French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) traveled to the United States in 1831 to study its prisons and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he codified in “Democracy in America” (1835), one of the most influential books of the 19th century. With its trenchant observations on equality and individualism, Tocqueville’s work remains a valuable explanation of America to Europeans and of Americans to themselves.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Early Life
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805 into an aristocratic family recently rocked by France’s revolutionary upheavals. Both of his parents had been jailed during the Reign of Terror. After attending college in Metz, Tocqueville studied law in Paris and was appointed a magistrate in Versailles, where he met his future wife and befriended a fellow lawyer named Gustave de Beaumont.
In 1830 Louis-Philippe, the “bourgeois monarch,” took the French throne, and Tocqueville’s career ambitions were temporarily blocked. Unable to advance, he and Beaumont secured permission to carry out a study of the American penal system, and in April 1831 they set sail for Rhode Island.
Alexis de Tocqueville: American Travels
From Sing-Sing Prison to the Michigan woods, from New Orleans to the White House, Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled for nine months by steamboat, by stagecoach, on horseback and in canoes, visiting America’s penitentiaries and quite a bit in between. In Pennsylvania, Tocqueville spent a week interviewing every prisoner in the Eastern State Penitentiary. In Washington, D.C., he called on President Andrew Jackson during visiting hours and exchanged pleasantries.
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The travelers returned to France in 1832. They quickly published their report, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France,” written largely by Beaumont. Tocqueville set to work on a broader analysis of American culture and politics, published in 1835 as “Democracy in America.”
Alexis de Tocqueville: “Democracy in America”
As “Democracy in America” revealed, Tocqueville believed that equality was the great political and social idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action. He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when “every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.” He felt that a society of individuals lacked the intermediate social structures—such as those provided by traditional hierarchies—to mediate relations with the state. The result could be a democratic “tyranny of the majority” in which individual rights were compromised.
Tocqueville was impressed by much of what he saw in American life, admiring the stability of its economy and wondering at the popularity of its churches. He also noted the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of slavery.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Later Life
In 1839, as the second volume of “Democracy in America” neared publication, Tocqueville reentered political life, serving as a deputy in the French assembly. After the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848, he served briefly as Louis Napoleon’s foreign minister before being forced out of politics again when he refused to support Louis Napoleon’s coup.
He retired to his family estate in Normandy and began writing a history of modern France, the first volume of which was published as “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He blamed the French Revolution on corruption among the nobility and on the political disillusionment of the French population. Tocqueville’s plans for later volumes were cut short by his death from tuberculosis in 1859.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Legacy
Tocqueville’s works shaped 19th-century discussions of liberalism and equality, and were rediscovered in the 20th century as sociologists debated the causes and cures of tyranny. “Democracy in America” remains widely read and even more widely quoted by politicians, philosophers, historians and anyone seeking to understand the American character.