Friday, June 03, 2011

Democratic Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans

The next section from our excerpts expands upon the social conditions in the United States. The northern colonists arrived in equal standing and more or less so remained. Although the southern colonies had an aristocracy of sorts, plantation owners were never formally accorded any special privileges. More to the point, it became impossible for them to demand such advantages in the political climate following the Revolution, which was carried out in the name of democratic independence (407). The Constitution, in fact, explicitly forbids the establishment of a nobility.

Tocqueville singles out inheritance law as the crucial institutional barrier to the emergence of such a class. European aristocracies perpetuate themselves by the law of primogeniture. A lord's income is generated by his estate, and keeping that estate intact from one generation to the next preserves the aristocracy. Families are equated with their estates in name and in the popular imagination. In consequence of this, Tocqueville writes, "family feeling is to a certain degree incorporated with the estate[,...] whose names, together with its origin, its glory, its power, and its virtues, is thus perpetuated in an imperishable memorial of the past and a sure pledge of the future" (408).

A law that divides the estate among multiple inheritors also dissolves the mythologized idea of family upon which the aristocracy depends. Self-interest usurps the collectivist ideal, and individuals rise or fall according to the value they generate in economic markets and in civil society.

This democratic individualism has implications for the educational system in the United States. General education, at the time Tocqueville was writing, ended at 15 years of age, at which point one entered a more specific vocational training. He seems to think well of this development, in which a democratically accessible "human knowledge" supplants the elite "intellectual pleasures" of the aristocracy. Knowledge is valued not so much for its own sake as for its utility. The market becomes the final arbiter of what's worth knowing.

1 comment:

A Wiser Man Than I said...

He seems to think well of this development, in which a democratically accessible "human knowledge" supplants the elite "intellectual pleasures" of the aristocracy.

Without making strict reference to this particular selection, I think his view is more nuanced than that. I recall him being impressed with a small farmer whose cabin contained a play of Shakespeare's which our author had not yet read.

But there are obvious drawbacks in having a population which possesses only a middling education. Indeed, I would say this attribute of the American populace has become more pronounced. Although we send more students to college, it has been thought necessary to dumb down the curriculum so as to increase the number of Americans who obtain a college education.

Here's my favorite quote from this section: "I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property."

This has changed somewhat, but, in general, I would say this American impulse remains strong.