Misquoting Tocqueville, Disdaining Democracy

Why getting Tocqueville wrong matters

The Frenchman Alexis Tocqueville published Democracy in America in two volumes in 1835 and 1840 and it’s still garnering attention.

I teach the work in my American Political Thought course, in which we read quite a lot of it over a 3-4 week period, and have written about Tocqueville* and how his work is used today.

While people seem to love Tocqueville, there are some things people say Tocqueville said that he never said.

My own Governor, Paul LePage, has done that.

In his January 14, 2012 radio address, LePage said:

Another great quote from Alexis de Tocqueville is, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Think about it.

As political scientist John Pitney (a professor at Claremont McKenna College with a fine scholarly record and experience in Republican politics) notes, this quote is bogus. (Back in 1995, Pitney pointed out that another purported Tocqueville statement, that “America is great because she is good” is a fraud.)

As an academic, I don’t like it when people get quotes wrong, but this is not just an academic matter.

The misquote disparages fundamentals of democracy

Just take a look at the core notion, the idea that funds expended by government that go to members of the public are bribes.

Bribes, quite obviously, have a negative connotation.  Typically they are not just unethical, but illegal.

According to this faux quote, citizens not only should not be receiving money from the public coffers, but the action is quite wrong.

Yet it’s quite clear from the U.S. Constitution that monies are to be collected by government and distributed in order to serve the people and their needs.  As Article I, Section 8 states:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States

And, in a broader statement about the purposes of the U.S. government,  the Preamble to the Constitution states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Now, to be sure, the U.S. government and its programs have changed since the Constitution was ratified.

But what’s absolutely clear is this:

1. The founders wished to serve “the common defense” and the “general welfare.” Both phrases appear both in the Constitution’s Preamble and in Article I, Section 8.

2. Those purposes would be funded by what the fake-Tocqueville quote calls “the people’s money.”

For one, it’s hard to imagine what else could be used to fund them.  Moreover, Article I, Section 8 references both these public purposes and the means of funding them.

3. The Constitution also described how representatives of the people would be selected and guarantees that each state will have decisions made in a democratic fashion via a “republican form of government.”

Thus those voting on budgets — both taxes and spending — were chosen by the people.  The people are sovereign in democracies — democracy literally means “rule by the people” — and surely it is a democratic principle that their needs and desires are pursued by public officials.

How, then, could it be inappropriate — to the point of calling it bribery — for elected officials to decide to spend money on behalf of and directly to the people?

The phrase “bribe the people” expresses disdain for democracy itself.

I suspect that those using the misquote would not like Tocqueville as much if they knew how central equality was to his analysis.

The very start of the massive Democracy in America begins:

AMONG the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.

I soon perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less effect on civil society than on the government; it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.

Now, to be sure, there were far fewer government programs in the U.S. when Tocqueville visited than there are today. But government was involved in a variety of projects. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had pressed for a policy on manufactures and, in Tocqueville’s time, there was a large-scale infrastructure effort involving canals for trade and transportation.

Those weren’t bribes and neither is spending for health care and other public purposes today, for the government exists to serve the people and the common good, as determined via representativte democracy.


* My work on Tocqueville to which I linked in the second paragraph is based on a conference paper that was awarded the 2000 John C. Donovan Prize by the New England Political Science Association for the best paper presented at their 1999 Annual Meeting.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.