Alexis de Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 – April 16, 1859) was a French political thinker, historian and writer] He was a champion of the nineteenth-century ideals of liberty and democracy, and observed that it is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth. An eminent representative of the post-revolutionary political tradition known as liberalism, Tocqueville's advocacy of private charity rather than government aid to assist the poor has often been cited admiringly during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century by political conservatives and classical liberals. His most famous work, Democracy in America (1835), continues to be regarded as the premier commentary on American government and society written by a foreigner.

Tocqueville's insights into what made the United States successful have proved informative to the general public and to scholars alike. His observations represented the excitement of sociological discovery, made by, and for (for he wrote for his French compatriots) the eyes of those for whom this style of democracy was entirely novel. His observations regarding the role of the separation of church and state and the significance of women in American society still stand as deep insights. While Tocqueville visited America out of his own desire to understand the workings of its democracy, the depth of his insights leads one to realize that his trip was guided by divine providence for the benefit of all humankind.


Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805 in Verneuil-sur-Seine, France to an aristocratic family of Norman descent. Born shortly after the French Revolution, most of his family had been executed during the Reign of Terror. Though his parents were spared from the guillotine, they were imprisoned for several months. The French Revolution made a great impression on Tocqueville and his family; throughout his childhood he was fascinated by the idea of imprisonment or exile. Tocqueville wrote of his youth, “I remember thinking of the chances of prison. ... I had succeeded in imagining for myself an almost agreeable idea of that fearful place.[1]

At the age of sixteen, Tocqueville entered the Royal College of Metz for his first formal schooling. While at Metz, he was instructed by the wise French priest Abbe Lesueur. Lesueur and Tocqueville became extremely close; Leseur encouraged Tocqueville’s education while nurturing his strong religious faith. In 1820, Tocqueville left Lesueur to live with his father, an elected official, in Paris.

Often left by himself, Tocqueville began reading philosophy in his father’s library, which caused him to question his religious faith. From 1823 to 1826 Tocqueville studied French law, identifying with the post-revolutionary liberal movement which opposed the restoration of the French aristocracy. Tocqueville became an advocate for the cause of liberalism and joined the Society for Christian Morality, a liberal social group that espoused moral equality and civil liberty.

In October of 1835, while serving as an assistant magistrate, Tocqueville married Marie Mottley, an Englishwoman raised in France. Tocqueville’s family and friends disapproved of his choice; in addition to her English background, Marie was older, a Protestant, and a commoner, and was an inferior fit for Tocqueville’s aristocratic status. Despite his family’s reservations, the couple was married on October 26 in Paris, and remained married until his death in Cannes in 1859. The couple had no children.


In 1830, the restored House of Bourbon King Charles X made significant attempts to re-establish the aristocracy in France. The thought of civil war haunted Tocqueville, and convinced him that aristocratic restoration was not the answer to France’s political difficulties. During this time Tocqueville contemplated going to the United States to study American democracy and its lessons for French society. In July 1830, Charles called for prison reform. Tocqueville and his colleague Gustave de Beaumont obtained permission to travel to the United States to inspect a new prison system instituted in the cities of Philadelphia and New York.

The pair arrived in New York City in May of 1831 and were immediately impressed by the absence of social classes in America. They also noticed the frantic pace of commercial activity. Tocqueville attributed the entrepreneurial spirit he witnessed to the practice of limited government, based on the ideals of John Locke, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment philosophers. In contrast to French society, Americans seemed to manage their individual affairs with little government control. This convinced Tocqueville that American society should act as the model of reform for France.

Tocqueville and Beaumont continued to travel throughout the United States. In New England they found the model for the autonomous township, a self-governing local community based on self-reliance and mutual cooperation. By contrast, they observed the “peculiar institution” of slavery during their travels in the South, and noted that slavery was the closest institution in the United States to the traditional rule of the aristocracy. Completing their studies, Tocqueville and Beaumont returned to France in 1832.

In 1835 Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, his most famous work based on the observations he made during his travels. Later the same year, Tocqueville made an observational tour of England, which led to his Memoir on Pauperism. In 1841 and again in 1846, Tocqueville traveled twice to Algeria. His first visit inspired his Work on Algeria, in which he criticized the French model of colonization, which was based on an assimilationist view. Tocqueville preferred the British colonial model of indirect rule, which avoided the mixing of native and colonial populations. He went as far as to openly advocate racial segregation between the European settlers and the Algerians through the creation of two different legislative systems. Tocqueville’s ideas appeared more than half a century before their effective implementation in the 1881 Indigenous Code.

In 1939, Tocqueville left government service and entered politics. He was eventually elected to King Louis Philippe’s Chamber of Deputies. After Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat during the Revolution of 1848, an opposed Tocqueville left the king’s chamber to serve as deputy for Valogne of Normandy. In 1849 he served as foreign minister, but retired from public affairs in 1851.

Democracy in America


In 1835, Tocqueville wrote his acclaimed Democracy in America in which he praised the New World of America and the democratic ideals it exemplified. Tocqueville warned against the dangers of individualism, which could only be averted through the formation of civic associations. He saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concerned for both the individual as well as the community. He warned that radical social egalitarianism would eventually lead to social isolation, greater government intervention, and less individual liberty. Tocqueville believed that association, the coming together of people for common purposes, would bind Americans to an idea of common nationhood which would be greater than the sum of its individuals acting in self-interest. He also praised the role and treatment of women in America, noting that they were powerful and effective forces in American life.

As a supporter of colonialism, Tocqueville also endorsed the common racist views of his epoch, and identified the white or European man as superior, and the “Negro” and “Indian” as inherently inferior. He thus limited the practice of democracy to the European settlers, stating that the Native Americans would become extinct because they were too proud to assimilate. Tocqueville also believed Americans of African descent to be inferior to Europeans when it came to their facial and physical features, intelligence, marriages, and families, particularly in their marital and parental relationships. According to Tocqueville, removal of this population from America was thereby the best solution to the problems of race relations for both Americans of African and European descent.

Religious Observations

Tocqueville observed the important role religion played in American society. In addition to defining the economic factors that separated British culture from that of the Americans, Tocqueville found the role of religion in these societies to be significantly different. He found that many of the differences between the Americans and the English stemmed from diverse spiritual practices and freedoms. In Democracy of America, Tocqueville stated:

Religion in American takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion for who can search the human heart?— but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.

Throughout his career, Tocqueville promoted the importance of religious freedom and education without religious influence. The importance he placed on educational innovation led to his strong defense of religious freedom:

They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.

He viewed religious independence as not a threat to society, but as an inspiration for further social freedoms, and believed the basic freedoms of education, religion, and the press to ultimately foster the spirit of freedom worldwide.[2]

Yet Tocqueville believed religion to be essential to human success, particularly in democracies:

Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic . . . than in the monarchy . . . it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?

The French Conquest of Algeria

After the 1830 Conquest of Algeria, Tocqueville wrote about the various techniques employed during the seizure. Upon his return from visiting Algeria, he observed:

As far as I am concerned, I came back from Africa with the pathetic notion that at present in our way of waging war we are far more barbaric than the Arabs themselves. These days, they represent civilization, we do not. This way of waging war seems to me as stupid as it is cruel. It can only be found in the head of a coarse and brutal soldier. Indeed, it was pointless to replace the Turks only to reproduce what the world rightly found so hateful in them. This, even for the sake of interest is more noxious than useful; for, as another officer was telling me, if our sole aim is to equal the Turks, in fact we shall be in a far lower position than theirs: barbarians for barbarians, the Turks will always outdo us because they are Muslim barbarians.

Writing in 1841, Tocqueville promoted the suspension of all religious and political freedoms for native Algerians. Of such acts he wrote:

In France I have often heard people deplore [the army] burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept... I believe the laws of war entitle us to ravage the country and that we must do this, either by destroying crops at harvest time, or all the time by making rapid incursions, known as raids, the aim of which is to carry off men and flocks.[3]

Tocqueville believed that war and colonization would restore national pride, threatened, he believed, by "the gradual softening of social mores" in the middle classes. Their taste for "material pleasures" was spreading to the whole of society, giving it "an example of weakness and egotism." Applauding the methods of General Bugeaud, Tocqueville went as far as saying that "war in Africa" had became a "science," and that "everyone is familiar with its rules and everyone can apply those rules with almost complete certainty of success. One of the greatest services that Field Marshal Bugeaud has rendered his country is to have spread, perfected and made everyone aware of this new science."[3]

Years before the Crémieux decrees and the 1881 Indigenous Code that would which gave French citizenship to the European Jewish settlers only, while Muslim Algerians were confined to a second-grade citizenship, Tocqueville advocated racial segregation in Algeria:

There should therefore be two quite distinct legislations in Africa, for there are two very separate communities. There is absolutely nothing to prevent us treating Europeans as if they were on their own, as the rules established for them will only ever apply to them.[3]

Such legislation would be enacted with the Crémieux decrees and the 1881 Indigenous Code.


Much of the writings of Tocqueville have received criticism for blatant biases, errors, omissions, and racism. However, his significant contributions to both nineteenth-century American and French society revolved around the spread of democracy to ensure the equality of various social conditions. Tocqueville believed that equal property distribution and conservatism would lead to political stability. He also foresaw the emancipation of women, an ultimate change in family structure, and the promotion of social morality through the introduction of democracy. He warned against the deteriorating social conditions of nineteenth century France, believing these conditions, along with the disenfranchisement of the French people, to be conducive to social revolution.

Tocqueville maintained a central concern for liberty, which he defined as the absence of restraint and the availability of choices. He believed the democratic process to be necessary for the fostering of social morality, and an ideal toward which society should aspire. His value of both social and political equity as a measure of civilized progression highlighted his long withstanding commitment to human freedom.

Known as a prophet of modern society, and an astute observer of American democracy, Tocqueville’s perceptive insights are continually quoted. His academic contributions to both French and American literature helped secure his reputation as a writer and his subsequent election into the Academie Francaise, or the French Academy, the leading body of official authorities on the French language.[4]

Famous Quotations

  • “The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “Two things in America are astonishing: the changeableness of most human behavior and the strange stability of certain principles. Men are constantly on the move, but the spirit of humanity seems almost unmoved.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “The Americans never use the word peasant, because they have no idea of the class which that term denotes; the ignorance of more remote ages, the simplicity of rural life, and the rusticity of the villager have not been preserved among them; and they are alike unacquainted with the virtues, the vices, the coarse habits, and the simple graces of an early stage of civilization.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “And if anyone asks me what I think the chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of this nation, I should answer that it is due to the superiority of their women.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “By the side of these religious men I discern others whose looks are turned to the earth more than to Heaven; they are the partisans of liberty, not only as the source of the noblest virtues, but more especially as the root of all solid advantages; and they sincerely desire to extend its sway, and to impart its blessings to mankind. It is natural that they should hasten to invoke the assistance of religion, for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith; but they have seen religion in the ranks of their adversaries, and they inquire no further; some of them attack it openly, and the remainder are afraid to defend it.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “Despotism may govern without faith, but Liberty cannot.” (Democracy in America, 1835)
  • “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” (This has often been attributed to Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but apparently erroneously.)[5]


  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1831] 1981. Journey to America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313227128
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1833] 1979. On the Penitentiary System in the United States. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0809309130
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1835] 2003. Democracy in America. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0140447601
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1835] 2006. Memoir on Pauperism. Cosmino Classics. ISBN 1596053631
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1841] 1997. Work On Algeria. Editions Complexe. ISBN 2870272626
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1845] 1990. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to Ireland. Catholic University Press. ISBN 0813207193
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1856] 1979. Old Regime and the French Revolution. Peter Smith Publisher. ISBN 0844619736
  • De Tocqueville, Alexis. [1893] 2007. The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 143045236


  1. Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville: Past Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN 0192876902).
  2. French Ministry of Culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. General Council for La Manche. Retrieved June 4, 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Oliver LeCour Grandmaison, "Torture in Algeria." Le Monde Diplomatique (June 2001). Retrieved July 13, 2007.
  4. Oxford Companion, Alexis de Tocqueville. New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (1995). Available online from Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  5. "The Tocqueville Fraud," The Weekly Standard (November 13, 1995). Retrieved July 10, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • C-SPAN. The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  • Drescher, Seymour. 1964. Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964. ISBN 082293146X
  • French Ministry of Culture. Alexis de Tocqueville. General Council for La Manche. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  • Frederiksen, Robert. Alexis de Tocqueville. Florida State University. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  • Tocqueville Quotations. Quotations Book, 2005. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  • Pierson, George. 1938. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pierson, George. 1996. Tocqueville in America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801855063
  • Wolin, Sheldon. 2001. Tocqueville Between Two Worlds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691114544

External Links

All links retrieved July 20, 2023.


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