There are two major ways to think about Tocqueville in context. First, Tocqueville was a Frenchman, living through a time of tumultuous change. Like Plato, Tocqueville was concerned that democracy would turn into tyranny, and he had good historical reasons for this fear. The French Revolution had led to the tyranny of the Terror, which had led, in turn, to the authoritarian reign of Napoleon. After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, the monarchy was restored in France, which set the stage for decades of political upheaval during Tocqueville’s life. French politics were unstable and violent, see-sawing between democracy and monarchism.
Tocqueville went to America out of interest in these French problems. “I seldom mentioned France,” he wrote in an 1835 letter, but “I did not write a page without thinking of her and placing her before me.” All appearances to the contrary, the book is fundamentally about France: how, he wanted to know, can France make the inevitable transition to democracy without collapsing into tyranny? His work was, in fact, not especially helpful or accurate about America, and the book was quickly outdated in favor of other, more accurate foreign accounts of the United States. He focused on a small cross-section of the American people, Eastern elites and businessmen, while largely ignoring yeoman farmers and the working class.
The first relevant context for Tocqueville, then, is specifically French. The second is global: He was the nineteenth century’s keenest observer of a number of two major trends that were occurring across the globe. First, the rise of “democracy,” which Tocqueville thought to be inevitable. His great book, recall, is not called American Democracy, but rather Democracy in America. Democracy, he believed, was on the march across the globe, and America provided a case study. “In the beginning,” Locke had written in the Second Treatise, “all the world was America.” Tocqueville reversed this: America, he believed, pointed towards the future. For good or for ill.
For Tocqueville, democracy is not primarily a system of government, but a social order and way of life, marked by public debate, constant elections, the popular press, and social equality. The America that he discovered in 1830 was rapidly democratizing in this sense. He traveled in the age of Andrew Jackson, when the nation was bursting with commercial and political activity. Most government was still local at the time, and Washington, D.C. exercised only a meager hold over the states. Democracy was rough and tumble, and it was local: For decades, local officials had been appointed non-democratically but in the 1830s, officials were elected. The National Bank prompted great debate, familiar to us now, about the size and extent of the national government. America was not alone, as Tocqueville well knew: The middle decades of the nineteenth century saw democracy in this sense expanding across the globe. Great Britain, for instance, passed the Reform Act of 1832, dramatically expanding the franchise. The Industrial Revolution was taking place across Europe, America, and Asia, creating new opportunities and decimating older notions of imperial privilege, forms of production, and ways of life.
Tocqueville was also an insightful observer of a second global trend taking place in his day-- the rising power of the state. Before this period, the state had been, in most cases, relatively weak. Charged with tax collection and national security, the state seldom intervened in public health or morals, leaving such matters to the customary authority of the nobility, social norms, and the Church. But, alongside the rise of democracy, this began to change and the state became extremely powerful. Armies became more professional and used more advanced technology, which required additional revenue and fed growing senses of national pride. European states like France began to create empires around the world, which increased their revenues and might, while states also began to create modern systems of police—including the dramatically increased use of secret police, allowing rulers to spy on their own subjects.
Tocqueville’s thought is defined by these two axes: the rise of democracy and the rise of the powerful state. The rise of democracy, he believed, was inevitable, while he greatly feared the powerful state and believed it needed to be stopped. America had shown, once and for all, how that might be possible.
Isaac Kramnick,"Introduction" to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Penguin, 2003)
C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World (Blackwell, 2004)
Allan Silver, Lecture on Tocqueville delivered to CC staff, 22 March 2011
James Chappel, Department of History, Columbia University