Tocqueville, Alexis de Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Publication of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America during the early nineteenth century helped Americans of that era better appreciate the value of the work of the nation’s Founders. Tocqueville’s writings–which comment at length about the roles of immigrants–have been much quoted and remain as popular as when they were first published in 1835.

It has been said that the most important event in the life of Alexis de Tocqueville occurred before he was born. The French RevolutionFrench Revolution, which began in 1789, forever changed the French aristocratic world in which Tocqueville’s family was rooted. His great-grandfather was a liberal aristocrat who was killed in the revolution, and his parents favored a return to the Bourbon monarchy, whose final end in 1830 created a crisis in the life of Tocqueville, then twenty-five years old. With the realization that France was turning toward democracy, he wanted to learn more about that form of government, of which the best exemplar of his age was the United States. Using the excuse of wanting to study American prison reform, he received permission to sail to America.Tocqueville, Alexis deTocqueville, Alexis de[cat]THEORIES;Tocqueville, Alexis de[cat]BIOGRAPHIES;Tocqueville, Alexis de

With his traveling companion Beaumont, Gustave deGustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville arrived in New York City on May 10, 1831, and left the United States ten months later. On their arrival, the travelers were immediately impressed by the apparent social equality, which Tocqueville attributed in part to the diverse European immigrant communities being molded into one society. When he later wrote up his observations, he began with the British immigrants of the early seventeenth century but also included the French and Spanish, as well as other smaller groups. All of them, in his view, shared the goal of making American democracy work. In his analysis of this process, Tocqueville felt compelled to include the divine purpose of God preparing a new land where the suffering masses of Europe could transplant the embryos of democracy being created by European philosophers, but also being opposed by the old states of Europe.

From these embryos, Tocqueville observed three principles at work in the United States. The first was equality of conditions. He noted there was no superiority of one class over others and that poverty and hardship were the best guarantees of equality. With the exception of New England, whose early inhabitants came primarily for religious reasons, the equality was enhanced by the common lack of education and resources among the immigrants. The second principle he observed was popular sovereignty. With European traditions of aristocracy and monarchy being broken, Tocqueville declared that Anglo-Americans were the first to establish and maintain the popular sovereignty being defined by European philosophers.

Combined with Tocqueville’s first two principles was public opinion, which he defined as the force that put democracy into action. He noted the complete freedom of public discussion that was carried into the legislative assemblies. Any conflicts that arose would be settled by a judiciary, which–unlike European judicial systems–was free from legislative or executive manipulation.

Tocqueville published De la démocratie en Amérique in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, and the English-language editions were published almost simultaneously as Democracy in America. His companion book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833), coauthored by Beaumont, addresses the stated purpose of his American visit. Both works give credit to the impact of the thirteen million European immigrants then spreading into the interior of America.Tocqueville, Alexis de

Further Reading
  • Brogan, Hugh. Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Heckerl, David K. “Democracy in America.” In American History Through Literature, 1820-1870, edited by Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons/Thomson Gale, 2006.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America, 2004.
  • Welch, Cheryl. De Tocqueville. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Assimilation theories

British immigrants

Dutch immigrants

German immigrants

History of immigration, 1783-1891

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