Tocqueville’s commentary on the Constitution

Our most recent reading for the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or at least a few chapters of it. Here, after having read the Constitution and several of the Federalist Papers last month, we are treated to a commentary upon the Constitution by one of the great thinkers and observers of the early 19th century.

While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of Tocqueville’s observations and thoughts to comment upon, what stood out to me the most is Tocqueville’s assertion, near the end of the selection we read, that the sort of government the United States has, in particular the limited powers of its executive, is only possible in a country that, like the United States, is granted a certain degree of security by its geography. (Also, I want to commend myself for the excellence of that run-on sentence.) Tocqueville posits that if a European country were to adopt a constitution which so severely curtailed the privileges and prerogatives of its executive it could not last long.

There seems to me to be a great amount of truth to Tocqueville’s observations here. The United States has only been in a position in which it was forced to defend its very existence twice in its history (or thrice, if we count the Revolution as well, though I omit that from consideration here as this predates the Constitution). While the United States has fought several wars, only the Civil War and World War II could be accurately understood as wars for survival. In both instances, the government has found it necessary to vastly expand the powers of the executive and temporarily suspend the limits typically imposed upon the executive and legislative by law. Lincoln was the president who came closest to the powers of a monarch and Roosevelt the president who came closest to the length of a monarch’s reign.

All of this raises important questions for the future of democratic government in the United States. In the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism and the ever-decreasing size (so to speak) of the world, the geographic isolation of the United States seems less important now than at any previous time and will, undoubtedly, continue to lose significance. Is it, then, inevitable that the United States must change its system of government and social life through a reduction in the liberties of the people and an increase in the powers of the executive in order to ensure its very survival? The advocates of, for example, the Patriot Act would seem to say that this is the case. Yet, the United States has a very firmly entrenched culture of individual freedom and limited government. Will this culture survive? Can it? Should it?

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