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The union as idea: Tocqueville on the American constitution

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Tocqueville's chapter on the American Constitution reflects on the attempt to superimpose a large-scale union upon what was originally a loose collection of self-governing local democracies. The latter are communities which draw easily from the natural basis for public-spiritedness, which is local patriotism. The constitutional system, on the other hand, must nurture loyalty to a union whose core is a set of legal formalities specifying the allocation of powers. Tocqueville shows that the federal union avoids the combination of republicanism with extreme centralization that was sought by the revolutionaries in France. Nevertheless, the constitutional system harbours a tension between the original, more natural sources of civic loyalty and the abstract principles necessary for a national structure based upon complex theories of federation. The insight into this tension between constitutional idea and local democratic practice is at the heart of Tocqueville's reservations about the future of the union.
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Keywords: American Constitution; Centralization; Commune; Constitutionalism; Federalism; Idea of right; Public spirit; Republicanism; Republics; Tocqueville; Unification; Union

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Political Science, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA. Email:[email protected]

Publication date: 01 April 1998

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