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Spirit of Republican Government, 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville

Monday, October 24, 2016 9:12
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The American Union was conceived as a republic and the Founders did their best to protect it from the pitfalls of democracy. The French visitor and political observer Alexis de Tocqueville, like the Founders, saw this Union as a federation of independent republics, all of which could survive without belonging to it. Below, de Tocqueville in 1835 foresees the extinction of republican principles in America should the original Anglo-Saxon citizenry be replaced with immigrants unfamiliar with those political traditions.  It required only twenty-five years for the North to populate itself and the West with people unfamiliar with republican political traditions, and raise a two-million man war machine to subdue the republican South.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com   The Great American Political Divide

The Spirit of Republican Government (1835)

“The dismemberment of the [American] Union, by the introduction of war into the heart of those States which are now confederate, with standing armies, a dictatorship, and a heavy taxation, might, eventually, compromise the fate of the republican institutions. But we ought not to confound the future prospects of the republic with those of the Union.

The Union is an accident, which will only last as long as circumstances are favorable to its existence; but a republican form of Government seems to me to be the natural state of the Americans; which nothing but the continued action of hostile causes, always acting in the same direction, could change into a monarchy.

The Union exists principally in the law which formed it; one revolution, one change in public opinion, might destroy it forever; but the republic has a much deeper foundation to rest upon.

What is understood by a republican form of government in the United States is the slow and quiet action of society upon itself. It is a regular state of things really founded upon the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliatory government under which resolutions are allowed time to ripen; and in which they are deliberately discussed, and executed with mature judgement.

The republicans in the United States set a high value upon morality, respect religious belief, and acknowledge the existence of rights. They profess to think that a people ought to be moral, religious and temperate, in proportion as it is free. What is called the republic in the United States, is the tranquil rule of the majority, which, after having had time to examine itself, and to give proof of its existence, is the common source of all the powers of the State.

But the power of the majority is not of itself unlimited. In the moral world humanity, justice and reason enjoy an undisputed supremacy; in the political world vested rights are treated with no less deference. The majority recognizes these tow barriers; and if it now and then overstep them, it is because, like individuals, it has passions, and, like them, it is prone to do what is wrong, whilst it discerns what is right . . .

It was impossible at the foundation of the States, and it would still be difficult, to establish a central administration in America. The inhabitants are too dispersed over too great a space, and separated by too many natural obstacles, for one man to undertake to direct the details of their existence. America is therefore preeminently the country of provincial and municipal government. The English settlers in the United States, therefore, early perceived that they were divided into a great number of small and distinct communities which belonged to no common center . . .

In the United States, the sovereignty of the people is not an isolated doctrine . . . That Providence has given to every human being the degree of reason necessary to direct himself in the affairs which interest him exclusively; such is the grand maxim upon which civil and political society rests in the United States. The father of the family applies it to his children; the master to his servants; the township to its officers; the province to its townships; the State to the provinces; the Union to the States; and when extended to the nation, it becomes the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.

If republican principles are to perish in America, they can only yield after a laborious social process, often interrupted, and as often resumed; they will have many apparent revivals, and will not become totally extinct until an entirely new people shall have succeeded to that which now exists.

It may, however, be foreseen even now, that when the Americans lose their republican institutions they will speedily arrive at a despotic Government, without a long interval of limited Monarchy. Montesquieu remarked, that nothing is more absolute than the authority of a prince who immediately succeeds a republic, since the powers which had fearlessly been entrusted to an elected magistrate are then transferred to a hereditary sovereign.

This is true in general, but it is more peculiarly applicable to a democratic republic. In the United States, the magistrates are not elected by a particular class of citizens, but by the majority of the nation; they are the immediate representatives of the passions of the multitude . . . and they are left in possession of a vast deal of arbitrary power. [It] is impossible to say what bounds could then be set to tyranny.

Some of our European politicians expect to see an aristocracy arise in America, and they already predict the exact period at which it will assume the reins of government. Nevertheless, I do not assert that the Americans will not, at some future time, restrict the political rights in their country, or confiscate those rights to the advantage of a single individual . . . [or] that they will ever found an aristocracy.

But a people, having taken its rise in civilization and democracy, which should gradually establish an inequality of conditions, until it arrived at inviolable privileges and exclusive castes, would be a novelty in the world; and nothing intimates that America is likely to furnish so singular an example.”

(Spirit of Republican Government, 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville; American History Told by Contemporaries, Volume III, National Expansion, 1783-1845, Albert Bushnell Hart, editor, The Macmillan Company, 1938, excerpts, pp. 553-557)

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