Authors: Alexis de Tocqueville

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Political theorist

July 29, 1805

Paris, France

April 16, 1859

Cannes, France

Biography

Alexis de Tocqueville (tawk-veel) was born in Paris in 1805. As a child he displayed great powers of intelligence, and he was fortunate enough to be allowed to develop them through study and travel. His journey to the United States resulted in his first book, a study of the penal system of both the Old and New Worlds. This book, which appeared in 1832, was based on a long and hard exploration of a year’s duration, during which he familiarized himself with the nature of American culture. Another book, one which was to make him famous, was also a consequence of this journey. Democracy in America immediately raised Tocqueville to the status of a great European author.

Alexis de Tocqueville

By Théodore Chassériau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Democracy in America was the answer of an empiricist to political theories derived largely from speculation. It was based on close study of institutions rather than on a theory of human nature, and it covered in great detail the economics, legal structure, and social structure of the United States. It covered, too, the dangers of democracy: the probability of increased centralization of power, the encroachment of oligarchy on popular rights. In the years after the publication of this great work Tocqueville took an active part in government and became a fascinated observer of the violent political changes of the 1830s and 1840s. During this period of his life, Tocqueville was building a factual and philosophical foundation for his last historical masterpiece.

The preoccupation of Tocqueville during these years was decidedly not with ideas or theories but with what he called the realities of authority, morality, and religion. He was opposed to revolutionary activities that would, in the name of reform, destroy these positive values. His fear was of too much freedom, of the destruction of the European community by private interests. He wrote of the dangers from two directions: from a plutocracy that would become more and more selfish, considering the working classes as of no more value than the machines they operated, and from the despotism of the working classes themselves.

In his books, letters, and personal life he consistently stated that institutions that worked badly were preferable to those that did not work at all. He foretold the new despotism of the twentieth century, and he characterized it as the product of a time that had abandoned its past. The ties of caste, class, corporation, and family were essential to his view of orderly government, and he discerned that these ties were rapidly becoming weaker even in his own lifetime. What would replace them was private interest, whether of the mob, the middle classes, or a ruling clique. The one way to stop this danger, he believed, was through freedom. Political freedom, he stated in his last work, was the one agent that could unite the varying interests of the modern state.

After the revolution of 1848 in France, Tocqueville was elected to the new legislature. In 1851 this position led to a brief imprisonment for opposing the coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon. In 1854, Tocqueville traveled to Germany to study the origins of feudalism. This study was part of his research into the background of the French Revolution that began in 1789. The result of this research was The Old Régime and the Revolution. Tocqueville’s thesis, never before articulated, was that the revolution was accomplished in the minds of men long before the events of 1789.

Bathed in the laurels of this masterpiece, Tocqueville visited England for the last time in 1857. Back in Paris the following spring, while working on a second volume on the French Revolution, this one on the actual events, he suddenly became very ill. His health failed to improve, and he and his wife moved to the warmer climate of Cannes, where he died on April 16, 1859. The second volume on the French Revolution was left to posterity only in the form of notes, which were later organized by the editors of his complete works.

Author Works Nonfiction: Du système pênitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France, 1833 (2 volumes, with Gustave de Beaumont) De la démocratie en Amérique, 1835, 1840 (Democracy in America, 1835, 1840) L’Ancien Régime et la révolution, 1856 (The Old Regime and the Revolution, 1856) Memoirs, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1861 (2 volumes) Souvenirs de Alexis de Tocqueville, 1893 (The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1896, 1949) Writings on Empire and Slavery, 2001 (Jennifer Pitts, editor) Bibliography Commager, Henry Steele. Commager on Tocqueville. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Analysis of Tocqueville’s writings. Includes an index. Herr, Richard. Tocqueville and the Old Regime. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. The author, a specialist in modern French history, deals with the incompleteness and apparent inconsistencies of Tocqueville’s The Old Régime and the Revolution. An informative and well-written work with a selective bibliography and a useful index. Laski, Harold J. “Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy.” In The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age, edited by F. J. C. Hearnshaw. London: G. G. Harrap, 1933. Laski, a distinguished British liberal-left political analyst and a force behind the extension of the British welfare state, cogently examines Tocqueville’s views on social democracy and their relevance to modern democracies. No notes, bibliography, or index. Generally available. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. Tocqueville on American Character: Why Tocqueville’s Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit Is as Vital and Important Today as It Was Nearly Two Hundred Years Ago. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Evaluates Tocqueville’s American travels and their impact on him and his writings. Mansfield, Harvey C., Delba Winthrop, and Philippe Raynaud. Tyranny and Liberty: Big Government and the Individual in Tocqueville’s Science of Politics. London: Institute of United States Studies, University of London, 1999. Covers Tocqueville’s ideas on liberty, wealth, and equality as well as government. Mayer, Jacob Peter. Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Study in Political Science. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960. Mayer is one of the foremost authorities on Tocqueville, having researched, translated, revised, and completed many of Tocqueville’s works. This is a delightfully informative and clearly written overview intended for general readers. There is one portrait, an appendix assessing Tocqueville’s influences after a century, endnotes, a useful bibliography, and a reliable index. Generally available. Mayer, Jacob Peter, and A. P. Kerr. Introduction to Recollections, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. This is the best edition of what many regard as Tocqueville’s finest work. Mayer and Kerr, experts on Tocqueville, provide an informative introductory essay, many footnotes, a select bibliography, and an extensive index. Available in good bookstores as well as major college and university libraries. Pierson, George W. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. This remains the definitive study of Tocqueville’s months in the United States. A thorough evaluation of the settings through which these two friends passed, of the people they met, and of the sources that they employed for their study of the American penal system and, in Tocqueville’s case, for his great study of democracy. Traces Tocqueville’s intellectual development with an eye to clarifying all of his writings. Clearly written and understandable by general readers. There are footnotes, a good bibliography, and a valuable index. Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Edited by Phillips Bradley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945. This is a revised version of the first English translation and includes informative notes, historical essays, useful bibliographies, and extensive indexes in each volume. The author claims that Tocqueville’s work remains one of the most magisterial analyses ever produced on the principle of the sovereignty of the people, its cultural roots, and its evolving political effects. Welch, Cheryl B. De Tocqueville. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Biography puts Tocqueville in the revolutionary context of his time. Zetterbaum, Marvin. Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. An examination of Tocqueville’s proposition that democracy was inevitable and therefore that democracy had to be made safe for the world. The author’s view is that the “inevitability thesis” distracted readers from Tocqueville’s central concern about perfecting democracy and of harmonizing the demands of justice with those of excellence. However brief, this is an enlightening study, clearly written and intended for the general reader. There are footnotes throughout, a useful bibliography, and a valuable index. Zunz, Olivier, editor. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and Their Travels. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Oxford UP, 2011. Presents most of the surviving letters, notebooks, and other texts written by Tocqueville and Beaumont during their visit to the United States between 1831 and 1832.

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