Alexis de Tocqueville's views of America - 'Democracy in America'

Term Paper, 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Alexis de Tocqueville’s life and the New World

3 Democracy in America
3.1 On the road to success
3.2 Content and structure
3.3 The Democratic Revolution
3.4 Tocqueville’s theory of democracy
3.5 The dangers of the progress of equality

4 Liberty and equality
4.1 Liberty – a good at risk
4.2 Suggestions on protecting liberty

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“The gradual progress of equality is something fated. The main features of the progress are the following: it is universal and permanent; it is daily passing beyond human control, and every event and every man helps it along. Is it wise to suppose that a movement of society which has been so long in train can be halted by one generation? Does anyone imagine that democracy, which has destroyed the feudal system and vanquished kings, will fall back before the middle class and the rich? Will it stop now, when it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?”

(quoted in Manis, 2002: 12)

These are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, an aristocratic Frenchman. In 1830, when Tocqueville was 25 years old, he travelled to the United States of America in order to flee temporarily from his home country, where social and political conditions were chaotic at that time. After having spent approximately six months in the United States, he returned to France and wrote an 800-page body of writing about the foreign country’s democracy. Today, almost 200 years later, his work Democracy in America is still considered to be one of the most famous and most important classical attempts “ever made on the part of a foreigner to comprehend the ideological basis on which American society rests and to coherently explain its political and social implications” (Amos, 1995: 9). Since one of American society’s main issue, namely, the problem of identity, i.e. the question “What is America?” (by Jean Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur) has been the object of very diverse studies and analyses for centuries, the fact that it was a French aristocrat who wrote the most important book about modern democracy caused heated debates and many controversial analyses.

Tocqueville’s travel around America, which he had started due to his more or less private search for elements of a current and stable foundation for a new liberty-encouraging order (see Hereth, 2001: 9) that would give fresh courage to the post-revolution European nations, was becoming of general interest very soon. Tocqueville’s authentic and objective way to describe American society without applying social or political hypotheses to the nation has been fascinating people until recent times. His two-volume work not only contains observational descriptions of the functioning of American democracy and its ‘natural’ purpose, but it also explains the main aspects of a democratic republic and aims at promoting it. Inspired by the American state form, wherein he found all the values he was missing in France, he organised his feelings, impressions and ideas and developed his own suggestion of the ideal state form. Astonishingly - and this is what has always served people’s attention well -, there can be found numerous examples of predictions Tocqueville had made concerning the future of the world’s nations, which have actually come true long after his death: The best-known example here, is that he foresaw that America and Russia would split the world into two pieces of territory (see Masugi, 1991: ix).

After having thoroughly examined Tocqueville’s suggestions of the ideal democratic republic in his Democracy in America (published in 1835) again and again, several scholars continued criticising his work as not being academic enough to be read as a prophet’s prediction and some of them have even laughed at him (see Pisa: 1986, 143). However, it was not Tocqueville’s intention to draw up either an academic or a prescriptive document. Furthermore, scholars have been discussing whether the Frenchman can be classified as being a historian, a sociologist or a political scientist. Since Tocqueville was a supporter of political liberty, he held up a republican form of state and, as he considered equality as a just cause, which, according to him, is continually developing further, he determined his main goal, namely, promoting a well-ordered democracy (see Hereth, 2001: 123). Consequently, he can be seen as a passionate patriot, trying to find a way out of the chaotic state of the French nation. Tocqueville’s main focus was not on writing in a proper scientific manner; instead, he wanted his work to achieve a change in his fellow countrymen’s thoughts (see Uhde, 1978: 14f.). He wanted to “find out why the efforts at establishing democracy in his native country, starting with the French Revolution, had failed while the American Revolution had produced a stable democratic republic” (Lipset, 1997: 17).

Not only did his book become famous in America immediately after its publication, but also did it catch the attention of the people in France and all over the world. In his home country, he received the Prix Montyon of the Académie française in 1836. The readers of his work have considered him to be some kind of a prophet because his monitoring of the condition and the functioning of the American nation as well as his predictions about the European nations’ probable development proved to be true during the following decades. Through centuries, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has proven to be an important reference “for aphoristic insights into modern life” (Masugi, 1991: ix) and his work “remains an inexhaustible resource for journalists and other popularizers, who use his marvellous insights to add the weight of authority to their opinions” (Masugi, 1991: ix).

What is, among other things, so special about Tocqueville’s work is that he was the first to realise that the United States must be referred to as exceptional – “that is, qualitatively different from all other countries” (Lipset, 1997: 18). To look at the United States and to develop a concept based on comparison like Democracy in America, the author must have had sound knowledge of other countries and must have experienced them. Since he realised that “without comparisons to make, the mind doesn’t know how to proceed” (Lipset, 1997: 34), Tocqueville “never wrote a word about America without thinking about France” (18) although his explanations, for the most part, concern the United States. It was the distance of a non-American that made it possible for Tocqueville to observe the United States in such an analytical way; it was this distance that made him recognise the difference between French centralisation on the one hand and the decentralised American system on the other hand. What has to be emphasised here is the fact that Tocqueville did not aim at portraying America as superior to France or to Europe as a whole; as an undoubtedly patriotic French citizen, he was rather “suggesting that it [America] is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier” (Lipset, 1997: 18).

This paper will present Tocqueville’s idea of true liberty and his concept of a feasible democratic republic, which is, according to Tocqueville, indispensable for all nations. It will also treat the probable difficulties of a nation which Tocqueville feared when it came to dealing with true (political) liberty. Moreover, the paper will explain his suggestions how to address problems that could be caused by confronting people with the democratic republic and its accompanying liberty.

2 Alexis de Tocqueville’s life and the New World

Before going into Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it is important to have a closer look at his biography in order to fully understand the reasons for his journey to the United States. His post-revolutionary background caused his strife after stability and made him create the idea of republican democracy as the ideal state form. The people Tocqueville met and the experiences he made on his voyages through the American countries influenced his view of the world enormously.

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel Comte de Tocqueville was born on July 29 in 1805 in Paris. Many members of his aristocratic Norman family had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror originated by the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). Tocqueville’s parents were forced to spend a very long time in prison, waiting for their execution, when Bonaparte finally abandoned the revolution by replacing the French Directory with the French Consulate; mother and father remained spared. Although free in the end, Tocqueville’s parents did never totally recover from their imprisonment and were therefore not able to take care of their son appropriately. According to this, Siedentop stated the following:

His father Hervé’s hair had turned white at twenty-four, while his mother remained a nervous invalid. In the years after the fall of Robespierre, Tocqueville’s parents tried to reconstruct something like their lives under the ancien regime. But it was a precarious undertaking. Everything around them, both the society outside the gates of the Chateau de Verneuil and portraits hanging within, recalled civil war and frenzied hatred of aristos. (Siedentop, 1994: 1 f.)

Already when he was a child, Tocqueville was confronted with his parents’ anxiety and the marks that their traumatic jail experiences had left on them – thus, the boy witnessed the impact of the French Revolution to its full extent without having been involved directly. He did not feel sheltered because his parents’ constant apprehension deeply alienated him, as his following statement illustrates:

Go back. Look at the baby in his mother’s arms; see how the outside world is first reflected in the still hazy mirror of his mind […] and finally take notice of the first struggles he has to endure. Only then will you understand the origin of the prejudices, habits and passions which are to dominate his life. The whole man is already there in the cradle. (quoted in Manis, 2002)

In view of the fact that Tocqueville’s family belonged to the French aristocratic stratum, “a class which had borne the brunt of the accumulated grievances of centuries” (Siedentop, 1994: 2), they were all the more overwhelmed by the fundamental change of their lives caused by the constraints of Bonaparte’s despotism – the noble’s forthcoming way of life was incalculable at that point in time. Even though Tocqueville’s family was still well-situated and could afford to live in a chateau in Verneuil during the summers, the unpleasant revolutionary past was present everywhere (see quote above) – the parents’ wealth was mainly inherited from relatives who had died under the guillotine. Resulting from the conditions of Tocqueville’s life explained above, he suffered from claustrophobia because “civil war haunted his imagination and his mind had for years been dwelling on the idea of imprisonment or exile” (Siedentop, 1994: 2).

After having suffered under the pressure of anxiety his whole childhood through, Tocqueville decided to distance “himself from the prejudices of his family background” and finally came to accept that “the era of aristocracy was over” (Siedentop, 1994: 1). He did not want to belong to a class “who gave themselves up to illusions – particularly the illusion that the advent of democracy was something fortuitous, reversible, or even satanic” – [which, S.D.] made him feel pity, if not scorn” (Siedentop, 1994: 1).

When entering the Royal College of Metz, Tocqueville discovered the full extent of bourgeois suspicion of the aristocrats and, hence, felt a need to connect with the rest of French society. Meanwhile, he found that his great-grandfather, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, had been sympathetic to the philosophes’ language of ‘natural equality’. Malesherbe’s opinion on restoring traditional limits on royal power and his Remonstrance to Louis XVI (1775) intensely impressed Tocqueville and served as an inspiration for his further life (see Siedentop, 1994: 2).

During his early education the young man came into contact with the Abbé Lesuere, an old priest. He was somehow a surrogate mother to the young man, “for the Comtesse of Tocqueville was a difficult and remote invalid” (Siedentop, 1994: 4). Throughout the familiar conversations they used to have with each other, Tocqueville “developed a taste (…) for the unreserved sharing of ideas and feelings which shaped his later idea of friendship” (Siedentop, 1994: 5). To his great regret, he had to forswear the Abbé’s companionship between 1819 and 1820 because he had to move with his father who had to take office as the Prefect of Metz. While Hervé de Tocqueville was busy meeting his obligations, his son began to apply himself to the father’s library and the eighteenth-century philosophes. Tocqueville’s insight in these writings and his separation from his beloved Abbé precipitated him into a depression that “put an end to his uncritical faith … and threw the sixteen-year-old Tocqueville into a state of despair from which he never fully recovered” (Siedentop, 1994: 5).


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Alexis de Tocqueville's views of America - 'Democracy in America'
Dresden Technical University  (Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
European-American Relationships
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ISBN (eBook)
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Alexis, Tocqueville, America, Democracy, America
Quote paper
Susanne Dollwetzel (Author), 2009, Alexis de Tocqueville's views of America - 'Democracy in America', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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