De Tocqueville on Inheritance and Society - RR144E10
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Tonight as we continue our studies in American History, we shall consider what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his first book. That is we shall begin a consideration of some aspects of chapters 3-5. Now Alexis De Tocqueville came to America primarily to study the prison system in the United States. His purpose in so doing was, as a person prominent in France and in the government thereof, to analyze the ideas in prison reform, and the handling of criminals that prevailed in this country. He did that, but even more while he was here he paid a great deal of attention to what was going on while he was here, he was intensely interested and concerned. And as a result he went back, and wrote up his account of what the American people were like, in a book published first in this country about 1841, in two volumes, Democracy in America. Now Democracy in America is a very remarkable work by a man who is determined to do his best to understand America.
Tocqueville was by background an Aristocrat. He belonged to the French nobility; he was everything that was alien to America. Yet he was a remarkably friendly and thoughtful observer. The reason why De Tocqueville was concerned with understanding America favorably was this: he was convinced that the whole direction of world history was moving in the direction of democracy. This is why although he recognized that the United States regarded itself a Republic, he called his studies Democracy in America. He felt that it was important to understand Democracy. [00:02:36]
Because he was quite sure that in not too many years...
Because he was quite sure that in not too many years, the European nations would be very thoroughly infected, moved by and ultimately governed by the democratic temperament. Now remember when De Tocqueville wrote, there had been the French Revolution not too many years before, but it had failed. Napoleon had taken over, and Napoleon had been overthrown, and the monarchy re-established in France. All of Europe was governed by monarchy. It seemed very clear that nothing was more remote than the fact that democracy might one day become the governing sentiment of men and nations. So we must recognize that De Tocqueville was a very shrewd observer. He very clearly saw the direction of history, and the nature of the 20th century. He felt that the idea of democracy would lead to equality. And that the battle cry of the future would be equalitarianism.
As a result, not because he necessarily liked that future, but he felt that it would be useless to be reactionary. It would be futile for him to say “I’m against it. There is no point in having any sympathy for it, any feeling for it. I’ll dig in my heels and fight it every step of the way as a conservative.” On the contrary, he felt “I must understand the direction of history, must be able to interpret what it means sympathetically, so that to some extent we can control, we can moderate, and we can impede any damage, so that democracy and equality might grow.” Thus De Tocqueville was a remarkably realistic man. He knew the nature of the future better than most men. And so it is not America’s Republic he studied, but Democracy in America. Now it is interesting that the two great books of the last century published about the United States, by foreigners, were by De Tocqueville and by Von Holst. Von Holst, as a German, came over here first as an immigrant. He landed in New York and the first thing he ran into was Tammany hall. So, Von Holst became very unfriendly to what was going on in the United States from the very beginning. Von Holst wrote a long work, multi-volume work, entitled: A Constitutional History of the United States. Von Holst’s study began with the formation of the federal union, the Constitution, and it continued through the civil war and somewhat beyond. Now what Von Holst felt the direction of the future was, and here he was a rather unfriendly commentator, and this is why his book has not been reprinted. Von Holst and De Tocqueville wrote the two great works by foreigners on this country in the last century, De Tocqueville has been reprinted again and again and Von Holst has never been reprinted. But Von Holst felt that the direction of this country was going to be towards centralization, and totalitarianism. [00:06:45]
He felt that, a highly centralized government had been...
He felt that, a highly centralized government had been created, and that the direction of that government would be with each administration more and more centralization, and to a great degree he was right. Because the Federalists were for a strong federal government. The Democratic Republican Party was against this. And when they triumphed and got in their candidate, Jefferson, Jefferson actually exercised more power as a president than either Washington, or Adams, or the Federalists had done. So it was an ironic factor that the very party that got into power saying “We want to limit the power of Washington”, increased it. And of course we have seen that in our day have we not. Each administration has done that, and some years ago one president gained power, by campaigning, very effectively on cutting the budget, on limiting the bureaucracy, on getting back to small government. And warning Americans what a dangerous road the centralization of power was. And that was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did more to centralize power in Washington than almost any other president. [00:08:17]
Von Holst was right...
Von Holst was right. There was this danger, a steady movement towards increasing government power, towards a centralization of power towards Washington. So, we see that in a sense these two foreigners although having vastly different opinions of the United States, one emphasizing centralization and totalitarianism, and the other emphasizing democracy and equality, but very friendly and sympathetic, most appreciative of the United States, were in effect giving a very remarkable perspective on the future of the United States. They were pointing ahead, both, to the twentieth century, to the crisis that is upon us today.
What we see very clearly is that Washington’s power is increasing to the point where we are now virtually in economic fascism. Fascism, economic fascism is the control of the economy by the central government. We have that today. And if we get gas rationing and other things we will have full-fledged economic fascism. We don’t have political fascism yet, but remember when there was talk of impeachment a while back, now that it’s died down, that there was actually talk at the same time of a coalition government. In other words political fascism. Let the two parties come together, they’re both virtually ?___? the same thing, and let us have, in effect a political fascism.
Thus while we may disagree with some things De Tocqueville said, and some things that Von Holst had to say, it is important for us today, later this week and next week, to understand what De Tocqueville had to say, because it was so intensely important to the future of the country. [00:10:33]
Now as we begin our analysis of De Tocqueville, one...
Now as we begin our analysis of De Tocqueville, one of the first things that De Tocqueville commented on was that there was a spirit of democracy in virtually all of the United States. De Tocqueville, in commenting on Democracy in America was not talking about the form of government. He knew about the constitution which we analyzed in some detail this morning, about checks and balances, about the three equal branches of government, about the powers reserved to the individuals and to the state, the great pains taken in the constitution to preserve a republic, even to the point of making it impossible for the country ever legally to be a full-fledged democracy. The one thing in the Constitution which is likely never really to be changed, short of some fantastic act, is the fact that the states are always to get equal representation. Every state will always have, it is very simple to assume, two senators, because according to the constitution, that cannot be changed unless every state gives its agreement. I cannot see Nevada as I remarked this morning, agreeing to give up its two senators, and going to one so that say California can have 10, on a proportionate basis. It’s hardly likely that any small state in the union will agree to surrender its two senators so that New York and California can have one of them. Thus the constitution forbids whole, total legal democracy. De Tocqueville therefore bypasses this aspect. He discusses the form of government, he is fully appreciative of it, but what he is concerned with is this: There is a spirit of democracy in the country. What is this spirit of democracy going to lead to. Now De Tocqueville was appreciate of this in part. He was aware of the fact that this spirit of democracy prevailed in the United States because there was no nobility here. In Europe you were born into a situation where some people were lords, and had power, not because they were any smarter than you, but because somebody way back centuries before, had been smarter, had got up in the state, become a lord, and passed it on generation after generation. Now in a sense there is a great deal of comfort and satisfaction living in an Aristocracy, a hereditary aristocracy. One of the things it does do is to give everyone a good excuse. You see there is no feeling of great resentment if you can say “I’m as good as he is, he just inherited it.” But when you produce a meritocracy, in which everyone earns what he gets and that’s it, you have no excuse. You cannot say “I am as good as Lord so and so, that old blighter is so stupid he hardly knows to come in out of the rain.” That can give you a sense of satisfaction. But if ever a strict meritocracy should be created, in which you get what you deserve, then you have no excuse. And then you see resentment sets in. Envy, jealousy, hatred. [00:14:43]
And this of course, De Tocqueville recognized...
And this of course, De Tocqueville recognized. When you create a democratic situation it has tremendous advantages. It enables a man who has ability to get ahead. And he recognized that there were great and powerful families in the United States, many of the southern states such as Virginia who were for a long time the most populous states, in Pennsylvania, in Massachusetts, and that these people could not be called an aristocracy in any old-world sense. They knew they had earned it by work. And as a matter of fact as De Tocqueville points out and others pointed out fifty years after De Tocqueville, if any American got so rich he wanted to quit working he didn’t stay in the United States. Because everybody would despise him. The idea of the idle rich was something that was totally reprobate in the eyes of Americans. So if you wanted to quit working and live off your wealth, you went over to England. You moved over to Europe. Because here, instead of being a gentlemen, people would consider you a joke, something despised. Work, was the life of man here, rich and poor, work was what was respected. And therefore there was no chance for the idle rich to survive here. Thus there was no aristocracy in any traditional sense in the United States outside of New York, where you had some of the old Dutch Patroons still holding large estates. But even those were breaking up and beginning to disappear by the time De Tocqueville had come. [00:16:42]
Then, second: De Tocqueville recognized that there was a major revolution that had taken place here, in that the old European ideas of inheritance had been dumped. This was an important factor. Now there are two kinds of inheritances that have been ?served? of some countries. In the one kind of inheritance it is the unbroken estate. It means that, for example, an English lord or an English gentleman could not by any means, even if he so desired it, break up his holdings. It had to be passed, unbroken, to the eldest son. That was called primogeniture. Now his eldest son might be someone he despised totally, but he still could not pass over that eldest son to the second son. So traditionally countries that had this, such as England, what happened was that your eldest son got everything, he inherited a title if there was a title, or if you were a farmer and had lands of any consequence he inherited the lands, and you took your second son, you bought a commission for him in the armed forces and made him an officer. Whether he was the competent one or not made no difference. That is why for a long time in Europe, till Napoleon came along and changed the whole primogenitor system, and even then the other countries were slow picking up Napoleons ideas of an army of officers based on merit, the officers were second sons or third sons, for whom there father had bought a commission so that they could have a good income the rest of their life as an army officer, competent of incompetent. And some of them were exceedingly incompetent. Then what he did with another son was to send him to be a priest in the early days, or a Church of England rector, later on. And to make sure that he got a good church and a good living. And of course it was commonplace in the Church of England for a long time, to read a book with homilies, or if you wrote your own ?Indiscernable? which you preached from on special occasions, and the rest of the time you just went through the evening prayer and the morning prayer, and the Book of Common Prayer. [00:19:31]
In fact I, when I was student, read the autobiography...
In fact I, when I was student, read the autobiography of one English Clergyman whose father had been such a Church of England man, a younger son who’d been sent to the church, and he had written ten sermons which he felt covered all the basics of the Christian faith, and during a very long life as a Church of England Rector, 50 years active, he never used any other sermons. Every two or three months when there was an occasion that required a sermon, Christmas and Easter, and a few others, he would pull out one of these sermons and get up there and read them. That’s all he did for fifty years.
Now, you can see what this kind of situation did to a nation. It created some serious problems. This is why the French Revolution was inevitable. In France you had so many of these younger sons, who were part of the lesser aristocracy, and had certain privileges, and felt they were above doing certain kinds of work, because the sense of being an aristocrat was much more severe in France. That (there were a) tremendous body of people created that were inept. Incompetent. Or unwilling because it would be a disgrace to them to do any kind of work except a certain kind of work. You would see in this situation where there were so many limitations on people advancing or doing anything other than their own vocation, or their own background, their own stations rights required, that it was impossible for them to (cross) it.
And so the Revolution just wiped out all that incompetence. But, on the other hand you had another problem. Fractional heritage. Now in Fractional Heritage there has to be a division of the land equally. I was reading a book on Switzerland a few years ago, in which the author of which stated in that part of Switzerland which had been home to him some of the farms were not being farmed any longer. Why? It was just too much work to locate all the heirs. Because the property had been divided and re-divided, so that a ten acre parcel of land might have 50 or 60 heirs today, and you would have to institute a legal search for many of them who were in cities, to get their signature on a piece of paper, to lease ten acres of land, and use it. In fact he cited one case where in this family, the will in dividing up the small farm house and farms, actually stated that one of the daughters had title to a state 2 feet wide by the fire place. That was her part of the fractional heirship. [00:22:47]
Thus we get that, precise, fractional heirship again...
Thus we get that, precise, fractional heirship again is a serious problem. There’s a problem I’m familiar with, because one of the serious mistakes this government made when it set up the Indian Reservation of (?) in the early days was to set up fractional heirship for the Indians. That as they divided the land, each Indian was to get so much, and then his children were to inherit it equally. Well, some of the land in the West where the reservations were by the 1940’s and 60’s, 70 or 80 years old, a single piece of land might have 20, 40, 50, 80 heirs! And so, to lease that land, some white man who would privately (try to get a title to) the land would find that they would have to hire a lawyer to hunt down all the Indians, and get their signature. And in some cases it wasn’t worthwhile, they couldn’t find them and until they could they had not title to the land. No right to lease it.
Now, what happened in America was that all the European systems for inheritance were set aside. Just wiped out. The father had the right to toss out the eldest son if he didn’t like him and felt he was ungodly. He had the right to leave it all to one son, or to divide it up, or to give it to a daughter. The father was given control over the property, to divide it as he saw fit. This was a real revolution, but also did something else, a very serious thing. Property now ceased to represent the family. Before, there was an equation, family and property. Family was the custodian of property. And now, the equation of family and property was broken. And this was revolutionary, because it meant that property was always changing hands now, and there was no longer the same permanence and sense of community. [00:25:08]
Now in a few parts of the South, you will find, and...
Now in a few parts of the South, you will find, and in a few parts of the west, here and there, wherever family has held onto property, and you can look at a piece of land and say “Well that’s the Griswold’s land from way back, and that’s the Johnson land.” But there aren’t many of those places. And this means that land changes very, very, rapidly, and there isn’t the same stability in a community. Now this is a problem we haven’t dealt with, solved properly, in this society. The extreme answer of course is Tibet, and in Tibet polyandry is practiced. In other words, the property belongs to all the sons, and therefore the sons marry one wife. Instead of polygamy, polyandry, so that there will not be a division. And it is the most retrogressive, retrograde, type of economy, and social arrangement the world knows. No progress is possible under this system in Tibet. And I think it is the providence of God that the communists have gone in there, and are breaking it up. Because the (Gospel could make no cold?) where property was so idolized that marriage in the family were tiered, only to the preservation of property.
Now, what this kind of thing did in America was, that, and this is the third important point that De Tocqueville brings out, and I think we begin to see how sharp and (farsighted) De Tocqueville was. And how worthwhile his books are to read. It meant that, instead of land being wealth as it had been throughout most of history, money, money became wealth. And this was again, a great revolution. [00:27:24]
Because historically wealth has been associated with...
Because historically wealth has been associated with having a piece of land or a house, and handing that down to your children. Having something permanent. Something in the way of a possession that you can call your own and rejoice in all your life. (And think of it like), that “well, my children are going to enjoy this, or my son is. But now, in America, it is no longer left. For one thing, so many farmers were selling their farms regularly and moving westward to buy cheaper land and make more money. So that money was now the important thing, money was the test of wealth rather than land. And this again as De Tocqueville saw, it’s a very, very dangerous thing. Because it creates gaps, continual change, but also a sense of impermanence. It doesn’t give people the same kind of rooting in the past. They don’t have the same sense of permanence.
Then, next, as De Tocqueville recognized, the fourth point, power in the United States, Political Power, is in the hands of the people. At that time it was emphatically true. The Federal government was very, very weak. Even though they considered the Federal Government was getting too strong at that time, the Federal Government was a very weak government, it had a handful of officials. The (paid?) governments of that day were again very weak, as a matter of fact, up until just a few years ago, in Indiana, the state capital, they had the upper story in an apartment sprawl for the state officials. They could house them right there, they’d come in and take care of their business while the state government was in session, live up there in the capital building, and then all go home. Now of course Indiana has umpteen state buildings, which are in downtown Indianapolis. And that kind of small government was routine in one state after another across the country. It meant therefore that there was no strong government breathing down your neck all the time. [00:30:16]
And the people respectively could feel that they ran...
And the people respectively could feel that they ran the country. The basic government was in their hands, and it was self-government. So, fifth, he makes the point and I quote: “Society governs itself, for itself.” Then again De Tocqueville says and I quote: “Nothing is more striking to a European traveler in the United States than the absence of what we term government, or, the administration.” Government was a very minor thing. You didn’t see public buildings all over the landscape. They were few and far between. Government officials were few and far between. Today we have as many in California almost as you have in Washington D.C., Federal officials I mean. And when you consider how many there are say in Chicago, and Denver, and New York, and various other big cities across the (centuries?) and you realize how many Washington’s we have in the United States. Now the European was used to seeing government officials everywhere. And He distrusted them, and he was afraid of them. To him the government was something to fear.
I can recall when I was a very, very small boy, I’d just barely started school, we had moved from California at that time to Detroit. And my father went to a railroad station to meet this priest who was coming to this country, an old, old friend of his from France. Now this Priest had a European, middle eastern view of the police, they were something to be afraid of because they were so closely associated with the Police State idea. And remember this was the early 20’s when what we would call a police state, the socialitarianism was very, very mild compared to what it is in Europe today. When my Father and this priest were coming home, they saw at one corner a school crossing, and a blue coated policeman standing there helping the kids holding hands across the walk. And all the kids (?) the policeman was an older policeman, in those days you had policemen walking, and he loved the kids and the kids loved him. And the old priest broke down and wept, and he said “Now I know I am in America.” [00:33:31]
Well, you see, we no longer feel quite that way...
Well, you see, we no longer feel quite that way. That is gone or disappearing. But especially in De Tocqueville’s day this was very striking. You could go all through the United States and you’d never see a state or a federal official. You knew that somewhere there was such a government. But the most you ever saw was the town mayor or the town constable, and nobody regarded him as anybody, and it was (Hi as you go?) that sort of thing. And this was a very striking fact, to travelers like De Tocqueville.
Then, De Tocqueville commented and I quote: “In America, those complaints against property in general which are so frequent in Europe are never heard, because in America there are no paupers. And if everyone has property of his own to defend, everyone recognizes the principal upon which he holds it.” [00:34:55]
Now of course De Tocqueville was not quite accurate...
Now of course De Tocqueville was not quite accurate there when he says there were no paupers. There were. And we had our slums there, and somewhat later, not tonight I’ll deal with what De Tocqueville had to say about slums. But the slums were made up of people who had just newly arrived who had nothing in many cases, living a hand to mouth existence in the slums of New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Baltimore, trying to earn enough to move out westward, or out into the country, or some other town, after they had earned enough money to buy something of their own. But basically everyone was a property owner. Now for some years at the beginning of the republic and prior to the constitution there were property restrictions on voting, you had to own land property or a house in order to be able to vote. This was never a federal qualification; this was a State and county qualification. You see there were 3 kinds of citizenship. You were a federal citizen, a state citizen, and you were a county citizen. And each of them had different qualifications for voting. It was easiest to vote in a Federal election, whereas state and county elections had various property qualifications for a long time.
So property qualifications gradually were dropped, largely because they were meaningless. After all everybody had property. Why bother to pass such laws or keep them, everybody owned land, everybody owned his own house. This was practically universal. [00:36:48]
So, in essence De Tocqueville was right...
So, in essence De Tocqueville was right. There was a strong property base in America. The people of this country by and large, were very strongly secure in their homes and in their farms, they were living in terms of standards whereby they could in effect thumb their nose at the rest of the world, and they did. And this was one thing that many travelers resented. As a matter of fact as the most hated traveler of all in America was Mrs. (Comb?) And Mrs (?) and her husband came here, a little later than De Tocqueville, and went to Cincinnati and tried to make some money and he lost. In fact he got wiped out. And they went back there and she wrote a very irritable book about the people of America, I believe the title is something like: Manners and Customs in the United States And if she’d ever come back I think they would have lynched her in every town in America. Because she portrayed Americans as people who had nothing but barbaric manners, no respect for English gentlemen and ladies, and as yahoos who in effect thumb their nose at all good breeding and good standards that any civilized European had. She was very offened with everything she ever saw in America, and her book just reeks with disgust for America from one end to the other. She was in some points observant, but she was looking down her nose at America all the time.
Well in a sense she was right in this respect, the Americans felt they were all just as good as anybody else, and especially in the western newly settled states which we would today call Middle Western, their manners and ways were sometimes shocking to the Europeans, a titled lord would show up, and instead of bowing to him they’d say: ‘Put ‘er there, Duke.” And especially in that area one of the things that horrified Europeans was the habit of chewing tobacco, and the habit of spitting incessantly, and some of the European travelers said that it was very dangerous to be on the wrong side of the wind, where any western American was concerned. Now that sort of thing upset a good many Europeans. [00:39:46]
All this of course leads to another point that De Tocquevill...
All this of course leads to another point that De Tocqueville made, and one with which we in effect began. Equality. This he felt is basic. This is the direction of things. Life in the United States is creating a marvelous way of life for many people, but it is leading to an insistence on equality, everybody feels he’s as good as everybody else, and he feared it could lead to totalitarianism. He recognized that so far there was no sign of it in the United States, but he said: “When you have equalitarianism, it dissolves all lesser authorities, and it leaves only the state.”
Because when you have a society which (?) to some degree there is authority and a measure of position, prestige, some kind of aristocracy, you do have the State up here. But you have the church, and Bishops, priests, pastors, all of whom have authority and people look up to them. And you have the nobility, and people look up to them, and they exercise authority locally. And you have businesses and firms, they have a tremendous authority, and the boss is somebody that you take (?) to, and you bow and scrape to him and so on, which they still do in England and many countries in Europe. And he said: “You go through one area of life, including the family, the authority of the father and of the Grandfather or the Grandmother, or the mother, is far greater, in countries that have a tradition of aristocracy. Because obedience to authority is more or less a way of life.” But what happens? “In a democracy” he said, “the authority of the church disappears, the authority of nobles in none existent, the boss is somebody who if you don’t like you can tell him off and walk off and get another job, and if you don’t like your family you can run off as a lot of Americans are doing denying 10 or 11 years of age and getting a job elsewhere, if nothing else you can go to sea as a cabin boy. That was very common at 9 or 10. Admiral Farragut at 59 was a 50 year veteran of the US navy. [00:42:35]
So, De Tocqueville said, you have the individual, and...
So, De Tocqueville said, you have the individual, and you have the state. Whereas in an aristocracy there are many things that may not seem quite as beneficial, you have a variety of institutions that claim authority and will not share it, they will not surrender it to the state if they can help it. They are insistent that their authority be maintained. And so the power of the State is diluted. But when you wipe out all these authorities, he said, ultimately the state is the only authority, it gets more and more powerful, and you have totalitarianism. Now there is a great deal to what De Tocqueville said. Extremely telling analysis. The question of course that we need to think about is this: Can, though Christian faith, a kind of authority be created, so that you don’t have to have the old paraphernalia of a…
Tape ends. [00:43:50]