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date: 14 June 2024

de Tocqueville, Alexisfree

de Tocqueville, Alexisfree

  • Kathryn W. Kemp


  • North American Literatures

The two-volume work Democracy in America (1835, 1840) grew out of a nine-month trip to the United States early in the career of a distinguished French statesman and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville. Convinced that democracy in some form would soon replace the old authoritarian systems of administration, he saw the United States as a case study of this new form of government. He wrote for a French audience, which he hoped would draw useful lessons from his observations of Jacksonian America. Tocqueville's book has become a standard resource for students of American history and government and has inspired many other works, including a documentary television series.

Early Life

Tocqueville's aristocratic parents narrowly escaped execution while imprisoned during the French Revolution. This period of fear and uncertainty marked the psychological life of Tocqueville's family, particularly that of his mother, and probably contributed to his usually serious demeanor. The influence of the Jansenists, rigorously pious Catholics, also is evident in some of his thinking. Born in Paris on 29 July 1805, Tocqueville became a gifted scholar. After completing his education, he became a magistrate in April 1827. Three years later, when Louis-Philippe supplanted Charles X on the French throne, Tocqueville continued to serve in his post, but only reluctantly did he swear the required oaths of allegiance to the new monarch. He felt pessimistic about his future in the new regime, as did his close friend and colleague, Gustave de Beaumont. To avoid the turmoil of politics, the two jurists found it expedient in 1831 to seek a leave of absence. They would spend some months examining the innovative penitentiaries of the United States, institutions that employed full or partial solitary confinement in their attempt to reform inmates. In May, Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived in New York City. They stayed in America until the following February, not only looking at prisons, but also examining American culture as they toured through seventeen of the twenty-four United States.

Traveling in America

Tocqueville and Beaumont spent a large part of their time in the cities of the North and East. But wherever they went—New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, or New Orleans—“society” received them enthusiastically. They met many prominent people, including the former president, John Quincy Adams, and the sitting chief executive, President Andrew Jackson. Despite Tocqueville's often fragile health, the two men also traveled into wilderness areas around the eastern Great Lakes. They saw Niagara Falls, and a Chippewa guide took them as far as the settlement of Saginaw, Michigan. They also made a side excursion to Canada.

Travel in the 1830s presented huge difficulties, so their plan to go by riverboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans during the winter months of 1831–1832 required constant revision. Ice blocked the rivers, boats ran aground, and overland detours involved walking through deep snow or riding in rickety conveyances of all sorts. En route, Tocqueville became ill and the two travelers accepted the rough hospitality of a drafty log postal station at Sandy Bridge, Tennessee, where water froze in the cup before it was consumed. In spite of these difficulties, Beaumont nursed his friend back to health and they completed the journey to New Orleans. Arriving on the first day of the new year, they spent three days before beginning the return leg of the trip. In another twelve days they had arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, having bypassed important southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina. They immediately sailed for Washington, D.C., where they called on President Andrew Jackson before sailing for Europe in February 1832.

Writing Democracy

Very shortly after their return to France, Beaumont was dismissed from his position for political reasons. Tocqueville, who already had begun to contemplate a change in careers, resigned in protest. The two had coauthored a report on American prisons—Du système pénetentiare aux Etats-Unis et de son application en France (The U.S. penitentiary system, 1833)—that was well received, winning the 14,000 franc Montyon Prize of the French Academy (Académie française), and they evidently had planned to collaborate on a general study of the United States. However, their differing interests and literary styles soon led them to work on separate projects. Beaumont's novel, Marie, ou l'esclavage aux Etats-Unis (Marie, or slavery in the United States, 1835), explored race relations in America. For his part, Tocqueville decided to analyze the expansion of democracy in the light of American government, politics, and a few other, closely related topics. First, he made a brief visit to Great Britain to observe the beginnings of the Great Reform, which seemed to confirm his thesis on the inexorable expansion of democracy. He then retired to an attic in his parent's home to write the first volume of Democracy in America, employing two young Americans to translate and summarize documents. In the process, he referred to The Federalist, the classic essays supporting ratification of the U.S. Constitution, among other American works. When the first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, its immediate success led to publisher to exclaim, “Well, it seems you've written a masterpiece!”

Democracy, Volume 1

Despite his aristocratic origins, Tocqueville had come to believe that democracy would supplant the older European systems. He wrote to enlighten the French, whose recent experiments with representative government had sometimes produced disastrous results. America was a testing ground for the new system, with important lessons to teach those who would hear them. His goal was to find those lessons and convey them to the people of his native land.

With a lawyer's attention to detail, Democracy in America begins by examining closely the mechanisms of the American governmental system. Jared Sparks, a noted American scholar of the day, introduced Tocqueville to the idea that American government has its foundation at the local level. Having spent a large part of his visit in the Northeast, he begins with the New England township and then moves his analysis up to the county and finally to the state and federal levels of government. Readers who are not enthralled by these details might prefer to move on to the second part of this volume, with its descriptions of American political culture in the era of Andrew Jackson. Most chapters or sections begin with a summary of contents, a practice now out of fashion, but very helpful to the reader. Among other topics, Democracy treats political associations, freedom of the press, and the “omnipotence of the majority.”

Tocqueville agreed with James Madison, who had identified the “tyranny of the majority” as a great stumbling block for democracy in The Federalist number 51. Americans believe, Tocqueville wrote, “that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in a numerous assembly than in a single man.…It is the theory of equality applied to brains.” Although a majority is capable of error, Tocqueville observes that no obstacles “can retard, much less halt, its progress and give it time to hear the wails of those it crushes as it passes.” He applied this theory to state governments and concluded, “If ever freedom is lost in America, that will be due to the omnipotence of the majority driving the minorities to desperation and forcing them to appeal to physical force.”

The eighteenth and last chapter of this volume is “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races That Inhabit the Territory of the United States.” A few of his observations seriously err, for example: “the Negro has no family; for him a woman is no more than the passing companion of his pleasures.” Had Tocqueville and Beaumont's final swing through the South been less hasty, the author of Democracy in America might have observed that slaves did form strong family units in spite of the oppressive conditions of their lives. In another case, he states that Indians have not “borrowed one idea or one custom” from the whites, but goes on to report a few pages later that the Cherokee Nation enjoyed constitutional government and a newspaper published in its own language.

These shortcomings are insignificant in the face of Tocqueville's many penetrating observations of American society. For example, his pessimistic views on the future of the Indians were confirmed in the immediately ensuing years. The government had recently begun a program of Indian removal. A footnote quotes some of the documents relating to the intrusion of whites into Cherokee territory in the Southeast, which was to end in Andrew Jackson's refusal to enforce U.S. Supreme Court rulings favorable to the Indians.

In this concluding chapter, Tocqueville points out that the presence of slavery seems to drag down the development of any place where it exists. He offers as evidence a voyage down the Ohio River. On the right bank, or northern side, all is flourishing, while on the left bank of the river sparse population and indolence dominate. Furthermore, the white southerner learns habits of command from birth, and as a result is less tolerant of frustration than his northern counterpart. Slavery, “so cruel to the slave was fatal to the master.” However, having committed to the system, southerners cannot easily extricate themselves from it. Tocqueville doubted that the institution could last: “Either the slave or the master will put an end to it. In either case, great misfortunes are to be anticipated.”

Although Tocqueville sees the obstacles facing the progress of democracy to be considerable, he is not without hope. In the face of various problems such as the tyranny of the majority or the effects of slavery, he sees reason to hope that the religious scruples of Americans, their tendency to form associations for mutually useful ends, and the presence of a free press will allow American democracy to meet its challenges.

Between Volume 1 and Volume 2: Marriage

In 1835 Tocqueville and Beaumont returned to Britain and Ireland, again observing the progress of democracy against the old, aristocratic system of rule. When he returned to France, Tocqueville ignored the preferences of his family to wed an Englishwoman, Mary Motley. Although she was neither aristocratic nor beautiful, she and Tocqueville had shared an intimate relationship for several years, and he was deeply attached to her. For the sake of the marriage, she became a Catholic.

In 1836 Tocqueville again received the Montyon Prize, this time for Democracy in America. The death of his mother in the same year put him in possession of the family estate of Tocqueville. The new Mme. de Tocqueville took a major role in managing the property and making a comfortable home there. Tocqueville and his wife, who had no children, divided their year between this country estate and Paris. Now, Tocqueville began to write the second volume of Democracy.

Democracy, Volume 2

Reflecting Tocqueville's own interests, the second volume has more to say about democracy in general than about America in particular. He expands on his theories, using the United States to provide illustration. For example, in a chapter titled “Some Reflections on American Manners,” he ascribes the manners of the Americans to their democratic culture and then expands on those of the vanishing aristocracy: “The principal characteristics of the aristocracy remain engraved in history after its destruction, but the slight and delicate forms of its manners are lost to memory almost immediately after its fall.” With typical realism he goes on to observe, “One should not attach too much importance to this loss, but it is permissible to regret it.”

Volume 2 continues Tocqueville's argument that while democracy is the trend of the future, it is a future full of risk. In its concluding chapter he writes, “I am full of fears and hopes. I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided and kept in check.” He asserted his belief that democratic nations could be virtuous and prosperous if they had the will to be so.

Tocqueville reiterates his warning against the tyranny of the majority but adds to this the danger of other forms of tyranny taking hold. He contends that the old aristocratic system produced public spirited leaders, whereas democracy, by inducing citizens to pursue individual interests first, exposes the state to domination by unscrupulous groups and individuals. He also reemphasizes the importance of religious sentiment, associations, and the free press as bulwarks against such threats.

This volume of four sections examines intellectual movements, sentiments, mores, and political society over a span of seventy-seven chapters. Each chapter is a concise essay bearing a descriptive title, and essays with related topics are clustered together. All of this makes browsing by topic convenient.

Tocqueville after Democracy

In 1841, a year after the publication of the second volume of Democracy, Tocqueville was elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and after some intense politicking was voted membership in the French Academy in December. Although his second volume of Democracy aroused somewhat less enthusiasm than the first, Tocqueville was well launched into a public career. He also continued to write on history and government and a good part of his works are preserved.

Tocqueville had been elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, and soon spoke out in favor of the abolition of slavery in all French possessions. However, the author of Democracy also defended the pursuit of national greatness by means of conquest. After visiting Algeria, he wrote Travail sur l'Algerie (1841), in which he expressed his approval of the French colonization of Algeria while deploring the venality and incompetence of its colonial administration. He also stated his rejection of Islam as inferior to Christianity. (His sentiments on Hinduism were similar.) He believed that these colonized people should not enjoy the full rights of French citizens.

After the Second Republic fell in 1848, Tocqueville won a seat in the Constituent Assembly, where he served on the committee to write a new constitution. He was elected to the new Legislative Assembly in 1849 and within a month was appointed minister of foreign affairs, an office he held for five months. At this time he began to suffer seriously from tuberculosis. When he opposed Louis-Napoleon's coup in December 1851, the new regime imprisoned him as one of a large group of representatives who had opposed the change. Writing in the London Times, he anonymously condemned the new government. He resigned from a local elected office rather than take the oath of allegiance required by Louis-Napoleon. Deprived of an active political role, he turned again to writing. Souvenirs, his memoir of the revolution of 1848, investigated the events that had transformed the French government as well as Tocqueville's personal career and pointed out continuities that survived the changes.

As his health continue to deteriorate, Tocqueville continued to write. In 1856 he published, simultaneously in French and English, his last major work, L'Ancien Régime et la révolution. This account of the coming of the French Revolution succeeded and he began to research a sequel. However, his health, always poor, now became seriously impaired. He went to Cannes for reasons of health in 1858. On 16 April 1859 he died there only a few days after a final visit from his lifelong friend and traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont. He is buried in Paris.

Enduring Influence

In the United States, translations of Democracy in America continue to enjoy a prestige only slightly less than that of the actual founding documents of the nation. Politicians, jurists, clergymen, and educators all turn to its pages for explanations of how America works, or at least for arguments to bolster their various political and social positions. So respected is its reputation that it has generated at least one apocryphal quotation, “America is great because it is good; if it ceases to be good it will cease to be great.” Even presidential speechwriters have invoked this pious phrase, attributing it to the man who never wrote it. His actual words and thoughts remain as valuable tools for a deeper understanding of the nature of democracy in America and throughout the world. Democracy has been in print since the appearance of its first volume in 1835, and translations may be purchased in volumes of all qualities, from elegant, leather-bound editions to thrifty paperbacks. His other major works have been translated into English, although some may not always be found. Publication of his complete works has added up to about thirty volumes and is still in progress.

Further Reading

  • Jardin, Andre. Tocqueville, a Biography. Translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York, 1988. A thorough and readable biography that assumes a modest knowledge of French history on the part of the reader.
  • Pitney, John J., Jr. The Tocqueville Fraud. The Weekly Standard (13 November 1995). Traces the history of the spurious quotation about American goodness and greatness.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis De. Journey to America. Translated by George Lawrence. Westport, Conn., 1981. A revised edition of Tocqueville's notebooks from his American journey.