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The Core Curriculum

Alexis de Tocqueville

1805 CE – 1859 CE

  Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850 (Wikimedia Commons) Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850 (Wikimedia Commons) Americans have, for centuries, been obsessed with defining their nation and its unique character. Indeed, bookshelves still groan with new books about the nature of America. It is all the more surprising, then, that the most influential and authoritative interpreter of the American promise was a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville. His theories and image are omnipresent in American public life—he is constantly quoted by politicians and journalists, from both the left and the right, while political scientists, sociologists, and historians debate his merits and contribution endlessly. Here in New York, even restaurants and hedge funds have taken the august name of Tocqueville.


Tocqueville himself likely would have been shocked at this development, as he was truly French and, for all of his writings on America, concerned above all with French problems. He was born in 1805 to a family in the lower nobility, which had supported Louis XVI during the French Revolution and been imprisoned during the Terror (his great-grandfather, in fact, had been guillotined). As a young man, Tocqueville read the theorists of the Enlightenment. The insights of Hume, Kant, and others led Tocqueville to give up on his faith and seek secular and rational explanations for politics and morality. Like many talented young men at the time Tocqueville studied the law, becoming a judge in 1827. For Tocqueville, though, this was not enough: He wanted to enter the world of politics, and he wanted to understand how the new world of politics functioned. Political democracy was still something of a novelty, but Tocqueville saw that it was the wave of the future. With his friend, Beaumont, he decided to visit America and study the most modern of democracies firsthand.

In theory, Tocqueville was supposed to be studying the American penitentiary system, and he did produce a report on that theme. But he had more pressing concerns. How, he wanted to know, can “the people” hold sovereign power? What does this mean, and how can the people avoid becoming tyrannical? To answer these questions, Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled throughout America for ten months in 1831. They traveled over seven thousand miles and were received as celebrities. They talked with everyone they could, they read the newspapers, and they read American political theory, most importantly the Federalist Papers. While they visited Americans of every stripe, they focused on Boston, Philadelphia, and New York – their first stop was a boarding house on Broadway, near Wall Street.  Like other contemporary Europeans on tour in America, Tocqueville was amazed at what he found. He took eight years to put all of his thoughts on paper; in the process he crafted one of the classics of modern political and social thought.

Democracy in America appeared in two parts: the first in 1835 and the second in 1840. The two volumes made Tocqueville famous, and he became a celebrated intellectual and politician. He was elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, and became especially interested in imperial questions. Although an important antislavery activist,  he defended the French right to colonize Algeria. Tocqueville’s happy, prominent period was not to last for long: in 1852, Napoleon III came to power in France and crafted a modern dictatorship. Tocqueville responded by retiring from public life and writing another outstanding and famous work, this time on the French Revolution. He died a few years later.

 

Written by James Chappel, Department of History, Columbia University


Works Consulted: 

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