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Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

Since beginning to study political science I have heard the name and read the quotes of Alexis de Tocqueville. A Frenchman, historian, political theorist, and student and writer of the French Revolution — Tocqueville has become a scholar in all democratic societies.

Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel de Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805 in Verneuil, France near Paris. Third son of Comte Herve Bonaventure de Tocqueville, a perfect and mayor of Verneuil. Custom in that time, Alexis and his brothers were taught by the village priest, abbe Lesueur, who educated them of their noble birthright and aristocrat heritage. Although elder Tocqueville had sworn loyalty to Napoleon, whose reign ended in 1814, the family returned to Paris so Herve de Tocqueville could assume his position in the royal court of the Bourbon king Louis XVIII.

In 1820, Tocqueville was sent to Metz were he studied rhetoric and philosophy in secondary school and the college royal. He then returned to Paris to study law in 1825. He was then appointed as a juge auditeur (mediator) in Versailles were he met Gaustave de Beaumont, who became a life long friend and co-author of The U.S. Penitentiary System and its Application in France. (1833) This writing was done after they traveled to the in United States in 1831. After the July Revolution of 1830, Tocqueville and Beaumont grew restless of their positions and wanted to study the prison system in America.

They arrived in May of 1831 in Newport, Rhode Island on the steamer President after having their route diverted from New York, due to bad weather. Their stay was only nine months but traveled the west to Green Bay, from New Orleans to Quebec and to Boston then on to New York where they boarded a ship to return home. They traveled on foot, horse, stage coach, and steam boat.

Beaumont and Tocqueville met with several people of different backgrounds and ambitions, from the high society and the impoverished. Many reflections were made in Tocqueville’s journal. One was of his experience of the July 4th celebration. He writes, “Ceremony of 4th July. Mixture of impressions, some funny, some very serious. Militia on foot and on horse, speeches swollen with rhetoric, jug of water on platform, hymn to liberty in church. Something of the French spirit. Perfect order that prevails. Silence. No police. Authority nowhere. Festival of the people. Marshal of the day without restrictive power, and obeyed, free classification of industries, public prayer, presence of the flag and of old soldiers. Real emotion” (126). This statement reflects the lack of police and security he was use to in France, which must of brought about some anxiety for him. Noted also was his recognition of the lack of manners of the Americans. This was because in France, people are judged by their pedigree and in America, people are judged by their achievement towards wealth. “Restlessness of character seems to me to be one of the distinctive traits of this people. The American is devoured by the longing to make his fortune; it is the unique passion of his life; he has no memory that attaches him to one place more than another, no inveterate habits, no spirit of routine; he is the daily witness of the swiftest changes of fortune, and is less afraid than any other inhabitant of the globe to risk what he has gained in the hope of a better future, for he knows that he can without trouble create new resources again,” he wrote in his travel notebooks, publish as Journey to America.

The journey of Beaumont and Tocqueville in America ended in February of 1832. However the legacy of Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (1835) is a living and growing monument of the work he did. This great work was never looked at much until after World War II when Europe was beginning to reshape its political authority. Today in many books he is quoted from his writings of Democracy in America. One quote that I have heard a lot in my American Government, Judicial Process, and Constitution class is, “If I were asked where I place the American aristocracy, I should reply without hesitation . . . that it occupies the judicial bench and bar…. Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” (278) And in my learning this declaration has proved to be true.

Upon returning to France, Tocqueville and Beaumont continued to travel throughout Europe. In 1835, Tocqueville met Mary Mortley in England and they were married on October 26. This marriage was not favored by either family because Tocqueville being a French magistrate. But this seemed to never effect the marriage. Mary assisted Tocqueville in his writing and helped publish his works. Tocqueville served in political positions during the different eras of the revolution. After the Second Republic was dead, Tocqueville was elected to a committee charged with writing a new constitution. But because of short tempered personality, poor health, and being imprisoned for protesting against Louis Napoleaon’s coup in 1851, he was driven into privacy.

He spent the next few years reading about the revolution and wrote L’ Ancian Regine et la Revolution (1856) (The Old Regime and Revolution). This work was also considered a masterpiece even though it was never completed. Alexis de Tocqueville died April 16, 1959 in Cannes, France with his immediate family and Gustave de Beaumont at his bedside.

Much can still be learned in Tocqueville’s writing. He was a moderate liberal, which is different today then this title was in Tocqueville’s day. He was for small government, equality, and liberty. He feared the “tyranny of the majority,” which he felt would destroy the freedoms of the people. His work, Democracy in America was not to measure the mastery of United States but to look how France could learn from the emerging democracy that was sweeping the west. It is my goal to learn more about this man and even read this book, Democracy in America. Works Cited

“Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).” DISCovering Biography. 1999. Galenet.

4 May 1999. .

Kraynak, Robert P. “Tocqueville’s Constitutionalism.” The American Political Science Review.

81. Dec., 1997: 1175-1195.

Mitchell, Harvey. “Tocqueville’s Mirage or Reality? Political Freedom from Old Regime to Revolution.” The Journal of Modern History. 60 (Mar., 1988): 28-54.

Teti, Dennis. “Alexis de Tocqueville. (Millennial Moments: The Rise of Limited Government).” World and I. 13. (Oct. 1998): 30-31

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Recollections. Garden Ctiy: Doubleday, 1970.

“Tocqueville, Alexis de.” Encyclopedia Americana Online. Vers. 2.1. Apr. 1999.

Grolier Online. 4 May 1999. .

“Tocqueville, Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel De July 29, 1805-Apr. 18, 1859.”

Wilson Bioghaphies Online. Vers. 3.2.4. 1999. H. W. Wilson Company Online.

4 May 1999. .


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