Alexis De Tocqueville Research Paper

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The French statesman and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805, in Paris and died April 16, 1859, in Cannes. Much of his life was devoted to scholarship and public service. He is most famous for writing Democracy in America (1835—1840), a sweeping and perceptive study of American democratic life. His other important work is The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). As a young man, Tocqueville studied law and began his public service by working at the courts in Versailles. Later in his life, he became active in French politics, holding several elected offices.

Tocqueville’s family was part of the French petite noblesse and had suffered greatly during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Consequently, it is not surprising that he held some aristocratic sympathies, along with concerns about the hazards of democratic excess. Still, Tocqueville was intrigued by democratic society and its potential for advancing personal liberty. He was also convinced that the spread of democracy was irresistible. For this reason, he wanted to better understand its benefits and dangers. This interest led him to visit the United States between May 1831 and February 1832. His crosscountry tour took him to seventeen of the then existing twenty-four states. He spent a great deal of time in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast. He also traveled through such regions as the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, the Gulf Coast, and the South Atlantic. After returning to France, Tocqueville spent several years reflecting on his experiences and doing additional research. During this period, he wrote Democracy in America, which was published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

Democracy in America is considered a classic study because of its shrewd insights into the psychological, sociological, political, and institutional nature of American democracy. The book covers an exceptionally wide range of topics dealing with the democratic condition. Underlying this extensive analysis, however, is a desire to safeguard human freedom by better understanding democratic dispositions, passions, and tendencies.

According to Tocqueville, the most fundamental characteristic of the democratic age is equality. Its effect on democratic society is ubiquitous in both the public and private spheres. “The influence of [equality] extends far beyond political mores and laws … it creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and modifies whatever it does not create” ([1835-1840] 2000, p. 9). Moreover, it inspires a strong and ardent attachment among democratic citizens. The benefit of equality is that it expands the reach of liberty and opportunity. Consequently, it gives all citizens a chance to take more control of their own lives.

Although equality had a fundamental influence on American society, inequalities did exist. Slavery, in particular, was a well-established practice in the southern states. Tocqueville, however, viewed slavery as a practice in “retreat” and destined to be abolished. He claimed, “Whatever efforts the Americans of the South make to maintain slavery, they will not forever succeed.. Slavery amid the democratic liberty and enlightenment of our age is not an institution that can last” ([1835-1840] 2000, p. 363). Still, Tocqueville was pessimistic about the future of race relations in the United States. Regardless of how slavery ended, he foresaw “great misfortunes.” He believed that conflict between the races could only be avoided by isolation or complete intermingling. Once slavery ended, isolation would be impossible, but white racism would prevent significant intermingling. As a result, the races would be left in a condition of precarious coexistence, producing a dangerous struggle for power.

Tocqueville also felt that equality could become dangerous if taken to an extreme. When people become too enamored with equality, they will do anything to maintain it, including sacrificing their liberty. The idea of equality can also be dangerous because it lends a daunting form of moral authority to the opinions of the majority. Because everyone is considered equal, the larger number of individuals in the majority is equated with superior judgment and greater utility. The opinions of the majority carry such great weight that they can lead to political tyranny, social conformity, and intellectual monotony.

Tocqueville argued that two other democratic dispositions, individualism and materialism, can also be threats to liberty. These inclinations are dangerous because they cause citizens to lose interest in public affairs. Individualism compels people to isolate themselves from the greater society and withdraw into small groups of family and friends. Materialism leads people to focus obsessively on their own private prosperity and to disregard public duties. The neglect of civic responsibilities can result in the development of a paternalistic despotism. Personal rights and freedoms are hindered and enervated as citizens become entangled in a network of “petty, complicated rules” ([1835-1840] 2000, p. 692).

Tocqueville claimed that it is possible to overcome these and other threats to liberty with the proper institutions, mores, and values. The presence of numerous and robust civil associations, for example, serves to protect individuals from an overbearing government. An independent press informs the public and facilitates asso-ciational activity. Religions that are able to inspire benevolence and instill a strong sense of spirituality can help counter the influences of individualism and materialism. The concept of self-interest properly understood links the performance of civic duties with private advantage. Prudent political leaders protect liberty through statecraft and soulcraft. Educated citizens are aware of the seductive dangers of extreme equality. Tocqueville concludes by noting that the future of democracy is not predestined; the people will determine if equality will lead to servitude or freedom.

The Old Regime and the French Revolution is Tocqueville’s attempt to understand the origins of the French Revolution. It examines the nature of French society prior to 1789. His primary claim is that the revolution was prompted by the political centralization of the state. Moreover, the revolution itself was a failure because it also centralized political power. Although The Old Regime has not attracted the attention of Democracy in America, it is still considered an important account of the social conditions that led to the French Revolution.

Tocqueville’s ideas about the democratic condition continue to exert a considerable influence on contemporary academic and political discourse. Of particular importance are his discussions of unchecked individualism and the importance of associational membership, which are frequently referenced in scholarly research on civil society and social capital. His pithy observations about democracy and democratic life are often quoted by politicians and popular commentators. The continuing relevance of Tocqueville’s work should not be surprising. He provides a seminal and perhaps the best account of the dangers of democracy and its threats to liberty.


  1. Jardin, André. 1988. Tocqueville: A Biography. Trans. Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
  2. Tocqueville, Alexis de. [1835–1840] 2000. Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence; ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: HarperCollins Perennial.
  3. Tocqueville, Alexis de. [1856] 1955. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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