Alexis de Tocqueville Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: A political and social analyst, Tocqueville was the earliest, the greatest, and surely the most percipient observer of the initial growth and increasing persuasiveness of democracy in all areas of American culture.

Early Life

Alexis-Henri-Charles-Maurice Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, was born in the Paris suburb of Verneuil on July 29, 1805, a few years after his aristocratic parents had been released from their imprisonment by revolutionary forces for their close relations with the collapsed monarchy of Louis XVI and for their outspoken support of it before revolutionary tribunals. Alexis’ father, Hervé, subsequently became a prefect (governor) in various states under the restored monarchy of Charles X. His mother never fully recovered from her treatment during the Revolution. Living on family properties at Verneuil, Tocqueville was first tutored by Abbé Lesueur, the Catholic priest who had taught his father and a man whom Tocqueville would remember affectionately for having instilled in him a belief in the Christian principles that he would abandon for a time but would return to in later life.

In his adolescence, the young Tocqueville spent six years in Metz and completed his studies brilliantly at the local lycée. A perceptive, if not an omnivorous, reader profoundly impressed by the writings of René Descartes, Tocqueville gave up his strict Catholicism for a more critical Christian Deism, that is, a belief in human reason, rather than God, as the operative force in man’s affairs. Emotionally and intellectually more at ease with tangible matters that were susceptible to precise analysis than with theories, Tocqueville embarked on law studies, which he completed in 1825. Almost immediately, he and his brother Edward took an extended tour of Italy and Sicily, the importance of which emerged in the voluminous and detailed journals he kept. What he perceived was not so much the invariable landscapes as evidences of social structure, the shape of which he deduced by the structure of the applicable political systems and laws. Perhaps because he was only twenty-two years old, he imaginatively compared his keen observations on the Italian scene with his knowledge of French and British institutions.

Meanwhile, in 1827, he was offered a career which both his family background and his own predilections seemed to favor. By royal patent from Charles X, Tocqueville was appointed to a Versailles judgeship in the department of Seine and Oise, literally within the shadow of the king’s residence. Fearful that the routines of his office might render him incapable of judging great movements or of guiding great undertakings, Tocqueville, nevertheless, devoted himself to his duties. Later, Charles X, the king who had appointed him, chose abdication in the face of the Revolution of 1830. At war with himself for having to swear allegiance to the new monarch, Louis-Philippe, whose values he repudiated, Tocqueville still remained in service long enough to request from the minister of interior in 1831 leave to investigate the penal system in the United States.

Life’s Work

Accompanied by another French magistrate who was both a colleague and a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, a man who later served as a deputy to the National Assembly and as the French ambassador to London and Vienna and was a writer-scholar of distinction in his own right, Tocqueville invented the pretext of studying the American penal system in order to tackle the larger task that he had set for himself—a thorough, on-site investigation of what then was the world’s first and only completely democratic society: the United States. Only twenty-six years old, Tocqueville appeared less robust than the country that would absorb his attention. Portraits accent long arms and a short, thin, and frail body. Beneath locks of brown hair, his delicate, aristocratic face was dominated by large, intelligent brown eyes. He and Beaumont embarked for New York in April, 1831.

Returning to France in 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont finished their study of the American penal system. It was published in 1833 as Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, 1833). This official obligation resolved, Tocqueville left his judicial post, moved into a modest Paris apartment, and began what he later described as the happiest two years of his life, writing his two-volume De la démocratie en Amérique (1835, 1840; Democracy in America, 1835, 1840). This work was proclaimed the classic treatment of its subject throughout the Western world and assured Tocqueville’s fame as a political observer and political philosopher, and, later, as a sociologist.

While writing the third volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville in 1837 sought election as a deputy from his native constituency, La Manche. Failing in 1837, he succeeded in 1839, serving in the Chamber of Deputies continuously until 1851 and almost always in opposition to the government of Louis-Philippe. From 1842 to 1848, practicing his belief that a healthy state was founded upon vigorous local government, he served on the local general council....

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Alexis de Tocqueville Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alexis de Tocqueville (tawk-veel) was born in Paris in 1805. As a child he displayed great powers of intelligence, and he was fortunate enough to be allowed to develop them through study and travel. His journey to the United States resulted in his first book, a study of the penal system of both the Old and New Worlds. This book, which appeared in 1832, was based on a long and hard exploration of a year’s duration, during which he familiarized himself with the nature of American culture. Another book, one which was to make him famous, was also a consequence of this journey. Democracy in America immediately raised Tocqueville to the status of a great European author.

Democracy in America was the answer of an empiricist to political theories derived largely from speculation. It was based on close study of institutions rather than on a theory of human nature, and it covered in great detail the economics, legal structure, and social structure of the United States. It covered, too, the dangers of democracy: the probability of increased centralization of power, the encroachment of oligarchy on popular rights. In the years after the publication of this great work Tocqueville took an active part in government and became a fascinated observer of the violent political changes of the 1830’s and 1840’s. During this period of his life, Tocqueville was building a factual and philosophical foundation for his last historical masterpiece.

The preoccupation of Tocqueville during these years was decidedly not with ideas or theories but with what he called the realities of...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Alexis de Tocqueville Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Commager, Henry Steele. Commager on Tocqueville. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Analysis of Tocqueville’s writings. Includes an index.

Herr, Richard. Tocqueville and the Old Regime. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. The author, a specialist in modern French history, deals with the incompleteness and apparent inconsistencies of Tocqueville’s The Old Régime and the Revolution. An informative and well-written work with a selective bibliography and a useful index.

Laski, Harold J. “Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy.” In The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age, edited by F. J. C. Hearnshaw. London: G. G. Harrap, 1933. Laski, a distinguished British liberal-left political analyst and a force behind the extension of the British welfare state, cogently examines Tocqueville’s views on social democracy and their relevance to modern democracies. No notes, bibliography, or index. Generally available.

Ledeen, Michael Arthur. Tocqueville on American Character: Why Tocqueville’s Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit Is as Vital and Important Today as It Was Nearly Two Hundred Years Ago. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Evaluates Tocqueville’s American travels and their impact on him and his writings.

Mansfield, Harvey C., Delba Winthrop, and Philippe Raynaud. Tyranny and Liberty: Big Government and the Individual in Tocqueville’s...

(The entire section is 664 words.)