Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated Jun 08 2018

Tocqueville, Alexis de



Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) lived at the time of two revolutions, the democratic and the industrial; their impact upon the traditional order furnished him with the major themes of his scholarly work. Tension between traditional and modern values dominated Tocqueville’s life and writings. Convinced of the irreversibility of democracy and contemptuous of reactionaries who thought they could block this historical movement, he was nevertheless obsessed by the erosion of those traditional contexts and values—aristocracy, honor, localism, religion, cultural variety—on which European liberty had depended for so many centuries. In his personal life this conflict of values proved almost too great to contain, and in his final years he succumbed to melancholy, despairing of the future of liberty and culture in Europe.

It was this same tension, however, that provided the underlying creative impulse behind the extraordinarily dispassionate analyses of modern society contained in his two major works, Democracy in America (1835) and The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). In these, Tocqueville formulated analytical perspectives that were to prove fruitful both for the continued study of Western society and for the study of the non-Western societies which in the twentieth century are undergoing a modernization strikingly akin to what fascinated Tocqueville in the “first new nation,” the United States.

Behind Tocqueville’s analytical perspectives, and giving them coherence, is a unified philosophy of history that rests on what he called “the principle of equality.” What class struggle was for Marx, Gesellschaft for Tonnies, and rationalization for Max Weber, equalitarianism was for Tocqueville. Each of these men endowed a single dynamic aspect of the social order with decisive developmental significance. In Tocqueville’s eyes, the master principle of European history was the relentless leveling of social ranks that, he believed, had been going on since the end of the Middle Ages—a leveling as inexorable as it was universal in Europe, one that touched literally every sphere of society and culture. It is this principle of social development that gives meaning to the major areas of fact and insight into which his sociological work falls. There are four such areas: power, stratification, industrialism, and mass culture.

Power . Tocqueville was fascinated by the problem of power, particularly the power of the modern democratic state. The impact of centralized, massbased sovereignty upon the traditional authorities of family, local community, social class, and morality is a theme in his work second only to that of equalitarianism. The two themes are, indeed, inseparable. Tocqueville was not the first to emphasize the affinity between social equality and political centralization, but his Democracy in America is certainly the first systematic treatment of the subject, just as his Old Regime and the French Revolution is the first scholarly demonstration of the roots of the French Revolution in the history of European administrative centralization.

From the vantage point of contemporary sociology, three aspects of his consideration of power are noteworthy: the affinity between mass equality and bureaucracy, the role of public opinion, and the relation between political power and “secondary” or “intermediate” social authorities.

In the history of European polity, Tocqueville wrote (anticipating Weber), “the substitution of paid for unpaid functionaries is of itself …sufficient to constitute a real revolution” ([1835] 1945, vol. 1, p. 208). Democracy inevitably has an accelerative influence upon bureaucracy, for unpaid political service can be performed only by the rich and privileged, whose very existence frustrates the objectives of democracy. Hence it is possible, he wrote, to measure the progress of democracy in a nation by the rate of increase of paid functionaries.

Tocqueville saw the relation between bureaucratic centralization and social equalitarianism not only as historical but also as functional. All that erodes social hierarchy, regionalism, and localism is bound to intensify centralization in the state. Conversely, all that furthers the development of political centralization—war, dynastic ambition, and revolution—is bound to accelerate social leveling.

While the major cause of modern bureaucracy is the democratization of power, Tocqueville identified four factors which account for its variable intensity from nation to nation: revolution, the role of the lower classes, level of literacy, and war. When revolution ushers in democracy, as in France, it makes for a higher degree of initial centralization than is the case when democracy evolves gradually, as in the United States. When the lower classes hold the balance of power, administration tends to be centralized, for this is the only means whereby the lower classes can wrest power from local aristocracy. The lower the level of literacy in a population, the greater and more inevitable the tendency to concentrate administration in an educated, governing elite. Finally, “All men of military genius are fond of centralization …and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 300).

The relation between Tocqueville’s “administrative centralization” and what Weber was to call “rationalization” is, of course, very close. Both saw conflict between bureaucracy and the democratic impulses that had helped produce it. Tocqueville’s depiction of the sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear is almost indistinguishable in tenor from that found two generations later in Weber’s melancholy ruminations on administrative rationalization. For both men, any future despotism would emerge not primarily from individuals or groups but from the bureaucratic system per se.

Tocqueville’s dominating interest in public opinion followed from his view that the locus of democratic power is in mass majorities. What he called “the tyranny of the majority”—at bottom the sway of public opinion—may be more stifling to individuality, as it was in America, than even the medieval Inquisition had been. Despite his profound interest in public opinion, he had no clear awareness of its sources. It does not seem to have occurred to him that public opinion is something that can be manufactured by minority pressure groups. He conceived of it as a more or less direct emanation from the political masses. But if he did not explore its sources and variable expressions, he nevertheless correctly identified it as a new and powerful force in the modern state, one henceforth crucial to the legitimacy of governments. Equally important, Tocqueville, in contrast to most political conservatives of his day, feared not the instability but the stability of public opinion in democracy, a stability so great, in his view, that not only political revolution but even intellectual innovation would become increasingly unlikely.

The role of “secondary” or “intermediate” authorities in democracy was a prime concern of Tocqueville’s. Liberty, in his view, has little to do with the breadth of political power or the extent of mass participation in it. Liberty can exist only where there are countervailing authorities which stand as buffers between the individual and the central government. Traditional secondary authorities—aristocracy, guild, commune—had been eroded by the impact of equalitarian democracy. Tocqueville asked what authorities, if any, had succeeded these. In Europe he found almost none; hence his growing pessimism about the future of liberty there. In America, however, the great profusion of voluntary associations, the power and independence of local communities, the professions (especially the legal profession), and the whole system of division of powers within the political government seemed to him the effective basis of a pluralism that might restrain the powers of both majority opinion and administrative centralization.

A distinction between authority and power is fundamental in Tocqueville, authority being the inner nature of association, rooted in function and allegiance, while power is coercion, generally with the implication of force externally applied. It is in terms of this distinction that his treatment of family, local community, master-servant, professional, and other social relationships can most readily be understood. Each of these, for Tocqueville, is a pattern of constraints as well as of activities, and its internal strength is a function of its relative immunity from political power.

Stratification . Tocqueville’s theory of social stratification follows from his conception of power. He is at the opposite extreme from Marx, who found in the capitalist class essentially the same union of power, wealth, and status that had characterized the feudal nobility. According to Tocqueville, the dominant tendency of modern history is toward the disengagement of these three elements from one another. Social class, in the sense of self-conscious and culturally distinct classes, is precluded in modern society by exactly the same forces that destroyed feudal aristocracy: political centralization, the greater importance of money, and civil equality. There are levels of wealth and privilege, but the nature of democracy and of a money-based economy prevents these levels from hardening into real classes. Tocqueville was by no means blind to the power of manufacturing interests and their remoteness from workers. Indeed, he speculated on how “an aristocracy may be created by manufactures.” But however dangerous the power of manufacturers may be to the politics of democracy, manufacturers do not and cannot constitute a genuine social class. For while the category is fixed by industrialism, the content is ever-changing; incessant mobility prevents the crystallizing of attitudes and culture, the sinking of roots, and the socially recognized eminence that social class requires.

What struck Tocqueville was the immense middle class in the United States. This class was neither rich nor poor; its position made it, in his view, a vast arena for status aspiration. Tocqueville’s theory of stratification, in short, rests on status mobility rather than class. The decline of traditional class, far from lessening the desire for elevation of status, only intensifies it. When it is birth alone that ranks men in society, Tocqueville observed, everyone knows exactly what his own position is in the social scale. “He does not seek to rise, he does not fear to sink.” But when equali-tarianism prevails and money becomes the basis of rank in society, the desire to rise is matched by the fear of sinking in the social scale. The principle of equality is accompanied not by love of equality but by obsession with social status. “When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest [inequalities] are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 138). It is preoccupation with status that above all else explains why “Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity": a restlessness making for unhappiness on a wide scale. In France, Tocqueville wrote, this status anxiety produces high rates of suicide; in America, high rates of insanity.

Tocqueville provided two classic paradigms of social status in modern democracy, each the subject of a long chapter. The first is the master-servant relation. Tension is the very essence of this relation, Tocqueville observed, given a setting in which civil equality is dogma as well as law. An “imperfect phantom of equality” haunts the mind of servant and master alike, making obedience as confused and reluctant a sentiment in the first as unwonted command is in the second. The same problem of context has dislocated the historic notion of honor. The social roots of this value, Tocqueville showed, are feudal, and all that has weakened the hierarchical and personal character of European society has weakened the structural possibility of honor as a cementing value. Yet honor, like status, is, he noted, a verbal obsession of Americans. The subtlety and perception of Tocqueville’s sociological treatment of these two values remained unmatched until Weber’s and Simmel’s work.

In one sphere only did Tocqueville see the outline and substance of genuine social class in America: the Negro-white relationship. In the South, where slavery made a caste of the Negro, issues of status and mobility were nonexistent, but if Negroes “are once raised to the level of freemen, they will soon revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights; and as they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 378). Equally perceptive are Tocqueville’s observations on the status of the Negro in the North, where, though legally free, the Negro encountered a different type of segregation. “I have remarked that the white inhabitants of the North avoid the Negroes with increasing care in proportion as the legal barriers of separation are removed by the legislature” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 375). It was visibility that made real assimilation between the two races a distant and dim prospect in Tocqueville’s eyes. Recalling the long ages required in Europe for the erasure of social distinction between noble and commoner, he wrote: “I despair of seeing an aristocracy disappear which is founded upon visible and indelible signs” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 358). The only real possibility of extreme social conflict, even revolution, that Tocqueville could foresee in America was that between Negro and white.

One final element of Tocqueville’s picture of stratification must be mentioned: intellectual and political elites. Here the social scene he was describing was not America but France, in the age just prior to the French Revolution. It was at this time, according to Tocqueville, that writers and philosophers became, for the first time, a significant political force, one that replaced traditional aristocracy. Intensely rationalist in temper, drawn to the uses of political power, and scornful of tradition, this group, which included all of the philosophes, became “a power in the country and ended up as its political leaders.” Burke preceded Tocqueville in identifying the political role of the literary elite in eighteenth-century France, but Tocqueville showed that such elites are as inevitable an emergent of modern society as any of the other types or groups.

Industrialism . Despite the overwhelmingly political nature of Tocqueville’s treatment of modernism, that is, his view that modern culture and the modern economy are direct consequences of the growth of power and of its diffusion, he was keenly aware of the social impact of the new industrialism. This is why he emphasized the money base of social stratification of the new democratic society and why he studied such matters as technology, division of labor, wages, land rents, and cyclical business depression. All of these were placed by Tocqueville within the political perspective of democracy. He did not share the view of the economists of his time that economic phenomena have either primary or self-contained reality. For Tocqueville, economic behavior is a derivative of politics rather than vice versa. Tocqueville foresaw recurring economic crisis as “an endemic disease” of modern democratic nations, but he attributed this not to any iron law of depression of wages under private property (indeed, Tocqueville prophesied the long-run rise of wages and democracy) but to the “democratic propensity” to convert slow-yield ownership of land into commercial holdings, thus destroying the historic balance between agriculture and commerce. He noted the absence in America of any genuine agrarian culture and mentality— democracy tends to “make agriculture itself a trade.” Land is brought into tillage in order that it may be resold, not farmed. As the politics of democracy breeds desire for advancement in the social scale, it aids also in the conversion of wealth into those forms—negotiable shares, money, credit —which are helpful to this advancement.

Tocqueville’s view of the human impact of technology and division of labor is rather pessimistic. Admitting that these forces stimulate economic production, he nevertheless thought that they represent a new form of enslavement and degradation of man. It is the specialization of the worker under industrialism that seemed to Tocqueville to be most fraught with evil. “In proportion as the principle of the division of labor is more extensively applied, the workman becomes more weak, more narrow-minded, and more dependent. The art advances, the artisan recedes” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 159).

Mass culture . Tocqueville was the first to assess systematically the effects of democracy and commercialism upon the arts, literature, religion, philosophy, and other areas of culture. Here, as in his perspectives on power and stratification, equalitarianism is the dominant element. He thought it unlikely that America would produce artists and writers of stature. His words were written, it is amusing to note, only a decade before the New England “renaissance” that brought forth such major writers as Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. Nevertheless, the reasons he gave have proved durable in the continuing sociological analysis of mass culture. There is, first, the power of mass opinion, which puts so heavy a premium upon conformity that true humanistic genius will be intimidated. Second is the fact that in democracy, literature and the arts in general become a trade. “The ever increasing crowd of readers and their continual craving for something new ensure the sale of books that nobody much esteems” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 61). Third is the gradual disappearance of great cultural themes in the wash of mediocrity that attends adulation of the common man and fear of the extraordinary. “In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modeled in plaster” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 51). Tocqueville did not doubt that there would be an unprecedented spread of literacy and taste for art and philosophy, but he feared that it would be at the level of the lowest common denominator.

In science Tocqueville foresaw the limitless practical application of what had already been discovered, but not the discovery of fresh knowledge, for while “the purely practical part of science is admirably understood,” it remains true that “hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essential theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge.” The spirit of technicism, Tocqueville thought, makes scientific vitality as unlikely as artistic, although in both areas “the number of those who cultivate science, letters, and arts becomes immense” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 42).

Philosophy and religion are shaped by the social contexts of both democracy and commerce. In philosophy there is a taste for broad, general ideas that are accessible to all without undue effort and which permit people to “flatter themselves that they can delineate vast objects with little pains and draw the attention of the public without much trouble” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 17). It is this intellectual predilection, according to Tocqueville, that creates a natural affinity between democracy and Cartesianism, with its emphasis on intuitively reached principles that are open to all men of common sense. Religion in democracy is characterized by a dislike of ceremony and form that affects even Roman Catholicism, whose priests in America “show less taste for minute individual observances” than is the case in Europe. Tocqueville was struck by the high rate of converts to Catholicism in the United States and explained this, first, by the theological affinity between Catholic doctrine and the notion of a leveled laity under the priest and, second, by the social affinity between Catholic minority status and those parties (chiefly the emerging Democratic party) in which equality rather than achievement or privilege is the goal. Tocqueville viewed drama, history writing, oratory, language, and the study of the classics from the same perspective, emerging in each instance with a conclusion that rests upon the spread of popular themes, forms, and idioms, and the unlikelihood of the kind of high quality that had been known in aristocratic ages.

Influence . Tocqueville’s impact was immediate upon scholars in both Europe and America, but the shape of this impact was very different on the two continents. In America, until about the 1940s, Tocqueville was thought of essentially as a political philosopher. Attention was fixed chiefly on the sections of the first volume of Democracy in America which are concerned with the processes of political government. For a long time he was hardly known in America as a sociologist of stratification, culture, religion, and industry. In Europe, it was the sociological elements of his work—those found in the second volume of Democracy in America and The Old Regime—that early proved of greatest influence. His distinction between power, class, and status and his emphasis upon the mass potential of modern democracy, upon administrative centralization, and upon the mass character of modern culture supplied the theoretical background for the more detailed and systematic treatments of these forces that flourished in the sociology of France, Italy, and Germany at the end of the century. Burckhardt, Taine, Le Play, Acton, Tonnies, Weber, Simmel, and Michels all employed perspectives based on Tocqueville.

Tocqueville and Marx are, in a real sense, the two magnetic poles of European sociology: Tocqueville, in his emphasis upon equalitarianism and the separation of power, wealth, and status, and his preview of totalitarianism as resulting from the leveling of classes; Marx, in his emphasis upon class conflict, the coalescence (in the bourgeoisie) of power, wealth, and status, and his vision of freedom finally achieved through the very equality that, for Tocqueville, carried the seeds of despotism.

Robert A. Nisbet

[See also Anglo-American SOCIETY; Democracy; Mass SOCIETY; Pluralism; Politics, Comparative; Presidential government; Public opinion; Social mobility; Stratification, Social; Voluntary Associations; and the biographies of Bagehot; Bryce; Le play; Lindsay; MichelS; Simmel; Tonnies; Weber, Max.]


(1832) 1964 Beaumont de la bonniniere, Gustave auguste de; and Tocqueville, Alexis deOn the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France. New ed. With an introduction by Thorsten Sellin and a foreword by Herman R. Lantz. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press. → First published in French.

(1835) 1945 Democracy in America. 2 vols. Translated by Henry Reeve, revised by Francis Bowen, and edited by Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf. → First published in French. A new edition, translated by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer, and with an introductory essay by Max Lerner, was published by Harper in 1966. Paperback editions were published in 1961 by Vintage and by Schocken.

(1856) 1955 The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published as L’ancien regime et la revolution.

(1893) 1949 The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Edited by J. P. Mayer. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → First published posthumously in French. A paperback edition was published in 1959 by Meridian.

Oeuvres completes d’Alexis de Tocqueville. 2d ed. Published by Mme. de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. 9 vols. Paris: Levy, 1866-1878. → The first edition was published in 1860-1865.

Oeuvres, papiers et correspondances. Final edition by J. P. Mayer. Vols. 1—. Paris: Gallimard, 1951—. → Volumes 1, 2, 31, 51-2, 6, 9, and 12 have been published to date.


Eichthal, Eugene D’ 1897 Alexis de Tocqueville et la democratie liberale. Paris: Levy.

Goring, Helmut 1928 Tocqueville und die Demokratie. Munich: Oldenbourg.

Marcel, R. Pierre 1910 Essai politique sur Alexis de Tocqueville. Paris: Alcan.

Mayer, J. P. 1960 Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Study in Political Science. New York: Harper.

Nisbet, Robert A. 1967 The Sociological Tradition. New York: Basic Books.

Pierson, George W. 1938 Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 29 2018

Alexis de Tocqueville

Born July 19, 1805

Paris, France

Died April 16, 1859

Cannes, France

French writer who first defined the meaning of American as a new nationality

"[Americans] seem to me stinking with national conceit; it pierces through all their courtesy."

A lexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, or member of the upper class, sent to the United States in 1831 to study American prisons. He kept a detailed diary of his nine-month visit, and later wrote a book, Democracy in America. Tocqueville's journals and book described the ordinary, day-today aspects of American society. He thought that democracy could explain the many differences between the habits of Americans and the habits of Europeans, but it might be just as accurate to say that American society reflected the differences that emerged as a result of emigration. His writing addressed the issue of just what it meant to emigrate from a European society to another society in North America.

A young aristocrat in France

Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clèrel de Tocqueville was the son of an aristocratic family from Normandy, in northern France. He was born at a time in French history when the aristocracy was threatened with extinction. Tocqueville was born in 1805, sixteen years after the French revolution of 1789. During the revolution, a large number of aristocrats (including one of Tocqueville's grandfathers) and the king of France, Louis XVI (1754–1793, reigned 1774–93), were executed by mobs intent on establishing a new republic in France. When Tocqueville was born, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was emperor of France, trying to extend French influence over much of Europe. Most European countries were still ruled by established monarchies, or governments headed by a king or a queen.

The French background of Tocqueville's studies

France was often in turmoil during Tocqueville's early years. While Tocqueville was a boy, Napoléon ruled France as the emperor and the country was at war as Napoléon tried to extend France's control to most of Europe. The French army was defeated and Napoléon was sent into exile just as Tocqueville was coming into his teens. The royal family, forced out in 1789, was temporarily restored to power. During the 1820s, France was engaged in what was called the "Great Debate" over whether it was better to have a republic, in which the head of state is elected democratically, or to have a king. In 1830, another revolution took place that replaced one king with another. The new monarch's powers were limited by the popularly elected parliament, or legislature.

This background of French politics played an important role in Tocqueville's tour of the United States in 1831 and 1832, when he was observing what kind of differences in society might come about as a result of a democracy. For Tocqueville, the question related to what might happen in France if a government similar to that of the United States were established.

Tocqueville was educated privately as a boy. He then studied law in Paris from 1823 to 1826, after which he was appointed as an unpaid magistrate, or judge, in Versailles, near Paris.

On tour in America

In 1830, Tocqueville was asked to go to the United States along with his close friend Gustave de Beaumont (1802–1866) to conduct a study of the country's prison system. Their tour lasted nine months, from May 1831 to February 1832. In this time, Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled from Newport, Rhode Island, as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana, and as far north as the British province of Quebec, in Canada.

The two young Frenchmen—Tocqueville was just twenty-six when he started his tour and Beaumont was twenty-nine—met dozens of local officials, ranging from U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) and former president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29) to local mayors and judges. Often treated as celebrities, the two generally stayed in boardinghouses, or private homes whose owners rented out rooms to travelers, and met many ordinary Americans. Both men kept extensive diaries, although only Tocqueville's has survived, and wrote letters to family and friends in France.

Tocqueville and Beaumont jointly prepared an extensive report on American prisons, the official reason for their visit, as well as books about their trip. Of all their writings, Tocqueville's book Democracy in America, first published in 1835 with a second volume in 1840, was by far the best known. The book was a best-seller when it was published and has remained the subject of interest, especially in the United States, ever since. Democracy in America remains a unique study of everyday American society during a period of rapid growth made possible by a steady immigration of Europeans to the United States.

Tocqueville's work focused on the United States as an established society. In fact, however, a large portion of the population in 1831 had been born outside the United States and emigrated from their native lands. The population of the United States had grown from about seven million in 1810 to almost thirteen million in 1830, an increase of nearly 82 percent. (In the next two decades, from 1830 to 1850, the population would grow by 80 percent again.) A significant portion of the increase before 1830 reflected emigration from Britain; after 1830, German and Irish immigrants contributed heavily to population growth.

The American character

In New York, a few weeks into the start of his tour, Tocqueville wrote a letter to a former teacher in France, in which he noted the differences between Americans and Europeans. "I couldn't keep from laughing in my beard [to myself] on thinking of the difference 1,500 leagues [about 4,500 miles] of sea make in the position of men. I thought of the more than subordinate role that I played in France two months ago and of the comparatively elevated situation in which we were finding ourselves here, the little noise that our mission has made at home and that which it makes here, all because of this little bit of sea-water [the Atlantic Ocean] I just spoke of."

"My Dear Mother…"

In addition to Democracy in America, in which he recorded his observations of American society, Tocqueville also wrote many letters to his family and friends in France. This correspondence provided an insight into the practical details of his tour. In one letter to his mother, written from New York State, he wrote:

You no doubt want to know, my dear mother, what is our present manner of life. It is this: We get up at five or six and we work till eight. At eight o'clock the bell announces breakfast. Every one goes in promptly. After that we go out to visit a few establishments or to get into touch with certain men who are interesting to listen to. We return to dine at three o'clock. At five we usually go home to put our notes in order till seven, the hour at which we go out into society to take tea. This style of life is very agreeable and, I believe, very healthy.

But it upsets all our settled habits. For instance, we were utterly astounded the first day to see the women come to breakfast at eight o'clock in the morning carefully dressed for the whole day. It's the same, we are told, in all the private houses. One can with great propriety call on a lady at nine o'clock in the morning.

The absence of wine at our meals at first struck us as very disagreeable; and we still can't understand the multitude of things that they succeed in introducing into their stomachs here. You see, in addition to breakfast, dinner, and tea with which the Americans eat ham, they also eat a very copious supper…. That up to now is the only indisputable superiority that I grant them over us. But they see in themselves many others. These people seem to me stinking with national conceit; it pierces through all their courtesy.

Tocqueville was writing about how his personal status had changed from a lowly assistant judge in France to a celebrity in New York. It was a measure, also, of how traveling across the Atlantic had more of an effect than a comparable journey by land within Europe: A person's social status also changed. As Tocqueville observed many times, American society, largely comprising immigrants or the sons and grandsons of immigrants, had become something different and unique. Immigrants had brought some of their habits and languages but left many social attitudes behind.

Tocqueville's observations covered a wide range of subjects, ranging from attitudes toward religion to table manners, attitudes toward public officials, and the poor treatment of Native Americans and African American slaves in the South, which he described as resulting in "such unparalleled atrocities as suffice to show that the laws of humanity have been totally perverted." In July 1831, near the start of his tour, Tocqueville encountered Native Americans for the first time in New York. The ones that he saw were "more or less drunk," he wrote, and one man in particular seemed close to death. "In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious [moralistic], so charitable," he wrote in his journal, "a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country. The Americans of the United States do not let their dogs hunt the Indians as do the Spaniards in Mexico, but at bottom it is the same pitiless feeling which here, as everywhere else, animates [characterizes] the European race. This world here belongs to us, they tell themselves every day: the Indian race is destined for final destruction which one cannot prevent and which it is not desirable to delay. Heaven has not made them to become civilized; it is necessary that they die. Besides I do not want to get mixed up in it. I will not do anything against them: I will limit myself to providing everything that will hasten their ruin. In time I will have their lands and will be innocent of their death."

Emigration and the emergence of democracy

In his introduction to Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote: "The emigrants who colonized the shores of America in the beginning of the seventeenth century somehow separated the democratic principle from all the principles that it had to contend with in the old communities of Europe, and transplanted it alone to the New World. It has there been able to spread in perfect freedom and peaceably to determine the character of the laws by influencing the manners of the country."

In most respects, Tocqueville admired what he saw of American society. Americans, he found, were highly moralistic without the benefit of government-recognized religions. They were intensely interested in earning money. Compared with European society, the United States enjoyed a high degree of equality among its citizens. Tocqueville explained much of this American character by pointing to the earliest English immigrants who settled in New England.

These men and women, he observed, "on leaving the mother country [England] … had, in general, no notion of superiority one over another. The happy and the powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune." This shared attitude was an important element in creating the type of society Tocqueville observed: a dedication to equality that was generally not present in Europe.

Tocqueville thought that the social class of the early settlers in New England had made a major difference in the nature of American society. The immigrants who settled in New England "all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country [England] …, containing neither lords nor common people…. All, perhaps without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies [in the South] had been founded by adventurers without families; the immigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality; they landed on the desert coast accompanied by their wives and children…. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation or to increase their wealth; it was a purely intellectual craving [for religious freedom] that called them from the comforts of their former homes; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile their object was the triumph of an idea."

The character of the New England immigrants, Tocqueville thought, was transferred to most of the northern colonies and gave the United States its distinctive culture. In his work, Tocqueville attributed this American character to democracy, the notion that all citizens were created equal and had an equal voice in government. This system was in sharp contrast to Tocqueville's European experience, in which government power was concentrated in the head of state, usually a king or a queen, and in the hands of aristocrats, people who inherited large estates and influence over the government. In the France of Tocqueville's time, ordinary citizens had little influence on government.

Back to France

Tocqueville and Beaumont returned to France in early 1832 and never returned to the United States. Apart from his writings, Tocqueville married an English woman, Mary Mottley, in 1835 and the next year inherited a castle in Normandy. He also inherited the aristocratic title Compte de Tocqueville, but did not use it.

Tocqueville was elected to the French parliament in 1839 and was briefly the foreign minister a decade later. He soon retired from political life, however, and retired to his estate in Cannes, in southern France, where he died in 1859.

—James L. Outman

For More Information


Mancini, Matthew J. Alexis de Tocqueville. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Reeves, Richard. American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York: G. Dearborn & Co., 1838. Multiple reprints.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Selected Letters on Politics and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.


Dilday, K. A. "Tocqueville Saw It Coming." The New York Times (November 26, 2000): p. WK2.

Kimball, Roger. "Tocqueville Today." New Criterion (November 2000): p.4.

Samuelson, Robert J. "Democracy in America: It Succeeds Because Politics Is Just One of Many Outlets for Its Passions and Ambitions." Newsweek (Novmber 13, 2000): p. 61.

Web Sites

The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour Exploring Democracy in America. (accessed on March 26, 2004).

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Online version at American Studies at the University of Virginia. (accessed on March 26, 2004).

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 18 2018


democracy in america

TOCQUEVILLE, ALEXIS DE (1805–1859), French political theorist, historian, and political liberal.

Alexis de Tocqueville remains best known as the author of two classics: De la démocratie en Amérique (1835 and 1840; Democracy in America) and L'ancien régime et la révolution (1856; The Old Regime and the Revolution).

Tocqueville was born on 29 July 1805 into an old Norman aristocratic family that had suffered severely from the French Revolution. His life was dedicated to understanding the origins and implications of that upheaval for his nation and the larger world. Despite a frail voice in a fragile body he chose a career in politics. In preparation for that career he was strongly influenced by the lectures of the historian and statesman François-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot (1787–1874), who traced the decline of aristocratic privilege over the centuries preceding the French Revolution. At the same time Tocqueville became deeply interested in the Anglo-American world, which was to become his major source for a lifetime of comparisons with developments in his own country.

The July Revolution of 1830 was a turning point for the young Alexis. The Bourbon dynasty, to which his family was closely tied, was displaced by the "citizen king," Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848). The revolution confirmed Tocqueville's conviction that France was moving rapidly and inevitably toward "equality of conditions." Breaking with the perspective of the older generation's liberals epitomized by Guizot, Tocqueville looked toward America rather than aristocratic Great Britain as a potential model for the democratic future. Because of his family's continued loyalty to the exiled Bourbons, Tocqueville's political position had also become precarious. He and his close friend and fellow liberal, Gustave-Auguste de Beaumont de la Bonninière, formulated a plan to obtain official permission to study prison reform in America. In doing so they also hoped to establish a reputation for themselves as experts on the new political order, which would qualify them to participate in building France's political future.

democracy in america

The two young men traveled through the United States for nine months in 1831–1832. The first-fruits of their journey was a joint report in fulfillment of their official mission: Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis (1833; On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France). On the basis of his observations and further readings Tocqueville attempted to lay bare the essential components of political society in the United States. He focused on those aspects of America most relevant to his own liberal philosophy and political ambitions. The vitality, the limitations, the excesses, and the potential future of democracy became the themes of Democracy in America.

The period immediately following the publication of Democracy was probably the happiest in Tocqueville's life. The book instantly won him an international reputation as a judicious political scientist. It was soon translated and published in Great Britain, the United States, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Denmark, and Sweden. A voyage to England and Ireland in 1835 solidified lifelong friendships with the British elite, a bond that was reinforced that same year by his marriage to an Englishwoman, Marie Mottley. As a source of comparisons and intellectual exchange, England became, in Tocqueville's words, his second country.

Returning to France, Tocqueville began a sequel to his Democracy, now focusing on democratic ideas, beliefs, and mores in America. The second Democracy took longer to write and took Tocqueville further afield than its author had anticipated. Although published in 1840 under the same title as the earlier work, it ended up being as much about democracy in France and Europe as in the United States. Tocqueville's observations on the continuing bureaucratization of the French state and the progressive diminution of French political life during the late 1830s caused him to envision a new threat to democracy. Centralization and apathetic individualism made egalitarian societies vulnerable to a new form of despotism. Tocqueville's theme, as he wrote to John Stuart Mill, had become less America than "the influence of equality on the ideas and the sentiments of men." The ambiguities created by chapters on this new theme, interspersed with others more directly focused on America, accounted for some confusion among readers, and for the more muted reception of the 1840 volume in France.

Just as he completed his second Democracy, Tocqueville fulfilled his youthful ambition to step into the political arena. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 from Valognes. Tocqueville's need for uncompromising dignity and independence, however, deprived him of the influence to which he aspired in the legislature of the July Monarchy. For then ext eight year she remained only a well-respected spokesman for legislative committees. On nonpartisan issues such as prison reform and colonial policy, he put his familiarity with American and British examples to good use.

The Revolution of 1848 presented Tocqueville with new threats and new opportunities. France was immediately faced with militant working-class demands for extensive and even revolutionary social reforms. Tocqueville was determined to combat what he viewed as the combined danger of increased state power and a proletarian attack on the basic principle of private property. France's electoral system also changed dramatically in 1848. The provisional government called for a new national constituent assembly based on universal male suffrage. Tocqueville's own voting constituency therefore suddenly expanded from several hundred to 160,000. In his campaigns for reelection in the Second French Republic, Tocqueville made the transition so well that he became the most successful vote getter in his department of La Manche. He subsequently opposed all radical social reform and joined the National Assembly in crushing a working-class uprising in 1848. The following year he briefly served the Republic as foreign minister, from June to October 1849. During a long period of illness in 1850 Tocqueville began a memoir on the Revolution of 1848. It was published posthumously, in 1893, under the title Souvenirs (1896; Recollections).

When the Republic was overthrown on 2 December 1851 by President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III; r. 1852–1871), Tocqueville refused to take an oath to the new regime and withdrew from politics. Seeking to sustain his liberal mission by other means, Tocqueville reverted to the strategy of the 1830s, touching on his fundamental concern with the relation of liberty to equality. He sought to trace the origins of France's entrapment in cycles of despotism and revolution by investigating the two centuries preceding the French Revolution. After four years of intensive archival research the Old Regime and the Revolution was published in 1856. Tocqueville located the deep structural sources of France's alterations of upheaval and despotism in the long-term evolution of the prerevolutionary monarchy and society. At the same time he offered his readers a counterpoint to his pessimistic analysis of French political instability by continuous comparisons with the Anglo-American world. The acclaim from liberal sympathizers in France and abroad that greeted his new history dispelled some of the gloom of his last years.


In the midst of writing his sequel to the Old Regime, Tocqueville died on 16 April 1859 at Cannes. Although he quickly became the posthumous leader of French liberalism, his reputation in France languished at the end of the nineteenth century. In the following century the totalitarian challenges to the survival of liberal democratic institutions helped to stimulate a "Tocqueville renaissance." After World War II the revival of his Democracy was fostered by the emergence of the United States as a world power. The expansion of political democracy in Eastern Europe after 1989 sustained that momentum. Tocqueville's The Old Regime became the foundational text for a revision of the prevailing Marxist interpretation of the Revolution in France itself.

However, the revival of interest in Tocqueville has not been based only on a sequence of events. A major change in the scholarly attention to Tocqueville's writings emerged during the late twentieth century. There was a broadening consensus on the relevance of his thought to democracy on a global scale. This growing encounter with Tocqueville's major writings is evidenced by an explosion of international scholarship. That scholarship has given us a rich sense of Tocqueville's complex dialogues with himself and his contemporaries and with the challenges faced by the world of the early twenty-first century. Some have sought to demonstrate that Tocqueville was entrapped by the limitations of his own time and background. Others have argued that he ultimately despaired of his hopes for political liberty in an egalitarian world. Yet a majority of historians and social scientists find in his thought a deeper affirmation of the resilience of democratic liberal institutions and mores. Tocqueville's sensitivity to civil society as a determinative of institutional success or failure has been echoed by contemporary students of political thought. Tocqueville's cumulative legacy is evidence of his unparalleled power to bring contemporary political concerns into sharper focus even where consensus on fundamentals remains difficult to achieve.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Marx, Karl; Michelet, Jules; Napoleon III; Revolutions of 1830; Revolutions of 1848.


Drescher, Seymour. Tocqueville and England. Cambridge, Mass., 1964. Assesses the influence of England on Tocqueville's life and thought.

Jardin, André. Tocqueville: A Biography. Translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York, 1988. The most recent and detailed narrative of Tocqueville's life.

Lamberti, Jean-Claude. Tocqueville and the Two Democracies. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. Stresses changes in Tocqueville's view of democracy between the 1835 and 1840 volumes.

Mélonio, Françoise. Tocqueville and the French. Translated by Beth G. Raps. Charlottesville, Va., 1998. An account of French attitudes toward Tocqueville and his works during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Schleifer, James T. The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Indianapolis, 2000. An abundantly documented reconstruction of the major concepts in Democracy, using Tocqueville's extensive notes and drafts. Schleifer stresses the unity of the two books, published in 1835 and 1840.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Tocqueville Reader: A Life in Letters and Politics. Edited by Olivier Zunz and Alan S. Kahan. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Welch, Cheryl B. De Tocqueville. Oxford, U.K., 2001. A synthesis of Tocqueville's political thought from the perspective of political science.

Seymour Drescher

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 29 2018

Tocqueville, Alexis de 18051859


The French statesman and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805, in Paris and died April 16, 1859, in Cannes. Much of his life was devoted to scholarship and public service. He is most famous for writing Democracy in America (18351840), a sweeping and perceptive study of American democratic life. His other important work is The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). As a young man, Tocqueville studied law and began his public service by working at the courts in Versailles. Later in his life, he became active in French politics, holding several elected offices.

Tocquevilles family was part of the French petite noblesse and had suffered greatly during the French Revolution (17891799). Consequently, it is not surprising that he held some aristocratic sympathies, along with concerns about the hazards of democratic excess. Still, Tocqueville was intrigued by democratic society and its potential for advancing personal liberty. He was also convinced that the spread of democracy was irresistible. For this reason, he wanted to better understand its benefits and dangers. This interest led him to visit the United States between May 1831 and February 1832. His crosscountry tour took him to seventeen of the then existing twenty-four states. He spent a great deal of time in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast. He also traveled through such regions as the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, the Gulf Coast, and the South Atlantic. After returning to France, Tocqueville spent several years reflecting on his experiences and doing additional research. During this period, he wrote Democracy in America, which was published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

Democracy in America is considered a classic study because of its shrewd insights into the psychological, sociological, political, and institutional nature of American democracy. The book covers an exceptionally wide range of topics dealing with the democratic condition. Underlying this extensive analysis, however, is a desire to safeguard human freedom by better understanding democratic dispositions, passions, and tendencies.

According to Tocqueville, the most fundamental characteristic of the democratic age is equality. Its effect on democratic society is ubiquitous in both the public and private spheres. The influence of [equality] extends far beyond political mores and laws it creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and modifies whatever it does not create ([18351840] 2000, p. 9). Moreover, it inspires a strong and ardent attachment among democratic citizens. The benefit of equality is that it expands the reach of liberty and opportunity. Consequently, it gives all citizens a chance to take more control of their own lives.

Although equality had a fundamental influence on American society, inequalities did exist. Slavery, in particular, was a well-established practice in the southern states. Tocqueville, however, viewed slavery as a practice in retreat and destined to be abolished. He claimed, Whatever efforts the Americans of the South make to maintain slavery, they will not forever succeed. Slavery amid the democratic liberty and enlightenment of our age is not an institution that can last ([18351840] 2000, p. 363). Still, Tocqueville was pessimistic about the future of race relations in the United States. Regardless of how slavery ended, he foresaw great misfortunes. He believed that conflict between the races could only be avoided by isolation or complete intermingling. Once slavery ended, isolation would be impossible, but white racism would prevent significant intermingling. As a result, the races would be left in a condition of precarious coexistence, producing a dangerous struggle for power.

Tocqueville also felt that equality could become dangerous if taken to an extreme. When people become too enamored with equality, they will do anything to maintain it, including sacrificing their liberty. The idea of equality can also be dangerous because it lends a daunting form of moral authority to the opinions of the majority. Because everyone is considered equal, the larger number of individuals in the majority is equated with superior judgment and greater utility. The opinions of the majority carry such great weight that they can lead to political tyranny, social conformity, and intellectual monotony.

Tocqueville argued that two other democratic dispositions, individualism and materialism, can also be threats to liberty. These inclinations are dangerous because they cause citizens to lose interest in public affairs. Individualism compels people to isolate themselves from the greater society and withdraw into small groups of family and friends. Materialism leads people to focus obsessively on their own private prosperity and to disregard public duties. The neglect of civic responsibilities can result in the development of a paternalistic despotism. Personal rights and freedoms are hindered and enervated as citizens become entangled in a network of petty, complicated rules ([18351840] 2000, p. 692).

Tocqueville claimed that it is possible to overcome these and other threats to liberty with the proper institutions, mores, and values. The presence of numerous and robust civil associations, for example, serves to protect individuals from an overbearing government. An independent press informs the public and facilitates associational activity. Religions that are able to inspire benevolence and instill a strong sense of spirituality can help counter the influences of individualism and materialism. The concept of self-interest properly understood links the performance of civic duties with private advantage. Prudent political leaders protect liberty through statecraft and soulcraft. Educated citizens are aware of the seductive dangers of extreme equality. Tocqueville concludes by noting that the future of democracy is not predestined; the people will determine if equality will lead to servitude or freedom.

The Old Regime and the French Revolution is Tocquevilles attempt to understand the origins of the French Revolution. It examines the nature of French society prior to 1789. His primary claim is that the revolution was prompted by the political centralization of the state. Moreover, the revolution itself was a failure because it also centralized political power. Although The Old Regime has not attracted the attention of Democracy in America, it is still considered an important account of the social conditions that led to the French Revolution.

Tocquevilles ideas about the democratic condition continue to exert a considerable influence on contemporary academic and political discourse. Of particular importance are his discussions of unchecked individualism and the importance of associational membership, which are frequently referenced in scholarly research on civil society and social capital. His pithy observations about democracy and democratic life are often quoted by politicians and popular commentators. The continuing relevance of Tocquevilles work should not be surprising. He provides a seminal and perhaps the best account of the dangers of democracy and its threats to liberty.


Jardin, André. 1988. Tocqueville: A Biography. Trans. Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. [18351840] 2000. Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence; ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: HarperCollins Perennial.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. [1856] 1955. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Johnny Goldfinger

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 29 2018


Politician and author Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), who was born in the village of Tocqueville in France on July 29 and died on April 16, is best known for his two politically minded books, Democracy in America (1835–1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). Tocqueville was born into an aristocratic family and lived as an aristocrat. He had no children and no strong desire to perpetuate his family's noble name. His passion was to promote human liberty in democratic times, to keep alive what was best about the old aristocracies in societies devoted to the democratic understanding of justice. Tocqueville's political career was undistinguished, but he deserves to be remembered for his literary legacy.

Democracy in America, the outgrowth of an extended visit to the United States from May 1831 until February 1832, remains the best single book written on democracy and the best book written on America. It has in many ways become more true over time, as America has become more democratic. Tocqueville presents democracy not just as a form of government but as a way of life; the democratic ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, he correctly thought, had infused and would gradually continue to infuse themselves into every aspect of American and modern life.

Tocqueville's explicit discussion of democratic science, technology, and ethics occurs in Part 1 of Democracy Volume 2, where his subject is the democratic mind. There he describes Americans as Cartesians without ever having read a word of Descartes. They are habitual skeptics; they view all claims of personal authority as nondemocratic claims to rule. Skeptical of the soul, Americans act feverishly on behalf of the body and its enjoyments. So they prize scientific knowledge far less for its own sake than for its applications or technological effects. The Americans dismiss the proud and pure desire to know characteristic of theoretical science as an aristocratic prejudice. Democratic peoples subordinate pleasures of the mind to those of the body.

Tocqueville himself embraces neither the aristocratic nor democratic views of science, but adopts the position of an umpire determining what is true and false about each partial or extreme view. The pride associated with the ruling class in an aristocracy leads scientific inquirers to confine themselves to the haughty and sterile pursuit of abstract truths. All scientific advances find their roots in such fundamental inquiry, but aristocrats inconsiderately or unethically neglect what applied science might do to improve ordinary human life.

Democrats, Tocqueville adds, are so selfishly enthralled with the benefits of technology that they neglect to provide for pure or theoretical inquiry. Democracies characteristically do not have a class that possesses the leisure required for the theoretical sciences; the mind needs relatively calm or unagitated social circumstances to achieve its possible perfection. The theoretical life is rarely possible for members of a merely middle class, for free beings who must work to earn a living.

For minds in democratic times, the most magnificent products of human intelligence are methods that quickly produce wealth and machines that reduce the need for human labor and the cost of production. Those who direct democratic nations, Tocqueville contends, must use their influence and power to go against the democratic grain by raising those minds on occasion "to the contemplation of first causes," to elevate them sometimes with the magnificence of the theoretical life. Their failure to do so might mean the near disappearance of scientific geniuses such as Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and even the gradual decline of scientific progress itself. A nation with no theoretical passion at all might end up wallowing in the scientific stagnation characteristic of the China that Europeans discovered. The technical genius of America finally depends on the perpetuation of a way of life that disdains mere technology in the name of truth.

Tocqueville also worried about the effect of a democratic technological orientation on the souls of most human beings. He writes that if he had lived in an unjust, poor, and otherworldly aristocratic age, he would have attempted to turn people toward the study of physical science and the pursuit of material wellbeing. But in a democracy, people are readily pushed by social circumstances in that technological direction; there is no longer any need to promote applied science. Instead, the need is to raise souls in the direction of heaven, greatness, a love of the infinite, and the love of immaterial pleasures. The democratic danger is that "while man takes pleasure in [the] honest and legitimate search for well-being, he will finally lose the use of his most sublime faculties, and that by wishing to improve everything around him, he will finally degrade himself" (Democracy in America, Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 14). So any comprehensive scientific claim for the truth of materialism—for the idea that there is no truth at all to claims for the soul's immortality—should be condemned by thoughtful human beings in democratic times as probably untrue and certainly pernicious.

Tocqueville was also a critic of the effect of applied science on language in democratic times. Language becomes progressively more vague and impersonal; human action is described using words more appropriate to mechanical motion. Precise personal distinctions and assertions become suspect, and metaphysics and theology slowly lose ground. Instead of saying, "I think," those who aim to influence democratic opinion say, "studies show." Having rejected personal authority, people in democratic times are far less skeptical concerning impersonal scientific claims about the various forces that shape their lives. Having freed themselves from aristocratic tyranny, people are seduced by the expertise of schoolmasters whose despotism is milder but exceedingly meddlesome. A democratic danger is the loss of any conception of free will or personal liberty; people will too easily be governed both by the claims of impersonal expertise and public opinion determined by no one in particular.

Tocqueville's significance is his account of all of modern life in terms of democracy. Many of his observations and fears anticipate, for instance, Martin Heidegger's account of all of modern life in terms of technology, and certainly modern democracy would be impossible without the liberation of technological progress for the most part from moral and political concerns. But Tocqueville emphatically refuses to equate technological progress with human progress. His judgments about democratic progress are friendlier to democracy and more judicious than Heidegger's. Democratic thought is partly true and partly not, and there is no reason to believe that people will not be able to correct some of its excesses in the directions of truth and liberty.


SEE ALSO Democracy;Freedom;Skepticism.


de Tocqueville, Alexis. (2000). Democracy in America, trans., ed., and introduced by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lamberti, John-Claude. (1999). Tocqueville and the Two Democracies, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lawler, Peter Augustine. (1993). The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Manent, Pierre. (1996). Tocqueville on the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 18 2018

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1805–59) An early French sociologist who travelled to the United States between 1831 and 1832 to observe democracy at work. His classic work Democracy in America (1835–40) identifies within democracies a tension between equality and liberty which cannot easily be reconciled. Since democracy tends to undermine hierarchy, it discourages the formation of intermediate groupings between the individual and society, and therefore promotes tendencies towards individualism and centralization which, if unchecked, will result in an authoritarian state. This proposition was illustrated in a systematic comparison of France and the United States. The post-revolutionary history of the former country revealed the dangers of attempting to impose equality without first establishing the liberty of self-government: administrative centralism fostered revolutionary despotism. In the case of the United States, the well-entrenched constitutional principle of federalism provided for a multiplicity of intermediate voluntary associations, and a decentralized mode of government to which people had ready access, and in which they could participate. In both cases, however, Tocqueville warned against the ‘tyranny of the majority’, by which ‘every citizen, being assimilated to ail the rest, is lost in the crowd’. His work is thus the starting-point for many debates about the nature of mass society (including, for example, D. Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, 1950, and R. Bellah's Habits of the Heart, 1985).

Tocqueville, Alexis de

views updated May 29 2018

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1805–59) French historian. Sent on a fact-finding tour to the USA by the French government, he produced Of Democracy in America (1835), the first in-depth study of the US political system. His later work includes L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856).