Tocqueville’s Criticism of American Democracy

Americans who write about their country are rarely objective since they are often influenced by their feelings of patriotism for their homeland. Alexis de Tocqueville’s report Democracy in America provides an unbiased view of American society. Tocqueville is a member of the French aristocracy, yet he admires the social equality and improvements in women’s education which our democracy creates. His objectivity, however, also allows him to criticize those aspects of American society which he disapproves of, such as racial hatred. 


America is often considered to be the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can rise up and achieve success. Tocqueville benefits from his country’s class system, but he views the social equality of Americans as wondrous. He states that “men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country in the world…” The idea of a classless society amazes Tocqueville. Americans do not inherit power or influence so instead they must earn it. He is in awe of a society in which even the poor do not defer to anyone.


Although the education of American women in the nineteenth century seems unjust by today’s standards since women could not attend college or hold a political office, Tocqueville reminds us that European women in the 1800s were even less fortunate. He argues that in France women receive a much more sheltered education and are rarely even taught to recognize evil.  Americans, on the other hand, “far from hiding the corruptions of the world from her [woman], they prefer that she should see them at once and train herself to shun them.” Americans recognize that even women will encounter evil in their lives and must know how to avoid it.  Since they are told they have the ability to reason, American women achieve a confidence in themselves which European women cannot. They express their own opinions during conversation and think independently. Through an education which emphasizes reason, American women are allowed to reap the rewards of democracy.


The praise which Tocqueville gives for the education of women is absent, however, from his discussion of the injustices committed towards African Americans. The respect which he feels for American democracy is evident, but he indicates that this same democratic spirit will prevent black equality. He explains that as white individuals attain more rights, they develop racial pride. “The white citizen of the United States is proud of his race, and proud of himself.” Pride in one’s heritage is not evil, but the feeling of racial superiority which white Americans share promotes racial inequality. African Americans in the North are often treated more poorly than those in the South because whites fear their loss of authority. Tocqueville describes treatment of African Americans in the North: “The negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the afflictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be.” According to Tocqueville, until America resolves its issues of racial inequality it can never be a true democracy.  


American society in the nineteenth century is neither completely good nor completely evil. The country’s democracy provides class equality and education for women, yet contradicts itself by promoting racial hatred. Similarly, American society today deals with undemocratic problems such as hate crimes.


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