It is somewhat ironic that the best book on American government and one of the most astute observations on the American character was written by a French aristocrat. Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 travelogue Democracy in America was written specifically for a French audience and intented to spark debate about political reform before the country plunged into revolution again. The book, however, became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic and today is regarded as one of the foremost books on American politics.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris, France in 1805 to a well-known aristocratic family. His father, who had married into the Malesherbes and Chateau-Briande families, was marked for persecution during the Terror of the French Revolution and only narrowly avoided the guillotine.
Under the Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, the De Tocquevilles lived a provincial lifestyle with more limited opportunities. De Tocqueville’s father, no fan of Napoleon, contented himself to be mayor of a small town in Normandy. Alexis de Tocqueville, secluded, pampered and privileged, was educated by a private religious tutor until the age of 16. The return of the Bourbon monarchy following the fall of Bonaparte marked an improvement in the fortunes of the pro restoration de Tocquevilles and Alexis’ father was made prefect of Moselle.
Alexis moved to Moselle and attended the nearby College Royal in Metz. At Metz, the young student was introduced to a number of enlightenment ideas, and began to socialize with people who were non aristocrats. He became increasingly liberal in his views and began to have doubts about both the role of the Catholic religion and viability of an aristocracy in a post-revolutionary France. He also became aware of girls for the first time and wasted little time in creating a minor scandal by impregnating one of the servants.
In 1826, de Tocqueville's father became prefect of Versailles obtained a position of apprentice magistrate at the Versailles court of law for his son. Alexis reluctantly and unenthusiastically took up this post but did decide to use his time wisely and developed the discipline of reason and thoroughness of a good lawyer and gained a great knowledge of the law, legal system and political institutions.
The July Revolution of 1830 saw Charles X abdicate and Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne. Alexis witnessed firsthand the bloody street battles that saw the fall of the house of Bourbon. De Tocqueville’s father, who had openly supported Charles was removed from his position, stripped of his titles and forced to retire.
Alexis took the opportunity to leave his post and get out of France. He obtained permission to travel to America to study prison reform. In reality, de Tocqueville wanted to see American democracy at work and how it may be imported to France. He travelled to the United States in 1831 with his friend and spent several months studying the politics and people of the New World. He began to write about his experiences.
On his return, de Tocqueville also visited England to study the British system of government. There he met Mary Motley, a non-aristocrat, whom he soon married much to his family’s anger
The first part of Democracy in America was published in 1835 to much acclaim. He decided to enter politics in 1837 but failed in his first attempt to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies. After two years completing Democracy in America, de Tocqueville ran again and this time was successful.
Part two of the book was published in 1840. The second volume was much more pessimistic and warned of the dangers of centralism and despotism and it could be inferred that it had as much to do with France as it did with the United States. The second volume was not well received in France although it found an audience in England.
In his first years as a politician, de Tocqueville had advocated notably right wing ideas such as challenging Britain’s naval dominance, advocating the colonization of Algeria and supporting the Catholic Church’s role in education. His positions became increasingly left wing, however, as his calls for political reform gained little traction in an increasingly conservative Chamber. By 1848, he was openly warning his colleagues of an impending revolution.
While he opposed the violence that broke out in 1848, he nevertheless helped set up the new government that resulted from it. He helped write the Constitution of the Second Republic, advocated universal suffrage and was elected to the new Constituent Assembly. His positions in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution seemed anti democratic, including advocating a state of siege in Paris and suppressing freedom of the press, but his belief was that only order could ensure the growth of democratic freedoms as he had seen in America. The following year, de Tocqueville became Vice President of the Assembly and Minister of Foreign Affairs although he was soon dismissed by President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. De Tocqueville returned to Normandy but quickly fell into a depression and began to fall ill in the cold and damp province and was advised to move to Italy to recover his health.
De Tocqueville returned to Paris in 1851, just in time to see Louis-Napoleon launch a coup to take over the government. De Tocqueville vocally opposed the move and was immediately imprisoned by the new regime. He refused to swear allegiance to the new Emperor Napoleon III and, while he was released from prison, was barred from holding any public office.
De Tocqueville returned to writing and completed The Old Regime and the French Revolution and his recollections of the events around the 1848 revolution, Souvenirs, before dying of tuberculosis in 1859.
Democracy in America
Although Democracy in America is a snapshot of the United States in the 1830s, it has remained a valuable and thought provoking text. It is also interesting to see how American institutions and ideas have changed since the writing of the book.
De Tocqueville travelled to the United States in 1830 to examine the political workings of the only well established existing democratic republic in the world, with the intent of learning lessons that could be applied to France. De Tocqueville, while an aristocrat was aware that increasing democratization was inevitable.
Democracy in America was published in two parts and is encyclopeadic in its scope as it examines and comments upon the institutions and characteristics of the American government and the American people.
De Tocqueville developed a keen understanding of the American character and how that molded the role of government. It has been commented more than once that it is ironic that the best book about American government was written by a French aristocrat.
The first volume of Democracy in America is a description of American self-government and political institutions and analysis of democracy and the role and challenges of majority rule.
De Tocqueville had conservative tendencies in his fear of revolution or radical political change although he was decidedly liberal in his belief that democracy would ensure freedom from anarchy not be the cause of it.
Democracy in America’s main theme is that orderly and restrained democracy can help achieve political ends without chaos. It also describes that democracy alone cannot ensure the best outcomes for the majority and that tyranny by the majority is a real fear, so institutions and laws must be created or preserved to ensure order and happiness of the people. De Tocqueville also saw the role that national character plays in the creation of those institutions.
Published in 1840, the second volume of Democracy in America was less of a success. While it bore the same title as the first volume, it was much more concerned with the idea of democracy than America’s version of it. As such it was directed more overtly toward the issues of democratization in France. It is also more philosophical, again looking at ideas and national character as a basis for differing ideas on democracy. For example, he examines the different paths democracy was taking in the United States and Britain and how diverging national characteristics had produced differing paths.
He also examines the potential pitfalls of democracy democratic despotism, political gridlock and the rise of bureaucracies.