Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a fascinating outsider's look at the changes in American government between the 17th and 19th centuries. Published in two volumes—the first in 1835 and the second in 1840—this study was conducted after the French scholar's visit to the United States in 1831. Along with his colleague Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville traveled to the United States ostensibly to conduct research on the young nation's criminal justice system. Instead he focused on understanding the country's government, electoral process, and emerging culture. Tocqueville was fascinated by America's Puritan roots, revolutionary history, and dedication to the protections of individual freedoms. Though written for a French audience, Tocqueville's unique perspective has caused Democracy in America to be taught in political science and economics classes worldwide.

1. Democracy in America began with Tocqueville's observations of the American prison system.

Although Tocqueville's project became a record of American governance and culture, he traveled to the country with a more specific aim: the study of American prisons. Tocqueville and his colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, embarked from France to examine the nation's penal system and bring their findings to the French government. While in the United States, Tocqueville and Beaumont visited several prisons, including Sing Sing in New York State and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As Tocqueville continued his travels, however, he decided to give his project a much broader scope, taking time to study many other facets of American life that fascinated him more than the country's penal system.

2. Democracy in America has been called the best book written about the United States.

Although Democracy in America was the work of a French national who had never set foot in the country before his 1831 trip, scholars have long praised the work for its penetrating insight and accuracy. As the text became a cornerstone of political education in the United States and abroad during the 19th century, Tocqueville credited his work to his homeland of France. He explained, "I did not write one page of it without thinking about her and without having her, so to speak, before my eyes." Scholarly appreciation of the text has endured through the years, as the New York Review of Books wrote of a 2001 edition:

I am hard put to come up with a better book on democracy or a better book on America. That this should be so is quite astonishing.

3. Tocqueville's views on the United States changed after the publication of Democracy in America.

The initial praise for American governance that Tocqueville expressed in Democracy in America altered drastically years after the book's publication. During the 1840s and 1850s, Tocqueville reevaluated persistent problems with American culture that he believed hadn't been addressed quickly enough. In a collection of essays and letters written later in his life, Tocqueville confessed that militarism and the perpetuation of slavery contradicted many of the principles he praised about the United States. He described American citizens as lacking "moderation, sometimes probity, above all education," and spoke of America's "exaggerated pride in its strength" as a tool for imperialistic militarism.

4. Tocqueville predicted the American Civil War in Democracy in America.

Much of what fascinates modern scholars about Tocqueville's study is his foresight regarding American social and political problems. Tocqueville predicted the inevitable failure of an economic system built on slavery. Many people who have studied Democracy in America believe the text foreshadows the American Civil War of 1861–65 as well as the struggles for civil rights and racial equality that would follow. One line in particular reads:

If America ever experiences great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of blacks on the soil of the United States.

5. Democracy in America also predicted the Cold War, more than a century in advance.

Although Tocqueville's visit to America occurred more than a century before the Cold War of the mid-20th century—during which tensions escalated between the Soviet Union and the United States over the spread of communism—Tocqueville wrote of the potential rivalry between the United States and Russia. He saw Europe as a quarreling collection of small nations, while the United States and Russia were vast lands with swaths of resources and room to grow. Tocqueville noted:

There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans...Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

6. A sociological phenomenon is referred to as the "Tocqueville Effect."

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville described a social phenomenon that would later be named after him—the "Tocqueville Effect." This effect describes the conditions that lead to revolutions and civil unrest in societies. Tocqueville's notion was that a society undergoing a transformation that provides more opportunities for its citizens will increase its peoples' appetite for upward mobility and aspiration for progressive change. Therefore revolutions breed more revolutions because people sense that positive change is possible. Sociologically speaking, "the appetite grows by what it feeds on."

7. Tocqueville's parents were nearly put to death at the guillotine.

Tocqueville was born into a wealthy family with ties to French royalty. Although this meant he came from a privileged background, Tocqueville was born after the French Revolution of 1789–99 in which France's royalty was overthrown and the nobility became endangered by political unrest. Many of Tocqueville's mother's relatives had been executed by the infamous guillotine—a large blade designed to quickly decapitate political prisoners during the French Revolution—and Tocqueville's parents, Hervé and Louise de Tocqueville, were arrested in 1793. The couple watched as many of their family members were taken to the guillotine, jokingly referred to as "the barber," for execution, but their lives were spared due to their placement at the end of the scheduling docket. Maximilien Robespierre, a French politician heavily involved in the Revolution and responsible for many of the death sentences, was himself sentenced to the guillotine in July 1794—before Tocqueville's parents were scheduled to be executed. Because Robespierre likely handed out the sentences, his death meant the freedom of Tocqueville's remaining family members.

8. Scholars have compared Democracy in America to works by Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Democracy in America has been likened to the works of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher famous for tremendously influential texts such as Nicomachean Ethics, a collection of practical writings on moral philosophy. Aristotle and Tocqueville both wrote of the differences and potential conflicts between aristocracy and democracy—albeit with different conclusions. While Aristotle believed the two spheres of governance could effectively share power, Tocqueville speaks of the aristocracy as outdated.

9. Tocqueville's traveling companion wrote a book about slavery in the United States after their trip.

Tocqueville's colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, accompanied him on his trip to the United States and also produced a study of life in the nation. While Tocqueville focused on American governance, Beaumont wrote his book on the prevalence of slavery in the United States. Entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States, Beaumont's 1835 book features a case study of Ludovic, a French citizen who falls in love with Marie, a woman of 1/32 African ancestry in the United States. Beaumont remarks on how strange it is, from a French perspective, that Marie would still be considered African despite her mostly white heritage. Beaumont intended for his study to complement Democracy in America, and explained:

M. de Tocqueville has described the institutions; I myself have tried to sketch the customs.

10. Tocqueville was self-conscious about his height.

Tocqueville was reportedly extremely self-conscious about his physical appearance—particularly his height. The author stood a mere 5 feet and 4 inches. However, Tocqueville's height would have actually been considered average in 19th-century France, when the common height for men was about 5 feet 5 inches.

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