The Emperors possessed, it is true, an immense and unchecked power which allowed them to gratify all their whimsical tastes and to employ for that purpose the whole strength of the state. They frequently abused that power arbitrarily to deprive their subjects of property or life; their tyranny was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the greater number; it was fixed to some few main objects and neglected the rest; it was violent but its range was limited.
But it would seem that, if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands, and might interfere more habitually and decidedly within the sphere of private interests, than any sovereigns of the antiquity ever could do. . . .
I think then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate; the thing itself is new; and since I can not name it, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. . . . Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having successfully taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned them at will the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the network of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize but it compresses, ennervates, extinguishes, and stupifies people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd. . . .
. . . I believe that it is easier to establish a despotic government among a people in which the conditions of society are equal than among any other; and I think that if such a government were once established among such a people, it would not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism therefore appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic ages.