July 29 – Happy Birthday, Alexis de Tocqueville

Posted on July 29, 2014

Born in Paris on this date in 1805, Alexis de Tocqueville was a political thinker, historian, and writer. He did the important work of traveling around a country that was not his own, studying living standards and social conditions, and then carefully analyzing and writing about his findings. The country he studied was the relatively new nation called the United States of America.

Tocqueville's two-volume work on the U.S. is called Democracy in America; the book was published in 1835 and 1840. This glimpse of pre-Civil War America is invaluable to historians today, and many people continue to read and quote Tocqueville.

They also MISquote Tocqueville. Here is one misquote: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”

Hmm...Is Congress spending “public money” (money raised from the public through taxes) on public projects like parks, roads, bridges, education, etc., etc. – could it ever properly be called a “bribe”?

A bribe is getting someone to act in one's favor by illegally or dishonestly giving him or her money or “some other inducement.”

I guess a Congressional Representative somehow laying his hands on public money and slipping it to individual citizens to make them vote for him might qualify as a bribe – and is, I'm sure, against the law. But nobody thinks that is going on. Nobody uses that quote to mean that, and nobody reads that quote and thinks that.

No, I think that the quote is used to make it seem as if Congressional Representatives advocating projects in their own district is inherently wrong. But projects to “provide common defense” and “promote general welfare” are actually what government is for, and what else would fund them other than public monies?

At any rate, this misquote has been traced back to a similar sentiment written by Elmer T. Peterson but attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler (without any citation of Peterson's source).

If you want to read an actual quote from Tocqueville, here is one:

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 get from that quote that Tocqueville was surprised at how little economic “class” seemed to matter in early American politics.

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