Democracy In America
Book: Volume I
Author: De Tocqueville, Alexis
Date: 1899
Translation: Reeve, Henry

Chapter IV: The Principle Of The Sovereignty Of The People In America

Chapter Summary

It predominates over the whole of society in America - Application made of
this principle by the Americans even before their Revolution - Development
given to it by that Revolution - Gradual and irresistible extension of the
elective qualification.

The Principle Of The Sovereignty Of The People In America

Whenever the political laws of the United States are to be discussed, it
is with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people that we must begin. The
principle of the sovereignty of the people, which is to be found, more or
less, at the bottom of almost all human institutions, generally remains
concealed from view. It is obeyed without being recognized, or if for a
moment it be brought to light, it is hastily cast back into the gloom of the
sanctuary. "The will of the nation" is one of those expressions which have
been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age. To the
eyes of some it has been represented by the venal suffrages of a few of the
satellites of power; to others by the votes of a timid or an interested
minority; and some have even discovered it in the silence of a people, on the
supposition that the fact of submission established the right of command.

In America the principle of the sovereignty of the people is not either
barren or concealed, as it is with some other nations; it is recognized by the
customs and proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely, and arrives without
impediment at its most remote consequences. If there be a country in the
world where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people can be fairly
appreciated, where it can be studied in its application to the affairs of
society, and where its dangers and its advantages may be foreseen, that
country is assuredly America.

I have already observed that, from their origin, the sovereignty of the
people was the fundamental principle of the greater number of British colonies
in America. It was far, however, from then exercising as much influence on
the government of society as it now does. Two obstacles, the one external,
the other internal, checked its invasive progress. It could not ostensibly
disclose itself in the laws of colonies which were still constrained to obey
the mother-country: it was therefore obliged to spread secretly, and to gain
ground in the provincial assemblies, and especially in the townships.

American society was not yet prepared to adopt it with all its
consequences. The intelligence of New England, and the wealth of the country
to the south of the Hudson (as I have shown in the preceding chapter), long
exercised a sort of aristocratic influence, which tended to retain the
exercise of social authority in the hands of a few. The public functionaries
were not universally elected, and the citizens were not all of them electors.
The electoral franchise was everywhere placed within certain limits, and made
dependent on a certain qualification, which was exceedingly low in the North
and more considerable in the South.

The American revolution broke out, and the doctrine of the sovereignty of
the people, which had been nurtured in the townships and municipalities, took
possession of the State: every class was enlisted in its cause; battles were
fought, and victories obtained for it, until it became the law of laws.

A no less rapid change was effected in the interior of society, where the
law of descent completed the abolition of local influences.

At the very time when this consequence of the laws and of the revolution
was apparent to every eye, victory was irrevocably pronounced in favor of the
democratic cause. All power was, in fact, in its hands, and resistance was no
longer possible. The higher orders submitted without a murmur and without a
struggle to an evil which was thenceforth inevitable. The ordinary fate of
falling powers awaited them; each of their several members followed his own
interests; and as it was impossible to wring the power from the hands of a
people which they did not detest sufficiently to brave, their only aim was to
secure its good-will at any price. The most democratic laws were consequently
voted by the very men whose interests they impaired; and thus, although the
higher classes did not excite the passions of the people against their order,
they accelerated the triumph of the new state of things; so that by a singular
change the democratic impulse was found to be most irresistible in the very
States where the aristocracy had the firmest hold. The State of Maryland,
which had been founded by men of rank, was the first to proclaim universal
suffrage, and to introduce the most democratic forms into the conduct of its

When a nation modifies the elective qualification, it may easily be
foreseen that sooner or later that qualification will be entirely abolished.
There is no more invariable rule in the history of society: the further
electoral rights are extended, the greater is the need of extending them; for
after each concession the strength of the democracy increases, and its demands
increase with its strength. The ambition of those who are below the appointed
rate is irritated in exact proportion to the great number of those who are
above it. The exception at last becomes the rule, concession follows
concession, and no stop can be made short of universal suffrage.

At the present day the principle of the sovereignty of the people has
acquired, in the United States, all the practical development which the
imagination can conceive. It is unencumbered by those fictions which have
been thrown over it in other countries, and it appears in every possible form
according to the exigency of the occasion. Sometimes the laws are made by the
people in a body, as at Athens; and sometimes its representatives, chosen by
universal suffrage, transact business in its name, and almost under its
immediate control.

In some countries a power exists which, though it is in a degree foreign
to the social body, directs it, and forces it to pursue a certain track. In
others the ruling force is divided, being partly within and partly without the
ranks of the people. But nothing of the kind is to be seen in the United
States; there society governs itself for itself. All power centres in its
bosom; and scarcely an individual is to be meet with who would venture to
conceive, or, still less, to express, the idea of seeking it elsewhere. The
nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its
legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice of the agents of the
executive government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so
restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the
authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.

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