An Introduction to the Work of Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was a French political philosopher, statesman, and author of two seminal works in the history of political thought, Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. In these works, Tocqueville explains the origins and character of modern life in the “Christian universe,” which he believes is dominated by a single fact: the “equality of conditions,” or democracy. Tocqueville understands democracy not merely as self-government but as a comprehensive way of life. In his writings he explains the effects of democracy on the theoretical and practical habits of men in democratic times, focusing on the salubrious as well as the troubling. He prescribes as much as describes, and suggests how political and intellectual greatness, subject to risks in democratic times, might nonetheless be preserved. Above all, he seeks to turn the attention of his readers to questions of intellectual and political freedom.

Tocqueville’s later work is colored by his extensive political experience. A deputy in the July Monarchy and minister of foreign affairs in the Second Republic, Tocqueville recounted his political life and times in his autobiographical Souvenirs. This work offers a revealing glimpse of the political activity of a thoughtful individual. Tocqueville’s books are indispensible resources for students of politics and philosophy, and for those seeking an understanding of modern America and Europe. Nearly two hundred years after Tocqueville’s famous nine-month trip to America, he remains one of the best guides to modern political life and the nature of democracy.

Democracy in America

De la Démocratie en Amérique was published in two volumes, one in 1835 and one in 1840. It follows a nine-month trip to America that Tocqueville made with Gustave de Beaumont in 1831 and 1832. It is not a travelogue or even a comprehensive study of the political institutions of the United States. The work contains many interesting and singular insights about America: its regime, its laws, and, above all, the habits or mores of Americans, by which Tocqueville means the full panoply of their political, intellectual, religious, and social life. Yet Tocqueville’s purpose is broader than reporting about America. He went to America, as he put it, in search of an “image of democracy itself.” As the land where democracy was most advanced and most perfected, America offered a unique opportunity to portray the great “democratic revolution” under way in the West. Tocqueville’s “America” is thus the singular case study for the interpretation of modern democracy, and his “Americans” the outstanding example of democratic citizens.

Over the two volumes of the work, Tocqueville discusses America through the prism of democracy, or the equality of conditions. He explains how America’s geography and geo-political situation, as well as the culture and the laws of the first inhabitants, had been conducive to a polity where equality was the first and generative rule of life. At the same time, he explains how the legislative and moral ideas of the Puritans—America’s “point of origin”—permitted the country to combine equality with freedom as well as individual rights.

Tocqueville suggests, however, that democratic equality breeds the danger of what he calls “individualism,” a term he claimed to coin. Tocqueville distinguishes individualism from selfishness. Selfishness, found at all times and all places, refers to a person’s pursuit of an apparent personal good at the expense of the common good. Individualism, characteristic of modern democracy, is an erroneous theoretical doctrine that holds that each man is fundamentally alone in the world. There is society only to the extent that all others are alike and in the same position of radical solitude. Democratic man believes he must be self-reliant but feels keenly his weakness in the face of a mass of other “individuals.” The practical manifestation of individualism is man’s increasing withdrawal from public into private life.

Tocqueville fears that democratic individualism would produce what he called, in his first volume, “tyranny of the majority,” and, in the second, “soft despotism.” As the English liberal John Stuart Mill understood, this does not refer to a majority imposing its will on a minority, but, rather, to the propensity of democratic peoples to develop highly abstract political ideas and erect bureaucratic structures that rob them of the need to act or think for themselves except on the most trivial matters. Democracy could thus pose a danger to both intellectual and political freedom. Tocqueville notes that this new despotism is perhaps more insidious than the traditional despotism, because it threatens to enslave the souls of men rather than simply their bodies.

In his study of America, Tocqueville investigates possible remedies to the dangers posed by democracy. He emphasizes the importance of the “spirit of the New England township,” according to which locals join together to deliberate on matters of common concern. He writes admiringly of the American tendency to form associations in pursuit of political, social, and religious goals. Such concrete experiences of deliberation and action, on sub-political as well as political matters, gives the American a practical know-how and elevates him beyond his narrow concerns.

Above all, Tocqueville points to American religion as a crucial check on the excesses of democratic individualism. According to Tocqueville, American religion teaches, as the Puritan founder John Winthrop put it, that “freedom” means the freedom to do only what is just. This serves as a vital check on the individualistic impulse of the democratic man and offers a fixed moral orientation. It fights against materialism as well as the view that man is completely alone and must decide what is permitted or not permitted according to his own lights. Thus, deliberation, associations, religion, and other aspects of American life teach Americans “self-interest rightly understood,” the notion that the attainment of self-interest requires working on behalf of the common interest (Tocqueville does not, however, speak of the common good.)

Tocqueville notes that the “habits of the heart” that allow Americans to resist democratic dangers do not eradicate these dangers. American religion is a prime example. Even as American religion can check license and restrain materialism, it can easily be corrupted and drift into vapid pantheism—what we might today call “spirituality.” Americans are religious, implies Tocqueville, but they sometimes use religion as a pretext to worship themselves. Tocqueville thus differs from contemporaries or near contemporaries such as Mill, Madison, Constant, and Guizot in that he is, on the whole, less confident that democratic problems could be mitigated by a proper ordering of laws or institutions. For Tocqueville, soft despotism and apathy are inherent in the fabric of democracy. Tocqueville nonetheless aims to encourage citizens to think through these vulnerabilities while developing an appreciation for moral, political, and intellectual excellence.

The Old Regime and the Revolution

Just as Democracy in America is not a history of the United States, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is not a conventional history of the French Revolution. Tocqueville did not call the book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution Française because the “revolution” to which he referred was the leveling of social conditions that had taken place all over Europe since the early Middle Ages; it was not a uniquely French phenomenon. In his preface to Democracy in America, Tocqueville calls the march of equality a “providential fact.” In the Old Regime, he demonstrates this by questioning the revolutionary character of the French Revolution. In contrast to contemporaries who claimed that the French Revolution swept away deeply entrenched class distinctions, Tocqueville explains how kings, noblemen, bourgeois, and the people had all played an unwitting part over many centuries in the production of equality.

Considering the case of France, Tocqueville discusses how and why France had trouble moderating or directing this equality revolution, and how “Bonapartism” or bureaucratic despotism is one of its logical outcomes. Bureaucratic tyranny is as “democratic” a result of the great “revolution” as the democratic and successful United States. Tocqueville nonetheless hopes Frenchmen might yet direct the equality revolution in their country. He points to the region of Languedoc, which had retained some autonomy and resisted Parisian centralization, as an example of how habits of self-government might be retained despite centralization. It is, however, by no means clear that Tocqueville believes it is possible or desirable to decentralize France and restore political power to its regions. Tocqueville rather hopes to awaken something of the “spirit” of independence, both intellectual and liberal, in his readers. Unlike the New England township, which Tocqueville lauds and believes has been a great source of American strength, Languedoc is a more ambiguous case. This reflects Tocqueville’s generally despondent view of the political history of France.

Souvenirs

Tocqueville’s political autobiography covers the final days of the July Monarchy, the Revolutions of 1848, and the ill-fated politics and constitution-drafting of the Second Republic. While Tocqueville had been a deputy for many years, he played a leading political part only during these tumultuous few years. The work offers the reader a revealing glimpse into the political judgment and actions of a political philosopher. For Tocqueville provides an unusually frank assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses in politics. He reveals how his philosophic disposition and dislike of the “mediocre” and rough-and-tumble character of politics made him less adroit in his political maneuvering. Nor does Tocqueville disguise his great political failure, which was the inclusion of a “one-term” presidential limit in the constitution of 1848, which paved the way for a Bonapartist take-over of France (although he also indicates how hopeless the situation was in the first place). If he forthrightly reveals his political failings, Tocqueville also demonstrates his acute political and theoretical judgment: his anticipation of the revolutions of 1848 as well as his unique ability to see the true character of those revolutions. Tocqueville explains in this work how abstract “social” doctrines and the passion for equality were the truest causes of those revolutions. This judgment conforms to his overall theoretical view, elaborated in his two masterworks, of the “march of equality” in Western lands.

For further introductory reading, see:

Harvey C. Mansfield, Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: 2011.

The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, Ed., Cheryl B. Welch, Cambridge: 2006.