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In 1776, American colonies were deciding whether they should be further dominated by Great Britain or become free from the power of the sovereign. Tomas Paine was one of the advocates of the separation from the monarchy and the establishment of democracy. In his pamphlet, Commons Sense, he outlined his vision of the democratic future of America and opposed the power of the king. In the same year, the United States became an independent country, and over 50 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville stated his reflections about the threats of the current political system in his text Democracy in America. These two works by Paine and Tocqueville reveal the change that happened in the perception of monarchy, democracy, and tyranny over time. What Paine considered to be American freedom turned out to be a new form of despotism from Tocqueville’s point of view.
To prove that the US had to break free from Britain’s power, Paine started his pamphlet by explaining why humans need a government at all. In his opinion, humans are subject to vices and cannot control themselves effectively (Paine 3). Therefore, the government is “a necessary evil” that is established “to supply the defect of moral virtue” (Paine 2-3). Indeed, without any administration, society would be drowned in chaos, mainly because of human greed and envy.
Naturally, people may be ruled in various ways, so Paine suggested a scenario for a successful government reigning over a happy community. From his point of view, a king meant nothing for the well-being of society; rather, the prosperity of the nation depended on common interests and mutual support of each other (Paine 3). To maintain such relationships in society, people should elect their representatives regularly, and the elected should return to the community after serving their terms (Paine 3). Thus, the government should be formed of people who are aware of the electors’ pains and needs and can address these issues.
However, such a type of government is impossible with a monarchy. Paine found the political system with a king at the head absurd because “it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required” (4). He argued that monarchs were separated from the public due to their position but were required to be well informed of it, which were two contradictory clauses (Paine 4). The ignorance of the living conditions of the subjects often resulted in a divorce between common people and a ruling clique with a sovereign at the head. Therefore, the king’s decisions were designed to satisfy the needs of the elite rather than improve the position of the community.
There was one more reason why Paine was discontented with the future of America under British dominance. He thought monarchs to be useless in countries like Britain, where they were responsible for neither military nor civil business (Paine 10). He wrote, “in England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places,” meaning that a monarch contributed to the poverty of the nation and conflicts within the country. (Paine 10). Therefore, a sovereign was not just needless but even harmful to the state. It may be concluded from Paine’s point of view that abolishing the monarchy and establishing democracy in its place would eliminate wars and improve the nation’s well-being.
Another thing that Paine criticized about monarchy was hereditary succession. First, it is an unnatural process since people are born equal, so it is unfair to endow some of them with privileges because of their parents’ titles or wealth (Paine 8). Secondly, even though a king might be a decent and wise ruler, his heir could be a villain or a fool unworthy of the inherited position and threatening the welfare of society (Paine 8). Paine believed that if people were allowed to elect their governors, they would choose wisely and grant a high position only to the worthiest members of the community.
Though selecting rulers through universal suffrage may sound like a good idea, Tocqueville revealed its drawbacks. He believed that extended observation and thorough analysis were required to assess the character of a person and decide whether he or she was fit for an administrative position (Tocqueville 2). He thought that ordinary people were incapable of this since they had “neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind” (Tocqueville 2). Therefore, the democracy that vested every member of the community with the right to participate in the election was not the most appropriate form of government.
It appears that none of the political systems criticized by Paine and Tocqueville was able to provide the nation with a good ruler. Perhaps, Paine put his trust in democracy because he believed that people would be wise enough to choose a decent person to govern them. However, as time passed, Tocqueville had a chance to evaluate the real consequences of an electoral system. He noticed that the wisest people appeared to be out of power in most cases (Tocqueville 1). Tocqueville’s point of view seems more viable because it is supported not only by his judgment but also by the evidence from the present world. Presentable and eloquent government figures have greater chances to win public favor than their smarter but less appealing opponents because people often do not take time to weigh their choices.
There is also a difference between Paine’s and Tocqueville’s views of equality. Paine objected to the monarchy and hereditary succession since he thought that dividing people into subjects and kings was against nature (5). However, Tocqueville saw a threat to equality as an essential attribute of democracy because he thought it could lead to the establishment of despotism (3). He argued that in unequal societies, the power of a tyrant was violent but confined (Tocqueville 4). With equality, despotism would be milder but more extended and “would degrade men without tormenting them” (Tocqueville 4). Since all people in a democratic state are supposed to have an equal modest income, their wants should be limited, which, in its turn, should moderate the ambitions of a tyrant (Tocqueville 4). Probably, such a society would not even notice if their democratic state turned into a despotic one.
Tocqueville tried to figure out other features of tyranny that could arise from democracy. He found a threat in individualism stemmed from equality, which implied that people were concerned only about themselves and their families and did not care about their fellow citizens (Tocqueville 5). Such a society could beget a tyrant who would take care that people were happy, but the essence of that happiness would be decided by the ruler (Tocqueville 5). Tocqueville described this power as the one that “does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people” (5). Under such a government, humans’ freedom is limited to the possibility of choosing their ruler, and the rest is decided for them (Tocqueville 6). Essentially, this democratic tyranny does not differ much from the kingship criticized by Paine. The main distinction is that with a monarchy, people are aware of their dependent position. With the despotism described by Tocqueville, they pretend to be free while being controlled by an absolute ruler.
Paine’s and Tocqueville’s attitudes toward aristocracy also do not match. While Paine opposed the existence of the elite, mainly because its members gained their statuses by descent, Tocqueville considered it a useful force for restraining the power of the ruler (8). Although Tocqueville realized that hereditary succession could not be retrieved in a democratic state, he suggested the establishment of “bodies of great wealth, influence, and strength, corresponding to the persons of an aristocracy” (8). Probably, this proposal has the right to exist since such a group of citizens could indeed guarantee adherence to democratic principles and prevent the development of tyranny.
In conclusion, it seems that over time, the ideas about monarchy, democracy, and tyranny changed considerably. Although in the 19th century, despotism was still regarded as evil, the image of it altered. A tyrant was thought to be not violent but supervisory and limiting people’s will. Moreover, democracy was regarded not as the liberation of a monarchy but as a basis for the potential establishment of tyranny.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America. 1776, Web.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America: Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the Web Site of American Studies, University of Virginia. 1831, Web.