Democracy in America, Volume 1

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Arbitrary Power of Magistrates Under the Rule of the American Democracy

For what reason the arbitrary power of Magistrates is greater in absolute monarchies and in democratic republics than it is in limited monarchies—Arbitrary power of the Magistrates in New England.

In two different kinds of government the magistrates a exercise a considerable degree of arbitrary power; namely, under the absolute government of a single individual, and under that of a democracy. This identical result proceeds from causes which are nearly analogous.

In despotic States the fortune of no citizen is secure; and public officers are not more safe than private individuals. The sovereign, who has under his control the lives, the property, and sometimes the honor of the men whom he employs, does not scruple to allow them a great latitude of action, because he is convinced that they will not use it to his prejudice. In despotic States the sovereign is so attached to the exercise of his power, that he dislikes the constraint even of his own regulations; and he is well pleased that his agents should follow a somewhat fortuitous line of conduct, provided he be certain that their actions will never counteract his desires.

In democracies, as the majority has every year the right of depriving the officers whom it has appointed of their power, it has no reason to fear any abuse of their authority. As the people is always able to signify its wishes to those who conduct the Government, it prefers leaving them to make their own exertions to prescribing an invariable rule of conduct which would at once fetter their activity and the popular authority.

It may even be observed, on attentive consideration, that under the rule of a democracy the arbitrary power of the magistrate must be still greater than in despotic States. In the latter the sovereign has the power of punishing all the faults with which he becomes acquainted, but it would be vain for him to hope to become acquainted with all those which are committed. In the former the sovereign power is not only supreme, but it is universally present. The American functionaries are, in point of fact, much more independent in the sphere of action which the law traces out for them than any public officer in Europe. Very frequently the object which they are to accomplish is simply pointed out to them, and the choice of the means is left to their own discretion.

In New England, for instance, the selectmen of each township are bound to draw up the list of persons who are to serve on the jury; the only rule which is laid down to guide them in their choice is that they are to select citizens possessing the elective franchise and enjoying a fair reputation. In France the lives and liberties of the subjects would be thought to be in danger if a public officer of any kind was entrusted with so formidable a right. In New England the same magistrates are empowered to post the names of habitual drunkards in public-houses, and to prohibit the inhabitants of a town from supplying them with liquor. A censorial power of this excessive kind would be revolting to the population of the most absolute monarchies; here, however, it is submitted to without difficulty.

Nowhere has so much been left by the law to the arbitrary determination of the magistrate as in democratic republics, because this arbitrary power is unattended by any alarming consequences. It may even be asserted that the freedom of the magistrate increases as the elective franchise is extended, and as the duration of the time of office is shortened. Hence arises the great difficulty which attends the conversion of a democratic republic into a monarchy. The magistrate ceases to be elective, but he retains the rights and the habits of an elected officer, which lead directly to despotism.

It is only in limited monarchies that the law, which prescribes the sphere in which public officers are to act, superintends all their measures. The cause of this may be easily detected. In limited monarchies the power is divided between the King does not venture to place the public officers under the control of the people, lest they should be tempted to betray his interests; on the other hand, the people fears lest the magistrates should serve to oppress the liberties of the country, if they were entirely dependent upon the Crown; they cannot therefore be said to depend on either one or the other. The same cause which induces the king and the people to render public officers independent suggests the necessity of such securities as may prevent their independence from encroaching upon the authority of the former and the liberties of the latter. They consequently agree as to the necessity of restricting the functionary to a line of conduct laid down beforehand, and they are interested in confining him by certain regulations which he cannot evade.

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Chicago: "Arbitrary Power of Magistrates Under the Rule of the American Democracy," Democracy in America, Volume 1 in Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.210-212 Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMIELIF6FMXEP54.

MLA: . "Arbitrary Power of Magistrates Under the Rule of the American Democracy." Democracy in America, Volume 1, in Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.210-212, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMIELIF6FMXEP54.

Harvard: , 'Arbitrary Power of Magistrates Under the Rule of the American Democracy' in Democracy in America, Volume 1. cited in , Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.210-212. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMIELIF6FMXEP54.