Township Freedom and the importance of place in American democracy

16 Jul

From Ted Mcallister:


Tocqueville’s first real discussion of “native country” in Democracy in America comes in the context of his examination of township freedom. He argues that freedom didn’t emerge in America in the abstract, as expressed, for instance, in the Declaration of Independence (a document that he never mentions in his two-volume analysis of American democracy). Nor did American freedom spring from the freedom of an individual in a state of nature. The most important freedom to appear in the American wilderness was political freedom — the power and latitude of citizens to govern themselves without any real interference from outside and more distant authorities. This political freedom, resting on the authority of a historically expansive franchise, allowed each township to define its own laws.

American devotion to freedom emerged from social and political life, not from solitary individuals seeking protection of what is theirs by nature. Because democracy serves as a solvent to relationships that bind individuals together through mutual forms of obligation, it tends to reduce society to a loose association of individuals whose connections are products of affection, desire, and mutually agreed-upon contract. The origins of American freedom are essential to explaining how democratic instincts were altered by circumstance.

The township, Tocqueville argued (following Aristotle), is a natural form of association, found throughout history. But, however natural the township, history knows very few cases where township freedom (the freedom to govern themselves without interference) lasted long enough for citizens to establish deep habits of self-rule and emotional attachments to their own town. Because American townships (or at least New England townships), during a long period of salutary neglect, produced countless and distinct varieties of these self-governing communities, they also produced a patriotism attached to each town wrought by these ongoing habits of self-rule. By investing as many citizens as possible in the regular acts of government, these townships foster a distinct sense of ownership or meaningful participation — for their citizens it was truly “our town.”

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