De Tocqueville's relentless curiosity urged him to probe into every area of American culture, but it was the American people that interested him the most. Specifically, he wanted to find out about the role of the American citizen in this new democratic society. De Tocqueville set out to find the answers.
It surprised him to see everyone shaking hands with one another. De Tocqueville marveled, and also worried, about a society where social class did not seem to matter and everyone expected to be treated the same. From our point of view today, the United States in was far from being a society based on equality. The Indians were viewed as an alien people to be driven outside the bounds of civilization. Black slaves were considered the property of their masters.
Book Two: Influence Of Democracy On Progress Of Opinion in The United States
Women could not vote and were legally controlled by their husbands. In de Tocqueville's America, the idea of equality applied mainly to free white adult males. Full citizenship rights belonged only to this group. Yet, even this limited degree of equality made the United States radically different from the rest of the world and fascinated de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville saw all kinds of people busily planning local projects, choosing representatives and assembling to criticize their leaders.
He was especially impressed with New England town meetings where every citizen had the right to vote on public matters. De Tocqueville thought it remarkable how often Americans joined together in various organizations which he called associations. De Tocqueville went on to observe that Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else.
In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government Although property requirements for voting were still common, they were beginning to disappear. Elections were usually held every year for local and state offices. Those who had the right to vote did so and in large numbers. The four-year cycle of presidential elections, which de Tocqueville called a "revolution He wrote:. Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men's minds The President, for his part, is absorbed in the task of defending himself before the majority As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread.
The citizens divide up into several camps The whole nation gets into a feverish state. With the election over, de Tocqueville reported, everything quickly calmed down like a river that only momentarily overflowed its banks. At- the time of de Tocqueville's visit, political parties in America were undergoing great change as old ones died out and new ones emerged. The most significant development was the birth of the Democratic Party under the leadership of Andrew Jackson, elected president in De Tocqueville observed a "constant agitation of parties," each attempting to draw voters over to its side.
In his notes he wrote that a party candidate ". De Tocqueville leveled some of his sharpest criticism against American political leaders themselves. He became convinced that outstanding men avoided elected office in order to pursue their private ambitions and careers.
Those who did seek public office, he believed, were often poorly educated and open to corruption. In one of his notebooks, de Tocqueville ridiculed Congressman Davy Crockett as a man " De Tocqueville found a deep respect for the law in America.
The reason, he felt, was that the American citizens themselves held the ultimate power to change any laws they disliked. On the other hand, those who chose to violate the law were immediately branded as outcasts by the law-abiding majority.
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In Europe, de Tocqueville observed, the people merely watched as the authorities tracked down a criminal, while in America " De Tocqueville wondered how American citizens learned about the law and their rights. Public schools, even at an elementary level, hardly existed outside of New England.
Declaration of Independence
Newspapers helped to inform the public, but the majority of Americans could not read. De Tocqueville discovered that the courtroom and jury actually served as a "free school" for civic education. A number of things bothered de Tocqueville about democracy. One of them was that in a society made up of equal citizens, the majority is always right. To de Tocqueville, a majority of equals, just like a single all-powerful ruler, could abuse its power.
In a democracy, de Tocqueville argued, this abuse becomes the "tyranny of the majority.
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De Tocqueville did not claim that the tyranny of the majority as yet existed to any great degree in America. Still, he saw evidence of it developing. For example, de Tocqueville found that in the North, free black males who had the right to vote often were discouraged from voting by the white majority. De Tocqueville maintained that even freedom of speech, guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, was affected by majority opinion.
The American Spirit: What Does It Mean?
Among these elements were the large number of independent associations, the press and the courts. Stephen and Hugh used this incident to offer a telling illustration of the American Spirit—how it manifests itself, what it means. These Native Americans had not been treated well by their government, by American society at large. Their culture and their language had been under attack, marginalized, discriminated against, for many years. Their opportunities in education and work were few. In these Native Americans knew this promise, this ideal—and their country too now—was under attack.
So they joined millions of other Americans to fight Japan and Germany in far-away places. In fact, the Navajo Code Talkers became a legendary weapon in our WWII military arsenal, for they were able to speak openly over the radio in the field—confident that the enemy would never crack their language. And their selfless acts spoke to the enduring American Spirit, the bright connecting thread in the fabric of our Democracy. This spirit is sometimes difficult to define or to quantify, but it holds great power—and you know it when you see it. But where did this spirit come from?
What makes it so special that Americans always feel it in moments of great crisis, challenges that test our ideals? Walk with me briefly back in time, as I recall a few great individuals who gave birth to this country, men whose ideas and actions lit the flame of the American spirit. George Washington was the embodiment of this spirit, without a doubt. As leader of the Continental Army, he never wavered in the face of defeat and poor supplies and rampant sniping that the cause of the American Revolution was hopeless.
Once victory was achieved and Washington took over leadership of the new nation, he rejected suggestions that he should consolidate power and become another king. To the contrary, Washington set the precedent that no one should serve more than two terms as president. He held to his course, as it had been charted in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, a skilled diplomat who spoke five languages, inspired optimism about the influence of education in a free society.
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs—nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them. We are indeed blessed that American history is filled with individuals whose actions, ideals and values swelled the American Spirit—and carried it forward.
The irrepressible General Andrew Jackson did so during the War of , at the Battle of New Orleans, when he created a potent fighting force out of a peculiar blend of people from different states and cultures, speaking different tongues—Creoles, Tennesseeans, Cajuns, Germans and Italians, free men and slaves. As that terrible struggle drew to a close, Lincoln spoke eloquently about the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
America's Founding Documents | National Archives
In words and deeds, where do we find any comparable commitment to freedom and democracy among leaders of other nations in the 19th century? The quest for freedom and justice for all Americans has often been halting or delayed—as in the abolition of slavery, in the acknowledgement of poor treatment of Native Americans, and in the securing of full civil rights for people of color and women. While it did not come easily, change did come, as Americans moved closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
As the years passed, the power of our principles has gained in strength and meaning—both in our country, and around the globe. The American Sprit can be seen, clearly, during times of national or regional crisis, or in our daily affairs, when Americans are generous, working for the common good, seeking progress.
We see it in the re-creation of New Orleans public schools and the sense of promise for what students can achieve when they have the right sort of support. I think we would all agree that the purpose of learning is to free people. This aspiration is basic to American Spirit—we are all one, all unified, in gratitude for our freedom. At The National World War II Museum, we celebrate values that are rooted in the birth of our nation and reach forward through the generations, offering a sense of promise and hope for all of us today—and for coming generations.
It was a time when we were unprepared, attacked and faced powerful enemies across two oceans—outnumbered 20 to 1 in military forces. And yet we came together as a nation, infused by the American Spirit, to defeat dictatorial regimes that embraced racism, genocide, and aimed to destroy our freedom and sense of unity. When Stephen Ambrose was conducting interviews for his great book on D-Day, he asked a veteran who survived the Normandy invasion why he had donned the uniform as a young man and joined the fight.