Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tocqueville (1805-1859) on the Influence of Democracy on Fatherhood

An excerpt from Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. III, Ch. 8:

Everyone has noticed that relations among family members have changed in recent years, that the distance that once separated a father from his sons has decreased and that paternal authority has been if not destroyed then at least impaired.
Something analogous but even more striking can be seen in the United States.
In America, the family--taking the word in its Roman and aristocratic sense--does not exist.  What few vestiges remain exist only during the first few years following the birth of children.  During that time the father enjoys the unchallenged domestic dictatorship that the weakness of his sons required and their interest, together with their father's incontestable superiority, justifies.
 As the young American approaches manhood, however, the bonds of filial obedience grow looser with each passing day.  He first becomes master of his thoughts and soon thereafter of his conduct.  In America, to tell the truth, there is no such thing as adolescence.  When boyhood ends, the man stands forth and begins to set his own course. [Today it would seem that 'adolescence' is a term which picks out a latter stage of boyhood, but not for Tocqueville.]
When the social state becomes democratic and men adopt as a general principle that it is good and legitimate to judge all things in relation to oneself, taking old beliefs as information and not as rule, the power of opinion that a father exerts over his sons diminishes, as does his legal power.
The division of patrimonies, which is a consequence of democracy, contributes more than anything else, perhaps, to changing the relationship between a father and his children.
So as power slips away from the aristocracy, we see all that was austere, conventional, and legal vanishing from paternal power as well, and a kind of equality establishing itself around the domestic hearth.
I do not know whether, all things considered, society loses as a result of this change, but I am inclined to believe that the individual gains.  I believe that as mores and laws become more democratic, relations between father and sons become more intimate and tender.  Rule and authority are less frequently encountered.  Confidence and affection are often greater, and the natural bond seems to grow tighter as the social bond is relaxed.
It is not impossible, I think, to sum up the entire meaning of this chapter and several of those that precede it in a single sentence.  Democracy relaxes social bonds but tightens natural bonds.  It brings kin closer together while at the same time driving citizens apart. [No doubt Tocqueville was a shrewd observer, but just how prescient he is here is open to debate].

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