Summer 2007

The intellectual underpinnings of American democracy

Joyce Oldham Appleby

Joyce Appleby, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1993, is professor emerita of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of numerous books, including “Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England” (1978), winner of the Berkshire Prize, “Capitalism and a New Social Order” (1984), “Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination” (1992), and “A Restless Past: History and the American Public” (2005).

The history of American democracy is usually presented as a political story tout court.1 Nineteenth-century scholars pointed to the Declaration of Independence as the fundamental document. Now that the Founding Fathers are seen as actively checking “the excess of democracy” in the 1780s when they ratified the U.S. Constitution’s creation of an energetic federal government, democracy is variously depicted as arriving in the United States with the election of Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson.

Hardly anyone touches the subject without invoking the elegant observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in his now classic Democracy in America. Arriving fifty-six years after Americans announced their independence, the twenty-six-year-old French nobleman marveled at the pervasive purchase of democratic mores and read that vigor back into the past. Astute as he was, Tocqueville did not escape the tendency of his age to naturalize social forces (and hence stoked Americans’ own desire to romanticize their democratic mores). What Tocqueville missed or minimized were the bitter political fights leading to the electoral defeat of the Federalist founders and the triumph of a boisterous, democratic opposition. Instead, ‘equality of condition’ serves, in Democracy in America, as something of a deux ex machina, summoned to explain a variety of social preferences, habits of thoughts, and political practices.

In many ways American society was exceptional when compared with others in the world, but no complicated cultural transformation emerges naturally. Behind the democracy that Jefferson and his party espoused was a hundred-year-old transformation of basic ideas about human nature and social order. The democratization of economic opportunity after 1800 played an important role as well.

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  • 1This essay was first presented as the Lewis Walpole Library Lecture at Yale University, April 22, 2005.
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