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.


References in periodicals archive ?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland, ed.
What de Tocqueville did not foresee was that the aspirations of the centralising state would run far ahead of its competence to deliver them.
Alexis de Tocqueville, De la democratie en Amerique, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 1981.
Hugh Heclo's book reminds us that Alexis de Tocqueville still speaks, even after 175 years.
It is strange that in a book with little originality, where the author openly relies upon and synthesizes the works of others, that de Tocqueville receives no mention.
Alexis de Tocqueville understood the dangers of doing this when he argued that religious mores mitigate and socialize self-interest and only in America was ``the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom'' successfully combined, allowing a vital religious life to support public cooperation for the common good.
None other than Alexis de Tocqueville, upon his travels around the young American republic, incisively remarked in 1835 that "[t]he most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States is the presence of the blacks on their soil.
She attributes her political evolution to a professor here, a student there, and mostly a lot of reading: Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville, and her beloved Hayek.
McGinnis sees the Rehnquist Court's jurisprudence as a comprehensive and coherent effort to "invigorate[] decentralization and the private ordering of social norms that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated in Democracy in America as being the essence of the social order generated by our original Constitution.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the birth of the American business "impulse," as well as its power and potential--and the implications this has on inevitable global expansion:
This was the central theme in Emile Durkheim's pioneering work and it has been restated many times, particularly in the United States where the importance of community groups has been recognized ever since Alexis de Tocqueville praised the country's pervasive and effective networks of associations.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th Century French politician and writer, believed it inevitable that democracy would spread worldwide: `The progress of democracy seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is to be found in history.