Alexis de Tocqueville Biography

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(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.

(The entire section is 2,175 words.)