The first, and still greatest, description of American social success was the two-part book by the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Here are excerpts describing what Tocqueville considered the bulwark of our democracy: citizens who voluntarily pool their money, expertise, and labor to improve society.
Americans of all ages, stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types – religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feelings by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking where in France you would find the government, or in England some great lord, in the United States you are sure to find an association. . . .
At the head of any new undertaking where in France you would find the government, or in England some great lord, in the United States you are sure to find an association.
[Voluntary associations have] been applied to more varied aims in America than anywhere else in the world . . . solely due to the initiative of individuals.
The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to combat the ills and trials of life; he is restless and defiant in his outlook toward the authority of society and appeals to its power only when he cannot do without it. . . . The same attitude turns up again in all the affairs of social life. If some obstacle blocks the public road halting the circulation of traffic, the neighbors at once form a deliberative body; this improvised assembly produces an executive authority which remedies the trouble before anyone has thought of the possibility of some previously constituted authority. . . . Where enjoyment is concerned, people associate to make festivities grander and more orderly. Finally, associations are formed to combat exclusively moral troubles: intemperance is fought in common. Public security, trade and industry, and morals and religion all provide the aims for associations in the United States. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective powers of individuals.
The first time that I heard in America that one hundred thousand men had publicly promised never to drink alcohol liquor, I thought it more of a joke than a serious matter, and for the moment did not see why these very abstemious citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides.
In the end I came to understand that these hundred thousand Americans, frightened by the progress of drunkenness around them, wanted to support sobriety by their patronage. They were acting in just the same way as some great lord who dresses very plainly to encourage a contempt of luxury among simple citizens. One may fancy that if they had lived in France each of these hundred thousand would have made individual representations to the government asking it to supervise all the public houses throughout the realm.
No countries need associations more—to prevent either despotism of parties or the arbitrary rule of a prince—than those with a democratic social state. . . . If private people did not artificially and temporarily create something like them, I see no other dike to hold back tyranny.
The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle.
Many of my contemporaries. . . . claim that as the citizens become weaker and more helpless, the government must become proportionately more skilled and active, so that society should do what is no longer possible for individuals. They think that answers the whole problem, but I think they are mistaken.
A government could take the place of some of the largest associations in America, and some particular states of the Union have already attempted that. But what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which associations daily enable American citizens to control? . . .
The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle of cause and effect. . . .
The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations. Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon another. . . .
A government, by itself, is equally incapable of refreshing the circulation of feelings and ideas among a great people. . . . It will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny. For a government can only dictate precise rules. It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands.