The Social Compact in American History

By Achenbaum, W. Andrew | Generations, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Social Compact in American History

Achenbaum, W. Andrew, Generations

Such contemporary trends as population aging require new adjustments.

Social compact is a fuzzy phrase in U.S. political discourse. When that sturdy band of Pilgrims pledged their collective futures to one another on the Mayflower, they viewed their pact as a sacred trust. Now, a "compact" carries less theological weight than a "covenant" It has less standing under the law than a "contract." But we still attach significance to social compacts because we presume (or hope) that they promote unity between generations. This connection was already evident in one of the classic texts that defines our American identity.

In 1831 the French government sent Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville to the New World to study the U.S. penal system. The two young aristocrats inspected prisons and toured the northeast extensively for nine months. After reporting back to officials, Tocqueville wrote two volumes of observations based on their experiences. Democracy in America is "one of the great and enduring works of political literature,' declared Henry Steele Commager (1967, p. 195), saying it combines "a great theme with a philosophy profound enough to comprehend it, a temperament judicious enough to interpret it, an intelligence acute enough to master it, (and) a style adequate to its demands"

Democracy in America is a masterpiece because Tocqueville succeeded in elevating what might simply have been another European's travel account into a (perceptive) critique of long-term developments in western history, one full of (pretty accurate) forecasts about future trends. The Frenchman relied on his powers of inductive reasoning as well as his discerning eye in analyzing the strengths and shortcomings of modem democracy. "I confess that in America I saw more than America," he wrote in the introduction to his first volume (1835). "I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress"

The scope of Democracy in America extends far beyond what the author actually witnessed. His critique of governance, comity, and values in Jacksonian America illuminated how democratic upheavals had transformed social relations and class-based politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Tocqueville believed that traditional rules of order, once held in tight control by aristocracies, were in the 1830s giving way to new social compacts renegotiated so as to empower ordinary men and women.

"Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more than the general equality of condition among the people;' Tocqueville asserted in the opening lines of Democracy in America. "It creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce." Understanding America, declared this soon of the Enlightenment, was away of gazing into the future. Tocqueville made clear that "progress" to date had not invariably promoted benevolence. Fascinated by the democratic ethos born of revolution, he nevertheless remembered that Parisian crowds in the 1790s had beheaded his noble grandfather. Tocqueville wondered whether the ind/i/dua/ and restlessness he associated with U.S. democracy would alter the citizenry's capacity to enter into social compacts in order to work together for mutually beneficial ends.


Tocqueville elaborated his ambivalence about the future prospects of social compacts in the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). Whereas patriarchs held sway in aristocracies, generational succession in democracies gave rise to new voices. Such a radical transition, to Tocqueville's surprise, had not fundamentally disrupted ties between young and old, rich and poor, or men and women. The prevalence of relative equality in the United States was a far more critical factor in reworking social relations.

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