Tocqueville, Alexis de


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Tocqueville, Alexis de

(älĕksēs də tôkvēl`), 1805–59, French politician and writer. A nobleman, he was prominent in politics, particularly just before and just after the Revolution of 1848 (see revolutions of 1848revolutions of 1848,
in European history. The February Revolution in France gave impetus to a series of revolutionary explosions in Western and Central Europe. However the new French Republic did not support these movements.
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), and was minister of foreign affairs briefly in 1849. His observations made in 1831–32 during a government mission to the United States to study the penal system resulted in De la démocratie en Amérique (2 vol., 1835; tr. Democracy in America, 4 vol., 1835–40), one of the classics of political literature. A liberal whose deepest commitment was to human freedom, Tocqueville believed that political democracy and social equality would, inevitably, replace the aristocratic institutions of Europe. On his visit he noticed and then noted in his great work a number of uniquely American characteristics: its citizens' pronounced focus on religion, their individualism, the decentralization of their political affairs, the participatory quality of its citizenship as well as the implicit dangers of its conformity, its system of majority rule, and the threat of despotism. He analyzed the American attempt to have both liberty and equality in terms of what lessons Europe could learn from American successes and failures. Tocqueville's other important works are L'Ancien Régime et la révolution (1856; tr. 1856), which stressed the continuance after the French RevolutionFrench Revolution,
political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789. Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution.
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 of many trends that had begun before, and his Recollections (1893; tr. by A. Teixeira de Mattos, 1896; complete ed. by J. P. Mayer, 1949). There are numerous English editions of his works, correspondence, and travel notebooks.

Bibliography

See biographies by J. P. Mayer (tr. 1960, repr. 1966), J. Epstein (2006), H. Brogan (2007), and L. Damrosch (2010); studies by E. T. Gargan (1965), M. Zetterbaum (1967), S. I. Drescher (1968), R. Boesche (1987), L. E. Shiner (1988), S. A. Hadari (1989), S. Wolin (2001), J. Elster (2009), and L. Damrosch (2010).

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.

WORKS

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

REFERENCES

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

N. N. STRELTSOV

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