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Alexis de Tocqueville on Civic Virtue and Self-Interest Rightly Understood in American Democracy

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Allen, Barbara
Conference: Teaching Civic Virtue: A Workshop on Citizenship, 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association
Location: Boston, MA
Conf. Date: September 2-6, 1998
Date: 1998
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/599
Sector: Social Organization
Region: North America
Subject(s): Tocqueville, Alexis de
Abstract: "When Alexis de Tocqueville observed democratic life in America, he encountered a number of 'strange paradoxes.' Americans haphazardly employed a shallow, if admittedly pragmatic public philosophy, while also engaging themselves deeply in the civic demands of self-government. They imbued majority opinion with nearly religious significance, yet maintained institutions that depended on individual experimentation, innovation, and expression. The general teachings of revealed religion influenced their political habits to an unprecedented extent, while church and state remained separated in law. At first America appeared to Tocqueville as a series of contradictions. But gradually he saw that Americans were perpetually balancing liberty and obligation in greater and lesser acts that reflected self-sacrifice as much as self-interest. Their republican style of political virtue, he concluded, turned on a proper understanding of interest. 'Self-interest rightly understood' represented a desire to serve the general good and understanding of the social dimension of private actions that was itself a complex balance of seemingly opposing sensibilities. This type of civic virtue combined a disinterested concern for others with calculations of private welfare. The federal frame of government encouraged people to balance public good and private interest, as did intermediate institutions such as voluntary associations and the structure of family life. Tocqueville attributed some of America's success with self-government to the gendered nature of citizenship. Women played a vital role in civic education, while they were prevented from taking part in such acts of citizenship as voting and military service. Tocqueville understood the civic contributions of men and women to be separate and complementary. His analysis raises its own paradoxes for us as we explore the nature of citizenship and civic virtue today."

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