Alexis de Tocqueville and America: The Enduring Legacy of an Outsider’s Perspective

July 29 marks the birthday of French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who is most well-known for providing a compelling analysis of American society in Democracy in America (1835). His observations and predictions have stood the test of time, allowing people of all generations to better understand the social, economic, and political conditions that led to the success of American democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville: Early Life

Tocqueville was born into an aristocratic family. His great-grandfather died during the French Revolution defending Louis XVI, and both of his parents were jailed during the Reign of Terror. Thus, hearing about these experiences exposed Tocqueville to revolutionary politics at an early age.  After studying law in Metz, Tocqueville served as a deputy of the Manche department and was later promoted to the position of general counsellor. He seemed poised to pursue a career in politics.

In 1830, the July Revolution exchanged one constitutional monarchy for another, resulting in the reign of “citizen king” Louis-Philippe.  This revolution set the concept of popular sovereignty over hereditary succession, leading Tocqueville to become convinced that France was moving towards social equality.

However, Louis-Philippe’s regime was suspicious of Tocqueville’s motives because of his family’s ties to the previously ousted king. Tocqueville was therefore prevented from furthering his political career in France.

Observing the United States

To escape the tumultuous political climate, Tocqueville, along with fellow lawyer and friend Gustave de Beaumont, sought approval from the Ministry of the Interior for a research trip to study America’s prisons.

While Tocqueville did assist in writing a report on America’s penal system, (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France), he was more focused on creating a broader analysis of America’s culture and politics. The first volume of this work was published in 1835, and it quickly became recognized as one of the most comprehensive studies of the United States.

Tocqueville’s overarching purpose in writing Democracy in America was to discover why a representative democracy succeeded so well in the United States while it struggled in places like his home country of France.  He recognized that traditional aristocracies were unsustainable, as social and economic conditions (what he called the “great social revolution”) made men more free and equal. Tocqueville was drawn to the United States, which seemed to be “seeing the results of the democratic revolution… without having endured the revolution itself.”

Democracy in America was published in two volumes: The first discusses America’s institutions and governing structures, and the second provides an analysis of the societal trends created by a democratic form of government.  In both volumes, Tocqueville highlights the successes and dangers of democracy, offering suggestions for preserving liberty and equality for future generations.

The Benefit of an Outsider’s Perspective

Unlike first-hand accounts of America’s Founding Fathers, Tocqueville’s observations provide an outsider’s perspective. Tocqueville himself writes that his work was not written with an ideological purpose in mind:  “In writing it I did not set out to serve or oppose any party; I attempted not to view things differently from others but to look further; while they busy themselves with tomorrow, my wish was to contemplate the future.” This perspective contributes to the timeless nature of Democracy in America.

In the Charles Koch Institute’s offices, our classrooms and conference rooms are named in honor of 28 men and women who spent their lives defending and promoting the ideas of a free and open society. Their names remind us of the fact that our work is only made possible by the men and women who came before us.

Alexis de Tocqueville is one such man, and his room displays an etching of this quote: “The Americans … show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another. … It disciplines … in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s comprehensive study of America has provided a way for all subsequent generations to see America’s founding values reflected through history. Freedom, prosperity, and knowledge were believed by Tocqueville to be the keys to unlocking the best of humanity.

Tocqueville saw that progress toward equality was inevitable but that it was up to each nation to choose the path of liberty. “Present-day nations cannot stop social conditions from becoming equal within their land,” he says at the end of Democracy in America, “but they can determine whether equality can lead to slavery or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”

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