Alexis de Tocqueville Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.