Alexis de Tocqueville

The United States of America decided to adopt democracy as its government style at a time when most European countries operated under a monarchical system. Its novelty drew many comparisons and critiques. One of the most influential commenters on America's government (and democracy in general) was Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher and politician, whose experience during the aftermath of the French Revolution informed his writings on equality and democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville Alexis de Tocqueville

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    Alexis de Tocqueville Biography

    Born to a Norman aristocratic family on July 29, 1805, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French politician and philosopher who witnessed the turmoils of the spread and development of democracy and equality in nineteenth-century France. His parents had been imprisoned during the French Revolution from 1789 - 1792 and were very nearly executed due to his father's career as a French Constitutional Guard. Despite this, his father was later granted peerage by Bourbon King Charles X in 1827, securing Tocqueville's career in politics with relative ease.

    After completing his primary education at the Lycée Fabert school, in Metz, Tocqueville moved to Paris to study Law. Upon the completion of his law degree, he became an apprentice Magistrate in Versailles, where he met his life-long companion and fellow lawyer Gustave de Beaumont, as well as his wife Mary Motley.

    Alexis de Tocqueville portrait inspired by his father Herve StudySmarterFig. 1 A portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville and his father Hervé, whose political career greatly influenced his own.

    In 1830, the Bourbon Restoration was overthrown by the July Revolution and Louis-Philippe sat on the French throne as the 'citizen King'. The previous king had failed to acknowledge that the ancient regime of feudalism could not be re-established in a rapidly modernising France, and the new king had significant support when he installed national sovereignty as the central principle of the state.

    The July monarchy still maintained the dominance of the bourgeoisie, with its electoral system only accessible to landowners. However, the king was much more of a centrist than his predecessor, which cemented young Tocqueville's belief that France was en route to tremendous socio-political change.

    Alexis de Tocqueville portrait as a young man  StudySmarterFig. 1 An 1850 portrait of Alexis de Toqueville

    Alexis de Tocqueville Importance

    In 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont travelled to the US on commission from the July Monarchy to study the US penal system. From this nine-month endeavour arose his most famous work, De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America - more on that book below). The two volumes of the book were released in 1835 and 1840. Between these publications, Tocqueville married Mary Motley in 1836, and in 1839 served as a centre-left member of the lower house of the French Parliament thanks to his newly acclaimed recognition in France after the release of the first volume of his work.

    Due to the great success of his treatise, Tocqueville was awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest military and civil French order of merit, in 1838. In that same year, he was elected to the Academy of Moral and political sciences, and in 1841, to the 18th seat of the 40 members of "The Immortals" in the prestigious French Academy. He also served as General Counsellor of Manche in 1842, and went on to become the President of the region's general council from 1849 to 1852.

    Tocqueville also travelled to Algeria in 1841 and 1846, which had been colonised by France in 1830. Tocqueville was in favour of colonisation, but he did not believe in assimilation or the adoption of western culture for the colonies, but preferred the British method of indirect rule.

    The July Monarchy came to an end in 1848 through another revolution (known as the February Revolution) which led to the creation of the Second French Republic. This revolution happened largely as a result of the government's refusal to allow universal manhood suffrage. In January of that year, Tocqueville had given a speech in Paris warning Louis-Philippe and his government of the looming revolution as he was aware of the awakening working class who sought political involvement.

    Universal Manhood Suffrage: Voting rights for all men who are a citizen of a country, regardless of their race, religion, education, income and assets (i.e. whether they owned land).

    In April, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly of the new Republic and led the committee tasked with drafting its constitution. In 1849, Tocqueville was elected as President of the Assembly, and later as the minister of foreign affairs. However, the newly elected president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III (and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte I) organised a self-coup in December 1851, which established the Second French Empire.

    Napoleon III dissolved the French assembly and declared himself emperor of France with full authority. Tocqueville refused allegiance to the Empire, resisting Napoleon's breach of the constitutional limits of his term of power, and was arrested briefly before being stripped of his political posts. Upon his return to his birthplace of Normandy following his release, Tocqueville took to writing his second most famous work L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution). This publication focused on the integral aspects of equality and liberty as the reasons for French uprisings.

    The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)

    Like Democracy in America, this treatise was also highly influential for years to come. In it, Tocqueville argued that the old regime's feudal system (prior to the 1789 revolution) was destined to be overthrown, and since the post-revolutionary governments could not entirely separate themselves from the old regime, the French people would continuously revolt until they put an end to all parts of the outdated system. This was his theory of continuity.

    Tocqueville identifies contempt towards religious authority and the desire for democratic political progress as the main driving forces of the revolution, and states the aims of the revolutionaries were twofold; liberty and equality. He also defines the type of democracy that the French sought; they did not wish for the individualistic form of democracy which was at play in the US and focused on private citizens, but a centralised and bureaucratic democratic government.

    After one final trip to England for a literary tour in 1857, Tocqueville returned to work on his research surrounding the revolution. He passed away before completing his work on April 16, 1859 in Cannes, as a result of tuberculosis.

    Alexis de Tocqueville Philosophy

    Alexis de Tocqueville held that sociopolitical progress in his era was fundamentally rooted in the idea of equality. Tocqueville's main philosophy surrounded the equality of conditions in a society, which he believed could best be achieved through a liberal democratic system. It is also important to note that for Tocqueville, democracy extended beyond the scope of political self-governance; he also viewed it as a cultural lifestyle and often used the term fluidly and synonymously with 'equality of conditions'. He understood that democracy would create greater equality, but also acknowledged that equality would generate a new set of dangers that could infringe on individual liberties. Therefore, his main concern was the preservation of political and intellectual individual liberty within democratic systems.

    Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America

    Tocqueville's philosophy on the equality of conditions was best communicated through the two volumes of his famous treatise Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840. In the treatise, he identified the possible set of new dangers which could arise through the adoption of democracy and gave recommendations on how they could be avoided.

    Alexis de Tocqueville original cover of Democracy in America English version  StudySmarterFig. 3 The front page of the English version of Democracy in America from 1836.

    After visiting the US for nine months during his commission to observe the nation's penal system, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that the United States had the most advanced egalitarian system, which had been achieved through the gradual rejection of aristocratic ideals. He wrote Democracy in America in hopes of creating a better understanding of equality of conditions for the French, who were in the midst of a socio-political shift from the old regime's aristocratic order to an impending democratic order. In fact, he believed that democracy was likely to spread throughout the world. In the introduction to the first volume, Tocqueville claims:

    In America, I saw more than America… I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions.1

    Through his observation of democracy in America, he highlighted some possible dangers which could arise from the equality of conditions, such as the "tyranny of the majority" - a concept that would influence the shaping of early American democracy.

    Alexis de Tocqueville Tyranny of the Majority

    Tocqueville admired American democracy and felt that this new style of governance would eventually replace monarchical rule throughout the world. However, he provided important commentary on one of the most significant critiques of democracy. Namely, its tendency toward 'tyranny of the majority'.

    Tyranny of the majority means that whoever belongs to the majority group gets to make the decisions. Under a monarchy, peasants and commoners make up the majority of the population. However, their opinion doesn't matter: only one person (or a few people) makes the decisions. Democracy seeks to address this issue by allowing common people to vote and therefore make their own decisions about policies. In a democracy, decisions are usually made by majority vote. If 51 Senators vote yes and 49 vote no, the proposal goes through. If 60% of people vote for Candidate A and 40% vote for Candidate B, then Candidate A wins.

    While this seems fairer than a monarchy, it still gives political minorities very little power. Even if a candidate or policy issue has a slight majority, it still means millions of people are not having their needs met. This becomes a problem when certain groups are able to dominate policy. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville said:

    The authority of a king is purely physical... but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy. I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.1

    Alexis de Tocqueville - Key takeaways

    • Alexis de Tocqueville was an important philosopher and political figure in the 19th century.

    • Tocqueville's ideas focused on equality and democracy.

    • Tocqueville was heavily influenced by watching the years of turmoil unfold in France after the French Revolution.

    • One of Tocqueville's most influential works, Democracy in America, detailed the aspects of American democracy he admired while also providing critiques.


    1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alexis de Tocqueville

    Who was Alexis de Tocqueville?  

    Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher and politician who wrote influential critiques on democracy and equality.

    What did Alexis de Tocqueville do?  

    Alexis de Tocqueville had a career in politics, which included trips to learn from and write about the American system of democracy.

    What did Alexis de Tocqueville believe in?  

    Alexis de Tocqueville believed in democracy as a tool for advancing equality but believed it needed to have strong central organisation rather than becoming too individualistic.

    Why did Alexis de Tocqueville travel to the United States? 

    Alexis de Tocqueville initially traveled to the United States to study its penal system but ended up writing about its system of democracy.

    How did Alexis de Tocqueville describe the American people?  

    Alexis de Tocqueville described the American people as enjoying more equality thanks to the American system of democracy but also expressed concern about the impact of individualism.

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    What was Alexis de Tocqueville's professional career?

    Alexis de Tocqueville's political views were influenced by living through the aftermath of the

    Alexis de Tocqueville received a commission to travel to the United States to


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