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An Experiment in Democracy

THE UNITED STATES An Experiment in Democracy




VERY country is important in its own eyes

and for its own people; but some countries have a wider significance, a significance for the world at large which gives them a peculiar place in the history of civilization. England, for example, has come to stand for what is roughly called political liberty; and, being pre-eminently the founder of colonies, she is sometimes called the “mother of nations.” France has never been only France, but always something European—the source and the exemplar of fruitful ideas. The United States has likewise had its meaning for the Occidental world; in its own eyes and in the eyes of Europe it has stood for the idea of democracy. “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” its history has had the significance of a great social experiment.

Americans themselves have commonly taken democracy for granted, but for a century intelligent Europeans were aware that popular government and social equality on such a grand scale were new things in the world. The outcome they could not regard as a foregone conclusion, but they knew that the phenomenon was well worth careful attention, since it was bound, for good or for evil, to have a profound influence upon the trend of history in Europe. In the course of a hundred years many Europeans have come to observe us at first hand; and from Crèvecæur to H. G. Wells the thing that has chiefly interested them has been the character and the relative success or failure of our political and 'social institutions. They have endeavored to estimate, for the instruction of European readers, the form and pressure of our democracy, in order that it might serve as an example or a warning to the Old World.

With the exception of Lord Bryce, the most intelligent European who ever set himself the task of observing America at first hand was Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville was no apostle of democracy, but he convinced himself that it was bound to come, accepted it as one accepts the inevitable, and like a wise

man wished to be prepared for it. It was in order to be prepared for it that he came to America, where he thought it could be observed in its most perfect manifestation and to the best advantage.

It is not [he says) merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find instruction by which we may ourselves profit. Whoever should imagine that I have intended to write a panegyric would be strangely mistaken, and in reading this book he will perceive that such has not been my design: nor has it been my object to advocate any form of government in particular, for I am of opinion that absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any legislation; I have not even affected to discuss whether the social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous or prejudicial to mankind. I have acknowledged this revolution as a fact already accomplished or on the eve of its accomplishment, and I have selected the nation, from those that have undergone it, in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and, if it be possible, to distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable. I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.

This statement of De Tocqueville might be taken as representing the attitude of Europe toward America during the first century of her

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