"Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot."-- Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America (1835–1840) is commonly said to be among the greatest works of 19th-century political writing. Its daring conjectures, elegant prose, formidable length and narrative complexity certainly make it a masterpiece, yet exactly those qualities have together ensured, through time, that opinions greatly differ about the roots of its greatness.
Some observers cautiously mine the text for its fresh insights on such perennial themes as liberty of the press, the tyranny of the majority and civil society; or they focus on such topics as why it is that modern democracies are vulnerable to “commercial panics” and why they simultaneously value equality, reduce the threat of revolution and grow complacent.
Some readers of the text treat its author as a “classical liberal” who loved parliamentary government and loathed the extremes of democracy. More often, the text is treated as a brilliant grand commentary on the decisive historical significance for old Europe of the rise of the new American republic, which was soon to become a world empire.
Some observers, very often American, push this interpretation to the limit. They think of Democracy in America in almost nationalist terms: for them, it is a lavish hymn to the United States, a celebration of its emerging authority in the world, an ode to its 19th-century greatness and future 20th-century global dominance.
How should we make sense of these conflicting interpretations?
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