1835 | Paris

Paper Trail

Alexis de Tocqueville examines the role of the media in a democracy.

When men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the cooperation of any great number of them, unless you can persuade every man whose concurrence you require that this private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the rest.

This can only be habitually and conveniently effected by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an adviser who does not require to be sought, but who comes of his own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the commonweal, without distracting you from your private affairs.

Newspapers therefore become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization. I shall not deny that in democratic countries newspapers frequently lead the citizens to launch together in very ill-digested schemes, but if there were no newspapers, there would be no common activity. The evil they produce is therefore much less than that which they cure.

The effect of a newspaper is not only to suggest the same purpose to a great number of persons but also to furnish means for executing in common the designs they may have singly conceived. The principal citizens who inhabit an aristocratic country discern each other from afar. If they wish to unite their forces, they move toward each other, drawing a multitude of men after them. It frequently happens, on the contrary, in democratic countries that a great number of men who wish or who want to combine cannot accomplish it, because as they are very insignificant and lost amid the crowd, they cannot see, and know not where to find, one another. A newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided toward this beacon, and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite.

The newspaper brought them together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united. In order that an association among a democratic people should have any power, it must be a numerous body. The persons of whom it is composed are therefore scattered over a wide extent, and each of them is detained in the place of his domicile by the narrowness of his income, or by the small unremitting exertions by which he earns it. Means then must be found to converse every day without seeing each other, and to take steps in common without having met. Thus hardly any democratic association can do without newspapers. There is consequently a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers. And if it has been correctly advanced that associations will increase in number as the conditions of men become more equal, it is not less certain that the number of newspapers increases in proportion to that of associations. Thus it is in America that we find at the same time the greatest number of associations and of newspapers.

The Five Points, American oil painting, c. 1827. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Alice Whitney, from the collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, 2016.

This connection between the number of newspapers and that of associations leads us to the discovery of a further connection between the state of the periodical press and the form of the administration in a country and shows that the number of newspapers must diminish or increase among a democratic people in proportion as its administration is more or less centralized. For among democratic nations, the exercise of local powers cannot be entrusted to the principal members of the community as in aristocracies. Those powers must either be abolished or placed in the hands of very large numbers of men, who then in fact constitute an association permanently established by law for the purpose of administering the affairs of a certain extent of territory. And they require a journal to bring to them every day, in the midst of their own minor concerns, some intelligence of the state of their public weal. The more numerous local powers are, the greater is the number of men in whom they are vested by law. And as this want is hourly felt, the more profusely do newspapers abound.

The extraordinary subdivision of administrative power has much more to do with the enormous number of American newspapers than the great political freedom of the country and the absolute liberty of the press. If all the inhabitants of the union had the suffrage—but a suffrage that should only extend to the choice of their legislators in Congress—they would require but few newspapers, because they would only have to act together on a few important but rare occasions. But within the pale of the great association of the nation, lesser associations have been established by law in every country, every city, and indeed in every village for the purposes of local administration. The laws of the country thus compel every American to cooperate every day of his life with some of his fellow citizens for a common purpose, and each one of them requires a newspaper to inform him what all the others are doing.

Everyone else is represented in Washington by a rich and powerful lobby, it seems. But there is no lobby for the people.

—Shirley Chisholm, 1970

I am of the opinion that a democratic people, without any national representative assemblies but with a great number of small local powers, would have in the end more newspapers than another people governed by a centralized administration and an elective legislation. What best explains to me the enormous circulation of the daily press in the United States is that among the Americans I find the utmost national freedom combined with local freedom of every kind. There is a prevailing opinion in France and England that the circulation of newspapers would be indefinitely increased by removing the taxes that have been laid upon the press. This is a very exaggerated estimate of the effects of such a reform. Newspapers increase in numbers not according to their cheapness but according to the more or less frequent want that a great number of men may feel for intercommunication and combination.

In like manner, I should attribute the increasing influence of the daily press to causes more general than those by which it is commonly explained. A newspaper can only subsist on the condition of publishing sentiments or principles common to a large number of men. A newspaper therefore always represents an association that is composed of its habitual readers. This association may be more or less defined, more or less restricted, more or less numerous. But the fact that the newspaper keeps alive is a proof that at least the germ of such an association exists in the minds of its readers.

This leads me to a last reflection. The more equal the conditions of men become, and the less strong men individually are, the more easily do they give way to the current of the multitude, and the more difficult is it for them to adhere by themselves to an opinion that the multitude discard. A newspaper represents an association; it may be said to address each of its readers in the name of all the others, and to exert its influence over them in proportion to their individual weakness. The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.


Alexis de Tocqueville

From Democracy in America. While traveling in America with his friend Gustave de Beaumont in 1831, the twenty-five-year-old Tocqueville was struck by the “astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers” on the frontier. “In the Michigan forests there is not a cabin so isolated, not a valley so wild, that it does not receive letters and newspapers at least once a week,” he wrote. The nine-month journey, taking him as far north as Quebec and as far south as Louisiana, inspired him to write Democracy in America, published in four volumes from 1835 to 1840.