Alexis De Tocqueville

Alexis De Tocqueville books and biography


Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (Verneuil-sur-Seine, Île-de-France, July 29, 1805– Cannes, April 16, 1859) was a French political thinker and historian. His most famous works are Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the myriad and profound effects of the rising equality of social conditions on both the individual and the state in western societies. Democracy in America (1835), his major work published after his travels in the United States, is today considered as a founding-stone of sociology. An eminent representative of the liberal political tradition, Tocqueville was also an active participant in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830-1848) and then during the Second Republic (1849-51) which succeeded to the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte's December 2, 1851 coup, and thereafter wrote his unachieved opus, The Old Regime and the Revolution.


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Tocqueville's family had its origins in the landed nobility of Normandy, where several places are named after his family. After having obtained a law degree, Alexis de Tocqueville was named auditor-magistrate at the court of Versailles. There, he met Gustave de Beaumont, a prosecutor substitute, whom collaborated with him on various litterary works. Both were sent to the United States to study the penitentiary system. During this trip, they wrote Du système pénitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application (1832). Back to France, Tocqueville became a lawyer, and then published his master-work, De la démocratie en Amérique, in 1835. The success of this work, considered today to be a founding stone of sociology, led him to be named chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) in 1837, and to be elected the next year to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. He was finally elected in 1841 as a member of the Académie française.

Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830-1848), began his political career in the same period. Thus, he became deputy of the Manche department (Valognes), a siege which he maintained until 1851. He defended in Parliament abolitionist views and upheld free trade, whilst supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe's regime. Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department's conseil général between 1849 and 1851.

Apart from the US, Tocqueville also made an observational tour of England, producing Memoir on Pauperism. In 1841 and 1846, he traveled to Algeria. His first travel inspired his Travail sur l'Algérie, in which he criticized the French model of colonization, based on an assimilationist view, to which he preferred the British model of indirect rule, which didn't mix different populations together. He went as far as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists and the "Arabs" through the implementation of two different legislative systems (half a century before its effective implementation with the 1881 Indigenous code).

After the fall of the July Monarchy during the February 1848 Revolution, Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly of 1848, where he integrated the Commission charged with the drafting of the new Constitution of the Second Republic (1848-1851). He defended bicameralism (two parliamentary chambers) and the election of the President of the Republic at universal suffrage. As the country-side was thought to be more conservative than the laboring population of Paris, universal suffrage was conceived as a means to block the revolutionary ardours of Paris.

During the Second Republic, Tocqueville sided with the parti de l'Ordre against the "socialists" and workers. Thus, a few days after the February insurrection, he conceived as inescapable a violent clash between the workers' population, in favor of a "Democratic and Social Republic", and conservative powers (aristocracy, country-side, etc.). As Tocqueville had foreseen, these social tensions eventually exploded during the June Days Uprising of 1848. Led by General Cavaignac, the repression was supported by Tocqueville, whom supported the "regularization" of the state of siege declared by Cavaignac and others measures suspending the constitutional order [1].

A supporter of Cavaignac and of the parti de l'Ordre, Tocqueville, however, accepted to enter Odilon Barrot's government as Ministry of Foreign Affairs from June to October 1849. There, during the troubled days of June 1849, he pleaded near Jules Dufaure, Interior Minister, in favor of the reestablishment of the state of siege in the capital and approved the arrestation of those whom had recently demonstrated. Tocqueville, whom since February 1848 had supported laws restricting political freedoms, approved the two laws voted immediately after the June 1849 days, which restricted liberty of clubs and freedom of press. This active support in favor of laws restricting political freedoms contrast with his defense of the latter in his major work, Democracy in America.

Tocqueville then supported Cavaignac against Louis Napoléon Bonaparte for the presidential election of 1851. Opposed to Napoléon Bonaparte's December 2, 1851 coup which succeeded to his election, Tocqueville was among the deputies whom gathered at the Xe arrondissement of Paris in an attempt to resist the coup and have Napoleon III judged for "high treason". Detained at Vincennes and then released, Tocqueville, whom supported the Restoration of the Bourbons against Bonaparte's Second Empire (1851-1871), quit political life and retreated to his castle (château de Tocqueville). There, he began the draft of L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, publishing the first tome in 1856, and leaving unachieved the second one.

Democracy in America

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Main article: Democracy in America

Few works in the Western canon were more influential than Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835). An old-world aristocrat who modeled himself as a social scientist, Tocqueville traveled to America in the early 19th century when the market revolution, Western expansion, and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life.

Tocqueville's penetrating analysis, which has long been regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding modern American culture, implicitly joined a conversation about the nature of politics and society long in process. Thinkers as far back as Plato — who advanced these views in some extent in both the Republic and then later Laws — had maintained that, to prevent the rise and spread of vice and avarice, private property needed to be abolished. Only when wealth was removed as a precursor of power, could the natural aristocracy, the "philosopher kings", rule. When, and only when, virtue was the lone remaining claim to power could this desired outcome be achieved.

Early modern thinkers, beginning with Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1517), adopted Plato's condemnation of private property. Both Plato and More embraced the descriptive claim that the balance of property determined the balance of power. If property holdings were inequitable, then those who held property would also hold power. But they also embraced the normative claim that the good society needed exactly equal holdings in property or, more precisely, lack of holdings, for only then could the best individuals rule, which would ensure the best society and best life. In the 17th century, James Harrington, in his Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), also agreed that the balance of property determined the balance of power. He, too, argued that only when property was held equitably, in a republic or commonwealth, would the best men rule. He differed from Plato and More in suggesting that people could possess private property. Moderate holdings were acceptable.

In the next century, Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws (1748) concurred that the balance of property determined the balance of power. Much like Harrington, he accepted private holdings of property but implied that only when the holdings were equitable would virtue emerge as the chief precursor for rulership. Like Plato, More, and Harrington before him, Montesquieu suggested that a republic with equality of social conditions was the best of all possible regimes precisely because it ensured the rule of the best and the brightest.

Tocqueville, in describing America, also agreed that the balance of property determined the balance of political power, but his conclusions after that were radically different from his predecessors. Indeed, his conclusions came, as many have claimed, to represent the modernized conception of this mode of thought originating in Plato's writings. Tocqueville tried to understand why America was as it was. He witnessed a society remarkably different from old-world Europe, a society where money-making was a dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites, where hard work and getting ahead dominated the minds of all, and where crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.

The uniquely American morals and opinions, Tocqueville argued, lay in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries. Unlike Europe, venturers to America found a vast expanse of open land. Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and middling values began taking root.

This equality of social conditions bred political and social values which determined the type of legislation passed in the colonies and later the states. By the late 18th century, democratic values which championed money-making, hard work, and individualism had eradicated, at least in the North, most remaining vestiges of old world aristocracy and values. Eliminating them in the South proved more difficult, for slavery had produced a landed aristocracy and web of patronage and dependence similar to the old world.

Tocqueville asserted that the values that had triumphed in the North and were present in the South had begun suffocating old-world ethics and social arrangements. Legislatures abolished primogeniture and entails, resulting in more widely distributed land holdings. Landed elites lost the ability to pass on fortunes to single individuals. Hereditary fortunes became exceedingly difficult to secure and more people were forced to struggle for their own living.

This rapidly democratizing society, as Tocqueville understood it, had a population devoted to "middling" values but wanted to amass, through hard work, vast fortunes. Such an ethos explained, in Tocqueville's mind, why America was so different from Europe. In Europe, he claimed, nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar, and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money. These cultural differences, identified so remarkably by Tocqueville, have led many subsequent thinkers and scholars to explain how in 19th-century Europe, workers could see elites walk down the street wearing fancy attire and demand class warfare and revolution, but in America, at the same time, workers would see people fashioned in exquisite attire and merely proclaim that through hard work they too would soon possess the fortune necessary to enjoy such luxuries.

These unique American values, many have suggested, explain American exceptionalism and shed light upon many mysterious phenomena such as why America has never embraced socialism as dramatically as other leading Western countries. To Tocqueville, America was set apart by its peculiar democratic mores. But, despite maintaining with Plato, More, Harrington, and Montesquieu that the balance of property determined the balance of power, Tocqueville argued that, as America showed, equitable property holdings did not ensure the rule of the best men. In fact, it did quite the opposite. The widespread, relatively equitable property ownership which distinguished America and determined its mores and values also explained why the American masses held elites in such contempt.

More than just imploding any traces of old-world aristocracy, ordinary Americans also refused to defer to those possessing, as Tocqueville put it, more talent and intelligence. These natural elites, who Tocqueville asserted were the virtuous members of American society, could not enjoy much share in the political sphere. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power and refused too often to defer to intellectual superiors. This culture promoted a relatively pronounced equality, Tocqueville argued, but the same mores and opinions that ensured such equality also promoted, as he put it, a middling mediocrity.

Those who possessed true virtue and talent would be left with limited choices, choices which many have suggested shed light on American society today. Those with the most education and intelligence would either, Tocqueville prognosticated, join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society which have today become academia, or use their superior talents to take advantage of America's growing obsession with money-making and amass vast fortunes in the private sector. Like perhaps no other work in history, Tocqueville's Democracy in America captured the essence of American culture and values and explained why America developed and has developed precisely as it has.

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville praised the New World and the democracy it would bring, while at the same time warning against the dangers of tyranny of the majority and what he called 'mild' despotism. He saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as the community. Tocqueville thought that extreme social equality would lead to isolation, more intervention by the government and thus less liberty. A critic of individualism, Alexis de Tocqueville thought that association, the coming together of people for common purpose, would bind Americans to an idea of nation larger than selfish desires, thus making a civil society which wasn't exclusively dependent on the state.

Colonialism and the French conquest of Algeria

As a supporter of colonialism, he also endorsed the common racialist views of his epoch. Tocqueville notes that among the races that exist in America:

"the first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power and in happiness, is the white man, the European, man par excellence; below him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate races have neither birth, nor face, nor language, nor mores in common; only their misfortunes look alike. Both occupy an equally inferior position in the country that they inhabit; both experience the effects of tyranny; and if their miseries are different, they can accuse the same author for them."[2]

Tocqueville concluded that removal of the Negro population from America was the best solution to problems of race relations for both Americans of African and European descent. French historian of colonialism Olivier LeCour Grandmaison has underlined how Tocqueville openly talked of "extermination" in the colonization of Western United States and the Indian Removal period.[3]

Segregation however would be the second best solution to race relations if blacks were not removed or wiped out by a race war. According to him assimilation of blacks would be almost impossible and this was already being demonstrated in the Northern states. As Tocqueville predicted formal freedom and equality and segregation would become this population's reality after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Australian historian Marilyn Lake recently links the "whites only" policy in Australia to the lessons its leaders learned from the Reconstruction period in America. American political scientist Rogers Smith views Tocqueville as one source of white supremacist thought in America.

Assimilation however was the best solution for Native Americans. But since they were too proud to assimilate,they would inevitably become extinct. Displacement was another part of America's Indian policy. Both populations were "undemocratic", or without the qualities, intellectual and otherwise, needed to live in a democracy. Tocqueville shared many views on assimilation and segregation of his and the coming epochs, but he opposed Gobineau's scientific racism theories which the latter had expoused in his essay on The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55).[4]

While most French intellectuals prefer to make of Tocqueville the representative of the liberal tradition, historian Olivier LeCour Grandmaison demonstrated that in less noble works, Tocqueville made the apology of the brutal techniques employed during the 1830s conquest of Algeria:

"In France I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve, deplore [the army] burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept... I believe the laws of war entitle us to ravage the country and that we must do this, either by destroying crops at harvest time, or all the time by making rapid incursions, known as raids, the aim of which is to carry off men and flocks" [5]

"Whatever the case", continued Tocqueville, "we may say in a general manner that all political freedoms must be suspended in Algeria. [6] According to LeCour Grandmaison, "de Tocqueville thought the conquest of Algeria was important for two reasons: first, his understanding of the international situation and France’s position in the world, and, second, changes in French society."[7] Tocqueville, who despised the July monarchy (1830-1848), believed that war and colonization would "restore national pride, threatened, he believed, by "the gradual softening of social mores" in the middle classes. Their taste for "material pleasures" was spreading to the whole of society, giving it "an example of weakness and egotism"." Applauding the methods of General Bugeaud, Tocqueville went as far as saying that "war in Africa" had became a "science": "war in Africa is a science. Everyone is familiar with its rules and everyone can apply those rules with almost complete certainty of success. One of the greatest services that Field Marshal Bugeaud has rendered his country is to have spread, perfected and made everyone aware of this new science."[8] Years before the Crémieux decrees and the 1881 Indigenous Code that would separate European Jews colons, given French citizenship, and Muslims, Tocqueville advocated racial segregation in Algeria: "There should therefore be two quite distinct legislations in Africa, for there are two very separate communities. There is absolutely nothing to prevent us treating Europeans as if they were on their own, as the rules established for them will only ever apply to them."[9]

However, LeCour Grandmaison's work has been contested by Jean-Louis Benoît, who claimed that these quotes (also used by Tzvetan Todorov) had been instrumentalized to discredit Tocqueville. However, Jean-Louis Benoît did admit that Tocqueville was a strong support of colonialism and of segregation between Europeans and Arabs. In a reference to an August 22, 1837 proposal, Benoît shows that Tocqueville distinguished the Berbers from the Arabs, and considered that these last ones should have a self-government (a bit on the model of British indirect rule, thus going against the French assimiliationist stance). Benoît thus admits that Tocqueville proned racial segregation. Benoît also quotes Tocqueville's 1847 Rapport sur l'Algérie: "Let's not repeat, in the middle of the 19th century, the history of the conquest of America. Let's not imitate those bloody examples that the human kind's opinion has seared".[10]


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  • ...experience suggests that the most dangerous moment for an evil government is usually when it begins to reform itself. Only great ingenuity can save a prince who undertakes to give relief to his subjects after long oppression. The sufferings that are endured patiently, as being inevitable, become intolerable the moment it appears that there might be an escape. Reform then only serves to reveal more clearly what still remains oppressive and now all the more unbearable.
  • We are sleeping on a volcano... A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon. (Speaking in the Chamber of Deputies, 1848, just prior to the outbreak of revolution in Europe)
  • Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
  • There are at the present time two great nations in the world—I allude to the Russians and the Americans—All other nations seem to have nearly reached their national limits, and have only to maintain their power; these alone are proceeding—along a path to which no limit can be perceived.
  • The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.
  • They (the emperors) frequently abused their power arbitrarily to deprive their subjects of property or of life: their tyranny was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the greater number; .. But it would seem that if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild, it would degrade men without tormenting them
  • The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave.
  • Americans are so enamoured of equality they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.
  • The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference.
  • A weak government is threatened most when it begins to reform.
  • The principal cause of disparities in the fortunes of men is intelligence.
  • Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science.
  • I studied the Quran a great deal. I came away from that study with the conviction that by and large there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammad. As far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are in my opinion more to be feared, and I therefore regard it as a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself.
  • Muhammad professed to derive from Heaven, and he has inserted in the Koran, not only a body of religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science. The gospel, on the contrary, only speaks of the general relations of men to God and to each other - beyond which it inculcates and imposes no point of faith. This alone, besides a thousand other reasons, would suffice to prove that the former of these religions will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age, whilst the latter is destined to retain its sway at these as at all other periods.
  • It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.
  • I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret the world of reality.

False Attributions

  • Tocqueville did not say, "When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." This is according to an article on about this falsely attributed quote.[11]


  1. ^ "Regularization" is a term used by Tocqueville himself, see Souvenirs, Third part, p.289-290 French ed (Paris, Gallimard, 1999).
  2. ^ Beginning of chapter 18 of Democracy in America, "The Present and Probably Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States"
  3. ^ (French) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison. "Le négationnisme colonial", Le Monde, February 2, 2005.
  4. ^ See Correspondance avec Arthur de Gobineau, quoted by Jean-Louis Benoît
  5. ^ (English) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison. "Torture in Algeria: Past Acts That Haunt France - Liberty, Equality and Colony", Le Monde diplomatique, June 2001. (quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie in Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991, pp 704 and 705).
  6. ^ (French) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison (2001). Tocqueville et la conquête de l'Algérie. La Mazarine.
  7. ^ (English) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison. "Torture in Algeria: Past Acts That Haunt France - Liberty, Equality and Colony", Le Monde diplomatique, June 2001.
  8. ^ Alexis de Tocqueville, "Rapports sur l’Algérie", in Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991,p 806 (quoted in (English) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison. "Torture in Algeria: Past Acts That Haunt France - Liberty, Equality and Colony", Le Monde diplomatique, June 2001.>
  9. ^ Travail sur l'Algérie, op.cit. p 752 (quoted in (English) Olivier LeCour Grandmaison. "Torture in Algeria: Past Acts That Haunt France - Liberty, Equality and Colony", Le Monde diplomatique, June 2001.)
  10. ^ (French) Arguments in favor of Tocqueville
  11. ^

This first citation attributing the false quote "America is great because America is good..." to Chapter 18 of Democracy in America is itself artificial. Chapter 18 of Democracy in America is titled, "Of the Principal Sources of Belief Among Democratic Nations" and not, "The Present and Probably Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States"


  • Du système pénitentaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (1833)—On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, with Gustave de Beaumont.
  • De la démocratie en Amerique (1835/1840)—Democracy in America. It was published in two volumes, the first in 1835, the second in 1840. English language versions: Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and eds., Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, 2000; Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.; Olivier Zunz, ed.) (The Library of America, 2004) ISBN 1-931082-54-5
  • L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856)—The Old Regime and the Revolution. It is Tocqueville's second most-famous work.
  • Recollections (1893)—This work was a private journal of the Revolution of 1848. He never intended to publish this during his lifetime; it was published by his wife and his friend Gustave de Beaumont after his death.
  • Journey to America (1831 – 1832)—Alexis de Tocqueville's travel diary of his visit to America; translated into English by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer, Yale University Press, 1960; based on vol. V, 1 of the Œuvres Complètes of Tocqueville.

See also

  • Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a think tank named after De Tocqueville
  • Civil society
  • Liberalism
  • Contributions to liberal theory
  • List of historians of the French Revolution
  • Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville's best friend and travel companion to the United States
  • Benjamin Constant, author of Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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Democracy In America, Vol. 1

Democracy In America, Volume 2

L'ancien Regime Et La Revolution

La Democratie En Amerique Part I , 1

La Democratie En Amerique Part I , 2

La Democratie En Amerique Part I I , 1

La Democratie En Amerique Part I I , 2

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