Tocqueville’s America and America Today

Liberty, Equality, Materialism

At the time of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writing, the French Revolution still loomed over minds and, with it, memories of a bloodbath and of a new kind of tyranny.  The American Revolution seemed to offer grounds for rosier hopes about democracy.  Convinced that there was no turning back to the old days, Tocqueville set about assessing whether humanity could have a bright future.

Tocqueville nurtures a deep nostalgia for the times when societies were aristocratic, when their leaders were men others could look up to because of their eminent virtues, and he views the advent of egalitarian societies as a backward step in many respects.  He feels very guilty, however—so much so that he struggles constantly to show those were also unjust societies and that the development of equality is the result of some providential disposition.  His obsession—an aristocratic one, no doubt—with equality as the idee mere of modern societies is, for him, a source of many meaningful insights but also the cause of his ultimate failure to understand American democracy.

I believe that American history reveals that there were actually two Americas.  The American Civil War was a cultural war, almost a clash of civilizations.  Two social spirits had been sewn together into a sort of improbable body.  For better or for worse, the truly revolutionary spirit, the Yankee spirit, won and...

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