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American Intellectual History 101: American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective

Foreword



The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.



This series will be divided into seven articles:

  1. American Intellectual History 101: American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective

  2. American Intellectual History 101: Transcendentalism

  3. American Intellectual History 101: Cult of Domesticity in American Society

  4. American Intellectual History 101: The Institution of Slavery

American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective


Having multiple definitions and interpretations, individualism is a core value of American society. After the rooted practice of kinship which kept humanity at foot for so long, individualism as a “self-centered” discourse aroused curiosity. On the one hand, some scholars consider individualism a beneficial notion which helps individuals to take action for themselves and make a life of their own while forming a self-reliant society. On the other hand, some scholars do not favor individualism as the rest do. They think that it creates huge gaps within society by tearing people apart, arguing that it should be just the opposite for the good of the community. While there are many different arguments on individualism as a grounded idea in American experience, in his democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville presented his ideas on American individualism and its effects and functions throughout society. This article delves into the interpretations of Tocqueville on individualism while pointing out various scholars and their works to provide thorough analysis.


Alexis de Tocqueville, came from an aristocratic French family and was born on July 29 1805 in Paris, France. Tocqueville’s parents were jailed because of the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror (Alexis de Tocqueville, 2009). Young Alexis de Tocqueville had his primary education at home before completing his secondary education at Metz's Collège Royal. In 1823, he traveled to Paris, where he met his future wife and fellow lawyer Gustave de Beaumont, to enroll in the University of Paris's law program (Fonseca, n.d.). The July Revolution of 1830, a turning point both for Beaumont and Tocqueville, greatly influenced Tocqueville's political thought, emphasizing for him the importance of citizen participation, a strong civil society, and the balance between liberty and equality in a democratic society (Alexis de Tocqueville, 2009). Witnessing the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy opened his eyes to the power of popular uprisings and the potential for political change. Therefore, Beaumont and Tocqueville wanted to widen their perspectives by engaging in overseas societies, and they went to the United States on behalf of the French government to work on the conditions of American prisons (Fonseca, n.d.).In May 1831, the two friends arrived in New York, the first state in their 10-month journey, during which they visited 17 states throughout the United States. During his journey, Tocqueville interacted with many Americans and observed their lifestyles in order to comprehend their mind sets, traditions, and values; he met many notables such as president Andrew Jackson and former president John Quincy Adams (Fonseca, n.d.).



Figure 1: Combat de la Rue de Rohan, le 29 Juillet 1830

Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America is considered significant all around the world because it tells the story of a relatively new nation with unique characteristics, values, and ideologies. Tocqueville presents his observations about America and Americans as an outsider, enabling him to declare his ideas in an unbiased way. So much so, that Elkin Terry Jack argues in his essay that “the observations he made 181 years ago are as poignant today as when he put pen to paper” (2017, p. 30). Tocqueville’s target readers were not Americans, Jack suggests; instead he wanted to show French people the American “soul” and how the people survive in this strange new continent (2017). William W. Riggs indicates that “Tocqueville seeks to answer the political puzzles of the era: Why was it that democracy flourished in America? What was the secret of American success and could it be brought home to France?” (2009).


Tocqueville starts his conversation on the notion of individualism by comparing it to selfishness, which might be confusing when attempting to comprehend of the idea. While defining selfishness as “a passionate and exaggerated love of self that brings men to relate everything to himself," he suggests “individualism is a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself” (2000, p. 482). Tocqueville not only differentiates the two concepts, but also shows that individualism is not necessarily a state of solidarity, but rather a withdrawal from the mass of people and an embrace of a relatively small society created by one's own disrupting cooperation. Turner interprets this as “Social interaction, most of the time, is limited to the family and a small social circle; private friendship takes the place of public fraternity” (2008, p. 201).


Naturally, as an individual coming from an aristocratic family, he compares aristocracy functioning through kinship and individualism rooted among American society. Aristocratic institutions bind each man to one another and require their strong cooperation; however, the individualistic notion breaks the chain between citizens and gives them an environment in which devotion is not as necessary as it is in aristocracy (2000). Tocqueville indicates that individualism allows people to have their destiny in their own hands because of the priority of one’s own self. This sense of solitude is open to cause some problems in the society, though, according to Tocqueville. “Individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtues; but in the long term it attacks and destroys all the others and finally be absorbed in selfishness” (2000, p. 483). By suggesting that individualism is a notion that requires balance and needs to be combatted, he reveals that Americans combat individualism through free institutions, since it increases the sense of self-sufficiency and leads them to feel that they are all free of their “social debts” (Turner, 2008). These free institutions, which Tocqueville calls "little republics," are places where individuals can cooperate and practice their citizenship skills (Jack, 2017).

“When citizens are forced to be occupied with public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the midst of their individual interests and from time to time, torn away from the sight of themselves” (Tocqueville, 2000, p. 486).

Tocqueville suggests that when citizens are actively engaged in public affairs, they are compelled to shift their focus away from their personal or individual interests. By participating in the political process and being involved in the public sphere, citizens are drawn out of their private concerns and are forced to consider the broader needs and concerns of society as a whole. This engagement in public affairs is essential for the functioning of a democratic society. It requires citizens to look beyond their immediate self-interests and consider the common good. According to Tocqueville, this involvement in public matters helps to cultivate a sense of civic duty and contributes to the overall health and vitality of democratic governance. As a result, withdrawal from society led by individualists is broken with the help of free institutions by enabling individuals within society to come together to cooperate and make them dependent on one another to some degree.



Figure 2: Alexis de Tocqueville in 1848

On the other hand, as Jack states, Tocqueville highlights a difference between aristocratic France and America: “Tocqueville observed that in his native France when a problem occurred, people would go the local lord or magistrate and say, 'your honor, there is a problem—please fix it'. But in America when a problem occurs, a person turns to his neighbors and says, “We have a problem—let’s talk about it and decide what we are going to do” (2017, p. 31). Tocqueville highlights a key difference in the approach to problem-solving between France and America during his time. He suggests that in France, individuals would often turn to their local lords or magistrates, seeking their intervention and expecting them to provide a solution to the problem at hand. This reflects a more hierarchical and top-down approach to addressing issues, where people rely on authority figures to take action on their behalf. On the other hand, Tocqueville noticed that in America, when individuals were faced with a problem they would instead turn to their neighbors and initiate a collective discussion. Rather than relying on a single authority figure, they would engage in open dialogue and deliberation with their peers to collectively determine the best course of action. This highlights a more decentralized and participatory approach to problem-solving, where the community as a whole takes responsibility for finding solutions. Tocqueville saw this difference as indicative of the democratic spirit and the participatory nature of American society. By encouraging citizens to actively engage in discussions and decision-making processes, America fostered a sense of shared responsibility and collective ownership of problems and their solutions. This participatory approach not only allowed for a wider range of perspectives and ideas to be considered, but also promoted civic engagement and the development of a democratic culture.

“Thus by charging citizens with the administration of small affairs, much more than by leaving the government of great ones to them, one interests them in the public good and makes them see the need they constantly have for one another in order to produce it… Local freedoms, which make many citizens put value on the affection of their neighbors and those close to them, therefore constantly bring men closer to one another, despite the instincts that separate them, and force them to aid each other” (Tocqueville, 2000, p. 487).

Tocqueville thinks that Americans seem to have found solutions for eliminating the destructive effects of individualism, which might occur because it potentially leads to self-isolation and self-sufficiency. However, according to Tocqueville's observations, American individualism is not indifferent to the rest of the society except in the small society constructed by the individuals themselves, who prioritize their sense of self while still being actively involved in the public sphere and processing solutions to problems. “The individualist is thus a man of supreme self-confidence but limited sociological awareness” (Turner, 2008, p. 201).


Finally, Tocqueville refers to the doctrine of self-interest as another way to combat individualism: “Americans, on the contrary, are pleased to explain almost all the actions of their life with the aid of self-interest well understood; they complacently show how the enlightened love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other and disposes them willingly to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state” (Tocqueville, 2000, p. 502). Tocqueville highlights a contrasting view of self-interest as understood in American society. He suggests that Americans are inclined to explain and justify their actions through the lens of well-understood self-interest. According to Tocqueville, Americans proudly demonstrate how their enlightened self-love motivates them to support and assist one another and willingly contribute their time and wealth for the benefit of the state. Tocqueville's observation underscores the idea that self-interest, when properly understood and harnessed, can have positive outcomes for both individuals and society as a whole. He argues that Americans believe that acting in their own self-interest can lead to mutual cooperation and collective well-being. By recognizing the benefits of their own self-preservation and advancement, Americans are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. They see the pursuit of self-interest as compatible with the welfare of the state, and understand that by actively engaging in civic life and contributing to the betterment of their community they are ultimately serving their own long-term interests. This alignment of individual and collective interests reinforces a sense of unity and shared purpose among Americans.

“The doctrine of self-interest well understood does not produce great devotion; but it suggests little sacrifices each day, by itself it cannot make a man virtuous; but it forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through the will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits” (Tocqueville, 2000, p. 502).

Tocqueville contends that the doctrine of self-interest, well understood, may not produce extraordinary acts of devotion or instant virtuous transformation. However, it shapes the behavior and character of individuals by prompting them to make small daily sacrifices, fostering traits such as self-control, moderation, farsightedness, and self-mastery. Through the cultivation of these habits, individuals are gradually brought closer to virtue, even if it is not achieved solely through conscious willpower. Well-understood self-interest serves as a practical framework that guides individuals toward responsible and virtuous actions in their pursuit of long-term self-interest.


Figure 3: Wanderer Above the Sea Fog

In conclusion, Alexis de Tocqueville's observations on individualism in his work Democracy in America provide valuable insights into the effects and functions of this core value in American society. Tocqueville recognizes both the benefits and potential drawbacks of individualism, highlighting its capacity to foster self-reliance and unique personal identities while also emphasizing the risks of isolation and selfishness. He suggests that individualism, when unchecked, can erode the virtues necessary for a thriving community. However, Tocqueville also offers remedies to counterbalance the negative effects, such as the importance of active participation in public affairs and the cultivation of a sense of civic duty. Additionally, he explores the role of well-understood self-interest, which, though not directly leading to virtue, shapes individuals' behavior and habits, bringing them closer to virtuous actions. Tocqueville's analysis underscores the intricate relationship between individualism and the common good, emphasizing the need for a delicate balance and active engagement in society. By examining Tocqueville's ideas, we gain valuable insights into the complexities of individualism in American society and its implications on fostering a robust and harmonious community.



Bibliography

HISTORY. (November 9, 2009). "Alexis de Tocqueville - Democracy in America, Summary & Beliefs". https://www.history.com/topics/european-history/alexis-de-tocqueville


Gonçalo L. Fonseca (n.d). "Alexis de Tocqueville". The History of Economic Thought. http://www.hetwebsite.net/het/profiles/tocqueville.htm


William W. Riggs. (2009). "Alexis de Tocqueville". The First Amendment Encyclopedia. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1262/alexis-de-tocqueville


De Tocqueville, A., Mansfield, H. C., & Winthrop, D. (2000). Democracy in America. New England Review (1990), 21(3), 185-214.


Jack, E. T. (2017). "Alexis de Tocqueville’s America". National Civic Review, 106(1), 30–31. https://doi.org/10.1002/ncr.21306


Turner, J. (2008). "American Individualism and Structural Injustice: Tocqueville, Gender, and Race". Polity, 40(2), 197-215.

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