Alan Marchant's Reviews > Democracy in America

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
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's review
Jul 03, 09

bookshelves: nonfiction, historical
Read in January, 2009

Exploring the New World ...

... of Sociology.

I had expected that deTocqueville's classic would be a study of political technique, like an expanded version of The Prince or The Art Of War. Instead Democracy in America (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) is an original and powerful exploration of Sociology (generations before Max Weber).

deTocqueville draws on his experiences touring the United States in 1830 to make observations and speculations about the influence of social ideals (especially equality and liberty) on all sorts of human institutions and behaviors: religion, culture, industry, government, war, education, culture, etc. Along the way, he paints a comprehensive picture of life in America and Europe in the early 19th century.

The theme of the book is that the U.S. experiment with Democracy has many (positive and negative) lessons for Europe. deTocqueville's ideas are not always convincing or consistent. But they are always clearly presented and frequently provocative. So the book is valuable both as history and social science.

A secondary theme, not well enough appreciated in our day, is the inherent tension between equality and freedom. The book's global relevance is proven by its final paragraph:
"The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst. But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness."
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