Democracy in America Summary
by Alexis de Tocqueville

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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Since its publication in 1835 and 1840, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA has been noted for its insightful portrayal of the American character and democratic institutions. Initially, the French government commissioned de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to study the penitentiary system in the United States, but in their travels from the cities to the frontier throughout the young country, the two men kept detailed journals as they attempted objective observation of all phases of American life.

De Tocqueville wrote DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA over a period of several years after his return to France and published the first pair of volumes in 1835. The work received immediate recognition as a significant study of social changes brought about by political freedom and equality. The scope of the work was much broader than originally projected and prophetic in many ways, one of which was prediction of the inevitable struggle to end slavery.

The first volumes focus on the evolution of the political order from aristocratic to democratic. De Tocqueville had to modify some of his original assumptions, one being that geographic isolation allowed the new country to thrive. He later attributed its prosperity to freedom of political institutions and equality of individuals.

Although complementary to the first part, the 1840 pair of volumes focuses more on the effects of democracy. De Tocqueville foresaw possible abuses of power, the greatest of which he considered to be tyranny of the majority. Democracy’s greatest strength was also its greatest potential weakness: “Equality prompts men to indulge propensities very dangerous to freedom.”

De Tocqueville’s conclusions about democracy are still relevant and have implications not only for America but also for Europe and the rest of the world.

For Review

Commager, Henry Steele. Commager on Tocqueville. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Lucid essays, written by a distinguished American historian, on Tocqueville’s democratic visions. The conclusion discusses the contemporary relevance of Tocqueville’s ideas for politics in the United States.

Mancini, Matthew. Alexis de Tocqueville. New York: Twayne, 1994. Accessible, comprehensive survey concentrates on Democracy in America and introduces the major themes in Tocqueville’s works. A worthwhile bibliography for students new to Tocqueville’s writings.

Martineau, Harriet. How to Observe Morals and Manners. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1989. Published originally in 1838, this book was the first methods text in the social sciences. Clearly explicates patriarchal, classist, racist, and other biases that plague undisciplined observations such as Tocqueville employed as the empirical foundation for Democracy in America.

Pope, Whitney, in collaboration with Lucetta Pope. Alexis de Tocqueville: His Social and Political Theory. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1986. Critiques Tocqueville’s pertinence for modern social theory and compares his ideas with those of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and other social theorists. Useful bibliography.

Schleifer, James T. The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. A detailed, archivally based appreciation of Tocqueville’s authorship of Democracy in America. Rewarding analysis of Tocqueville’s definitions of democracy.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alexis de Tocqueville lived in a time of enormous political change, when every conceivable variety of political theory flourished. He was born shortly after the French Revolution had turned France into the empire; in his lifetime occurred those further changes that transformed France, at least nominally, into a republic. His object in writing Democracy in America was twofold: to write about the new nation that he so much admired and to establish a new way of examining ideas of politics. Instead of proceeding from ideas of right and responsibility,...

(The entire section is 1,902 words.)