How Did A Frenchman Become An Influential Observer Of Early American Democracy?

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The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) set out for the United States at the age of twenty-six to study American democracy (a form of government based on the will of the people). He arrived in New York with his colleague Gustave de Beaumont (1802–1866) under the pretext of studying the American prison system on behalf of the French government. Together they traveled for nine months through New England, eastern Canada, and the major eastern cities of North America, gathering information on what was then the world's first completely democratic society.

The two men returned to France in 1832 and published their study, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France. Having fulfilled his official obligation, Tocqueville left his post as a magistrate (judge), moved to Paris, and devoted himself to writing Democracy in America (1835). The work was soon proclaimed to be the classic treatment of its subject, gaining Tocqueville fame and respect as a political observer, philosopher, and sociologist. Faith in human freedom and political equality was central to his writing, and he strongly believed that democracy would eventually topple the aristocracies of Europe. While he warned against the possible "tyranny of the majority" as a hazard of democratic government, he added that law, religion, and the press would provide safeguards against despotism (a type of government that has unlimited power).

Further Information: Alexis de Tocqueville. [Online] Available, October 23, 2000; "Alexis de Tocqueville." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available, October 23, 2000; "Alexis de Tocqueville." Electric Library. [Online] Available, October 23, 2000; Hadari, S. A. Studies of Alexis de Tocqueville. Stanford, Calf.: Stanford University Press, 1989; Mayer, J. P. Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Study in Political Science. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1966.

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