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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29th, 1805. Growing up in Metz, France, the youngest child of Herv? Tocqueville and Mlle. De Rosanbo, he showed great intellectual promise from his earliest days. By the age of 16, his academic career was a brilliant one, his schoolwork earning him a special prize and two first prizes. He was an avid reader, reading books hardly accessible to a boy of his young age. It was during these years that he developed his critical thinking and reasoning skills that would serve him so well later in life. In 1831, Alexis and his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont embarked for New York. Sent to study the American penal system, Tocqueville was much more interested in studying the only completely democratic state and society of his time. The journey occupied ten months, and “The American Penal System and Its Application in France” was published under both Tocqueville and Beaumont’s names. When the two returned to France in 1832, they were considered experts on the prison system, and Tocqueville established himself as a promising young writer and political mind.

Different authors generate different hypotheses regarding Tocqueville’s inspirations and mentors. John Koritansky sums up his views by stating that

“almost certainly it was Rousseau who taught Tocqueville to see the root of love of equality in human nature and to see its centrality for political life. My whole interpretation, then, might be summed up by saying that Tocqueville attempts to rewrite Montesquieu’s political science by way of an extension of Rousseau’s reinterpretation of human nature.”

Joshua Mitchell, on the other hand, believes that Tocqueville’s inspiration began many, many years earlier. While discussing the “spillover effect,” that is, the circular pattern of cause and effect, Mitchell writes:

“The theoretical matter at issue here can be found already in the highly charged seventeenth-century debate between Locke and Filmer about the affinity between paternal and monarchal power, though it can be traced back to Aristotle’s teleological view of the relationship between the higher and lower forms of association.”

J.P. Mayer writes in Tocqueville’s biography that he “read at this time with a tireless appetite the works of Plato, Plutarch, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and it would seem that in these same years he made a close study of Aristotle, Polybius, and more particularly, the works of Edmund Burke.”

Regardless of his influences, Tocqueville’s most serious concern is that democracy may give rise to certain forms of despotism. “Without local institutions…the despotic tendencies which have been driven into the interior of the social body will sooner or later break out on the surface.” In the introductory chapter to “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville expresses his famous opinion that the movement of the history of Christendom over the course of the previous 700 years has invariably been in the direction of democratic equality. This is the foundation of Tocqueville’s “inevitability theory.” He implies that democracy in inevitable in the same way that the spread of civilization and enlightenment are inevitable.

Best known for his popular critique, “Democracy in America,” first published in 1835, Tocquville will be remembered both for his inevitability theory and his extensive writings on the “problem of democracy”. Here he reflects on his ideas regarding this “new” democratic version of despotism:

“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest – his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; — he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like he authority of a parent, if, like that authority its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

This, perhaps the most well-known and prophetic lines of “Democracy in America” describe the deplorable conditions to which Tocqueville believes democracy will lead mankind. Mayer writes; “In fact, the grandeur of his prophetic gift is impressed upon one by the fact that after the passage of hundred-plus years, his words have proved an exact description of a present day reality.” While many academics, including myself, would consider it overzealous to proclaim Tocqueville’s vision as modern reality, there are definitely striking and dangerous resemblances. De Beaumont, Tocqueville’s good friend and colleague, recalled that Tocqueville had many questions relating to despotism before his trip to America, and that this trip only served to strengthen his inquisition. Alexis wrote,

“How to prevent a power, the offspring of democracy, from becoming absolute and tyrannical? Where to find a force able to contend against this power among a set of men all equal, it is true, but all equally weak and impotent? Was the fate of modern society to be both democracy and despotism?”

Tocqueville underscored his fear that democracy as most men understood it – namely, participation by the many in the act of sovereignty – was compatible with tyranny as well as with liberty. More precisely, tyranny could indeed coexist with what appeared to be democratic institutions. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who believed that the gradual development of equality meant the gradual but final destruction of the possibility of tyranny on earth, Tocqueville understood that the democratic principle could lead to despotism never before experienced. He stressed that individualism seems to generate a kind of power of its own, which, when it has been allowed to proceed to its conclusion, eventually ends in authoritarian rule. Though this authoritarianism is surely different in origin and character from that against which individualism originally rebelled, it is a form of authoritarianism nonetheless.

“I perceive how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy would extinguish that liberty of the mind to which a democratic social condition is favourable; so that, after having broken all the bondage once imposed on it by ranks or by men, the human mind would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number. If the absolute power of a majority were to be substituted by democratic nations for all the different powers that checked or retarded overmuch the energy of individual minds, the evil would only have changed character…For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me…”

Here, Tocqueville expresses that if democracy is to survive, or if it is to fulfill the expectations surrounding it, individualism as a social force must have its anti-social tendencies neutralized, and society in turn must be rendered incapable of destroying the independence that individualism fosters. Individualism must be weakened or transformed, but not made impotent. “Democracy,” Tocqueville tells us, “loosens social ties, but tightens natural ones; it brings kindred more closely together, while it throws citizens more apart.” Certain propensities of democratic man – namely their drive toward materialism, mediocrity, compassion, domesticity, and isolation make us all too prone to accept or to drift into what Tocqueville labels a “soft” despotism. The fundamental paradox of democracy, as he understands it, is that equality of conditions is compatible with tyranny as well as with freedom. A species of equality can co-exist with the greatest inequality. Left to it’s own devices, democracy is actually prone and ready prey for the establishment of tyranny, whether of one over all, of the man over the few, or even of all over all. Democracy originates a new form of despotism, society tyrannizing over itself. The only limitation imposed on the central authority is that its rules and its power be uniform and applied to all without distinction. This restriction actually facilitates the establishment of despotism, for government is relieved of the responsibility for making inquiry “into an infinity of details, which must be attended to if rules have to be adapted to different men.” It is clear from Tocqueville’s writings that he believed the sway of governmental opinion to be an evil unto itself. He realizes that so pervasive is the pendulum swing of public opinion in a democracy that it sets the tone of the whole society, to the extent that the governors can barely come to have wishes different from those of the ruled. The governors, however much they think themselves independent of the masses, are nonetheless their servants. As Tocqueville expresses it, the “universal moderation moderates the sovereign himself.” And what the majority of the governed wants is soft despotism.

Tocqueville describes the majority of men of his time as cautious, timorous, and more concerned with preserving what they have:

“It may readily be conceived that if men passionately bent upon physical gratifications desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged; as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy, or the trouble of acquiring the gratification will be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing frame of mind, then, is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated. Death is often less dreaded by them than perseverance in continuous efforts to one end.

Here, in my view, is another link between the tyranny of the majority and the new despotism. The men who surrender to soft, comfortable despotism are the men of the new majority who have enjoyed the first rewards of the universal pursuit of well-being. But their desires have outrun their opportunities. Frightened at the prospect of losing what they have to those more able than themselves, the majority turn to government as the only power capable of protecting their rights and goods and of restraining the ambitions of the few. At the expense of the few, usually the wealthy, the government secures to the many a moderate enjoyment of the good things in life. This, the ground works for a new type of despotism revives the ancient discussion of the good man and the good citizen. Aristotle had pointed out that except under the most chance of circumstances the two were not identical. The main point of his argument is that it is far easier to be a good citizen, since this requires only subservience to the principles of the regime under which one lives. Their goodness or badness is irrelevant: one could be a good citizen of a bad regime. To be a good man, however, one must live in a society that encourages the realization of a man’s moral and intellectual potentials. It is barely conceivable that a good man might develop under a tyranny, but if he did it would be an instance of nature asserting herself over the normally sovereign way of life of the state.

What Tocqueville discovered is that in a democracy, under certain conditions, it is easier to be a good man than a good citizen:

“True, democratic societies which are not free may well be prosperous, cultured, pleasing to the eye, and even magnificent, such is the sense of power implicit in their massive uniformity; in them may flourish many private virtues [qualiti?s], good fathers, honest merchants, exemplary landowners, and good Christians too…But, I make bold to say, never shall we find under such conditions a great citizen, still less than a great nation…”

Furthermore, the decline of citizenship is not to be associated only with the appearance of the new despotism.

One of the thoughts that Tocqueville makes most explicit in his work is that of all the democratic devices, he believes freedom of association to be most important. As in years gone by, the “aristocracy protected the liberties of the people against the encroachments of the sovereign, so in a democracy associations protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.”

The major thesis of “Democracy In America” is that the spread of democracy is a “providential fact” , that is, virtually unstoppable. De Tocqueville is not aware of any power capable of slowing or stopping the spread of democracy, and he regards any effort to do so as a futile waste of energy. What separates Tocqueville from the other scholars of his time is his realization that stopping the spread of democracy is not a realistic notion. Rather, he devotes his time to the study of how to best improve and reform these democracies to make them most amenable to the citizens of the state.

In describing his own intention for his book, “Democracy in America”, Tocqueville says that he will present a completely “new political science” “for a world itself quite new.” Nevertheless, and despite the enormous notoriety of his work, many of those who have studied and critiqued his work have been hard-pressed to precisely define what this “new political science” is.

Connected with this is the fact that Tocqueville has stood in good favour with both the Conservatives and the Liberals throughout the years. Conservatives have reason to count Tocqueville as one of their own, especially for his warning of the dangers of majority tyranny and democratic centralism. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to respect him more for his concern with “individualism” in democracy. But although the themes of centralization and individualism are important to Tocqueville, even central, it remains to be seen how these themes are related to a “new political science,” assuming that to mean a new understanding of the nature of political life altogether.

That Tocqueville is a classical thinker is made evident in an address he delivered to the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1853:

“What the political sciences achieved [in the Revolution of 1789] with such irresistible force and brilliance they achieve everywhere and always, though more secretly and more slowly. Among all civilized peoples the political sciences give birth or at least form to those general concepts whence emerge the facts with which politicians have to deal, and the laws of which they believe themselves the inventors. Only among barbarians does the practical side of politics exist alone.”

In the same address, he asserts that the only social constant in political matters is not any particular social condition, but the nature of man himself. The “scientific” side of politics, he tells us, is “founded in the very nature of man; his interests, his faculties…It is this aspect [of political science] that teaches us what laws are most appropriate for the general and permanent condition of mankind.” In this address can be seen Tocqueville’s attempt to illustrate the complexities of democracy. With humans being the only “social constant,” and the consistency of humans being that of little to none, democracy is a dangerous wheel that could topple at any time without the support of it’s people.

In summation, the problem of democracy has never been better stated than by Faguet:

“In truth, the only remedies for the dangers of Democracy are that Democracy should moderate itself of its own accord, should put the brakes on itself, so to speak; and such brakes can only be bodies having more or less an aristocratic character; but Democracy will never permit such bodies within itself; so, as Montaigne said, here we are arguing in a circle.”

Tocqueville was very much aware of the continuous, and sometimes-vicious web spun by democracy. He never thought of democratic manoeuvres as anything more than temporary “band-aid” solutions, and he was well aware that no permanent solution was possible without a fundamental change in the nature of men. The core of Tocqueville’s writing is hardly hopeful, and is quite grim at times. He was a believer that nature dissociates men, at least in their civil capacities, and that it encourages them to think only of themselves.

As varied as the colours of the earth, the interpretations of de Tocqueville, and his political ideas have ranged an immeasurable spectrum. Clearly, he was very concerned with the possibility of a new, “soft” despotism arising from unlimited democracy. He had the foresight to envision the bonds by which “free” men can be held, even under their own will. While his visions of identical men with identical thoughts, evoke images similar to the characters of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, these predictions of a despotic democracy seem to have been at least partially avoided. Many would argue that even today, in 2001, we are on our way to becoming the mindless, emotionless soldiers he forewarned us about. With the cloning of humans being attempted in a remote corner of the world at this very second, he may have been more correct than we originally gave him credit for. As citizens, it is our duty to stay vigilant, and to ensure that the government does not become so democratic, as to relieve us of our rights to think and to live.


1. Dresher, Seymour. “Tocqueville and England.” (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press) 1964.

2. Faguet, Emile. “Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century.” (Boston:

Little and Brown) n.d.

3. Gargan, Edward T. “Alexis de Tocqueville: The Critical Years (1848-

1851).” (Washington: The Catholic University of America

Press) 1955.

4. George, William Henry. “Montesquieu and de Tocqueville and Corporate

Individualism.” In American Political Science Review, XVI. 1922.

5. Koritansky, John C. “Alexis de Tocqueville and the New Science of

Politics: An Interpretation of Democracy in America.”

(Durham: Carolina Academic Press) 1986.

6. Mayer, J.P. “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Study in Political

Science.” (Gloucester: Harper and Brothers) 1960.

7. Mayer, J.P. “Alexis de Tocqueville.” (New York: Arno Press) 1979.

8. Mayer, J.P. “Oeuvres Completes.” (Beaumont) XI, 123.

9. Mitchell, Joshua. “The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy

And the American Future.” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) 1955.

10. Tocqueville, Alexis. “Democracy in America.” Volume 1, Part I, Chapter 5.

11. Tocqueville, Alexis. “The Old Regime and the French Revolution.” (Garden

City, New York: Doubleday) 1955.

12. Tocqueville, Alexis. “Memoir: Letters and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville.”

(Boston, Mass.: Ticknor and Fields) 1862.

13. Zetterbaum, Marvin. “Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy.”

(Stanford: Stanford University Press) 1967.

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