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Alexis de Tocqueville


Alexis de Tocqueville


Alexis de Tocqueville

French historian and political writer

born July 29, 1805, Paris, France
died April 16, 1859, Cannes

political scientist, historian, and politician, best known for Democracy in America, 4 vol. (1835–40), a perceptive analysis of the political and social system of the United States in the early 19th century.

Early life
Tocqueville was a great-grandson of the statesman Chrétien de Malesherbes (1721–94), a liberal aristocratic victim of the French Revolution and a political model for the young Tocqueville. Almost diminutive in stature, acutely sensitive, and plagued by severe bouts of anxiety since childhood, he remained close to his parents throughout his life.

Despite a frail voice in a fragile body, distaste for the daily demands of parliamentary existence, and long periods of illness and nervous exhaustion, Tocqueville chose politics as his vocation and adhered to this choice until he was driven from office. His decision in favour of a public career was made with some assurance of success. His father was a loyal royalist prefect and in 1827 was made a peer of France by Charles X. At that time, young Tocqueville moved easily into government service as an apprentice magistrate. There he prepared himself for political life while observing the impending constitutional confrontation between the Conservatives and the Liberals, with growing sympathy for the latter. He was strongly influenced by the lectures of the historian and statesman François Guizot (1787–1874), who asserted that the decline of aristocratic privilege was historically inevitable. After the manner of Liberals under the autocratic regime of the restored Bourbon kings, Tocqueville began to study English history as a model of political development.

He entered public life in the company of a close friend who was to become his alter ego—Gustave de Beaumont. Their life histories are virtual mirror images. Of similar backgrounds and positions, they were companions in their travels in America, England, and Algeria, coordinated their writings, and ultimately entered the legislature together.

The July Revolution of 1830 that put the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe of Orléans on the throne was a turning point for Tocqueville. It deepened his conviction that France was moving rapidly toward complete social equality. Breaking with the older liberal generation, he no longer compared France with the English constitutional monarchy but compared it with democratic America. Of more personal concern, despite his oath of loyalty to the new monarch, his position had become precarious because of his family ties with the ousted Bourbon king. He and Beaumont, seeking to escape from their uncomfortable political situation, asked for and received official permission to study the uncontroversial problem of prison reforms in America. They also hoped to return with knowledge of a society that would mark them as especially fit to help mold France’s political future.

Visit to the United States
Tocqueville and Beaumont spent nine months in the United States during 1831 and 1832, out of which came first their joint book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833); Beaumont’s Marie; or, Slavery in the United States (1835), on America’s race problems; and the first part of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–40). On the basis of observations, readings, and discussions with a host of eminent Americans, Tocqueville attempted to penetrate directly to the essentials of American society and to highlight that aspect—equality of conditions—that was most relevant to his own philosophy. Tocqueville’s study analyzed the vitality, the excesses, and the potential future of American democracy. Above all, the work was infused with his message that a society, properly organized, could hope to retain liberty in a democratic social order.

The first part of Democracy in America won an immediate reputation for its author as a political scientist. During this period, probably the happiest and most optimistic of his life, Tocqueville was named to the Legion of Honour, the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (1838), and the French Academy (1841). With the prizes and royalties from the book, he even found himself able to rebuild his ancestral chateau in Normandy. Within a few years his book had been published in England, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Denmark, and Sweden. Although it was sometimes viewed as having been derived from politically biased sources, it was soon accorded the status of a classic in the United States.

In 1836 Tocqueville married Mary Mottely, an Englishwoman. Tocqueville spent the next four years working on the final portion of Democracy in America, which was published in 1840. Its composition took far longer, moved farther afield, and ended far more soberly than Tocqueville originally had intended. American society slid into the background, and Tocqueville attempted to complete a picture of the influence of equality itself on all aspects of modern society. France increasingly became his principal example, and what he saw there altered the tone of his work. He observed the curtailment of liberties by the Liberals, who had come to power in 1830, as well as the growth of state intervention in economic development. Most depressing to him was the increased political apathy and acquiescence of his fellow citizens in this rising paternalism. His chapters on democratic individualism and centralization in Democracy in America contained a new warning based on these observations. He argued that a mild, stagnant despotism was the greatest threat to democracy.

First political career
During this period Tocqueville fulfilled his lifelong ambition to enter politics. He lost his first bid for the Chamber of Deputies in 1837 but won election two years later. Eventually, Tocqueville built up an enormous personal influence in his constituency, winning subsequent elections by more than 70 percent of the vote and becoming president of his departmental council (a local representative body). In local politics his quest for preeminence was completely fulfilled, but his need for uncompromised dignity and independence deprived him of influence in the Chamber of Deputies for a much longer time. He was not able to follow the leadership of others, nor did his oratorical style win him quick recognition as a leader. As a result, he had no major legislative accomplishment to his credit during the reign of Louis-Philippe. His speech prophesying revolution only a few weeks before it took place in France in February 1848 (part of the wider Revolutions of 1848 that befell Europe that year) fell on deaf ears. The biting sketches of friend, foe, and even himself in his Recollections (1893) reflect his feeling of the general mediocrity of political leadership before and after 1848.

Revolution of 1848
The Revolution of 1848 brought about a new political situation for France and for Tocqueville. Having decried apathy as the chief danger for France, Tocqueville recognized even before the revolution that France was faced with a politically awakened working class that might well propel French politics into socialist and revolutionary channels. Tocqueville considered economic independence as necessary to the preservation of his own intellectual independence. He thus viewed pressures of the dependent poor for state welfare and of the unemployed for state employment as the initial steps to a universal and degrading dependence on the state by all social classes. Unsympathetic to revolutionaries and contemptuous of socialists before the revolution, Tocqueville opposed the demands of the Parisian workers during the June days of 1848, when their uprising was bloodily suppressed by the military dictator General Louis Cavaignac, as well as in the debates over the constitution of 1848. The only intellectual change produced in Tocqueville by the events of 1848 was a recognition of the strength of socialist ideas and of the problematic nature of the proprietary society. Although he had sought to reconcile the aristocracy to liberal democracy in Democracy in America, he rejected social democracy as it emerged in 1848 as incompatible with liberal democracy.

Politically, Tocqueville’s own position was dramatically improved by the February Revolution. His electorate expanded from 700 to 160,000 under universal manhood suffrage. He was elected as a conservative Republican to the Constituent Assembly by 79 percent of the voters and again in 1849 by more than 87 percent. Along with Beaumont, he was nominated to the committee that wrote the constitution of the Second Republic, and the following year he became vice president of the Assembly. A government crisis produced by French armed intervention to restore papal authority in Rome prompted his appointment as minister of foreign affairs between June and October 1849, during which time he worked cautiously to preserve the balance of power in Europe and to prevent France from extending its foreign involvements. His speeches were more successful and his self-confidence soared, but the results gave him little more durable satisfaction than those he had attained during the July monarchy under Louis-Philippe.

Shortly after his dismissal from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in October 1849, Tocqueville suffered a physical collapse. After a slow recovery he performed a final service for the Second French Republic. As reporter for the constitutional revision committee, he attempted to avert the final confrontation between the president and the legislature, which ended with an executive seizure of dictatorial power. Briefly imprisoned for opposing Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état on December 2, 1851, Tocqueville was deprived of all political offices for refusing his oath of loyalty to the new regime. Thrown back on a small circle of political allies and friends, he felt a deeper sense of isolation and political pessimism than ever before.

Return to politics
Seeking to reenter politics, he reverted to the strategy of his youthful success—the publication of a book on the fundamental themes of liberty and equality. He chose as his subject the French Revolution, and, after years of research and intermittent illnesses, The Old Regime and the Revolution appeared in 1856 as the first part of his projected study. Tocqueville sought to demonstrate the continuity of political behaviour and attitudes that made postrevolutionary French society as prepared to accept despotism as that of the old regime. In this final study the traumatic events of the years 1848–51 were clearly the source of his emphasis on the durability of centralization and class hostility in French history. France seemed less the democratic society of the future he had glimpsed in America than the prisoner of its own past. Against the pessimism of his analysis of French political tendencies, The Old Regime reaffirmed the libertarian example of the Anglo-American world. The acclaim that greeted this study briefly dispelled the gloom of his last years. Once again a public figure, he made a visit to England in 1857 that culminated in an audience with the prince consort and was the last public triumph of his life. He returned to his work, but, before he could finish his study of the Revolution, he collapsed and died.

Tocqueville’s reputation in the 19th century reached its high point during the decade following his death as the great European powers accommodated themselves to universal suffrage. He died just at the onset of a revival of liberalism in France. The nine-volume publication of his works, edited by Beaumont (1860–66), was received as the legacy of a martyr of liberty. In England his name was invoked during the franchise reform debates of the 1860s, and in Germany it was linked to controversies over liberalization and federalization in the years preceding the empire devised by Otto von Bismarck. After 1870 his influence began to decline, a process not substantially reversed by either the posthumous publication of his Recollections in 1893 or that of his correspondence with his friend, the diplomatist and philosopher Arthur de Gobineau. By the turn of the century, he was almost forgotten, and his works, which seemed too abstract and speculative for a generation that believed only in ascertained knowledge, were generally regarded as outdated classics. Moreover, Tocqueville’s prediction of democracy as a vast and uniformly leveling power seemed to have miscarried by not foreseeing both the extent of the new inequalities and conflicts produced by industrialization and those produced by European nationalisms and imperialism. The classless society had failed to appear in Europe, and America seemed to have become European by becoming nationalist and imperialist. In France, Tocqueville’s name was too closely identified with a narrowly defined Liberal tradition, which rapidly lost influence during the Third Republic. Although his work as an innovative historian was acknowledged, it is significant that the revival of his ideas and reputation as a political sociologist owes so much to American, English, and German scholarship.

The 20th-century totalitarian challenge to the survival of liberal institutions produced by two world wars and by the Great Depression of the 1930s fostered a “Tocqueville renaissance.” The outdated facts of his books seemed less significant than the political philosophy implicit in his search to preserve liberty in public life and his strategies for analyzing latent social tendencies. His work was found to display a wealth of fruitful philosophical and sociological hypotheses. At a popular level, the renewed upsurge of social democracy in Europe after 1945 combined with the polarization of the Cold War to produce a view of Tocqueville in the West as an alternative to Marx as a prophet of social change. Again, as in the late 1850s and 1860s, Tocqueville rose to heights of popularity, especially in the 1990s in the United States, where his travels were retraced. It seems certain that Tocqueville will continue to be invoked as an authority and inspiration by those sharing his contempt of static authoritarian societies as well as his belief in the final disappearance of class divisions and in liberty as the ultimate political value.

Seymour Drescher



Type of work: Essays in political science
Author: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
First published: Volume I, 1835; Volume II, 1840

Alexis de Tocqueville lived in a time of enormous political change, when every conceivable variety of political theory flourished. He was born shortly after the French Revolution had turned itself into the Empire, and in his lifetime occurred those further changes which transformed France, at least nominally, into a Republic. His object in writing Democracy in America was twofold: to write about the new nation that he so much admired and to establish a new way of examining ideas of politics. Instead of proceeding from ideas of right and responsibility, Tocqueville preferred to begin by analyzing social institutions as they functioned in reality. Instead of working, as Rousseau had worked, from an arbitrary picture of the beginnings of humanity in a "natural" condition, Tocqueville preferred to work from what was statistically observable. Thus, Democracy in America begins with a picture of the geography of the new continent, its weather, its indigenous tribes, its economy, and its natural resources. In this respect Democracy in America is the forerunner of the scientific spirit in the investigation of social structures.
Much of Democracy in America is concerned with institutions, and the first of these described by its author is that of the partition of property. He points out that it is customary in the nations of Europe to divide property by the laws of primogeniture. The result is that property remains fixed in extent and in possession; the family, no matter how changed in each generation, is linked to the wealth and political power of landed property. The family represents the estate, the estate the family, and naturally a strong inequality is carried from one generation to another. The foundations of American culture are to be found, Tocqueville points out, in the equal partition of land and fortune. Land is continually broken up into parcels, sold, developed, and transformed. The accompanying wealth and power is much more fluid than in societies in which descent really dominates fortune. The subsidiary effect of equal partition is the access of careers to men who might in another system be blocked from advancement.
Tocqueville was fascinated by the practice of equality, a phenomenon rarely encountered in France during his lifetime. His next series of chapters concerns political equality; he is one of the first great commentators on the democracy of the township and corporation in early nineteenth century America. He emphasizes that it is fundamental to understand the nature of the township, particularly in its New England tradition. The key to the nature of the American nation, he finds, is the wide and responsible nature of freedom at the level of municipal government. This gives the citizen direct voice in his government and trains him for the representative democracy of the Federal government. Tocqueville points out that under this form of government, power is actually concentrated in the hands of the voter; the legislative and executive branches have no power of their own, but merely represent those who appoint them. To us this fact is commonplace, but it was a new idea for the citizens of Europe.
Although much of this work is in praise of American democracy, Tocqueville makes some important qualifications. His first principle is that abuse in government occurs when one special interest is served to the exclusion of all others. This kind of abuse, he remarks, formerly occurred when the upper classes imposed their will on the lower, when the military, or feudal, or financial, or even religious values operate to the exclusion of all others. His great reservation concerning democracy is that in this form of government a kind of tyranny is also possible, that of the majority. He states that it is conceivable that the free institutions of America may be destroyed by forcing all minorities to give up their freedoms for what is supposedly the good of the majority. In that case, he concludes, democracy will give way first to despotism and then to anarchy. Above all things Tocqueville is taken with equality, and that principle, regardless of the greatest good for the greatest number, is what animates his opinion.
Democracy in America is of course principally about its great subject, but there are in it many reminders of a larger view that its author has. One constant theme of the book is that the Old World must learn from the New; in fact, the book functions not so much as an independent study of a unique phenomenon as a study of comparative political science.
Tocqueville suggests that democratic institutions need to be introduced in France; there will be independence for none, he adds, unless, as in the American republic, independence is granted for all. With uncommon clarity he predicts the totalitarian potentialities of the twentieth century, where unlimited power restricts itself not to a class, but first to a party, and then to a single man. The famous ending of the first volume carries this insight to a more elaborate and specific culmination. There are two nations, Tocqueville says, which will probably dominate the next century, the United States and Russia. One, he says, is driven by the desire for power and war, the other by the desire to increase domestic prosperity. He predicts that there will be no peace until the aggressiveness of Russia is checked by the peacefulness of the United States; in his own words, he looks to a future in which the principle of "servitude" will encounter that of "freedom."
The second volume of Democracy in America was published after a lapse of five years. The first volume had established its author as one of the best political thinkers in Europe. It won for him not only the esteem of the best minds of the Continent but financial and even political rewards, so that from the time of its publication Tocqueville was to take an active part as a member of the French government. The second volume is concerned not with the basic economic and social characteristics of America, but with subsidiary questions about the nature of American culture. He asks, for example, how Americans cultivate the arts and whether or not eloquence is to be encountered in the rhetoric of Congress. He covers the progress of science as well as that of poetry, the position of religious minorities, even the meaning of public monuments in a democracy. His general conclusion concerning the arts in America is that they do not flourish as they do in other political climates, for the arts require an atmosphere of privilege and an amount of money that a tax-conscious public is quite unlikely to spend. The useful, he says, is much preferred in a democracy to the beautiful. The artist becomes an artisan and, the author remarks with some delicacy, he tends to produce "imperfect commodities" rather than lasting works of art.
Nevertheless, Tocqueville suggests that a lowering of some standards is amply compensated by a heightening of others. Particularly in the matter of foreign policy does he admire the republican sense as well as form of government. Toward the end of Democracy in America he spends much thought on the inclinations toward war and peace of different forms of government. The democratic form, he judges, is predisposed to peace because of various influences: the rapid growth of personal wealth; the stake in property; the less material but equally important "gentleness of heart" which allows the citizens of a democracy a more humane view of life. Yet, when the democratic government is involved in war, the same application of ambition and energy that is so marked in commercial life results often in military success as well. Tocqueville's last thoughts about the democracy and its army deal with the danger to any society from its own standing army, and he covers substantially the same ground on this matter as do the authors of the Federalist papers. Democracy in America ends with the restatement that despotism may be encountered even in republics. While democracies can, the author admits, on occasion be violent and unjust, he believes these occasions are exceptional. They will be more and more frequent, however, in the proportion that equality is allowed to lapse. Among the last of Tocqueville's animated descriptions is that of the "flock of timid and industrious animals" who have given up their individuality to a strong central government. He urges a balance between central and decentralized power, the constant consciousness of equality for all members of the polity.


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