De Tocqueville, Alexis (1805–1859)

De Tocqueville's family connections and his impressive academic achievements opened up to him a legal career in government service in 1827. In 1830 the July Monarchy (la monarchie de Juillet) came to power. It was a liberal constitutional monarchy that remained in power until the revolution of 1848. While studying French and English history, he acquired a liberal political outlook, and in turn he became disgusted by the folly of the restored Bourbon monarchy. As a result he took liberty as his central political idea.

While serving as a junior magistrate at Versailles, de Tocqueville met Gustave de Beaumont, who became his lifelong friend. In 1831, the July Monarchy sent him to examine prisons and penitentiaries in the United States. He and Beaumont sailed for the United States, where they did visit some prisons, but overall it was their wide travels in the United States that bore the most fruit. Throughout these travels, de Tocqueville took extensive notes and observations that he would use later in his writing.

In the years before de Tocqueville visited the United States, the old Federalist conservatism had crumbled. The Jeffersonians promoted the yeoman farmer as the source of the nation's power at the expense of industry, capital, and a strong federal government. The Frenchman thus arrived in the bloom of the Age of Jackson, during a resurgence of democratic rhetoric. His experiences on the frontier and his interactions with intellectual individualists, members of utopian communities, and independent workers impressed him. He saw the aristocratic order fading and a new democratic order beginning to emerge. (What he missed, however, was the impact of Scottish Realism upon the United States, which promoted a laissez-faire independence.)

Beaumont and de Tocqueville returned to France where they prepared their joint report on U.S. prisons. Next de Tocqueville wrote a two-volume work, Democracy in America. The first volume was published in 1835, in the same year that he married Mary Mottley, an Englishwoman. The second volume was published in 1840. Its success won him election to the Académie Française in 1841.

Alexis de Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the egalitarianism of American society in the 1830s. His aristocratic training gave him a cool detachment for observing American democracy and both its virtues and its failings. He saw that the impact of equality, an aspiration of the French Revolution, was strong on the American people. However, he came to believe that equality was a double-edged sword. For him equality's great danger for liberty was the tyranny of the majority. It could evoke a political correctness that would suffocate unpopular opinions. He observed the centralizing tendencies of the uniformity of thought that the emerging industrialism could produce. This egalitarian conformity was a threat to liberty. He felt that populist impulses could be beneficial as well as dangerous. He observed that inequality could serve as motivation for improvement.

The open-mindedness that de Tocqueville possessed enabled him to see that American life was fluid and contained the possibility of overcoming excessive egalitarianism. In contrast to France, in Americans he saw political equality leading to social equality.

De Tocqueville was elected to the French Assembly in 1839 and remained an elected member until 1851. He served as a foreign minister under Louis Napoleon Bonaparte for five months in 1849. From 1850 to 1851 he wrote Reflections of the Revolution of 1848. The last work produced by de Tocqueville was The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, which was published in 1856. It was intended as the first part of a grand study of the French Revolution; however, he died in April 16, 1859, at Cannes, unable to finish it.

Andrew J. Waskey

See also: Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826) ; Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787)


Brogan, Hugh. Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biography. London: Profile Books Limited, 2006.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Epstein, Joseph. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Welch, Cheryl. De Tocqueville. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.