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Mar 1, 1979

De Tocqueville and Equality

“De Tocqueville did not come to the United States predisposed to find an egalitarian society.”

“Alexis de Tocqueville in New York: The Formulation of the Egalitarian Thesis.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 61 (January/April 1977): 69–79.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, written as a result of his visit in 1831, describes American society’s head-long drive toward egalitarianism, or “democracy,” as he labeled it. De Tocqueville saw this as an inevitable movement throughout the Western world with America taking the lead.

Questioning this egalitarian thesis, many contemporary historians have undertaken detailed research on wealth and social class (particularly during the Jacksonian period of de Tocqueville’s visit) and have revealed little evidence of social equality of conditions or even social mobility. These findings compel us to reconsider de Tocqueville’s thesis and its usefulness in the light of three factors: (1) the impact of de Tocqueville’s own social and intellectual background; (2) who were the sources of his information; and (3) what was his method of investigation.

De Tocqueville did not come to the United States predisposed to find an egalitarian society. An artistocrat by birth and instinct, he expected to find American society tending toward aristocracy. His belief that civilization was characterized by the forward motion of some great driving force, however, made him open to the suggestion that egalitarianism was that engine of development. Who gave him the notion that egalitarianism was the driving force in American society? De Tocqueville’s friends in New York seem to have transmitted to him this concept of egalitarianism. Themselves native Americans of the highest social class and among the top 500 wealthiest New Yorkers, de Tocqueville’s friends impressed him with their easy manner, physical contact with the lower classes, rejection of primogeniture and entail, libertarian rhetoric, and their attitude of political equality for all classes. Also, the very fear of the lower classes expressed by such Whiggish friends as Philip Hone may have convinced de Tocqueville that American society was, in fact, hastening toward an egalitarian utopia of mass democracy. One of de Tocqueville’s later friend’s, Jared Sparks, cautioned him that wealth was not being dissipated by widely shared inheritance among sons of the rich. Despite this, de Tocqueville left New York assured of America’s egalitarian penchant.

How did he block out all information contrary to his thesis? In methodology de Tocqueville was not a historian or sociologist; he intellectualized, seeking by conceptual, rather than empirical, analysis an understanding of his experience. De Tocqueville’s blinkered approach saw egalitarianism as the underlying force in American society, and his nonempirical vision has unfortunately captured an uncritical audience.