Alexis de Tocqueville

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Tocqueville, Alexis de


Born July 29, 1805, in Verneuil (now Verneuil-sur-Seine, in the department of Yvelines); died Apr. 16,1859, in Cannes. French sociologist, historian, and politician.

Tocqueville was a member of an aristocratic family. In 1831 and 1832 he traveled in the USA, studying its penal system. He also made frequent visits to Great Britain, where he made contacts with English liberals. In 1835 he published Democracy in America (Russian translation, 1897). The book made him famous and led to his acceptance into the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in 1838 and the Académie Française in 1841. In 1839, Tocqueville won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848 and a year later to the Legislative Assembly, where he served as vice-president. He also acted briefly as minister of foreign affairs in 1849. A leader of the conservatives (“the party of order”), Tocqueville was imprisoned in 1851 in the castle of Vincennes for having signed a petition demanding that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte be brought to trial. After his release he withdrew from politics.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville, recognizing that bourgeois democratic reforms are inevitable, examined the relationship between liberty and equality in bourgeois society, as well as the interaction of political power and society in general. According to Tocqueville, negative elements in bourgeois egalitarianism make it a source of despotism. For example, political centralization—which was advocated by those seeking to curtail the privileges of the feudal aristocracy—combined with administrative centralization and consequent bureaucratization greatly increases the power of the state. Conversely, equality gives rise to individualism, restricting citizens’ concerns and interests to the private sphere and thereby creating a fertile soil for despotism. Such a “distorted” tendency toward equality reduces everyone to the level of the mass and leads to “equality in slavery.”

Whether the tendency toward despotism is realized, however, depends to a large extent on the stability of communal institutions and associations that function between the individual and the state. In the USA, according to Tocqueville, these tendencies are opposed by, among other things, a federal form of government, regional diversity, and freedom of political and other association.

In The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856; Russian translation, 1918), Tocqueville sought to trace the continuity between the past and the new order in France. He asserted that the feudal regime could have been abolished without revolution. To understand the origin of the French Revolution, he examined archive materials of the prerevolutionary period.

Tocqueville’s moderately conservative ideas had a great influence on such bourgeois social thinkers as H. Taine, G. Sorel, F. Tönnies, M. Weber, and K. Mannheim.


Oeuvres completes, vols. 1–12. Paris, 1951–64.
In Russian translation:
Vospominaniia. Moscow, 1893.


Mayer, I. Alexis de Tocqueville. New York, 1940.
Nisbet, R. The Sociological Tradition. New York, 1967.