Alexis de Tocqueville: European Advocate of American Federalism

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a foundational text of federalist political science. James Bartholomeusz considers its relevance for modern-day European integration.


In April 1831, half a century after the American War of Independence and only four decades after France’s own republican Revolution, a young European aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville departed for the New World. His aim was to investigate an idea that had been born in Greece in the 6th Century BC but had found its first fully-modern manifestation in the United States: democracy.

However, this was not the same democracy which had first appeared in classical Athens. The Greek polis (particularly once one excluded women and slaves, those ineligible to vote) was both small enough in population and compact enough geographically to allow for direct consultation of the electorate on matters of government – what we would now call direct democracy. There was something paradoxical in the fact that a newly-discovered continent, consisting vast expanses unknown in the Old World and potentially capable of sustaining a far larger citizenry, had fostered successful democracy in a way as-yet unaccomplished in Europe.

De Tocqueville found his answer – transcribed in his masterful De la démocratie en Amérique (1835 and 1840) – in federalism. The new America, unlike those European monarchies which had seen a shift from feudal devolution to authoritarian centralism in the preceding centuries, was not a unitary state: it was a collection of pioneer colonies which had found a common interest in repelling the imperialism of their European rulers and coalesced into a relatively loose political union. De Tocqueville saw this bottom-up approach as vital to the new republic:

In most European nations, the initial movements of power resided with the upper echelons of society and passed gradually and always in a partial manner to the other sections of society. By contrast, in America we can state that the organization of the township preceded that of the county, the county that of the state, the state that of the Union.

Power was thus not handed down on a whim from a monarch or an aristocracy, but flowed upwards and animated the state from the citizenry.

A lawyer by training, de Tocqueville was particularly interested in the constitutional theory of the United States. The separation of powers – a key tenet of emerging liberal democracy, “an axiom of present-day political science” – was not novel in the American republic, but it had reached its furthest advancement there, and one aspect of this was a bicameral parliament. Nor, as in Britain, was this is a case of an elected body balanced by and clashing with an appointed one, for,

[b]y dividing the legislature in two, Americans [. . .] intended not to create one hereditary house and another elected; they did not mean the one to be aristocratic, the other democratic; neither did they aim to make the first an adjunct of the establishment, while leaving to the other the concerns and the passions of the people.

The lower house worked on one parameter by manifesting the will of citizens directly as citizens, whilst the upper one worked on another by incorporating regional-state identities and interests.

To be sure, Tocqueville’s first allegiance is to government on state and sub-state level, perhaps because this is seen as an element so lacking in the Europe of the day. The township is valorised as an expression of civic virtue, and throughout we see paeans to something like the EU principle of subsidiarity, whereby power is devolved to the lowest possible level wherever possible. Nevertheless, de Tocqueville recognises the benefits which can only be gleaned from federal governance. Decisions over the military, foreign policy, monetary policy, the postal service, transport and the internal market are best dealt with at a higher level because they are much more effectively implemented when fully integrated and centrally administered. Indeed,

[t]he federal government is more equitable and temperate in its proceedings than that of the states. There is more wisdom in its outlook; its projects are planned further ahead and more skilfully; its measures are executed with more aptitude, consistency, and firmness.

We see here an early insight into what would become norms of nation-states later in the 19th century, and what are becoming the norms of this continent under the process of European integration.

Yet crucially for de Tocqueville, this sort of bureaucracy only operates properly and justly because it is invested with democratic legitimacy. He writes that “[a] federal government, more than any other, should aspire to obtain the support of justice because, being weaker by nature, resistance against it is easier to organize”, a claim which has been partially borne out by the last few years in Europe. The democratic legitimacy of the EU prior to 2008 has been exposed as something of sham as its central institutions – the Commission, the ECB, and, in de facto terms, the IMF – have developed increasingly autocratic tendencies in dealing with the currency crisis. These institutions have proven themselves to be both deficient in mandate and excessive in strength – the most dangerous of combinations.

But these concerns do not arise in Democracy in America: de Tocqueville is roundly impressed with the new American state and its constitutional innovations. As he sums up his view for his European readership, “[n]o one can appreciate more than myself the advantages of the federal system which I hold to be one of the most powerful devices to promote human prosperity and freedom. I envy the lot of nations which have been allowed to adopt it”.

Image: ‘Alexis de Tocqueville’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons.

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