When settlers first went to America, it was not completely uninhabited. The native tribes had a unique social organization, which was rudimentary and coarse in comparison to Europe, but which had a particular dignity as well. Though they were ignorant, they were not servile like many of the poor in aristocratic countries. Remains of previous civilizations have been found, but no one knows anything about them. Because the Indians were hunters, they did not actually possess the land.
One gains possession of land through agriculture. The area around the Mississippi and in the plains is so well-suited for trade and industry that civilized man was destined to build a society there.
Although it is straightforward and mostly descriptive, this first chapter still provides a few insights into key themes of Tocqueville's philosophy. Tocqueville speaks of the Mississippi valley as "prepared by God for man" and asserts that the European conquest of Indian territory was destined by Providence. Some of Tocqueville's ideas about inequality and aristocracy also begin to surface when Tocqueville speaks about the Indians.
He contrasts their simple dignity with the "coarseness of the common people" in civilized countries, explaining that this coarseness is exacerbated by contact with the upper classes. The reason for this phenomenon is that "where there are such rich and powerful men, the poor and weak feel themselves weighed down by their inferiority; seeing no prospect of gaining equality, they quite give up hope for themselves and allow themselves to fall below the proper dignity of mankind.
colonial new england shmoop us history guide Manual
These ideas are discussed at length in Volume II, Part II, but are constantly alluded to and almost taken for granted throughout the book. One needs to understand the origin of a nation in order to understand its social conditions and laws. America is the only great nation for which we can see the origins.
This chapter is important because it "provides the germ of all that is to follow. Immigrants to America all shared a common language. In addition, their English heritage provided them with the knowledge and experience of local self-government, and the idea of the sovereignty of the people was deeply rooted in the Tudor monarchy. Because of religious influences, the people had chaste mores. The land in America is not suitable for aristocracy because it is too difficult to handle and not fertile enough to provide enough support for both a landlord and tenant. As result, a large middle class formed.
There are two branches of colonies: the South and the North. The South began with Virginian settlers who were in search of gold and profit. These settlers had generally low moral standards, and almost immediately established slavery. These factors explain the mores and social conditions in the South. In the North, all the immigrants came from educated classes. They left the comforts of home because of their belief in Puritanism, which is not just a religious doctrine but also contains the most absolute democratic theories.
The Pilgrims established an orderly society immediately upon landing in , and the colony grew rapidly because of continued immigration. It was "a society homogeneous in all its parts," the most perfect democracy that ever existed.
The English government encouraged the colonists and was actually glad that they left England because they were seen as potential revolutionaries. The colonies enjoyed great internal freedom. The settlers did not deny England's rule, but they did not take their internal ruling power from England. They organized themselves independently. Criminal law in New England was based on Biblical moral codes.
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The laws were extremely strict and invasive. However, these were self-imposed and freely agreed upon. The people's mores were even more austere than their laws. The political laws were well ahead of their time, and included such features as participation of the people in public affairs, individual freedom, trial by jury, etc.
There was almost perfect equality of wealth and intellect among the citizens.
While the state was officially a monarchy, local independence flourished, and each township was organized as a republic. The laws demonstrated great knowledge of advanced social and political theory. They included provisions for the poor and public education on the grounds that ignorance is an ally of the Devil. In this way, the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom were combined. In the sphere of morality everything was absolute, but in the sphere of politics everything was open to debate.
As a result, religion and political freedom mutually supported one another. Religion is better off if it gains support without state coercion, and political freedom is strengthened by religion because it helps to create and maintain good mores, which are necessary for the responsible use of freedom. One needs to distinguish between elements of Puritan origin and elements of English origin.
There are some laws in America which do not seem to fit their ideology, but which are simply a result of English influence. Such laws provide a slight aristocratic element. This chapter provides an introduction to two of the central themes of the work: the extreme equality of conditions and its relation to political freedom, and the importance of religion for the maintenance of freedom.
Tocqueville believes that history progresses with the inevitable growth of equality of conditions, and he sees America as the furthest progression of this growth. The extraordinary level of equality can be both a help and a hindrance to freedom. Yet at the same time, Tocqueville recognizes that in almost every situation, freedom is endangered by an overly ardent passion for equality. The reason that freedom and equality have been able to coexist in America is the existence of deeply rooted local self-government, which provides the citizens with a means for exercising their freedom.
The crucial importance of these local liberties is discussed in detail in Chapter 5, Volume 1. Another key factor that has allowed America to maintain freedom is the influence of religion. Religion is the best means of preserving wholesome mores and teaching people how to use their freedom well.
As Tocqueville writes, "Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.
Tocqueville also briefly addresses the topic of separation of church and state. This separation is mutually beneficial for both the church and state. In Tocqueville's view, which he elaborates in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, the reason for the struggles between the church and state in France was precisely the unnatural combination of the two before the French Revolution. The social state is the primary cause of most laws, and in America the social state is "eminently democratic. The South has rich landowners and slaves, but is not quite an aristocracy because there are no aristocratic privileges.
The laws of inheritance in America yielded the final advance of equality. If inheritance law requires equal sharing of property among the children, the land will be continually broken up and great landed fortunes will be nearly impossible to sustain. The connection between the land and the family name which exists when there are laws of primogeniture is eradicated. As a result, wealth circulates in America with great rapidity.
There is not only equality in wealth, but also equality in education. None are totally ignorant, and few are highly educated.
American Colonies Summary
There is no class with both the taste and leisure for intellectual pleasures. This state of affairs creates a "middling standard. For equality in the political sphere, either every citizen or no citizen can have rights. The passion for equality often overrides the desire for freedom; consequently people often surrender freedom for the sake of equality. This chapter essentially continues to explain the equality that exists in America and the tension between equality and freedom.
A negative element of equality which Tocqueville mentions briefly is its tendency to act as a leveler, bringing down those who would, in a more aristocratic society, become outstanding individuals. While Tocqueville is saddened by this loss, he sees it as inevitable. The second, more serious danger of the democratic passion for equality is its tendency to be pursued at the cost of liberty.
Tocqueville will speak later on in the book about the specific dangers of the tyranny of the majority and democratic despotism. The sovereignty of the people is recognized by both mores and laws in America. In the colonies, this principle spread secretly within the provincial assemblies.