Youngest son of an aristocratic Norman family, Alexis de Tocqueville became famous on two continents as an important supporter, interpreter, and critic of democracy. His books on the United States remain enduring analyses of the young republic. Born at the dawn of the Napoleonic era, Tocqueville would serve France during a period of great political upheaval as deputy and minister of foreign affairs. Ousted in the 1852 coup that launched the Second Empire, Tocqueville wrote an essential study of the origins, promise, and failures of the French Revolution.
Tocqueville was just 25 when he and lifelong colleague Gustave de Beaumont engineered an official trip to the United States in 1831. Their stated purpose was to investigate America’s new systems of prison reform, which they did, visiting New York’s Auburn and Sing Sing penitentiaries, among others. The two young lawyers planned also to ask a much larger question: Could American democracy be a political and social prototype for a still struggling France?
Beaumont was a distant relative of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, and Tocqueville had read the frontier stories of James Fenimore Cooper. Neither was yet fully fluent in English. During eight months in the United States, however, they connected with important Americans, including former President John Quincy Adams; saw slavery and racial discrimination firsthand; lamented the decline of the Native Americans; and toured formerly French Québec, lost to Britain in the Seven Years’/French and Indian War.
In Democracy in America, appearing in two parts in 1835 and 1840, Tocqueville saw America as both a stunning success and a cautionary example of the dangers inherent in a society where all assert equality. He described a restless nation, consumed by commercial values, and warned against tyranny of the majority. Yet he was impressed by American women’s relative freedom, the boldness of newspapers, and Americans’ propensity for forming voluntary associations.
In the Chamber of Deputies from 1839 to 1852, Tocqueville would work to end international slavery but also supported France’s colonization of Algeria, even as he denounced misgovernance there, calling French policies “monstrous.” In the tumultuous wake of Europe’s revolutions of 1848, Tocqueville hoped to become minister of education but instead held the foreign affairs position for a hectic five months.
Essentially an exile in his own country after the ascension of Napoleon III, Tocqueville, by then ailing from tuberculosis, took up a topic that had long fascinated him: the Revolution during which his maternal grandfather was executed and his father arrested. The result, in 1856, was the publication of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, a penetrating sociopolitical portrait of pre-1789 France. Like Democracy in America, the book was a financial and critical success.
Alexis de Tocqueville—dutiful aristocrat, public servant, supporter and skeptic of liberal democracy—died at age 54 and was buried in his ancestral village. Renowned at his death, Tocqueville gained new currency in the 1930, as his writings helped people understand systems as diverse as Nazism and modern American society.
In recent years, admirers have retraced his American trip. In France, a Tocqueville Commission oversees his intellectual legacy, and the U.S. boasts a host of Tocqueville societies, many affiliated with private charitable initiatives.
- Jardine, André. Tocqueville: A Biography. Translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998;
- Reeves, Richard. American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
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