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Impearls: The origins of American democracy

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Earthdate 2002-12-21

The origins of American democracy   by Alexis de Tocqueville

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America: 1

Democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society.

The English government watched untroubled the departure of so many emigrants, glad to see the seeds of discord and of fresh revolutions dispersed afar.  Indeed it did everything to encourage it and seemed to have no anxiety about the fate of those who sought refuge from its harsh laws on American soil.  It seemed to consider New England as a land given over to the fantasy of dreamers, where innovators should be allowed to try out experiments in freedom.

The English colonies — and that was one of the main reasons for their prosperity — have always enjoyed more internal freedom and political independence than those of other nations; nowhere was this principle of liberty applied more completely than in the states of New England.

It was at that time generally recognized that the lands of the New World belonged to that nation who first discovered them.

In that way almost the whole of the North American coast became an English possession toward the end of the sixteenth century.  The means used by the British government to people these new domains were of various sorts; in some cases the king chose a governor to rule some part of the New World, administering the land in his name and under his direct orders [Footnote: This was the case in the state of New York]; that was the colonial system adopted in the rest of Europe.  In others he granted ownership of some portion of the land to an individual or to a company.  [Footnote: Maryland, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were in this category.]  In those cases all civil and political powers were concentrated in the hands of one man or a few individuals, who, subject to the supervision and regulation of the Crown, sold the land and ruled the inhabitants.  Under the third system a number of immigrants were given the right to form a political society under the patronage of the motherland and allowed to govern themselves in any way not contrary to her laws.  This mode of colonization, so favorable to liberty, was put into practice only in New England.

In 1628 a charter of that sort was granted by Charles I to the emigrants who were going to found the colony of Massachusetts.

But generally charters were only granted to the New England colonies long after their existence had become an established fact.  Plymouth, Providence, New Haven, and the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island were founded without the help and, in a sense, without the knowledge of the motherland.  The new settlers, without denying the supremacy of the homeland, did not derive from thence the source of their powers, and it was only thirty or forty years afterward, under Charles II, that a royal charter legalized their existence.  [Footnote: In shaping their criminal and civil laws and their procedures and courts of justice, the inhabitants of Massachusetts diverged from English usages; in 1650 the king's name no longer headed judicial orders.]

For this reason it is often difficult, when studying the earliest historical and legislative records of New England, to detect the link connecting the immigrants with the land of their forefathers.  One continually finds them exercising rights of sovereignty; they appointed magistrates, made peace and war, promulgated police regulations, and enacted laws as if they were dependent on God alone.

Nothing is more peculiar or more instructive than the legislation of this time; there, if anywhere, is the key to the social enigma presented to the world by the United States now.

Among these records one may choose as particularly characteristic the code of laws enacted by the little state of Connecticut in 1650.

The Connecticut lawgivers turned their attention first to the criminal code and, in composing it, conceived the strange idea of borrowing their provisions from the text of Holy Writ:  “If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.”

There follow ten or twelve provisions of the same sort taken word for word from Deuteronomy, Exodus, or Leviticus.

Blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and rape are punished by death; a son who outrages his parents is subject to the same penalty.  [Footnote: The laws of Massachusetts also imposed the death penalty for adultery, and Hutchinson (Vol. I, p. 441) says that several people were actually executed for that crime; in this context he quotes a strange story of something which happened in 1663.  A married woman had a love affair with a young man; her husband died and she married him; several years passed; at length the public came to suspect the intimacy which had earlier existed between the spouses, and criminal proceedings were brought against them; they were thrown into prison, and both were very near being condemned to death.]  Thus the legislation of a rough, half-civilized people was transported into the midst of an educated society with gentle mores; as a result the death penalty has never been more frequently prescribed by the laws or more seldom carried out.

The framers of these penal codes were especially concerned with the maintenance of good behavior and sound mores in society, so they constantly invaded the sphere of conscience, and there was hardly a sin not subject to the magistrate's censure.  The reader will have noticed the severity of the penalties for adultery and rape.  Simple intercourse between unmarried persons was likewise harshly repressed.  The judge had discretion to impose a fine or a whipping or to order the offenders to marry.  [Footnote: Code of 1650, p. 48.  It would seem that sometimes the judges would impose more than one of these penalties, as is seen in a judicial sentence of 1643 {…} which directs that Margaret Bedford, convicted of loose conduct, be whipped and afterward compelled to marry her accomplice, Nicholas Jemmings.]  If the records of the old courts of New Haven are to be trusted, prosecutions of this sort were not uncommon; under the date May 1, 1660, we find a sentence imposing a fine and reprimand on a girl accused of uttering some indiscreet words and letting herself be kissed.

The code of 1650 is full of preventive regulations.  Idleness and drunkenness are severely punished.  Innkeepers may give each customer only a certain quantity of wine; simply lying, if it could do harm, is subject to a fine or a whipping.  In other places the lawgivers, completely forgetting the great principle of religious liberty which they themselves claimed in Europe, enforced attendance at divine service by threat of fines and went so far as to impose severe penalties, and often the death penalty, on Christians who chose to worship God with a ritual other than their own.  [Footnote: Under the penal law of Massachusetts a Catholic priest who sets foot in the state after he has been driven out therefrom is subject to the death penalty.]

Finally, sometimes the passion for regulation which possessed them led them to interfere in matters completely unworthy of such attention.  Hence there is a clause in the same code forbidding the use of tobacco.  We must not forget that these ridiculous and tyrannical laws were not imposed from outside — they were voted by the free agreement of all the interested parties themselves — and that their mores were even more austere and puritanical than their laws.  In 1649 an association was solemnly formed in Boston to check the worldly luxury of long hair.  {…}

Such deviations undoubtedly bring shame on the spirit of man; they attest the inferiority of our nature, which, unable to hold firmly to what is true and just, is generally reduced to choosing between two excesses.

Alongside this criminal code so strongly marked by narrow sectarian spirit and all the religious passions, stimulated by persecution and still seething in the depths of men's souls, was a body of political laws, closely bound up with the penal law, which, though drafted two hundred years ago, still seems very far in advance of the spirit of freedom of our own age.

All the general principles on which modern constitutions rest, principles which most Europeans in the seventeenth century scarcely understood and whose dominance in Great Britain was then far from complete, are recognized and given authority by the laws of New England; the participation of the people in public affairs, the free voting of taxes, the responsibility of government officials, individual freedom, and trial by jury — all these things were established without question and with practical effect.

These pregnant principles were there applied and developed in a way that no European nation has yet dared to attempt.

In Connecticut the electoral body consisted, from the beginning, of all the citizens, and that is readily understood.  [Footnote: Constitution of 1638 {…}.]  In that nascent community there prevailed an almost perfect equality of wealth and even greater intellectual equality.  [Footnote: In 1641 the general assembly of Rhode Island declared unanimously that the government of the state was a democracy and that power resided in the body of free men, who alone had the right to make the laws and provide for their enforcement.  Code of 1650 {…}.]

At that time in Connecticut all executive officials were elected, including the governor of the state.

Citizens over sixteen years of age were obliged to bear arms; they formed a national militia which appointed its officers and was bound to be ready to march at any time to the country's defense.

In the laws of Connecticut and of all the other states of New England we see the birth and growth of that local independence which is still the mainspring and lifeblood of American freedom.

In most European nations political existence started in the higher ranks of society and has been gradually, but always incompletely, communicated to the various members of the body social.

Contrariwise, in America one may say that the local community was organized before the county, the county before the state, and the state before the Union.

In New England, local communities had taken complete and definite shape as early as 1650.  Interests, passions, duties, and rights took shape around each individual locality and were firmly attached thereto.  Inside the locality there was a real, active political life which was completely democratic and republican.  The colonies still recognized the mother country's supremacy; legally the state was a monarchy, but each locality was already a lively republic.

The towns appointed their own magistrates of all sorts, assessed themselves, and imposed their own taxes.  The New England towns adopted no representative institutions.  As at Athens, matters of common concern were dealt with in the marketplace and in the general assembly of the citizens.
 
 

Reference

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969; pp. 39-44.



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