; if there are not two distinct houses to give greater weight to deliberation, and to represent, one the life, the other the tradition of the country; if there is not an executive power with a sphere of action independent to a certain extent, except of the responsibility which rests upon it or upon its agents—democracy will produce all the abuses it is capable of: it will be by turns, or all at once, violent and oppressive, lawless and anarchical. What can an unlimited and unrestricted power do but take the way to which it naturally inclines? Henceforth, no wisdom, no maturity, no moderation; a headlong course, rash or systematic, which nothing can check and which blots out all differences, is the lot inevitably reserved for extreme democracies.
—We shall now touch on the principal law which the constitution of power in a democratic state should obey. That law is to respect liberty.
—So true is it that here lies at once the peril and the duty of democracy, that an eminent publicist, John Stuart Mill, finds no other point upon which he agrees, in this matter, with de Tocqueville. He was preoccupied with this matter, even to disquietude and alarm; and it was to find a means of solving the problem that he wrote his two political works, "Liberty" and "Representative Government." There is a triple problem on whose solution hangs the destiny of democracy: not to crush the minority under the weight of the majority, the individual under that of centralization, nor liberty under that of equality.
—Those who have dared to maintain that the majority can do everything, start with a very false idea, that of the unlimited sovereignty of numbers. Is it not justifying every crime to believe that the majority can do everything? Does not such an idea destroy altogether the idea of justice? Radically to change the institution of property, to destroy the family, is henceforth only a question of majority. Henceforth no law but that of force! We are told that all the consequences of this monstrous doctrine will not be thus logically drawn. Admitted. But it is sufficient that it should prevail to lead gradually but inevitably to tyranny. What, this being supposed, would prevent the majority's depriving the minority of freedom of speech and the various means of persuasion which might enable it to become the majority? Oppression of minorities, even to extermination, is written on every page of the history of the French convention. The constitution of power in a well-regulated democracy should prevent this misfortune, which would be but substituting the tyranny of the greater number for the tyranny of one man or of an oligarchy. In a word, there should be recognized certain rights superior to mere human convention—rights, without which government is nothing more than arbitrariness.
—Finally, there is in democracies a strong tendency toward concentration, toward that exaggerated centralization the inconveniences of which have been so often demonstrated. We need not explain in all their details the reasons which render this tendency toward concentration so powerful. In France, it has been customary to attribute it to the national character, as is now said, to the race. But, independently of this explanation, the value of which we shall not stop to examine, democracy itself suffices to develop it. It is in the nature of democracy to be unfavorable to intermediate bodies which interpose between the people and the state. Love of equality gives rise to a great repugnance for everything that might give these bodies an importance of a nature to destroy this equality. The sovereign alone does not excite envy. Democracies want the same rule for all, a rule which intermediary bodies and powers other than the central power are not very solicitous to maintain or enforce. Not specially attached to any particular organization from which he receives his strength, and which sustains him in his weakness, the individual turns to the state. He is tempted to demand everything from it—education, employment, assistance. This general disposition will, almost inevitably, be encouraged by the government; for, in the first place, it is natural for it to favor an equality which causes it no trouble, and which makes it universally popular; and, in the second place, the government, which is represented by men, partakes of their passions. How can it be thus tempted every day with impunity? and how can we expect that it will have virtue enough not to take what is offered it, even if it do not desire to take more? How especially true is this of nations among whom equality has been introduced by absolute power, and has triumphed by revolution! As the classes accustomed to direct local affairs have now disappeared, there is left to the masses only their own inexperience, with no recourse but to invoke the aid of the government in all the details of administration. Nations which, like the American, have begun with liberty, and have had long experience of it under all its forms, are much better prepared to meet this danger. With the Americans, liberty dates from the mother country; it is a custom with them of several centuries; the spirit of liberty is with them traditional. The new fact in their case is democratic equality, a fact which requires a much shorter period of apprenticeship; for equality is a passion, and liberty often a responsibility and a duty. The advantages of centralization, even administrative centralization, should not, however, be denied. If it has its drawbacks, and its complicated bureaucracy, how many things does it not do with more order and rapidity, and with less expense! It is, moreover, capable of being improved. The French financial system is a striking proof of this. But excessive administrative centralization, to which democracy inclines, has a radical defect: it stifles local life and individual initiative. Such centralization is destructive of individual merit. How remedy it? and is there any hope of doing so? Whether nations, like individuals, can be taught wisdom, is an ever-recurring question. A sensible democratic people will strengthen their institutions in such a manner as to strengthen themselves. They will oppose reason to instinct, foresight to passion; they will profit by experience; they will take to heart the lessons of history; they will endeavor to improve the art of politics as they endeavor to improve the machinery by which they exercise their power over nature and the elements of well-being. We must, therefore, disseminate intelligence and the knowledge of political science. This science can not do everything without the aid of morality; nevertheless it can do something, and we believe it can do much.
—The question of the connection of liberty and equality may be reduced, in part, to the same terms. The danger of sacrificing the latter to the former is great in democratic states; is it therefore irremediable? Has not equality itself, although it does not always perceive this truth, and has been more than once inclined to sacrifice it, a profound interest in respecting liberty? Is not liberty the guarantee of equality? Vainly would a people hope to preserve equality if they renounced liberty. When despotism governs a nation, does it not invariably introduce a system of privilege and monopoly, and do away with equality, in the interest of baseness and unworthiness? We must not forget, however, that equality, at least a relative equality of conditions, favored by democracy, is founded mainly on civil equality, that is, on an equality of rights. What is civil equality? It is equality in liberty itself, equality before the law. The future will show whether or not democracy, confronted with so many problems, to reconcile the terms of which requires a powerful mind and an upright, courageous heart, can steer its course between the reefs and reach port in safety.
—To increase the power of the individual, instead of sacrificing him to the state, without sacrificing the requirements of public order, is the most difficult task imposed upon modern democracy. It is not only a political but a moral problem. Politically speaking, can we insist too strongly upon some degree of decentralization; on the carrying of life from the centre whence it flows, toward the extremities and to all parts of the political organism? These measures, however, would be insufficient, if, independently of the education necessary to form the citizen, the individual were not penetrated with a feeling of the responsibility which renders him at once the vigilant guardian of his rights, and the scrupulous doer of his duties. The improvement of society is intimately connected with the improvement of the individual. Sound judgment, upright sentiments, the habit of activity, dignity of character, which relies upon itself and not upon others, respect for superiority, a love of justice and moderation, sympathy with those in distress; such are the qualities requisite to assure success to democracy. Human imperfection will undoubtedly remain; but it is only on condition of the predominance of these qualities among the masses, that democracy can secure the realization, so much to be desired, of the grand principles of justice and charity, of which, after all, it is only the expression. Otherwise, it is nothing but a displacement, a passing of force into the hands of the masses.
—We cherish the hope that this is not the meaning that modern nations would give to democracy, whose power still continues to increase; although we can not deny the threatening gravity of certain symptoms which seem to sanction such a meaning. The profound resemblance which is found between the social and political development of the different European nations for several centuries, the more and more uniform character which civilization is assuming daily among them, the removal of the inequalities which created real abysses between the different classes of society, the progress of ideas which make the whole world gravitate around certain grand principles which are everywhere the same—everything, in fact, announces the advent of democracy in the whole Christian world. To speak of its destinies is to go beyond the sphere of a nation; it is to take in the future of humanity.
Return to top