Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Context


The American Background: A Young Nation

The arrival of Tocqueville coincided with a period of American transformation, and it is not surprising that the main ideas of mobility and change loom large in his work. Andrew Jackson, who had been in the White House for only two years, was the first president not to hail from the eastern seaboard. Instead, he sprang from humble origins in the Carolinas and Tennessee, or what was then called "the West." A thoroughgoing populist who championed less-fortunate Americans, he was determined to oppose elite interests and champion universal (white male) suffrage. This era of "Jacksonian democracy" gave a special currency to Tocqueville's project because the contrast between popular sovereignty and the young man's aristocratic roots in France could not have been clearer.

By 1831 America had grown to include 24 states, ranging from Maine to Missouri and southward to Louisiana. The population now exceeded 12 million; it had grown by more than 30 percent in the preceding decade. In much of the North, industrialization and urbanization were on the rise. American businessman Francis Cabot Lowell had begun construction on the Lowell textile mills in 1821, signaling the start of the American Industrial Revolution, a period in which new technologies and manufacturing processes led to rapid changes in economic and social conditions. Communications spread: first with canals and highways, and soon thereafter with railroads.

As Tocqueville would observe, authentically American literature and the arts generally had yet to flourish; the soul of America seemed devoted to commerce. Yet this, too, would soon change, with the appearance of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) and artists such as Thomas Cole (1801–48) and his followers in the Hudson River school (romantic landscape painters). Before Tocqueville's death in 1859, American author Henry David Thoreau would publish Walden (1854), and American author Walt Whitman would transform American poetry with the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855).

Andrew Jackson's western roots were a harbinger of the near future, for Americans of the 1830s were on an ever-westward trajectory of expansion. By 1836 Texas had declared its independence from Mexico; it would join the Union in 1845. About the same time, newspaper editor John O'Sullivan is widely credited with coining the phrase "manifest destiny"—the belief that Americans were fated to expand their occupation of the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean. This would indeed happen within Tocqueville's lifetime, with California gaining statehood in 1850. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville's own predictions about America's rapid and expansive growth were not widely off the mark.

Instability in France: From Napoléon to the Second Empire

After the French Revolution (1789–99), Napoléon Bonaparte imparted a certain degree of unity to the country by ruling as a military despot. After a series of brilliant campaigns, however, he was finally defeated by the British and Prussiansat the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Alexis de Tocqueville was about to turn 10. Tocqueville passed the remainder of his youth and young manhood in a period of continual instability—turbulence that made a deep impression on him as he observed political and social conditions in America during his landmark visit in 1831–32. In his work, Tocqueville often contrasts the law-abiding steadiness and American democracy with unstable political and social conditions in Europe.

After Napoléon's defeat and subsequent exile, France was ruled by a series of three monarchs, none of whom was able to ensure economic and political stability. Louis XVIII (reigned 1814–24), the brother of the last pre-Revolutionary monarch, presided over a government fractured by conflict between the liberal left and ultra-royalist reactionaries determined to restore the "old régime." Under Louis's successor, his younger brother, Charles X (reigned 1824–30), France became even less democratic, with rigid press censorship, the reduction of the already limited suffrage (right to vote), and the restoration of clerical authority, especially in education. Finally, in July 1830 an uprising forced the king to abdicate.

The new king, Louis-Philippe, who owed his throne largely to the support of the elderly General Lafayette, commander of the National Guard and veteran of the American Revolution, was a cousin of the powerful European ruling Bourbon family. His government, known as the July Monarchy, sponsored a gradual liberalization in political and social policy. Censorship was abolished and suffrage was expanded; the landowning aristocracy was displaced to some extent by the wealthy bourgeoisie (the middle class, owners of businesses). Yet despite a semblance of order and the loosening of some social constraints, Louis-Philippe seemed unprepared to accept his role as a purely constitutional monarch, continuing to believe that his authority emanated from bloodlines rather than from his subjects, the people. Economic distress sparked insurrections and massive demonstrations in the urban centers of Paris and Lyon. Napoléon's nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, mounted two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1836 and 1840.

During the 1840s France enjoyed a period of tranquility, largely because of the talents of François Guizot, Louis-Philippe's most important minister. France began its transition from a rural society to a largely industrial one, thus paralleling the United States. Literature and the arts flourished at the height of the romantic movement in France: see the novels of Stendhal and Victor Hugo, the poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine and Charles Baudelaire, the musical compositions of Hector Berlioz, and the painting of Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault. Nevertheless, many intellectuals were alienated from the political regime.

In 1848 the pressures of industrialization and the whirling currents of extremist political theory triggered a wave of revolutions in Europe, and France was no exception. In February, clashes between protesters and the police escalated. After a futile attempt at reconciliation, Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled to England. After nearly a year of temporary measures, voters elected Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, newly returned from exile, as president of the Second Republic. But democratic aspirations were to be thwarted once again. In 1852, Louis-Napoléon was proclaimed emperor of the French, with the title Napoleon III. His authoritarian rule of France, known as the Second Empire, was to last until 1870.

Tocqueville as Social Scientist

The publication of Democracy in America in two volumes (1835 and 1840) long predated the emergence of specialized disciplines in the social sciences, such as political science or sociology. According to scholars, the three French writers who most influenced Tocqueville were Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau—a most diverse trio. Blaise Pascal (1623–62) was a mathematician and theologian; Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) was a lawyer, man of letters, and political philosopher (whose concept of the separation of powers profoundly influenced the American founding fathers); and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) was a philosopher, writer, and composer. Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762) are universally acknowledged to be two of the most influential works of the European Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that promoted the use of reason to understand the world and solve problems.

The broad range of these intellectual predecessors may serve as a clue to the scope of Tocqueville's own interests and abilities. In the Introduction to Democracy in America, he provides a substantial indication of his sources and methods. As the work unfolds, he reveals himself as deeply engaged in the following fields: political science, sociology, economics, anthropology, history, geography, psychology, philosophy, demography, statistics, journalism, media studies, literary criticism, and rhetoric.

The two volumes of Tocqueville's work, the second published five years after the first, have also sparked numerous comments. Are Tocqueville's outlook and approach consistent, or does the second volume reveal a more introspective, somber, and perhaps pessimistic perspective? Although the tone of the second volume may appear at times somewhat darker, it is well to bear in mind Tocqueville's own assertion that "the two parts complete one another and form a single work."

Tocqueville's Continuing Influence

According to experts, most American presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower (in office 1953–61) have quoted Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, one commentator noted, is a bit like the Bible: readers can find a quotation from it to support a wide range of points of view.

In 1997–98, C-SPAN filmed 65 hours for television, following Tocqueville's exact route on his travels. The series was made available to classroom teachers, along with detailed lesson plans. And several years later, the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy undertook to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious countryman—resulting in an absorbing travelogue entitled American Vertigo (2006).
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