"Democracy in America" Alexis de Tocqueville, Introduction–Chapter 5

In 1831, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. In this book, he records his impressions of the customs and culture of the young nation. Read Volume One of the text translated by Henry Reeve, here.

Here are links to our lists for the book: Introduction–Chapter 5, Chapters 6–9, Chapters 10–15, Chapters 16–17, Chapter 18

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definitions & notes only words
  1. equality
    the quality of being the same in quantity, value, or status
    The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.
  2. condition
    a mode of being or form of existence of a person or thing
    The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.
  3. democratic
    based upon the principles of social equality
    The emigrants who fixed themselves on the shores of America in the beginning of the seventeenth century severed the democratic principle from all the principles which repressed it in the old communities of Europe, and transplanted it unalloyed to the New World.
  4. basis
    the fundamental assumptions from which something is begun
    In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.
  5. primal
    having existed from the beginning
    If we were able to go back to the elements of states, and to examine the oldest monuments of their history, I doubt not that we should discover the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, of all that constitutes what is called the national character
  6. origin
    a first part or stage of subsequent events
    America is the only country in which it has been possible to witness the natural and tranquil growth of society, and where the influences exercised on the future condition of states by their origin is clearly distinguishable.
  7. analogous
    similar or equivalent in some respects
    The emigrants who came, at different periods to occupy the territory now covered by the American Union differed from each other in many respects; their aim was not the same, and they governed themselves on different principles. These men had, however, certain features in common, and they were all placed in an analogous situation.
  8. emigrant
    someone who leaves one country to settle in another
    All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality—they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children.
  9. exile
    the act of expelling a person from their native land
    Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile their object was the triumph of an idea.
  10. austerity
    self-denial, especially refraining from worldly pleasures
    The emigrants, or, as they deservedly styled themselves, the Pilgrims, belonged to that English sect the austerity of whose principles had acquired for them the name of Puritans.
  11. correspond
    take the place of or be parallel or equivalent to
    Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but it corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.
  12. feudal
    relating to a system where vassals are protected by lords
    A democracy, more perfect than any which antiquity had dreamt of, started in full size and panoply from the midst of an ancient feudal society.
  13. derive
    The new settlers did not derive their incorporation from the seat of the empire, although they did not deny its supremacy; they constituted a society of their own accord, and it was not till thirty or forty years afterwards, under Charles II. that their existence was legally recognized by a royal charter.
  14. sovereignty
    government free from external control
    They exercised the rights of sovereignty; they named their magistrates, concluded peace or declared war, made police regulations, and enacted laws as if their allegiance was due only to God.
  15. vexatious
    causing irritation or annoyance
    It must not be forgotten that these fantastical and vexatious laws were not imposed by authority, but that they were freely voted by all the persons interested, and that the manners of the community were even more austere and more puritanical than the laws.
  16. establish
    set up or lay the groundwork for
    The general principles which are the groundwork of modern constitutions—principles which were imperfectly known in Europe, and not completely triumphant even in Great Britain, in the seventeenth century—were all recognized and determined by the laws of New England: the intervention of the people in public affairs, the free voting of taxes, the responsibility of authorities, personal liberty, and trial by jury, were all positively established without discussion.
  17. republic
    a political system in which power lies in a body of citizens
    The colonies still recognized the supremacy of the mother-country; monarchy was still the law of the State; but the republic was already established in every township.
  18. innovator
    someone who helps to open up a new line of technology or art
    The settlers of New England were at the same time ardent sectarians and daring innovators.
  19. institution
    a custom that has been an important feature of some group
    Political principles and all human laws and institutions were moulded and altered at their pleasure; the barriers of the society in which they were born were broken down before them; the old principles which had governed the world for ages were no more; a path without a turn and a field without an horizon were opened to the exploring and ardent curiosity of man
  20. notion
    a general inclusive concept
    Nevertheless they were not in a situation to found a state of things solely dependent on themselves: no man can entirely shake off the influence of the past, and the settlers, intentionally or involuntarily, mingled habits and notions derived from their education and from the traditions of their country with those habits and notions which were exclusively their own.
  21. source
    the place where something begins
    A social condition is commonly the result of circumstances, sometimes of laws, oftener still of these two causes united; but wherever it exists, it may justly be considered as the source of almost all the laws, the usages, and the ideas which regulate the conduct of nations; whatever it does not produce it modifies.
  22. aspire
    have an ambitious plan or a lofty goal
    At the period of which we are now speaking society was shaken to its centre: the people, in whose name the struggle had taken place, conceived the desire of exercising the authority which it had acquired; its democratic tendencies were awakened; and having thrown off the yoke of the mother-country, it aspired to independence of every kind.
  23. partition
    separation by the creation of a boundary that divides
    When the equal partition of property is established by law, the intimate connection is destroyed between family feeling and the preservation of the paternal estate; the property ceases to represent the family; for as it must inevitably be divided after one or two generations, it has evidently a constant tendency to diminish, and must in the end be completely dispersed.
  24. divest
    take away possessions from someone
    Now, from the moment that you divest the landowner of that interest in the preservation of his estate which he derives from association, from tradition, and from family pride, you may be certain that sooner or later he will dispose of it; for there is a strong pecuniary interest in favor of selling, as floating capital produces higher interest than real property, and is more readily available to gratify the passions of the moment.
  25. compel
    force somebody to do something
    Thus not only does the law of partible inheritance render it difficult for families to preserve their ancestral domains entire, but it deprives them of the inclination to attempt it, and compels them in some measure to co-operate with the law in their own extinction.
  26. hereditary
    inherited or inheritable by established rules of descent
    The last trace of hereditary ranks and distinctions is destroyed—the law of partition has reduced all to one level.
  27. profession
    an occupation requiring special education
    In America there are comparatively few who are rich enough to live without a profession. Every profession requires an apprenticeship, which limits the time of instruction to the early years of life.
  28. capacity
    the power to learn or retain knowledge
    The gifts of intellect proceed directly from God, and man cannot prevent their unequal distribution. But in consequence of the state of things which we have here represented it happens that, although the capacities of men are widely different, as the Creator has doubtless intended they should be, they are submitted to the same method of treatment.
  29. nurture
    help develop; help grow
    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.
  30. aristocracy
    a privileged class holding hereditary titles
    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.
  31. concession
    the act of yielding
    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.
  32. municipal
    relating to a self-governing district
    Municipal independence is therefore a natural consequence of the principle of the sovereignty of the people in the United States: all the American republics recognize it more or less; but circumstances have peculiarly favored its growth in New England.
  33. sagacity
    the ability to understand and discriminate between relations
    The New Englander is attached to his township, not only because he was born in it, but because it constitutes a social body of which he is a member, and whose government claims and deserves the exercise of his sagacity.
  34. welfare
    a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous
    The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free: his co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interest; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions: he takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practises the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms which can alone ensure the steady progress of liberty
  35. administration
    the act of governing or exercising authority
    As we leave New England, therefore, we find that the importance of the town is gradually transferred to the county, which becomes the centre of administration, and the intermediate power between the Government and the citizen.
  36. constitute
    form or compose
    If the township and the county are not everywhere constituted in the same manner, it is at least true that in the United States the county and the township are always based upon the same principle, namely, that everyone is the best judge of what concerns himself alone, and the most proper person to supply his private wants.
  37. interfere
    get involved, so as to alter or hinder an action
    The township and the county are therefore bound to take care of their special interests: the State governs, but it does not interfere with their administration.
  38. fulfillment
    the act of consummating something, as a desire or promise
    Thus, when the administration thinks fit to interfere, it is not abandoned to itself as in Europe; the duties of the private citizens are not supposed to have lapsed because the State assists in their fulfilment, but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and to support it.
  39. provincial
    associated with an administrative district of a nation
    Those who dread the license of the mob, and those who fear the rule of absolute power, ought alike to desire the progressive growth of provincial liberties.
  40. attribute
    explain or regard as resulting from a particular cause
    I have heard citizens attribute the power and prosperity of their country to a multitude of reasons, but they all placed the advantages of local institutions in the foremost rank.

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