Tocqueville, Alexis De (1805–1859)

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The French magistrate and political theorist Alexis Clerel de Tocqueville spent nine months of 1831 and 1832 in the United States. He believed that democracy was the inescapable destiny of all nations and that America, as the first avowedly democratic nation in the modern world, offered an opportunity for the student of politics to observe democracy in action. One product of Tocqueville's sojourn on our shores was Democracy in America.

Tocqueville thought that the main problem of democracy was a tendency toward radical equality of condition which was destructive of the liberty necessary for excellence in human endeavors. He perceived in America two undesirable developments: a pervasive tyranny of the majority and a centrifugal individualism. He proposed, as a solution to democracy's problems, a "new science of politics" based on enlightened self-interest. He emphasized the utility, rather than the beauty or nobility, of virtue and public-spiritedness.

A shrewd observer of political affairs, Tocqueville was one of the first to discern the American tendency toward judicial supremacy. American judges, he noted, although confined to deciding particular cases, and only those presenting justiciable controversies, possess immense political power. This is possible because "scarcely any political question arises in the United States which is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question," and because of the simple fact that the Americans have acknowledged the right of judges to found their decisions on the Constitution rather than on the laws, or, in other words, they have permitted them not to apply such laws as may appear to them to be unconstitutional. The political power of the judges, arising out of the exercise of judicial review, appeared to Tocqueville a salutary check on potential legislative excess. Tocqueville's observation, made when the Supreme Court had voided only a single federal law as unconstitutional, seems all the more perceptive today.

Tocqueville also recognized the unique status of the Constitution in American political life. The English constitution was alterable by ordinary legislation and the constitutions of continental monarchies were immutable save by violent revolution; only in America was the Constitution regarded as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, not subject to change at the whim of legislators, but amendable by the common consent of the citizens in accordance with established rules.

Not all of Tocqueville's observations remain valid. For example, he wrote that the states were more powerful than the national government and that Congress was more powerful than the President. In each case, however, he identified the factors that have caused those relationships to be reversed in our own day.

Tocqueville's purpose in writing Democracy in America was not merely to describe American institutions. He addressed himself to the universal problems of modern politics—economic and social, as well as governmental. America provided illustrations and examples, and from the American experience he made generalizations applicable to all modern nations. In America Tocqueville learned how to make democracy safe for the world.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Pierson, G.W. 1959 Tocqueville in America. New York: Basic Books.

Zetterbaum, Marvin 1965 Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy. New York: Basic Books.