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Culture

"The Fate of the Americans is Unique"

Written in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" epic is still relevant today. On July 29, he would have been 200 years old, and to mark the occasion, DW-WORLD conducted a fictional interview with him.

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Alexis de Tocqueville knew America well

DW-WORLD: Mr Tocqueville, what are the similarities between the democracy in the United States and the European democracies?

Alexis de Tocqueville: The great advantage of the Americans is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution and that they are born equal instead of becoming so.

How is that an advantage?

The inhabitants of the United States were never divided by any privileges; they have never known the mutual relation of master and inferior; and as they neither dread nor hate each other, they have never known the necessity of calling in the supreme power to manage their affairs. The lot of the Americans is singular: they have derived from the aristocracy of England the notion of private rights and the taste for local freedom; and they have been able to retain both because they have had no aristocracy to combat.

Are Americans better democrats?

I do not think, on the whole, that there is more selfishness among us than in America; the only difference is that there it is enlightened, here it is not. Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest; we want to save everything, and often we lose it all.

Can you elaborate?

An American attends to his private concerns as if he were alone in the world, and the next minute he gives himself up to the common welfare as if he had forgotten them. At one time he seems animated by the most selfish cupidity; at another, by the most lively patriotism. The human heart cannot be thus divided. The inhabitants of the United States alternately display so strong and so similar a passion for their own welfare and for their freedom that it may be supposed that these passions are united and mingled in some part of their character. And indeed the Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare; they are attached to the one by the other. They by no means think that they are not called upon to take a part in public affairs; they believe, on the contrary, that their chief business is to secure for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of those possessions which they have already acquired.

You talk about a wish for freedom, but much of the American public has supported the government in going to war, most recently against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

I foresee that all the military rulers who may rise up in great democratic nations will find it easier to conquer with their armies than to make their armies live at peace after conquest. There are two things that a democratic people will always find very difficult, to begin a war and to end it.

Does war, by definition, imply the loss of a democracy?

War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits.

What else have you noticed? How, for example, do the Americans deal with representatives of other democracies?

If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, "Ay," he replies, "there is not its equal in the world." If I applaud the freedom that its inhabitants enjoy, he answers: "Freedom is a fine thing, but few nations are worthy to enjoy it." If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United States, "I can imagine," says he, "that a stranger, who has witnessed the corruption that prevails in other nations, would be astonished at the difference." At length I leave him to the contemplation of himself; but he returns to the charge and does not desist till he has got me to repeat all I had just been saying. It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.

Now you are talking as a Frenchman, Mr Tocqueville!

Such is not the case with the English. The censure of foreigners does not affect him, and their praise hardly flatters him; his position with regard to the rest of the world is one of disdainful and ignorant reserve: his pride requires no sustenance; it nourishes itself.

Alexis de Tocqueville was born near Paris in 1805. He studied law and became a judge. At the age of 26, he was commissioned by the French government to research the legal and penal systems in the United States. He spent 1831 and 1832 in America and published the two volumes of his bestseller "Democracy in America " in 1835 and 1840 once he was back in France . He is still considered an expert on the US. He died in Cannes in 1859. The answers in this fictional interview are quotes taken from his work.

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