How can we describe the identity of the American individual? In Democracy in America, Tocqueville grapples with the fundamental tension of identity intrinsic to the democratic citizen. The democratic citizen must be original. His birth offers him no connection to men outside of his household. He identifies with nobody else. At the same time, the equalizing force of democracy tugs men towards homogeneity. Each democratic individual resembles all others. Is the American a product of the nation, or is the nation, in turn, a sum total of different individuals? Tocqueville’s philosophy of history, in which both general causes and individual choices account for action, portrays an individual agent who contains both his own choices and the tendencies of the nation at large. For Tocqueville, the general causes of American democracy are set into motion by individuals—the Puritans and their choices—who create the conditions for individuals to make choices in turn. By instituting local government, the Puritans set the stage for Americans to be both themselves and an expression of the entire nation. They allow for American culture, and the political questions therein, to be national and homogenous, while the political effects of culture are local, contingent on men’s individual choices regarding their immediate self-interest. Through the examples of indigenous genocide and slavery, we see that Americans take on American questions in their own individual ways, as expressed through local action.
On page 494, Tocqueville describes two flawed methods of recounting history. In one, historians focus excessively on great individuals and their choices; in the other, they focus excessively on ‘general causes’ and not enough on people. Tocqueville discusses his own historical method here, writing, “I think that in all ages some of the happenings in this world are due to very general causes and others depend on particular influences. These two kinds of causes are always in operation, only their proportion varies. General causes explain more, and particular influences less, in democratic…ages.” In explaining America, both as a social and historical phenomenon, Tocqueville strives to offer us an account which combines the particular actions of individuals with causes beyond men. Both individual choices and general causes—forces above the individual—shape history, or the account of where actions come from throughout time. Tocqueville writes of a democratic age. Thus, in his account, general causes should explain most actions. Still, he retains great actors at the birth of all general causes of American life.
For Tocqueville, America’s great agents are the Puritans. He writes, “I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan.” The Puritans formed the New England colony which set the rest of America into motion. New England was something genuinely different in kind from all of history. He writes, “the foundation of New England was something new in the world, all the attendant circumstances being both peculiar and original.” As creators of something new, the Puritans follow no trend. The choices made in creating New England were peculiar to them alone. Nobody else could have done it—their actions are not general. Through their “peculiarity” and “originality” in forming New England, the Puritans acted as individuals. In birthing their civilization, Puritans offered the original principles for all of American history to follow. Tocqueville highlights this influence, writing, “all the general principles on which modern constitutions rest…are recognized and given authority by the laws of New England…These pregnant principles were there applied and developed in a way that no European nation has yet dared to attempt.” By creating the first townships, Puritans, in their individual act, created the general causes in which America would move for the rest of history. They planted the principles of local governance at the heart of America.
Tocqueville insists upon Puritan influence throughout his contemporary analysis of American culture. On page 46, he writes that the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom, two forces beyond any individual man—two general causes influencing history—flow from the founders of New England. Later on, he claims that “fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable to men for the conduct of daily life…chief object and one of the principle advantages of religion is to provide answers to each of these primordial questions.” New England offered the very spirit which permeates the first principles of everyday life of all Americans to come. It gave Americans religion as an axiom. This axiom has proven indispensable to every descendant therefrom. Puritanism even graced the arts. Tocqueville writes, “[Puritanism] was simple in its forms, austere in its principles…it was therefore naturally unfavorable to the fine arts,” before concluding that “Americans do not cultivate the arts.” Tocqueville notes that, “Puritan founders of the American republics…professed a special abhorrence for the stage,” and cites this as a reason for the lack of American theater. The tastes of Puritans both created the first principles of everyday life of Americans to come while shaping the scope of their highest expressions in the arts. They continue to influence the cultural sphere of American life.
New England operates as the fount of American culture from which American life emanates. Tocqueville writes that “northern principles spread first to the neighboring states and then in due course to those more distant, finally penetrating everywhere throughout the confederation…New England civilization has been like beacons on mountain peaks whose warmth is first felt close by but whose light shines to the farthest limits of the horizon.”3 The character of the entire nation emanates from the beacon of the North. This occurs primarily through the mechanism of migration:
As they mingle, the Americans become assimilated; the differences which climate, origin, and institutions had created among
them become less great. They all get closer and closer to one common type. Yearly thousands of northerners spread out
through all parts of the Union; they bring with them their beliefs, opinions, and mores, and as they are more enlightened than
the men among whom they come to dwell, they soon rise to the head of affairs and change society to their advantage. This
continual emigration from the North to South singularly favors the fusion of all provincial characteristics into one national
character. So the civilization of the North appears destined to be the norm to which all the rest must one day conform.
Americans begin in the North, both historically (from Puritans) and imminently (from European immigrants arriving to the North). These northerners leave the north; they fill the nation; and since they are the source from which the nation is filled, they bring all other Americans closer towards them. National character homogenizes with the incessant migration of northerners—indeed, a ‘national’ character exists only because of this general tendency towards being more like the North. The continent is constantly replenished with northerners who continually beckon their new neighbors to be like them.
Northerners can only fill up America, bringing the whole nation closer to one character, because American land is empty. Tocqueville calls America a “deserted land waiting for inhabitants,” where “man advances so quickly that the wilderness closes in again behind him. The forest has only bent beneath his feet and springs up again when he has passed.” No individual location holds meaning to a particular person, so no ties hold them to the land. The stretch of the continent lacks content—it lacks people and it lacks stasis. Thus, America is a space for incessant movement:
The European [goes] to dwell on the transatlantic coast, while the American who was born there moves off in turn into the
central solitudes of America. This double movement of immigration never halts; it starts from the depths of Europe, continues
across the great ocean, and then goes on through the solitudes of the New World. Millions of men are all marching together
toward the same point on the horizon.
Northerners are continually produced. They fill out the empty land, heading towards a point which none can see clearly, obscured by distance. American land facilitates the manufactured northerner’s “double migration” to nowhere, nothing more. Both America and its land are homogeneous—the land is all empty space, and the Americans become northerners in culture.
Yet when we look at each particular man, we find that he is characteristically original. In his own eyes, he is non-reproducible. Tocqueville calls the American “narrowly shut up in himself,” listening to none, and “from [himself] makes the pretension to judge the world.” The American, equal to all his peers, has no reason to listen to others. His character is his own; he “forgets [his] ancestors…clouds [his] view of [his] descendants, and isolates [himself] from [his] contemporaries.” Somehow, the American is both a homogeneous figure born of New England which fills the entire continent, and is an individual uninfluenced by everyone before, after, and around him. He is both culturally national and just himself. His identity is in a fundamental tension between these two levels. Yet the nation stemmed from the New England township, where Puritans first instilled American principles. Where has the township gone in our consideration of the American’s identity?
Americans are politically local. Their actions together are contained to immediate concerns. They do not pertain to the nation. For the democratic man, “all [his] interests pertain to those near himself.” He elects his municipal representatives to execute public duties—he himself sometimes serves his community—“because union with his fellows seems useful to him and he knows that that union is impossible without a regulating authority.” He loves the township, as it allows him to get things done that he could not do otherwise. The township and the state work together to perform “social duties,” such as opening roads, maintaining police, creating schools, and more.15 “The [sovereignty] of the states is natural; it exists on its own, without striving, like the authority of the father in a family,” because without the authority of the local government, men could not live at all. Local government, like a father, nourishes the American. It creates the infrastructure which enables him to be himself. His love for local government is “nothing but an extension of individual egoism.” The American cares and acts for the local government because it, like egoism, deals with his immediate concerns. To engage in the township, he doesn’t have to deal in an abstract future or best interest; it deals with him directly, now. Thus his identification with his local area is nothing more than an identification with his imminent desires. The local area itself does nothing for his identity. American politics, carried out primarily locally, is also an extension of self.
Americans act on local scales but inherit their political concerns from national cultural phenomena. Tocqueville writes, “there are matters which are of a naturally mixed character; they are national insofar as they concern all individuals composing the nation; they are provincial insofar as there is no necessity for the nation itself to provide for them.” For an example of this kind of issue, we can look at Tocqueville’s account of indigenous genocide. Here, the American notion of “civilization” clashes against the “uncivilizable” indigenous people. Each individual American, as an American, conceives of himself as “civilized,” in a hierarchical position to tame the “uncivilized.” Thus he seeks to either “bend [indigenous people] to his will or destroy them.”18 The American government itself took no direct action on the relationship between indigenous people and Americans. They did not take land, nor did they protect land; they “allowed encroachments” while stating that any American on indigenous land is subject to the law of the Natives and not the Americans. The result was that Americans themselves took displacement into their own hands. Tocqueville writes:
A few European [American] families occupying widely separated points succeed in chasing all the wild animals forever from the whole region stretching between these points…they come to a decision; they depart, and following the tracks of elk, buffalo, and beaver, leave to these wild animals the choice of their new homeland. So, strictly speaking, it is not Europeans who chase the natives of America away, but famine.
Rather than systematically approach indigenous Americans, European American families, in a united act, indirectly drove Native Americans off of their land. Americans sought to “destroy” the indigenous Americans—so each family drove their immediate enemy off. As if in a township, they collectively took a political act into their own hands. They expressed national culture in a local action. They pushed indigenous people off their land in pursuit of their immediate self-interest; but such a push stems from the fact that they strive to “civilize” the nation.
Tocqueville’s depiction of the relationship between white and black Americans demonstrates another instance where a national cultural phenomenon unfolds as a local political problem. As a national axiom, there is an “insurmountable gap between the American Negro and the European.” This gap is not merely legal—in being “insurmountable” it extends into every corner of life. Two facts affect the way that Americans engage with the Negro: “in the United States people abolish slavery for the sake not of the Negroes but of the white men,” and “the farther south one goes, the less profitable it becomes to abolish slavery.” In the North, the abolition of slavery makes sense in terms of the immediate self-interest of white men. They profit more and ennoble their labor, while being able to retain “race prejudice…stronger [than] in those states [which] have abolished slavery” because of how few blacks there are. In the South, the problem is far more complicated—it is “a question of life and death.”24 Immediate elf-interest is not easily calculable. There is more profit from slaves than in the North and, if slaves were freed, their vast numbers would create a revolt powerful enough to end the rule of white men. Thus, slavery is preserved in the South and abolished in the North. Both local areas encounter the same cultural problem; they confront it differently, as it serves their immediate self-interest.
Americans are culturally national and politically local. The problems which local politics takes up are born of culture. How to build schools, how to maintain liberty, how to engage with indigenous and black people—these are each questions stemming from the fact that the man in the township calls himself “American,” yet each question is dealt with only in local government. Thus any given place in America is effectively the same—it deals with the same things, just in a different way. The individual American expresses himself as a national product through local means. The questions he takes up are American, but the way he deals with them are his own.
Tocqueville, in giving a picture of the American landscape, elucidates the dialectical tension that drives history. He shows how the seeds of America are present within its birth—a birth given by just a few people. The Puritans created New England, whose principles grew into American culture. Puritans gave birth to America, but Americans are simultaneously giving birth to themselves on the basis of the principles which Puritans set in motion. Americans have broad American problems which descend from Puritan principles and northerners. Within those problems they make individual choices in their local communities. Thus Tocqueville fulfills his notion of history. For him, general causes—being American and holding the principles contained therein—accounts for most of men’s actions, but at the local level, the actions of particular people take charge. Indigenous genocide and slavery found its question in America and its expression in Americans—as does any question which local politics confront. The American, in any action, expresses both himself and the entire nation.