Democracy in America/Translator's Preface
IN presenting the translation of this work to the public, preceded by an Introduction in which the author calls the attention of the reader to the present social state of France, I may perhaps be allowed to say a few words on the inferences which are to be drawn from the democratic institutions of America relative to our own political condition. We live at a time when so many of the maxims of government are worn out, that in casting our eyes upon the aphorisms of the great statesmen of Europe, we are astonished to find that the authority they attempted to defend is vanished, and the principles by which they defended it are no more. The book of ‘The Prince’ is closed for ever as a State manual; and the book of ‘The People’—a book of perhaps darker sophistries and more pressing tyranny—is as yet unwritten. Nevertheless, the events of every day ought to impress upon our minds the necessity of studying that element which threatens us; and for a generation which is manifestly called upon to witness the solemn and terrible changes of the constitution of the empires of the earth, the deadliest sin is thoughtlessness, the most noxious food is prejudice, and the most fatal disease is party-spirit. The relations between men and power have been so indifferently understood ever since the beginning of the world, that we have found out no remedy for evil but evil, no safety from injury but injury, no protection from attack but attack; and in all the wild experiments which a relaxed social condition has undergone, we have only had fresh confirmation of a truth enounced by Lord Bacon, namely, that the logical part of men's minds is often good, but the mathematical is nothing worth; that is, they can judge well of the attaining any end, but cannot judge of the value of the end itself. If England has hitherto maintained a sober and becoming position in the midst of greater revolutions than the world has witnessed since the Christian æra, not the less does it behove her to meditate upon the lessons of her allies and her descendants. What her increasing intelligence might suggest, her increasing evil, her increasing population, her burdens, her crime, and her perils enforce: the democratic element must be met, and to be met it must be known, before the unhallowed rites of destruction have begun; before recourse has been had to the probabilities of chance, in ignorance of the probabilities of cause; before the vertigo of conquest has seized the lower orders, or the palsy of dejection fallen upon the aristocracy. It is presumed that the lesson will not be the less worthy of our attention because it is given us by a writer whose national experience and whose standard of comparison is more democratic than anything which we are acquainted with in England. Although the reasonableness of democracy is shown by the American States, where the activity of a trading population is dignified by the exercise of many civic virtues, and where the task of the legislator was not to change or to repair, but to organize and create, the perilous erection of a central power, such as now obtains in France, may check the confidence with which the hand of the many is raised against the errors of the few, and we may hesitate before we displace the time-honoured dispensers of social benefits, to make way for the more compact and less flexible novelties of the time. Those thinkers who are wont in politics to substitute principles of general utility for those of local interests, are like builders who should in all cases rely on the principle of gravity, to the exclusion of the law of cohesion. The gift of self-respect, which is the parent of the inward dignity of the citizen, is not derived from the debasing and democratic turbulence of party-spirit, affecting to compass the ends of the State to which he belongs, but from the quiet exercise of functions nearer home.
The translator of these pages had at one time some thoughts of curtailing the chapters in which the author describes the system of local administration in America, as somewhat redundant to the English reader. He has however retained them entire, from a belief that the time is fast approaching when it will not be less necessary to defend the local institutions which have subsisted for nearly a thousand years in our own country, than it is to advocate their advantages as the most probable remedy of the ills of France. Another reason—a purely historical one—led him to adopt this course. The English reader will probably be struck with the revival in the United States of the more ancient parts of our Constitution, whilst the Feudal or Norman element is totally excluded, except in a few cases which may be quoted as anomalies. Blackstone affirms (and the great authority of Selden corroborates the fact,) that the partible quality of lands by the custom of gavelkind is undoubtedly of British origin, and obtained universally before the æra of the Norman Conquest. The constitution of general public assemblies; the election of their magistrates by the people, their sheriffs, their coroners, their port-reeves, and even their tything-men; the dispensation of justice in the county-courts principally, except in cases in which the supreme authority of the Crown was called upon to interfere, are laws of Saxon parentage. These principles are the very basis of the American Constitution; and if the settlers of New England discarded the feudal rights, the royal justiciars, and the claims of primogeniture, when they relinquished the feelings, the traditions, and the character of English subjects, it is not without pride, mingled with admiration, that a Briton points to the common source of our liberties, and to that Saxon foundation of our national existence which we couple with the name of Alfred, and from which many of the institutions of the American States derive their being.
I cannot conclude without expressing a hope that this translation may tend to spread in England some of those sound and comprehensive views of the nature and tendency of the democratic element which its author has put forth in France; nor without expressing my very warm thanks to M. de Tocqueville for the kindness with which he has assisted me in the difficulties which presented themselves in preparing this book for the public eye. Whatever may be the success of the following pages, I shall always remember with pleasure that I was encouraged in my task by the high esteem and sincere regard which I entertain for the author.
Circumstances have rendered the separate publication of the first volume advisable, and this course was the more readily adopted as the first volume may be said to contain the whole of the analytical part of the work; and the second (which will follow in the course of a few weeks,) offers more general considerations upon the character, the vices, the motives, and the future destiny of the democratic people, the retiring Indians, and the wretched slaves of the United States of America.
Hampstead, 9th June, 1835.