The Reading Room

OLL’s July Birthday: Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 to April 16, 1859)

July’s OLL Birthday Essay is in honor of the French historian, political scientist, and politician, Count Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 to April 16, 1859), better known simply as Alexis de Tocqueville.  His writings, especially his famous La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America, four volumes 1835-1840), explored the nature of democracy, and how it could be controlled and tempered to preserve and promote individual liberty.
Tocqueville was born into a very old noble family from Normandy.  His great grandfather Malesherbes and several other relatives were executed during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.  His own father, a liberal aristocrat, narrowly avoided the guillotine himself.  After the Bourbon Restoration, his father was appointed to several important political posts and was elevated to the peerage.  
Young Alexis was a small, frail boy, who from an early age suffered from anxiety and depression and was frequently ill. He was educated at home until he was 15, after which he was sent to study law at the Lycée Fabert in Metz. From his youth he was interested in politics and, despite his various handicaps, was determined to make a name for himself in public service. His father’s many political connections and good standing with the Bourbon court helped, and Tocqueville soon found himself with an appointment as an apprentice magistrate in 1827.
It was during this period that Tocqueville developed his political and social views, which combined his own aristocratic upbringing and sensibilities with a conviction that equality and democracy were inevitable.  In developing these ideas, he was greatly influenced by the lectures of historian François Guizot (1787-1874).  Tocqueville thus saw the main project of political science to be the study of the workings of egalitarian, democratic societies with the goal of tempering their excesses and preserving individual freedom. During the growing tensions during the late 1820s he increasingly sympathized with the liberals.     
The liberal pressures and general dissatisfaction with the Bourbons building up in France eventually led in July 1830 to the overthrow of the Bourbons and the enthronement of Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans, the “Citizen King.”  While Tocqueville managed to keep his position in the government, he was regarded with suspicion by the new regime because of his family’s strong attachment to the Bourbon dynasty, not to mention his own service under it.  Sensing that he had to develop a plan for his professional self-preservation, he suggested that he (along with his friend and fellow aristocratic liberal, Gustave de Beaumont) undertake a trip to the USA to study recent reforms in the prison system there.  It was a shrewd move.  There was a great deal of interest among the political classes in France (and indeed all of Europe) in what was going on in the United States, not least in its reforms to the penal system.  The trip would thus give him the opportunity, not only to get out of the direct gaze of his Orléanist masters, but also potentially to reinvent himself politically and socially.  The French authorities gave him permission to carry out his trip, but only on a semi-official basis; Tocqueville and Beaumont had to cover all their own expenses and make their own arrangements.
The nine months the two friends passed in America between 1831-1832 provided Tocqueville with plenty of material to develop his ideas about democracy and equality.  He concluded that American society and politics provided an example of how a democratic and egalitarian polity could function and produce peace, prosperity, and freedom. 
Upon their return to France, the two friends dutifully published their findings and evaluations of the American penal system reforms (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France [1833]).  Beaumont also published Marie; or, Slavery in the United States (1835) on his observations on slavery and race relations. But these were overshadowed by the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America.  It was an immediate sensation and was quickly translated into the major European languages.  As he had hoped, the success of Tocqueville's book provided an opportunity to reenter public life, and he was elected a deputy in the French parliament in 1839, easily winning reelections by wide margins in subsequent years.  This happy period in his life included his marriage in 1835 to Mary Mottely (1798-1864), an English woman from a bourgeois family whom he had met while living in England right before his trip to America.  They had fallen in love and kept in close contact through the intervening years.  By all accounts, they had a loving and supportive relationship, though they never had children.  Royalties from his book sales even made possible the restoration of the family’s chateau and estate in Normandy, which Mme. de Tocqueville managed. 
Beneath the apparently happy surface, however, Tocqueville was becoming increasingly uneasy with what he observed going on in French society, influencing his work on the remaining parts of Democracy in America.  The later sections are less specifically focused on conditions in the United States, and are more theoretical.  They are also more pessimistic about the long-term consequences of democracy and equality.  In France, he observed the growing dissatisfaction with the July Monarchy and, with amazing prescience, warned of a revolution only days before the monarchy was overthrown in February 1848.  He supported the resulting Second Republic, and was once again elected (and subsequently reelected) as a deputy and was eventually elected vice-president of the parliament.  He was also appointed (along with his old friend Beaumont) to a committee to draw up the new constitution and, in 1849, briefly served as Foreign Minister.  While all these developments represented the furtherance of his political career, he was increasingly concerned about the growth of socialism and calls for greater government involvement in the economic life of the country. Perhaps more importantly, he observed with growing alarm the actions of the President of the Republic, Louis Napoléon, who frequently clashed with the parliament and was emerging as a champion of conservative, monarchist elements.  Tocqueville’s efforts to mediate the situation failed and in December 1851 Louis Napoléon staged a coup and declared himself emperor.  When Tocqueville refused to swear allegiance to the new regime he was promptly fired from all his posts, after which he retired to private life.
The events of the previous several years left him emotionally and physically weakened.  His health, never very good, deteriorated rapidly, probably as a result of tuberculosis.  He nevertheless embarked on another major writing project, a history of the French Revolution, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution, 1856). In it, he returned to many of the questions he sought to address in Democracy in America, but this time from the perspective of French history.  The book’s melancholy suggestion is that while the Americans seemed to have been able to temper the excesses inherent in democracy, the French had failed to do so, resulting in periodic outbreaks of revolutionary violence.  Still at work on subsequent volumes of his book, he died in 1859 and was buried in the village cemetery of Tocqueville.
While his works remained popular for a while, by the end of the nineteenth century he had been largely forgotten, his Classical Liberal sympathies having become unfashionable.  By the middle of the twentieth century, however, his works, especially Democracy in America, enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the context of the Cold War and renewed interest in Classical Liberal ideas.  Today, Tocqueville is once again valued as a keen observer and commentator of democratic societies.