Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville | Biography


Early Life

Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805, into an aristocratic family in the region of Normandy in northern France. His parents had narrowly escaped death by the guillotine in the bloodiest stage of the French Revolution (1789–99), the violent uprising that overthrew the monarchy and nobility in France. This was the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a period during which more than 16,000 people were executed and many others died while imprisoned.

Alexis de Tocqueville spent his childhood in a Europe dominated by French military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, who had declared himself Emperor of France in 1804. Young Alexis was first educated in home tutorials given by an elderly clergyman. He then attended school in Metz and studied law in Paris. His father, who held a powerful administrative post, arranged for Alexis to be appointed to a junior magistracy, or office that enforces laws, in Versailles.

In 1830 life in France was upended by the "July Revolution," an uprising against the despotic and ineffectual monarch, Charles X. The king was forced to abdicate, and a distant cousin, Louis Philippe, was installed on the throne. These events marked a turning point for Tocqueville and his fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont (1802–66). The two youthful jurists, still in their 20s and uncomfortable with the new political regime, applied for permission to leave their posts as junior magistrates to take an 18-month tour of the United States. Their official mission was to survey the American prison system. However, Tocqueville already cherished a more ambitious goal. An aspiring writer, he planned to take the measure of an experiment that had dazzled the world for nearly half a century: American democracy. Permission was granted on the condition that the two travelers pay their own expenses. In early May 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont landed at Newport, Rhode Island. The two Frenchmen soon proceeded to New York City. Their American sojourn resulted in the landmark publication of Tocqueville's analysis of American society: Democracy in America, which was published in two volumes (1835 and 1840).

American Travels

Tocqueville and Beaumont plunged into their project with gusto. They met a number of political and social leaders, and they fulfilled their official obligations by visiting several prisons.

Although the travelers spent more than half their time in America in three large cities—New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—they covered an impressive amount of territory in the course of nine months. In 1831 the Union consisted of 24 states, with a population approaching 13 million. Tocqueville and Beaumont visited 17 states, as well as some territories such as Michigan that would later gain statehood. The travelers also spent 10 days in Canada. The itinerary included Cincinnati and New Orleans, as well as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where President Andrew Jackson received them at the White House.

Among the myriad impressions registered in Democracy in America, Tocqueville recorded two glaring flaws in the American scene: slavery and Native American removal. America's predicament with race seemed to him insoluble, and he thought a race war was highly likely. Tocqueville's concerns proved well-founded, for even as he formed these impressions, violent racial conflict occurred. In August 1831 enslaved African American Nat Turner led a rebellion in Virginia that left about 60 people dead, although there is no record that Tocqueville investigated the circumstances. As for the Native Americans, Tocqueville grimly predicted their eventual extermination. In one of the most poignant passages in Democracy in America, he records an encounter with a band of Choctaw on their way west, following expulsion from their native grounds under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Under this law several Native American tribes were forced to relocate from existing states to what is now the state of Oklahoma, a route now known as the Trail of Tears.

The French authorities, who had originally accorded a leave of 18 months to Tocqueville and Beaumont, cut the travelers' trip short, so they were compelled to sail back home in February 1832. Tocqueville set to work writing up his voluminous notes. He pursued as well his romantic interest in Mary Mottley, a middle-class Englishwoman whom he had first met in 1828 at Versailles. The couple was married in 1835, the year that the first volume of Democracy in America was published. Despite the misgivings of Tocqueville's publisher, the book was an immediate success. In fact, Tocqueville earned accolades from a number of reviewers, including the young British political philosopher John Stuart Mill.

Political Career and Later Years

In 1837, doubtless encouraged by the reception of his work, Tocqueville decided to embark on his own career in politics, running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies (legislative assembly) for a local constituency in Normandy. Defeated in that attempt, he stood again for election two years later, and this time he succeeded. For the following dozen years, he held a variety of public posts.

In addition to government service, the second half of Tocqueville's career included significant foreign travel and considerable writing projects. He had much more to say, he decided, about American democracy, and after five years of further labors he published a second volume of Democracy in America in 1840. The second volume is commonly judged to be more theoretical and abstract than the first, with fewer vivid depictions of the American scene. It also had a more muted reception from the public. Yet Tocqueville explicitly asserted the unity and coherence of both parts of his work.

During these years, Tocqueville was also active in compiling his Recollections, a personal account of the stormy French Revolution of 1848 (also known as the February Revolution, this upheaval led to the establishment of the French Second Republic). In addition, he worked on another historical title The Old Régime and the Revolution (published in 1856), which presented a detailed analysis of the background for the French Revolution of 1789.

Tocqueville's health was always fragile, and he suffered a breakdown from 1850 onward. Disillusioned with the establishment of the Second Empire by Napoléon III in 1851, he retired from public life. In 1859 he and his wife, Mary, moved to Cannes in the south of France, hoping that the milder climate might help him combat tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease. He died in Cannes on April 16, 1859, at age 53. Tocqueville's contributions to political science, particularly the idea that the interests of the group serve the individual, which he described as "self-interest rightly understood," continue to provide instruction and inspiration for the difficult task of making democratic societies work.

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