Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Amazon.com online bookstore


Democracy In America - Book 1 - Chapter 8 - Part 3


When the head of the executive power is re-eligible, it is the State which is the source of intrigue and corruption - The desire of being re-elected the chief aim of a President of the United States - Disadvantage of the system peculiar to America - The natural evil of democracy is that it subordinates all authority to the slightest desires of the majority - The re-election of the President encourages this evil.


Alexis de Tocqueville

 Author Notes

Political scientist, historian, politician, author of Democracy in America (1835-1840) and other works

Books by Alexis de Tocqueville
Click on the bookseller link(s) to learn more about these books

Democracy in America
View details at Amazon.com

Old Regime & the French Revolution (1955)
View details at Amazon.com
 Essay -

Chapter VIII: The Federal Constitution - Part III

Re-election Of The President

It may be asked whether the legislators of the United States did right or wrong in allowing the re-election of the President. It seems at first sight contrary to all reason to prevent the head of the executive power from being elected a second time. The influence which the talents and the character of a single individual may exercise upon the fate of a whole people, in critical circumstances or arduous times, is well known: a law preventing the re-election of the chief magistrate would deprive the citizens of the surest pledge of the prosperity and the security of the commonwealth; and, by a singular inconsistency, a man would be excluded from the government at the very time when he had shown his ability in conducting its affairs.

But if these arguments are strong, perhaps still more powerful reasons may be advanced against them. Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government; but when the head of the State can be re-elected these evils rise to a great height, and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his manoeuvres must necessarily be limited to a narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the government for his own purposes. In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter, the State itself, with all its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal. The private citizen, who employs the most immoral practices to acquire power, can only act in a manner indirectly prejudicial to the public prosperity. But if the representative of the executive descends into the combat, the cares of government dwindle into second-rate importance, and the success of his election is his first concern. All laws and all the negotiations he undertakes are to him nothing more than electioneering schemes; places become the reward of services rendered, not to the nation, but to its chief; and the influence of the government, if not injurious to the country, is at least no longer beneficial to the community for which it was created.

It is impossible to consider the ordinary course of affairs in the United States without perceiving that the desire of being re- elected is the chief aim of the President; that his whole administration, and even his most indifferent measures, tend to this object; and that, as the crisis approaches, his personal interest takes the place of his interest in the public good. The principle of re-eligibility renders the corrupt influence of elective government still more extensive and pernicious.

In America it exercises a peculiarly fatal influence on the sources of national existence. Every government seems to be afflicted by some evil which is inherent in its nature, and the genius of the legislator is shown in eluding its attacks. A State may survive the influence of a host of bad laws, and the mischief they cause is frequently exaggerated; but a law which encourages the growth of the canker within must prove fatal in the end, although its bad consequences may not be immediately perceived.

The principle of destruction in absolute monarchies lies in the excessive and unreasonable extension of the prerogative of the crown; and a measure tending to remove the constitutional provisions which counterbalance this influence would be radically bad, even if its immediate consequences were unattended with evil. By a parity of reasoning, in countries governed by a democracy, where the people is perpetually drawing all authority to itself, the laws which increase or accelerate its action are the direct assailants of the very principle of the government.

The greatest proof of the ability of the American legislators is, that they clearly discerned this truth, and that they had the courage to act up to it. They conceived that a certain authority above the body of the people was necessary, which should enjoy a degree of independence, without, however, being entirely beyond the popular control; an authority which would be forced to comply with the permanent determinations of the majority, but which would be able to resist its caprices, and to refuse its most dangerous demands. To this end they centred the whole executive power of the nation in a single arm; they granted extensive prerogatives to the President, and they armed him with the veto to resist the encroachments of the legislature.

But by introducing the principle of re-election they partly destroyed their work; and they rendered the President but little inclined to exert the great power they had vested in his hands. If ineligible a second time, the President would be far from independent of the people, for his responsibility would not be lessened; but the favor of the people would not be so necessary to him as to induce him to court it by humoring its desires. If re- eligible (and this is more especially true at the present day, when political morality is relaxed, and when great men are rare), the President of the United States becomes an easy tool in the hands of the majority. He adopts its likings and its animosities, he hastens to anticipate its wishes, he forestalls its complaints, he yields to its idlest cravings, and instead of guiding it, as the legislature intended that he should do, he is ever ready to follow its bidding. Thus, in order not to deprive the State of the talents of an individual, those talents have been rendered almost useless; and to reserve an expedient for extraordinary perils, the country has been exposed to daily dangers.

Federal Courts *b

[Footnote b: See chap. VI, entitled "Judicial Power in the United States." This chapter explains the general principles of the American theory of judicial institutions. See also the Federal Constitution, Art. 3. See "The Federalists," Nos. 78-83, inclusive; and a work entitled "Constitutional Law," being a view of the practice and jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, by Thomas Sergeant. See Story, pp. 134, 162, 489, 511, 581, 668; and the organic law of September 24, 1789, in the "Collection of the Laws of the United States," by Story, vol. i. p. 53.]

Political importance of the judiciary in the United States - Difficulty of treating this subject - Utility of judicial power in confederations - What tribunals could be introduced into the Union - Necessity of establishing federal courts of justice - Organization of the national judiciary - The Supreme Court - In what it differs from all known tribunals.

I have inquired into the legislative and executive power of the Union, and the judicial power now remains to be examined; but in this place I cannot conceal my fears from the reader. Their judicial institutions exercise a great influence on the condition of the Anglo-Americans, and they occupy a prominent place amongst what are probably called political institutions: in this respect they are peculiarly deserving of our attention. But I am at a loss to explain the political action of the American tribunals without entering into some technical details of their constitution and their forms of proceeding; and I know not how to descend to these minutiae without wearying the curiosity of the reader by the natural aridity of the subject, or without risking to fall into obscurity through a desire to be succinct. I can scarcely hope to escape these various evils; for if I appear too lengthy to a man of the world, a lawyer may on the other hand complain of my brevity. But these are the natural disadvantages of my subject, and more especially of the point which I am about to discuss.

The great difficulty was, not to devise the Constitution to the Federal Government, but to find out a method of enforcing its laws. Governments have in general but two means of overcoming the opposition of the people they govern, viz., the physical force which is at their own disposal, and the moral force which they derive from the decisions of the courts of justice.

A government which should have no other means of exacting obedience than open war must be very near its ruin, for one of two alternatives would then probably occur: if its authority was small and its character temperate, it would not resort to violence till the last extremity, and it would connive at a number of partial acts of insubordination, in which case the State would gradually fall into anarchy; if it was enterprising and powerful, it would perpetually have recourse to its physical strength, and would speedily degenerate into a military despotism. So that its activity would not be less prejudicial to the community than its inaction.

The great end of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence, and to place a legal barrier between the power of the government and the use of physical force. The authority which is awarded to the intervention of a court of justice by the general opinion of mankind is so surprisingly great that it clings to the mere formalities of justice, and gives a bodily influence to the shadow of the law. The moral force which courts of justice possess renders the introduction of physical force exceedingly rare, and is very frequently substituted for it; but if the latter proves to be indispensable, its power is doubled by the association of the idea of law.

A federal government stands in greater need of the support of judicial institutions than any other, because it is naturally weak and exposed to formidable opposition. *c If it were always obliged to resort to violence in the first instance, it could not fulfil its task. The Union, therefore, required a national judiciary to enforce the obedience of the citizens to the laws, and to repeal the attacks which might be directed against them. The question then remained as to what tribunals were to exercise these privileges; were they to be entrusted to the courts of justice which were already organized in every State? or was it necessary to create federal courts? It may easily be proved that the Union could not adapt the judicial power of the States to its wants. The separation of the judiciary from the administrative power of the State no doubt affects the security of every citizen and the liberty of all. But it is no less important to the existence of the nation that these several powers should have the same origin, should follow the same principles, and act in the same sphere; in a word, that they should be correlative and homogeneous. No one, I presume, ever suggested the advantage of trying offences committed in France by a foreign court of justice, in order to secure the impartiality of the judges. The Americans form one people in relation to their Federal Government; but in the bosom of this people divers political bodies have been allowed to subsist which are dependent on the national Government in a few points, and independent in all the rest; which have all a distinct origin, maxims peculiar to themselves, and special means of carrying on their affairs. To entrust the execution of the laws of the Union to tribunals instituted by these political bodies would be to allow foreign judges to preside over the nation. Nay, more; not only is each State foreign to the Union at large, but it is in perpetual opposition to the common interests, since whatever authority the Union loses turns to the advantage of the States. Thus to enforce the laws of the Union by means of the tribunals of the States would be to allow not only foreign but partial judges to preside over the nation.

[Footnote c: Federal laws are those which most require courts of justice, and those at the same time which have most rarely established them. The reason is that confederations have usually been formed by independent States, which entertained no real intention of obeying the central Government, and which very readily ceded the right of command to the federal executive, and very prudently reserved the right of non-compliance to themselves.]

But the number, still more than the mere character, of the tribunals of the States rendered them unfit for the service of the nation. When the Federal Constitution was formed there were already thirteen courts of justice in the United States which decided causes without appeal. That number is now increased to twenty-four. To suppose that a State can subsist when its fundamental laws may be subjected to four-and-twenty different interpretations at the same time is to advance a proposition alike contrary to reason and to experience.

The American legislators therefore agreed to create a federal judiciary power to apply the laws of the Union, and to determine certain questions affecting general interests, which were carefully determined beforehand. The entire judicial power of the Union was centred in one tribunal, which was denominated the Supreme Court of the United States. But, to facilitate the expedition of business, inferior courts were appended to it, which were empowered to decide causes of small importance without appeal, and with appeal causes of more magnitude. The members of the Supreme Court are named neither by the people nor the legislature, but by the President of the United States, acting with the advice of the Senate. In order to render them independent of the other authorities, their office was made inalienable; and it was determined that their salary, when once fixed, should not be altered by the legislature. *d It was easy to proclaim the principle of a Federal judiciary, but difficulties multiplied when the extent of its jurisdiction was to be determined.

[Footnote d: The Union was divided into districts, in each of which a resident Federal judge was appointed, and the court in which he presided was termed a "District Court." Each of the judges of the Supreme Court annually visits a certain portion of the Republic, in order to try the most important causes upon the spot; the court presided over by this magistrate is styled a "Circuit Court." Lastly, all the most serious cases of litigation are brought before the Supreme Court, which holds a solemn session once a year, at which all the judges of the Circuit Courts must attend. The jury was introduced into the Federal Courts in the same manner, and in the same cases, as into the courts of the States.

It will be observed that no analogy exists between the Supreme Court of the United States and the French Cour de Cassation, since the latter only hears appeals on questions of law. The Supreme Court decides upon the evidence of the fact as well as upon the law of the case, whereas the Cour de Cassation does not pronounce a decision of its own, but refers the cause to the arbitration of another tribunal. See the law of September 24, 1789, "Laws of the United States," by Story, vol. i. p. 53.]

Means Of Determining The Jurisdiction Of The Federal Courts Difficulty of determining the jurisdiction of separate courts of justice in confederations - The courts of the Union obtained the right of fixing their own jurisdiction - In what respect this rule attacks the portion of sovereignty reserved to the several States - The sovereignty of these States restricted by the laws, and the interpretation of the laws - Consequently, the danger of the several States is more apparent than real.

As the Constitution of the United States recognized two distinct powers in presence of each other, represented in a judicial point of view by two distinct classes of courts of justice, the utmost care which could be taken in defining their separate jurisdictions would have been insufficient to prevent frequent collisions between those tribunals. The question then arose to whom the right of deciding the competency of each court was to be referred. In nations which constitute a single body politic, when a question is debated between two courts relating to their mutual jurisdiction, a third tribunal is generally within reach to decide the difference; and this is effected without difficulty, because in these nations the questions of judicial competency have no connection with the privileges of the national supremacy. But it was impossible to create an arbiter between a superior court of the Union and the superior court of a separate State which would not belong to one of these two classes. It was, therefore, necessary to allow one of these courts to judge its own cause, and to take or to retain cognizance of the point which was contested. To grant this privilege to the different courts of the States would have been to destroy the sovereignty of the Union de facto after having established it de jure; for the interpretation of the Constitution would soon have restored that portion of independence to the States of which the terms of that act deprived them. The object of the creation of a Federal tribunal was to prevent the courts of the States from deciding questions affecting the national interests in their own department, and so to form a uniform body of jurisprudene for the interpretation of the laws of the Union. This end would not have been accomplished if the courts of the several States had been competent to decide upon cases in their separate capacities from which they were obliged to abstain as Federal tribunals. The Supreme Court of the United States was therefore invested with the right of determining all questions of jurisdiction. *e

[Footnote e: In order to diminish the number of these suits, it was decided that in a great many Federal causes the courts of the States should be empowered to decide conjointly with those of the Union, the losing party having then a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court of Virginia contested the right of the Supreme Court of the United States to judge an appeal from its decisions, but unsuccessfully. See "Kent's Commentaries," vol. i. p. 300, pp. 370 et seq.; Story's "Commentaries," p. 646; and "The Organic Law of the United States," vol. i. p. 35.]

This was a severe blow upon the independence of the States, which was thus restricted not only by the laws, but by the interpretation of them; by one limit which was known, and by another which was dubious; by a rule which was certain, and a rule which was arbitrary. It is true the Constitution had laid down the precise limits of the Federal supremacy, but whenever this supremacy is contested by one of the States, a Federal tribunal decides the question. Nevertheless, the dangers with which the independence of the States was threatened by this mode of proceeding are less serious than they appeared to be. We shall see hereafter that in America the real strength of the country is vested in the provincial far more than in the Federal Government. The Federal judges are conscious of the relative weakness of the power in whose name they act, and they are more inclined to abandon a right of jurisdiction in cases where it is justly their own than to assert a privilege to which they have no legal claim.

Different Cases Of Jurisdiction

The matter and the party are the first conditions of the Federal jurisdiction - Suits in which ambassadors are engaged - Suits of the Union - Of a separate State - By whom tried - Causes resulting from the laws of the Union - Why judged by the Federal tribunals - Causes relating to the performance of contracts tried by the Federal courts - Consequence of this arrangement.

After having appointed the means of fixing the competency of the Federal courts, the legislators of the Union defined the cases which should come within their jurisdiction. It was established, on the one hand, that certain parties must always be brought before the Federal courts, without any regard to the special nature of the cause; and, on the other, that certain causes must always be brought before the same courts, without any regard to the quality of the parties in the suit. These distinctions were therefore admitted to be the basis of the Federal jurisdiction.

Ambassadors are the representatives of nations in a state of amity with the Union, and whatever concerns these personages concerns in some degree the whole Union. When an ambassador is a party in a suit, that suit affects the welfare of the nation, and a Federal tribunal is naturally called upon to decide it.

The Union itself may be invoked in legal proceedings, and in this case it would be alike contrary to the customs of all nations and to common sense to appeal to a tribunal representing any other sovereignty than its own; the Federal courts, therefore, take cognizance of these affairs.

When two parties belonging to two different States are engaged in a suit, the case cannot with propriety be brought before a court of either State. The surest expedient is to select a tribunal like that of the Union, which can excite the suspicions of neither party, and which offers the most natural as well as the most certain remedy.

When the two parties are not private individuals, but States, an important political consideration is added to the same motive of equity. The quality of the parties in this case gives a national importance to all their disputes; and the most trifling litigation of the States may be said to involve the peace of the whole Union. *f

[Footnote f: The Constitution also says that the Federal courts shall decide "controversies between a State and the citizens of another State." And here a most important question of a constitutional nature arose, which was, whether the jurisdiction given by the Constitution in cases in which a State is a party extended to suits brought against a State as well as by it, or was exclusively confined to the latter. The question was most elaborately considered in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, and was decided by the majority of the Supreme Court in the affirmative. The decision created general alarm among the States, and an amendment was proposed and ratified by which the power was entirely taken away, so far as it regards suits brought against a State. See Story's "Commentaries," p. 624, or in the large edition Section 1677.]

The nature of the cause frequently prescribes the rule of competency. Thus all the questions which concern maritime commerce evidently fall under the cognizance of the Federal tribunals. *g Almost all these questions are connected with the interpretation of the law of nations, and in this respect they essentially interest the Union in relation to foreign powers. Moreover, as the sea is not included within the limits of any peculiar jurisdiction, the national courts can only hear causes which originate in maritime affairs.

[Footnote g: As for instance, all cases of piracy.]

The Constitution comprises under one head almost all the cases which by their very nature come within the limits of the Federal courts. The rule which it lays down is simple, but pregnant with an entire system of ideas, and with a vast multitude of facts. It declares that the judicial power of the Supreme Court shall extend to all cases in law and equity arising under the laws of the United States.

Two examples will put the intention of the legislator in the clearest light:

The Constitution prohibits the States from making laws on the value and circulation of money: If, notwithstanding this prohibition, a State passes a law of this kind, with which the interested parties refuse to comply because it is contrary to the Constitution, the case must come before a Federal court, because it arises under the laws of the United States. Again, if difficulties arise in the levying of import duties which have been voted by Congress, the Federal court must decide the case, because it arises under the interpretation of a law of the United States.

This rule is in perfect accordance with the fundamental principles of the Federal Constitution. The Union, as it was established in 1789, possesses, it is true, a limited supremacy; but it was intended that within its limits it should form one and the same people. *h Within those limits the Union is sovereign. When this point is established and admitted, the inference is easy; for if it be acknowledged that the United States constitute one and the same people within the bounds prescribed by their Constitution, it is impossible to refuse them the rights which belong to other nations. But it has been allowed, from the origin of society, that every nation has the right of deciding by its own courts those questions which concern the execution of its own laws. To this it is answered that the Union is in so singular a position that in relation to some matters it constitutes a people, and that in relation to all the rest it is a nonentity. But the inference to be drawn is, that in the laws relating to these matters the Union possesses all the rights of absolute sovereignty. The difficulty is to know what these matters are; and when once it is resolved (and we have shown how it was resolved, in speaking of the means of determining the jurisdiction of the Federal courts) no further doubt can arise; for as soon as it is established that a suit is Federal - that is to say, that it belongs to the share of sovereignty reserved by the Constitution of the Union - the natural consequence is that it should come within the jurisdiction of a Federal court.

[Footnote h: This principle was in some measure restricted by the introduction of the several States as independent powers into the Senate, and by allowing them to vote separately in the House of Representatives when the President is elected by that body. But these are exceptions, and the contrary principle is the rule.]

Whenever the laws of the United States are attacked, or whenever they are resorted to in self-defence, the Federal courts must be appealed to. Thus the jurisdiction of the tribunals of the Union extends and narrows its limits exactly in the same ratio as the sovereignty of the Union augments or decreases. We have shown that the principal aim of the legislators of 1789 was to divide the sovereign authority into two parts. In the one they placed the control of all the general interests of the Union, in the other the control of the special interests of its component States. Their chief solicitude was to arm the Federal Government with sufficient power to enable it to resist, within its sphere, the encroachments of the several States. As for these communities, the principle of independence within certain limits of their own was adopted in their behalf; and they were concealed from the inspection, and protected from the control, of the central Government. In speaking of the division of authority, I observed that this latter principle had not always been held sacred, since the States are prevented from passing certain laws which apparently belong to their own particular sphere of interest. When a State of the Union passes a law of this kind, the citizens who are injured by its execution can appeal to the Federal courts.

Thus the jurisdiction of the Federal courts extends not only to all the cases which arise under the laws of the Union, but also to those which arise under laws made by the several States in opposition to the Constitution. The States are prohibited from making ex post facto laws in criminal cases, and any person condemned by virtue of a law of this kind can appeal to the judicial power of the Union. The States are likewise prohibited from making laws which may have a tendency to impair the obligations of contracts. *i If a citizen thinks that an obligation of this kind is impaired by a law passed in his State, he may refuse to obey it, and may appeal to the Federal courts. *j

[Footnote i: It is perfectly clear, says Mr. Story ("Commentaries," p. 503, or in the large edition Section 1379), that any law which enlarges, abridges, or in any manner changes the intention of the parties, resulting from the stipulations in the contract, necessarily impairs it. He gives in the same place a very long and careful definition of what is understood by a contract in Federal jurisprudence. A grant made by the State to a private individual, and accepted by him, is a contract, and cannot be revoked by any future law. A charter granted by the State to a company is a contract, and equally binding to the State as to the grantee. The clause of the Constitution here referred to insures, therefore, the existence of a great part of acquired rights, but not of all. Property may legally be held, though it may not have passed into the possessor's hands by means of a contract; and its possession is an acquired right, not guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.]

[Footnote j: A remarkable instance of this is given by Mr. Story (p. 508, or in the large edition Section 1388): "Dartmouth College in New Hampshire had been founded by a charter granted to certain individuals before the American Revolution, and its trustees formed a corporation under this charter. The legislature of New Hampshire had, without the consent of this corporation, passed an act changing the organization of the original provincial charter of the college, and transferring all the rights, privileges, and franchises from the old charter trustees to new trustees appointed under the act. The constitutionality of the act was contested, and, after solemn arguments, it was deliberately held by the Supreme Court that the provincial charter was a contract within the meaning of the Constitution (Art. I. Section 10), and that the emendatory act was utterly void, as impairing the obligation of that charter. The college was deemed, like other colleges of private foundation, to be a private eleemosynary institution, endowed by its charter with a capacity to take property unconnected with the Government. Its funds were bestowed upon the faith of the charter, and those funds consisted entirely of private donations. It is true that the uses were in some sense public, that is, for the general benefit, and not for the mere benefit of the corporators; but this did not make the corporation a public corporation. It was a private institution for general charity. It was not distinguishable in principle from a private donation, vested in private trustees, for a public charity, or for a particular purpose of beneficence. And the State itself, if it had bestowed funds upon a charity of the same nature, could not resume those funds."]

This provision appears to me to be the most serious attack upon the independence of the States. The rights awarded to the Federal Government for purposes of obvious national importance are definite and easily comprehensible; but those with which this last clause invests it are not either clearly appreciable or accurately defined. For there are vast numbers of political laws which influence the existence of obligations of contracts, which may thus furnish an easy pretext for the aggressions of the central authority.

This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.