Alexis de Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville (Paris 1805 - Cannes 1859) was a French historian and politician who published an insightful review of the United States entitled Democracy in America (1835),[1] based on a nine-month tour of the young country.[2] It remains the most comprehensive treatise of early American society to this day.

French Revolution

Tocqueville was a staunch opponent of the French Revolution and later Socialist doctrines, and noted the similarities between the two. He also noted the similarities in the two ideologies, in particular, their contempt for private property.[3]

Democratic despotism

After having traveled through and studied life in America and contrasted it with the old world, Tocqueville came to the realization that there was one form of despotism above all others that a free country would have to worry about. He termed this as Administrative despotism:

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.
By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.[4]

Tocqueville on Christianity

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:[5]

Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention .... In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united. Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights.

De Tocqueville further wrote:

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other .... They brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion.

He published a second volume of Democracy in America in 1840, in which he described:

Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the public mind in America ... In the United States ... Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established, that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.

Tocqueville asserted that, at that time, America was a democracy — indeed, where the fundamental principle of government was “the sovereignty of the people.” He also asserted that most rich American men were thought to have been born poor (see upward mobility); the American society was a very fluid one, marked by the rapid rise and fall of personal wealth.

In another book, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), Tocqueville gave a great meditation on the origins and meanings of the French Revolution.

He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 and was foreign minister for a few months in 1849. He died in Cannes on April 16, 1859.

Some paragraphs

It has often been remarked that in Europe a certain degree of contempt lurks even in the flattery which men lavish upon women: although a European frequently affects to be the slave of woman, it may be seen that he never sincerely thinks her his equal. In the United States men seldom compliment women, but they daily show how much they esteem them. They constantly display an entire confidence in the understanding of a wife, and a profound respect for her freedom; they have decided that her mind is just as fitted as that of a man to discover the plain truth, and her heart as firm to embrace it ...[6]

Americans do not think that man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices, but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as beings of equal value.

I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply - to the superiority of their women.


  • “Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
  • “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."
  • "As for me, I am deeply a democrat; this is why I am in no way a socialist. Democracy and socialism cannot go together. You can't have it both ways. Socialism is a new form of slavery." - Notes for a Speech on Socialism (1848)
  • "Democracy extends the sphere of personal independence; socialism confines it. Democracy values each man at his highest; socialism makes of each man an agent, an instrument, a number. Democracy and socialism have but one thing in common - equality. But note well the difference. Democracy aims at equality in liberty. Socialism desires equality in constraint and in servitude."[7]
  • "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."


  • Democracy in America (1835)
  • Souvenirs (1848)
  • The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)
  • The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789: And the Causes Which Led to That Event (1888)

See also


  2. Initially de Tocqueville came to America to study her penal (criminal justice) system, but then expanded the scope of his study.
  3. The state of society in France before the Revolution of 1789, ch. 18
  4. Democracy in America, Chapter VI
  7. Tocqueville’s Critique of Socialism

External links