Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay inthe United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the generalequality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influencewhich this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, bygiving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to thelaws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habitsto the governed. I speedily perceived that the influence of this factextends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country,and that it has no less empire over civil society than over theGovernment; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests theordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce. Themore I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceivedthat the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which allothers seem to be derived, and the central point at which all myobservations constantly terminated.
I then turned my thoughts to our own hemisphere, where I imagined that Idiscerned something analogous to the spectacle which the New Worldpresented to me. I observed that the equality of conditions is dailyprogressing towards those extreme limits which it seems to have reached inthe United States, and that the democracy which governs the Americancommunities appears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe. I henceconceived the idea of the book which is now before the reader.
It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going onamongst us; but there are two opinions as to its nature and consequences.To some it appears to be a novel accident, which as such may still bechecked; to others it seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform,the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is to be found inhistory. Let us recollect the situation of France seven hundred years ago,when the territory was divided amongst a small number of families, whowere the owners of the soil and the rulers of the inhabitants; the rightof governing descended with the family inheritance from generation togeneration; force was the only means by which man could act on man, andlanded property was the sole source of power. Soon, however, the politicalpower of the clergy was founded, and began to exert itself: the clergyopened its ranks to all classes, to the poor and the rich, the villein andthe lord; equality penetrated into the Government through the Church, andthe being who as a serf must have vegetated in perpetual bondage took hisplace as a priest in the midst of nobles, and not infrequently above theheads of kings.
The different relations of men became more complicated and more numerousas society gradually became more stable and more civilized. Thence thewant of civil laws was felt; and the order of legal functionaries soonrose from the obscurity of the tribunals and their dusty chambers, toappear at the court of the monarch, by the side of the feudal barons intheir ermine and their mail. Whilst the kings were ruining themselves bytheir great enterprises, and the nobles exhausting their resources byprivate wars, the lower orders were enriching themselves by commerce. Theinfluence of money began to be perceptible in State affairs. Thetransactions of business opened a new road to power, and the financierrose to a station of political influence in which he was at once flatteredand despised. Gradually the spread of mental acquirements, and theincreasing taste for literature and art, opened chances of success totalent; science became a means of government, intelligence led to socialpower, and the man of letters took a part in the affairs of the State. Thevalue attached to the privileges of birth decreased in the exactproportion in which new paths were struck out to advancement. In theeleventh century nobility was beyond all price; in the thirteenth it mightbe purchased; it was conferred for the first time in 1270; and equalitywas thus introduced into the Government by the aristocracy itself.
In the course of these seven hundred years it sometimes happened that inorder to resist the authority of the Crown, or to diminish the power oftheir rivals, the nobles granted a certain share of political rights tothe people. Or, more frequently, the king permitted the lower orders toenjoy a degree of power, with the intention of repressing the aristocracy.In France the kings have always been the most active and the most constantof levellers. When they were strong and ambitious they spared no pains toraise the people to the level of the nobles; when they were temperate orweak they allowed the people to rise above themselves. Some assisted thedemocracy by their talents, others by their vices. Louis XI and Louis XIVreduced every rank beneath the throne to the same subjection; Louis XVdescended, himself and all his Court, into the dust.
As soon as land was held on any other than a feudal tenure, and personalproperty began in its turn to confer influence and power, everyimprovement which was introduced in commerce or manufacture was a freshelement of the equality of conditions. Henceforward every new discovery,every new want which it engendered, and every new desire which cravedsatisfaction, was a step towards the universal level. The taste forluxury, the love of war, the sway of fashion, and the most superficial aswell as the deepest passions of the human heart, co-operated to enrich thepoor and to impoverish the rich.
From the time when the exercise of the intellect became the source ofstrength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition toscience, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power placedwithin the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the graceof wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all the giftswhich are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand, turned to theadvantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the possession ofits adversaries they still served its cause by throwing into relief thenatural greatness of man; its conquests spread, therefore, with those ofcivilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal where thepoorest and the weakest could always find weapons to their hand.
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a singlegreat event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned tothe advantage of equality. The Crusades and the wars of the Englishdecimated the nobles and divided their possessions; the erection ofcommunities introduced an element of democratic liberty into the bosom offeudal monarchy; the invention of fire-arms equalized the villein and thenoble on the field of battle; printing opened the same resources to theminds of all classes; the post was organized so as to bring the sameinformation to the door of the poor man’s cottage and to the gate of thepalace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are alike able to findthe road to heaven. The discovery of America offered a thousand new pathsto fortune, and placed riches and power within the reach of theadventurous and the obscure. If we examine what has happened in France atintervals of fifty years, beginning with the eleventh century, we shallinvariably perceive that a twofold revolution has taken place in the stateof society. The noble has gone down on the social ladder, and the roturierhas gone up; the one descends as the other rises. Every half centurybrings them nearer to each other, and they will very shortly meet.
Nor is this phenomenon at all peculiar to France. Whithersoever we turnour eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout thewhole of Christendom. The various occurrences of national existence haveeverywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it bytheir exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause, andthose who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it andthose who have declared themselves its opponents, have all been drivenalong in the same track, have all labored to one end, some ignorantly andsome unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the hands of God.
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore aprovidential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divinedecree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all humaninterference, and all events as well as all men contribute to itsprogress. Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social impulse whichdates from so far back can be checked by the efforts of a generation? Isit credible that the democracy which has annihilated the feudal system andvanquished kings will respect the citizen and the capitalist? Will it stopnow that it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak? None can saywhich way we are going, for all terms of comparison are wanting: theequality of conditions is more complete in the Christian countries of thepresent day than it has been at any time or in any part of the world; sothat the extent of what already exists prevents us from foreseeing whatmay be yet to come.
The whole book which is here offered to the public has been written underthe impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mindby the contemplation of so irresistible a revolution, which has advancedfor centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is stillproceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary thatGod himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionablesigns of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature,and in the invariable tendency of events: I know, without a specialrevelation, that the planets move in the orbits traced by the Creator’sfinger. If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and bysincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressivedevelopment of social equality is at once the past and future of theirhistory, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divinedecree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in thatcase to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrainedto make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
The Christian nations of our age seem to me to present a most alarmingspectacle; the impulse which is bearing them along is so strong that itcannot be stopped, but it is not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided:their fate is in their hands; yet a little while and it may be so nolonger. The first duty which is at this time imposed upon those who directour affairs is to educate the democracy; to warm its faith, if that bepossible; to purify its morals; to direct its energies; to substitute aknowledge of business for its inexperience, and an acquaintance with itstrue interests for its blind propensities; to adapt its government to timeand place, and to modify it in compliance with the occurrences and theactors of the age. A new science of politics is indispensable to a newworld. This, however, is what we think of least; launched in the middle ofa rapid stream, we obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may stillbe described upon the shore we have left, whilst the current sweeps usalong, and drives us backwards towards the gulf.