1840 Democracy in America

10 August 2011

Democracy in America: Tyranny

Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months in America in 1831 on government assignment (he was from France) to study the prison system. But apparently he studied a lot more than that. He followed up his travels with 900 plus pages of observations and opinions on American society. And I’ve read in several places that he pretty much hit the nail on the head, with a few exceptions. I personally wouldn’t know, because I don’t have enough knowledge on the subject myself, but I am more than happy to believe the others who’ve said so.

I should start out by saying that I have, as yet, only read half of the book. Ummm…half of the 300-page abridged version, that is. I did find several parts very interesting, but a lot of it was over my head as well. There was a lot that I simply did not understand because of my limited knowledge of politics in general as well as the time period in regards to its social structures and politics. He does a good job explaining his positions, but it’s as though he is writing to an equal, or at least someone who will become his equal one day (like an apprentice or something), and I’m just not. For example, I had to look up the history of the political parties because he talked about the Democrat-Republican party vs. the Federalist party, of which I knew nothing…but now I have a handy-dandy chart drawn into the front page of my book for future reference! (Not all subjects are so clear-cut and easy to search on wikipedia, though.) I have to say that I really wish Tocqueville were alive today to write an updated version. I would love to hear his thoughts on today’s political landscape, even just for the small bits I could get ahold of.

Tocqueville covered many subjects in the first half of his book, and I’ll have blog posts on a couple of them that I found particularly interesting, but there’s nothing like starting out with a bit of tyranny. The dictionary defines tyranny as an “arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority”. We (at least I) normally think of tyranny in the form of a king or queen that changes laws to suit their own will (the poor people of England in the 1500′s, for example…We’re Catholic, no, we’re Protestant, nevermind, we’re Catholic, no wait, Protestant…)

Tocqueville had a lot to say against the tyranny of a democracy (or a democratic republic, I think he used the terms interchangeably…at least, I think those mean the same thing). He was of the opinion that in many ways a democracy is no better than having a king. But I have yet to get to where (if he does) Tocqueville suggests an ideal type of government, or at least how to set up the democracy to fend off the tyrannic tendencies. For example:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with each other; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them….

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself, or clothed with rights so sacred, that I would admit it’s uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America, at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country, more than in its laws.”

So what do you think? Is this still true today? Or has tyranny reared its ugly head? Or maybe we’ve introduced some barriers to tyranny, either purposefully by law or accidentally through a social attitude? I think the different branches of the government (judicial, legislative, executive) that all have checks and balances on each other are supposed to do this, but we had that back in 1831 (I believe so anyway…my ignorance shines through yet again) and apparently Tocqueville didn’t think that by itself would be enough.

That last statement of Tocqueville’s is intriguing. I think something that would fall under the “circumstances and manners of the country” would be today’s ‘partisan politics’ which can be so nasty. If there’s not outright aspersion, then an under-handed attack is common-place. This is one of the main reasons I cannot stand listening to politicians speak. I honestly don’t understand why people cannot disagree and still be respectful. It’s really not so inconceivable as politicians make it appear. For example, (we’ll pick a nice partisan topic) Person A thinks government-sponsored welfare is a good idea. I, person B, disagree with the principle of welfare as it is acted out by the government. But does that designate Person A as an evil or bad person? Simply because he disagrees with me? Of course not. In fact, Person A and Person B have more in common than what is noticeable at first glance. I believe it is our Christian duty, or responsibility, (or call it what you will), to help our neighbors less fortunate. However, I believe charity should be from the heart, not from a law, and that we should be free to volunteer and give money to charities, church organizations, and other things to help. I know, I know…Person A says, “But how many people would actually do such a thing if they weren’t forced?” Well, Mr. A, many people do already. And if we were to cultivate in our country a culture of giving, rather than taking, we’ll find our problem close to solved. (Japan’s elderly nuclear cleanup crew is a good example, and the whole no looting thing, too, though yes, I realize there is more going on under the surface, but that’s not the point.) This is the main issue I have with government-sponsored welfare. It creates a culture of taking. The government ‘takes’ from the working citizen, who then hands that over to another citizen, who then becomes dependent upon ‘taking’ from the government. It’s the whole ‘give a man a fish’ thing. This creates all kinds of problems, which we are beginning to see in London now:

“Cameron’s conservative government is under fire for spending cuts to social programs in order to help reduce the country’s debt. Among those hit the hardest are large numbers of minority youths who have been at the forefront of the unrest.” (http://www.cnbc.com/id/44073673) These people have become so dependant that when they find out the government can no longer afford to feed them, they don’t know how to take care of themselves. That is a very scary position to be placed in. (Please don’t misunderstand me, I personally think they should call out the Army to back up those poor cops trying to restore order, but I do commiserate with the situation of the rioters. They’ve been trained to take, and nothing else.)

But at the heart of the issue, Person A and Person B aren’t really so far apart. Both believe the less fortunate should be helped. We just disagree as to how to go about doing that. I think if people could remember that we’re not really all that different, than there would be less mud-slinging and name-calling (a germ of tyranny?) and more working together. When we treat people with respect, they are more likely to listen and be respectful in turn. Then something might actually get accomplished.

I know several of my gentle readers are very involved in politics, and I invite you to share your opinions on Tocqueville’s point. Was there something in the quote above that particularly struck you? Please be respectful, though, or I might not approve your comment! (We haven’t gotten to Tocqueville’s views on liberty, yet.)


18 August 2011

Democracy in America: Inheritance

Tocqueville also had a very interesting section on promingenture vs. equal partition, or in other words, leaving everything to the eldest son vs. leaving an equal share of the estate to each child. These laws don’t really apply to us today, and I think our current laws of leaving our stuff to whomever we want is probably the fairest and best way to handle the situation, but as a fan of Jane Austen, the discussion of the law of promingenture and it’s pros and cons was very interesting to me because it features so heavily in the lives of her characters. At first glance, the idea seems quite unfair to the younger siblings, but there are actually some ways in which it is more beneficial than equal partition, especially for the time period. Now, everything I am going to say applies mostly to Jane Austen’s time, but some of the following I think many people will agree that it applies at least in some way to today as well.

First of all, the father is the head of the family. That position carries a lot of responsibility. The father has to provide for his wife and children in the basic necessities: food, shelter, etc. It is also the father’s duty to provide the means for his children to become successful adults (if they so chose) by way of giving them training and education, not only in practical matters, but in character as well. Now they do not have to be the person actually giving the education, but whether the children are sent to school, or taught by a governess, or even their mother, it is the father’s responsibility to make sure his children are fitted for adulthood. It is also the father, or the head of the family, who is ultimately responsible for the adult women in the family who may be single or widowed. (The wife of course shares many of these responsibilities, but as she’s not really the topic of this post, please forgive me if I just leave her out of it for the most part. She does make a small entrance at the end, though.)

When the father dies, the eldest son takes up this responsibility. This is something he has hopefully been trained up to do well, but often a side-effect of this situation arises. I’ll get to that in a minute. So the eldest son is now the head of the family. He inherits everything: the estate, the money, and the family responsiblity. He is now to take care of his mother, any unmarried sisters, and of course any younger children that may not have yet reached adulthood. (There are variations of the laws involved, and Austen’s novels cover several of them, but for the sake of this post we’ll keep it simple.) And of course, there is nothing like a bad example to demonstrate the principles.

Orlando is angry with his older brother, Oliver, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It because he is refusing to use some of his inheritance to pay for his younger brother’s education. Orlando’s tirades against Oliver make it clear that it is just and right, as well as Oliver’s responsibility, for him to do this. Shakespeare is two hundred years earlier, but according to this play anyway, they used promingature of some form then.

John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen becomes the head of the family when his father dies. He is then responsible for his step-mother and three younger sisters, the two eldest of whom are just reaching marriage-age. John isn’t the brightest person, and he is somewhat selfish, but still he means well. His wife, however, cunningly brings out the worst in him (for the sake of her own son and heir) and John eventually does not take care of the four women. Luckily, a distant cousin of Mrs. Dashwood offers the women a cottage at low rent, and so they are not left destitute. In this case, you might think equal partition would have worked out better. But while the four Dashwood ladies would have been independent of their selfish brother, there are some cons that go with it as well. First of all, it was the family estate that provided the means of taking care of the family. Larger estates with lots of land had tenant farmers and other ways to produce income. The smaller estates were more like family farms. They had their chicken coop in the back, their horses and carriage, their animals and their gardens. This is how they lived. This was their roof, their food, their life. How could they sell this and divide it equally? Each child would end up with some money, but not enough to buy a new house complete with the animals and gardens that were necessary for survival. The estate needed to stay together, and so did the family, in order to survive. The daughters, by marrying would join another family, and the younger sons would be the ones who often served in the military, church, or other professions like the law or medicine. The estate needed a head or a master who would be responsible for the estate, as well as the family members who fell under his protection. Everyone would help out and do their part in the work for the estate, but it was the eldest son who would make sure everything ran smoothly.

Another bad example from the education perspective is Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. He lets his daughters run rampant, giving them no education of any kind. As his wife was not sensible enough to offer any help in this regard, he should have either provided the education himself or found some way for them to have some discipline and education (even if he did hate town). Or, as Terry would like me to add, he should have been a better master in his own house and trained his wife to be a bit more responsible, rather than letting her encourage the girls’ want of propriety. (Let the feminists say what they will…Mrs. Bennet could have used a bit more sternness from her husband; even Lizzy said so.)

But how about a good example? Jane Austen’s own life is full of them. First of all, her father was an excellent provider. He not only provided for his family’s material needs, but as a clergyman, he had the learning and time to be a wonderful teacher to his own children (even the girls!), as well as other boys in the neighborhood who often lived with the Austens. One of Jane Austen’s brothers was adopted by fourth cousins, who were very rich, but childless. He became their heir and always helped out his family. The Austens were not very poor, but they weren’t well off. They were somewhat on the level as the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, a gentleman’s family, but not rich at all, and the girls didn’t have much of a dowry. After Mr. Austen died, the eldest son died only 14 years later. The next eldest son was mentally incapable of taking care of the family (they are not really sure what disability he may have had, but he lived with another family who could take care of him…there seems to have been quite a bit of child-swapping back then). The third eldest son then stepped up to the plate, and as the rich adoptee, he was quite capable. He provided his mother and two unmarried sisters, Jane and Cassandra, with a home for the rest of their lives. Another brother (the fourth eldest) was the one who paid for the publication of Jane Austen’s first book, when she had had trouble getting her works published previously. (She gained popularity quickly and did not have similar problems after that.) The two other brothers had successful careers in the British Navy.

The side-effect I spoke of earlier is the fact that as the eldest son is to inherit everything, he has no need to learn a trade, work, or in short, be responsible for himself at all. His responsibility is to his family, but he is pretty much taken care of for the rest of his life. Some young men, thinking only of themselves, do not learn to be responsible at all, and so let their families down.

Tom Bertram in Austen’s Mansfield Park is a good example of this. He spends his time gambling and play acting and basically running around racking up debts. He has no need to provide anything as he is to inherit the great Mansfield Park. However, he has it wrong. He does have to provide something. He has to provide leadership. The second son, Edmund, who does have to find a job if he ever wants to get married and have a family of his own, decides to go into the church and be a clergyman. Because he has to go to school and prepare for his chosen field, he is much more sensible and responsible (even if it does take him way too long to realize he’s fallen for the wrong girl). Luckily for Tom, however, a serious illness brought on by his wild living brings him to his senses, and he decides to take a more active role in learning to govern the estate after that. Thank goodness, otherwise Tom’s future wife might have needed to give him the what-for once in a while.

It seems I’ve been hit with this topic, though in different ways, several times over the past few weeks. First Tocqueville, then C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity very humbly mentioned the fact that the husband is the head of the house, but only after apologizing for the unpopularity of the subject several times. (His observations as an unmarried man on this subject were quite astute and funny.) And last Sunday in Relief Society (the women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) we were talking about the responsibilities of the different members of the family. I so rarely get the opportunity to say anything witty or shocking, so when I saw it, this time I took it. I raised my hand and said that the husband is the head of the family. Silence, but for just a moment. Then the elderly lady who was teaching gave me a sidelong glance and said in a slightly contrary way, “And that means?” So off I launch into basically what I am about to say now. As head of the family, the husband obviously has no right to be a tyrant, and of course decisions must be discussed between husband and wife. We are equals after all, because we are children of God, but equal does not mean the same. As God has given the husband the responsibility of being the head, we wives do need to respect that, and allow him to fulfill his duty. Does that mean he always gets his way? No, that would be rather tyrannical, and as it’s not good for children to always get their own way, I doubt it’s really good for anyone to always get their own way (including us wives, unfortunately). I think for the most part, husbands and wives come to some kind of agreement between themselves on how to handle situations in which they do not agree, whether it be no decision at all until agreement is reached, or whoever feels the strongest on the subject gets their way, or whatever else. I’m sure you’ve heard many such things as I have.

However, I do think that for wives especially, this topic is worth thinking about. The husband takes the responsibility for family decisions upon his shoulders. That responsibility is given to him from God, which is pretty weighty. That means that if he gives in to his wife, he is offering to take the responsibility for a decision he does not particularly like. All for the sake of the woman he loves. And perhaps even more romantic, if he does not give in, he is chosing to suffer his wife being upset for her own sake. To be a good husband he must sometimes stick up for the principles he sees and believes in, even if his wife disagrees. Not that this is very romantic while you’re in the middle of it, but from a distance it takes on a certain rosy hue, doesn’t it?


24 August 2011

Democracy in America: Liberty and her allies

“Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs; as the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law, and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

This is a very interesting statement that seems almost backward to our postmodern ideas. Isn’t it religion that doesn’t stand for ‘marriage equality’? Isn’t it religion that won’t let us drink alcohol, eat pork, wear sleeveless tops, and live promiscuously? Religion gives us all the ‘rules’ to follow, so how can it make us free? And as a side-effect of these rules, isn’t it religion that causes people to look down on others who do not follow those same rules?

Well, all of that is technically true. But….religion teaches us that we are all sons and daughters of God. We are all spiritual brothers and sisters. How can we be more equal than that? We’re all in the same boat. We’re all thinking, feeling, growing. We do these things in our own ways and at our own rates, which makes us the individuals that we are.

Christ taught by word and example to love others, serve, and care for them. No matter what their beliefs, culture, habits, appearance, etc. Does that mean that all beliefs, cultures, habits, and appearances are good? No, of course not. Is the belief that I can fly correct? Or good? It might lead to some unfortunate consequences. Is the cultural practice of suttee good? Is the dress and appearance of a hooker a desirable quality in a woman? Of course not. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. Christ said to “Go and sin no more”. He showed great love, forgiveness, and compassion, but he did not condone the sin.

That’s a fine line to walk. And those (read: all of us at some time or another) that have trouble walking it run the risk of hurting others as well as themselves. This is that haughty side-effect that contributes to religion’s bad name in postmodern thinking.

“In America, religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine laws leads man to civil freedom….It is the result (and this should be constantly present to the mind) of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been admirably incorporated and combined with one another. I allude to the spirit of Religion and the spirit of Liberty.”

Lest you think that Tocqueville was some sort of Puritanical person born a couple hundred years too late, he does go into the history of laws and freedom, even describing the Code of 1650 and other old court records which record crimes and their punishments, including whippings, floggings, compulsory service, or fines for drunkenness and idleness. The punishment often fit the crime, though, and if a couple were caught kissing (or worse) they might be led right up to the altar. But on all this ‘Scarlet Letter’ stuff, Tocqueville said,

“Sometimes, indeed, the zeal for regulation induces him to descend to the most frivolous particulars…It must not be forgotten that these fantastical and vexatious laws were not imposed by authority, but that they were freely voted by all the persons interested in them, and that the manners of the community were even more austere and puritanical than the laws….These errors are no doubt discreditable to human reason; they attest the inferiority of our nature, which is incapable of laying firm hold upon what is true and just, and is often reduced to the alternative of two excesses.”

“…often reduced to the alternative of two excesses.” I think we see examples of this in the news very often. That church that attacks the funerals of soldiers is the first thing that came to my mind. They think they are standing up for morality, when in fact they have slid off the high peak of that mountain onto the slippery slope of uncharitableness and antagonism. And the “manners of the community were even more austere and puritanical than the laws”. This is another thing I think we see a lot of. In some congregations of my own church, I am sorry to say, I have seen this.

And another quote, Tocqueville’s anguish and heartache over the trends he sees in his European homeland, which applies just as much to America today. It’s rather long, but very good.

“I can recall nothing in history more worthy of sorrow and pity, than the scenes which are passing under our eyes. It is as if the natural bond which unites the opinions of man to his tastes, and his actions to his principles, was now broken; the sympathy which has always been observed between the feelings and the ideas of mankind appears to be dissolved, and all the laws of moral analogy to be abolished.

Zealous Christians are still to be found among us, whose minds are nurtured on the thoughts which pertain to a future life, and who readily espouse the cause of human liberty as the source of all moral greatness. Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the sight of the law. But, by a singular concourse of events, religion has been for a time entangled with those institutions which democracy assails; and it is not unfrequently brought to reject the equality which it loves and to curse that cause of liberty as a foe, which efforts it might hallow by its alliance.

By the side of these religious men, I discern others whose looks are turned to earth rather than to heaven. These are the partisans of liberty, not only a the source of the noblest virtues, but more especially as the root of all solid advantages: and they sincerely desire to secure its authority, and to impart its blessings to mankind. It is natural that they should hasten to invoke the assistance of religion, for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith. But they have seen religion in the ranks of their adversaries, and they inquire no further; some of them attack it openly, and the remainder are afraid to defend it.”

“The religionists are the enemies of liberty, and the friends of liberty attack religion; the high-minded and the noble advocate bondage, and the meanest and most servile preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are opposed to all progress, whilst men without patriotism and without principle put themselves forward as the apostles of civilization and intelligence. Has such been the fate of the centuries which have preceded our own? And has man always inhabited a world like the present, where all things are out of their natural connections, where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law; where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and where nothing seems to be longer forbidden or allowed, honorable or shameful, false or true?

I cannot believe that the Creator made man to leave him in an endless struggle with the intellectual miseries which surround us. God destines a calmer and more certain future to the communities of Europe. I am ignorant of his designs, but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them, and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than his justice.”