Alexis de Tocqueville Essay - Critical Essays

Tocqueville, Alexis (Charles Henri Maurice Clérel, Comte) de


Alexis (Charles Henri Maurice Clérel, Comte) de Tocqueville 1805-1859

French essayist, political scientist, historian, politician, memoir and travel writer.

This entry covers criticism from the late 1960s to the present. For further information on Tocqueville, see .

Tocqueville is known principally for his definitive two-volume study of American politics, Democracy in America (1835, 1840), and for The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), a historical text on events in his own country. Although he was famous during his lifetime, interest in his work has periodically waned in the century and a half since he produced his most important texts, most especially during the period 1880-1930. For the last sixty years, though, Tocqueville studies have enjoyed a renaissance that continues to grow, particularly in the United States and, more recently, in France.

Biographical Information

Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805, into a family whose ties to the old Norman nobility were traceable as far back as the twelfth century. Tocqueville considered himself the descendant of a warrior who fought valiantly alongside William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings, although there is no real proof of this. During the French Revolution Tocqueville's grandfather and aunt were guillotined and his parents were imprisoned. He remained faithful to the values of the aristocracy throughout his lifetime, although he accepted the inevitable demise of those values and their replacement by democratic principles. He recognized the dangers inherent in a democratic system and even foretold, with remarkable accuracy, the problems that democratic countries would face.

At age fifteen he was sent to the college at Metz, where he studied the writings of several eighteenth-century French philosophers who taught the importance of freedom of inquiry. After completing his courses at Metz, he returned to Paris to study law and in 1827 was appointed an assistant magistrate at the law court in Versailles. There Tocqueville became acquainted with Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow assistant magistrate who shared his liberal interests. When the July Revolution of 1830 established the Orléanist regime of King Louis Phillipe, Tocqueville and Beaumont were demoted to apprentice magistrates. Having little sympathy with the new government, they applied for and received a leave of absence, ostensibly to study American prisons, but with the actual intent of examining the political system to determine how France might duplicate the successes of American democracy and avoid its failures. The pair toured America extensively for the next nine months, recording their observations and interviewing citizens along the way. Tocqueville's travel journals served as source material for both On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833), the study that provided the original impetus for his journey, and Democracy in America which has been described by Tocqueville scholar Harold J. Laski as "perhaps, the greatest work ever written on one country by the citizen of another." Although he then turned his attention to events and issues in his own country and wrote very little about the United States during his remaining years, he maintained a lively interest in American affairs, particularly the impending civil war, and nurtured that interest through an extensive correspondence with many Americans.

Major Works

After the publication of Democracy, Tocqueville held a number of official positions in the French government. In 1839, he won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies and was regularly reelected until the downfall of King Louis Phillipe in 1848. After the revolution of February, 1848, he was selected to participate in the drafting of the constitution of the Second Republic. His recollections of the February Revolution and of his brief service in 1849 as Minister of Foreign Affairs to Louis Napoleon, President of the Republic, are preserved in Souvenirs de Alexis de Tocqueville (The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville). Following Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat of 1851, Tocqueville retired from politics. For the remainder of his life, he devoted himself to an undertaking that he had long contemplated: a three-part history of the French Revolution and the First Empire. Poor health prevented Tocqueville from finishing the project and at the time of his death in 1859 he had completed only the first part, L'ancien régime et la révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution), a study of the social and political atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, and a portion of the second part, which was intended to be a history of the events of the Revolution. Two chapters of the unfinished second part were published in Oeuvres et correspondance inédites (Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville) but it was not until 1865, in the first collected edition of Tocqueville's writings, that the fragment appeared in its entirety. In The Old Regime, which is considered one of the most original interpretations of the Revolution and a landmark of historical scholarship, Tocqueville traced France's passage from a monarchic to a democratic state and explains why the Revolution occurred in France rather than in any other European country.

Critical Reception

In the United States the most recent revival of interest in Tocqueville began, in part, during the reexamination of American origins and institutions that accompanied the nation's bicentennial, and has been maintained, in part, by the growth of American Studies as a discipline. Tocqueville is considered by some as a kind of visiting anthropologist who studied the United States with the objectivity and detachment of the outsider, better able to judge American institutions for not having been immersed in them since birth. Because his writings cover so many facets of American life, Tocqueville is widely quoted by Americans writing about their government, politics, culture, and customs. Richard Reeves suggests that the phrase "as Alexis de Tocqueville said" is used so often, "there could be a single key that punches out those words on the typewriter of anyone who writes about the United States."

In 1982 Reeves recreated the journey of Tocqueville and Beaumont in an effort to determine how America had changed since the 1830s, a method employed by Harold Spender in the 1920s, and in an abbreviated form by Jean Baudrillard in 1986. Much of the current Tocqueville criticism compares and contrasts the country as it was then with the country as it is now, with a special interest in determining which of Tocqueville's warnings and predictions have been realized. For example, his foresight regarding the difficulty of achieving any degree of harmony between blacks and whites, even if slavery were abolished, is often cited today.

That many of his direst predictions have, unfortunately, come to pass accounts for Tocqueville's heightened reputation as a political analyst. Biographer André Jardin claims that "Tocqueville found a larger and larger audience as the great social ills of the modern world—totalitarianism, the alienation of man within the consumer society, the omnipotence of an anonymous bureaucracy—have been revealed." Since Tocqueville not only identified but also denounced these modern problems, he seems, according to Jardin, "to be our contemporary." While many current critics would agree, others insist that this is an illusion and that Tocqueville can only be evaluated within the appropriate historical context. Among the latter group is Roger Boesche, who points out that Tocqueville's writings precede the formation of such categories of political thought as Marxism and liberalism, and, therefore, "to regard his work through the prism of our own contemporary categories significantly distorts his thought."

This tendency to turn Tocqueville into a twentieth-century thinker is occasionally accompanied by a desire by various groups, both liberal and conservative, to claim him as their own. Again, Roger Boesche objects: "This modern fight for Tocqueville's political allegiance, this wish to claim him and place him in one of our categories of political thinking, would amuse him as much as it would irritate him." Nonetheless, groups with little in common, feminists and religious conservatives for example, both cite his observations on women as support for their own very different positions.

Most recently, Tocqueville scholarship has been renewed with vigor in France, where his work had long been neglected in favor of a national preoccupation with Marxism and neo-Marxism. With the collapse of communism and socialism, French philosophers and intellectuals have returned to liberalism generally and to the writings of Tocqueville specifically.

Principal Works

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] [with Gustave de Beaumont] (essay) 1833

De la démocratie en Amérique [Democracy in America](essay) 1835

De la démocratie en Amérique: Second partie [Democracy in America: Volume II] (essay) 1840

L'ancien régime et la révolution [The Old Regime and the Revolution] (history) 1856

* Oeuvres et correspondance inédites [Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville] (memoir, letters, travel sketches, history, and essay) 1861

Souvenirs de Alexis de Tocqueville [The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville] (memoirs) 1893

Oeuvres, papiers et correspondances (essays, history, memoirs, letters, lectures, and travel sketches) 1951-

"The European Revolution" & Correspondence withGobineau (history and letters) 1959

Oeuvres (complete works) 1991-

*This work includes a memoir written by Gustave de Beaumont.


Marvin Zetterbaum (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Problem of Democracy," in Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy, Stanford University Press, 1967, pp. 41-84.

[In this excerpt, Zetterbaum examines Tocqueville's attempts to reconcile the seemingly contradictory concepts of equality and individuality, justice and excellence, in modern democracy.]

Even if democracy is the only just social condition, it need not coincide with a condition of human excellence; it is not necessarily conducive to what is highest in man. This observation, along with the tension implied by it between justice and excellence, forced Tocqueville to make a critical choice. Traditionally, justice had been considered equivalent to...

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Hugh Brogan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville and the American Presidency." Journal of American Studies 15, No. 3, (December 1981): 357-75.

[In this essay, Brogan asserts that Tocqueville's assessment of the American Presidency in general, and Andrew Jackson in particular, was seriously flawed; Tocqueville underestimated the importance of both.]

In nothing is the difference between the Presidency today and in the nineteenth century more clearly symbolised than in the matter of accessibility. Today the President is closely guarded both for reasons of security and to save him from unreasonable calls on his time, and what is unreasonable is defined pretty strictly. For example, Mr. Walter Hickel,...

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Catherine Zuckert (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Not by Preaching: Tocqueville on the Role of Religion in American Democracy." The Review of Politics 43, No. 2, (April 1981): 259-80.

[In this essay, Zuckert argues that Tocqueville's position on the role of religion in democracy is internally consistent.]

Both Jack Lively and Marvin Zetterbaum comment on the paradoxical character of Alexis de Tocqueville's teaching in Democracy in America with regard to the importance of religious belief in maintaining liberal democracy.1 By concentrating on the political utility of religious belief to the point of indifference as to its content, they argue, Tocqueville undermines the very belief he...

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James T. Schleifer (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville and Religion: Some New Perspectives." The Tocqueville Review IV, No. II (Fall-Winter 1982): 303-21.

[In this essay, Schleifer discusses Tocqueville's attitudes toward religion in America as expressed in Democracy in America.]

Anatomy of the Subject

Tocqueville's major ideas about religion appear very early in his American journey notes and remain by and large unchanged during the nine years when he was writing the Democracy. As early as the end of June 1831, after less than two months in the New World, his travel diaries and letters home refer to nearly all of the key themes relating to religion which would...

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Edward Pessen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville's Misreading of America, America's Misreading of Tocqueville." The Tocqueville Review IV, No. I, (Spring-Summer 1982): 5-22.

[In the following paper, presented at Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Tocqueville's American Journey: A Sesquicentennial Symposium, Pessen claims that Tocqueville's judgments of American life were more often based on preconceptions than observations.]

I am delighted to have been invited to participate in this celebration of Alexis de Tocqueville. For, as a conscientious worker, I have interpreted the invitation as a summons to reread Democracy in America. What a pleasure to lose oneself in a book of...

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Roger Boesche (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The New Despotism," in The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 229-59.

[In this excerpt Boesche discusses Tocqueville's warnings of a "new despotism," potentially originating within American-style democracies, that would enslave the soul and would be brought about by equality, isolation, and abundance.]

With a Newtonian view of the political world, Madison and others offered a mechanical notion of political freedom in which free political institutions, once set in motion and properly balanced, continued to function almost by themselves. By contrast, Tocqueville pictured freedom as if he still agreed with Aristotle's...

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Daniel T. Rodgers (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Of Prophets and Prophecy," in Reconsidering Tocqueville's Democracy in America, edited by Abraham S. Eisenstadt, Rutgers University Press, 1988, pp. 192-206.

[In this excerpt, Rodgers measures the accuracy of Tocqueville's predictions for twentieth-century America.]

Democracy in America began as a piece of reportage, metamorphosed into a work in political philosophy, and became, at last, a book of prophecy. That is not the straightforward progression it may at first blush appear. The making of high theory out of reportage goes on every day, but prophecy is a rarer and more interesting phenomenon. Still more so is the canonization of prophets, the...

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Edward T. Gargan (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville and the Postmodern Refusal of History," in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, edited by Eduardo Nolla, New York University Press, 1992, pp. 187-92.

[In this essay, Gargan points out Tocqueville's continuing relevance for postmodernists such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard.]

In March of 1839 Tocqueville was elected to the Chamber of Deputies from Valognes. It was possible for him to take this step because the final volume of his Democracy was at last finished and would be published in 1840. In 1990 the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Democracy invited and continues to encourage reflections on the...

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Cushing Strout (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville and American Literary Critics," in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, edited by Eduardo Nolla, New York University Press, 1992, pp. 143-52.

[In this essay, Strout discusses Tocqueville's comments and prophecies regarding American literature.]

Tocqueville's Democracy in America wavers between alarming prophecies about democracy in general and more sanguine comments about America in particular. What he sought in his book, as he confessed to his friend Kergorlay, was "less the complete picture of that foreign society than its contrasts and resemblances to our own."1 There is on the one hand the possible coming, especially in...

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Henry Steele Commager (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Political Equality and Economic Inequality," in Commager on Tocqueville, University of Missouri Press, 1993, pp. 93-110.

[In this excerpt, Commager considers the paradox of equality and individualisma paradox that preoccupied Tocquevilleand suggests that it poses even greater problems in the 1990s.]

The grand theme of Democracy in America is the reconciliation of equality or democracy—for he used the words interchangeably—with liberty. Democracy, he was confident, was the wave of the future (he was not really all that confident, but he insisted in the book that he was). Democracy had triumphed in America; its triumph in...

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Zoltán Kövecses (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Tocqueville's Passionate 'Beast': A Linguistic Analysis of the Concept of American Democracy." Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 9, No. 2, (1994): 113-33.

[In this analysis of the metaphors Tocqueville used to describe American democracy, Kovecses disagrees with the majority of critics who believe Tocqueville regarded American democracy in a positive light.]

In this article I argue that Tocqueville's view of democracy in Democracy in America (1835/1987) is in large measure given content and structure by the metaphor theme "DEMOCRACY IS A (PASSIONATE) PERSON." The analysis of Tocqueville's metaphors reveals that he saw...

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Joshua Mitchell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Of Moderation and Motion: Mother Nature and Father Industriousness," in The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future, The University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 132-40.

[In this excerpt, Mitchell examines Tocqueville's views on the relationship between activity and passivity and suggests that the vastness of the American wilderness encouraged both activity and "immoderation of desire."]


What we [Europeans] call love of gain is praiseworthy to Americans, and they see something cowardly in what we consider...

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Pierre Manent (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Democratic Man," in Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, translated by John Waggoner Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 53-65.

[Manent is one of many French writers showing a renewed interest in Tocqueville after a long period of neglect. In the following chapter, he analyzes the various traits of the democratic man as described by Tocqueville.]

Thus, the man of democratic societies, encountering and only wanting to encounter around him equal and similar individuals, does not submit to the influence of others. He searches in himself for his opinions, but he finds them there or recognizes them only if he also sees them in his fellow men,...

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Further Reading


Jardin, André. Tocqueville: A Biography, translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988, 550 p.

The definitive Tocqueville biography, Jardin's version clears up many misconceptions about Tocqueville's life.


Brogan, Hugh. "Alexis de Tocqueville and the Coming of the American Civil War." In American Studies: Essays in Honour of Marcus Cunliff edited by Brian Holden Reid and John White, pp. 83-104. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Maintains that, although Tocqueville never wrote about...

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