Democracy in America, Volume 2

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Chapter 12: Why the Americans Raise Some Monuments So Insignificant, and Others So Important

I HAVE just observed, that in democratic ages monuments of the arts tend to become more numerous and less important. I now hasten to point out the exception to this rule. In a democratic community individuals are very powerless; but the State which represents them all, and contains them all in its grasp, is very powerful. Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation; nowhere does the nation itself appear greater, or does the mind more easily take in a wide general survey of it. In democratic communities the imagination is compressed when men consider themselves; it expands indefinitely when they think of the State. Hence it is that the same men who live on a small scale in narrow dwellings, frequently aspire to gigantic splendor in the erection of their public monuments.

The Americans traced out the circuit of an immense city on the site which they intended to make their capital, but which, up to the present time, is hardly more densely peopled than Pontoise, though, according to them, it will one day contain a million of inhabitants. They have already rooted up trees for ten miles round, lest they should interfere with the future citizens of this imaginary metropolis. They have erected a magnificent palace for Congress in the centre of the city, and have given it the pompous name of the Capitol. The several States of the Union are every day planning and erecting for themselves prodigious undertakings, which would astonish the engineers of the great European nations. Thus democracy not only leads men to a vast number of inconsiderable productions; it also leads them to raise some monuments on the largest scale: but between these two extremes there is a blank. A few scattered remains of enormous buildings can therefore teach us nothing of the social condition and the institutions of the people by whom they were raised. I may add, though the remark leads me to step out of my subject, that they do not make us better acquainted with its greatness, its civilization, and its real prosperity. Whensoever a power of any kind shall be able to make a whole people co-operate in a single undertaking, that power, with a little knowledge and a great deal of time, will succeed in obtaining something enormous from the co-operation of efforts so multiplied. But this does not lead to the conclusion that the people was very happy, very enlightened, or even very strong.

The Spaniards found the City of Mexico full of magnificent temples and vast palaces; but that did not prevent Cortes from conquering the Mexican Empire with 600 foot soldiers and sixteen horses. If the Romans had been better acquainted with the laws of hydraulics, they would not have constructed all the aqueducts which surround the ruins of their cities—they would have made a better use of their power and their wealth. If they had invented the steam-engine, perhaps they would not have extended to the extremities of their empire those long artificial roads which are called Roman roads. These things are at once the splendid memorials of their ignorance and of their greatness. A people which should leave no other vestige of its track than a few leaden pipes in the earth and a few iron rods upon its surface, might have been more the master of nature than the Romans.

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Chicago: "Book 1, Chapter 12: Why the Americans Raise Some Monuments So Insignificant, and Others So Important," Democracy in America, Volume 2 in Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.56-57 Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=941CCHBKWJ18Q2B.

MLA: . "Book 1, Chapter 12: Why the Americans Raise Some Monuments So Insignificant, and Others So Important." Democracy in America, Volume 2, in Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.56-57, Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=941CCHBKWJ18Q2B.

Harvard: , 'Book 1, Chapter 12: Why the Americans Raise Some Monuments So Insignificant, and Others So Important' in Democracy in America, Volume 2. cited in , Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Henry Reeve, 2 Vols. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900), Pp.56-57. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=941CCHBKWJ18Q2B.