Centralized Power: A Biography of Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Toqueville was an important theorist of democratic society. He is best known as the author of Democracy in America.
Alexis de Tocqueville was a gentleman‐scholar who emerged as one of the world’s great prophets. More than a century and a half ago, when most people were ruled by kings, he declared that the future belonged to democracy. He explained what was needed for democracy to work and how it could help protect human liberty. At the same time, he warned that a welfare state could seduce people into servitude. He saw why socialism must lead to slavery.
Tocqueville staked his life on liberty. “I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights,” he wrote. “I am neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative…Liberty is my foremost passion.”
Reflecting on his famous book Democracy in America, historian Daniel J. Boorstin observed: “The most interesting question for the newcomer to Tocqueville is why this book, of all the myriad travel accounts of the United States, should have become a classic — the standard source for generalizing about America. From Tocqueville’s era, two best‐selling books on the United States —Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) and Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842) —by more clever stylists and more acute observers than Tocqueville, survive only as scholarly footnotes. They tell us about those curious earlier Americans, but Tocqueville tells us about ourselves. He speaks to us every day.”
Tocqueville was a good listener with a keen memory. He had a remarkable mind capable of discerning trends which almost all his contemporaries missed. He drew shrewd lessons from experience. He envisioned the insidious long‐term consequences of government intervention.
To be sure, as a member of the landed gentry who earned most of his income from tenant farmers, Tocqueville shared the usual aristocratic prejudices against business enterprise. He hardly uttered a word about the industrial revolution which enabled millions to avoid starvation
He worked long hours completing important books despite health problems which plagued him. He suffered migraine headaches, neuralgia and stomach cramps lasting a week at a time. Undoubtedly these afflictions were a major reason why he was often irritable.
In his books, Tocqueville seems like a realist, yet his letters suggest he was a romantic who dreamed of great adventures and endured bouts of depression. At 19, he wrote a friend that he wished “to roam about for the rest of time.” When he was nearly 30, after Democracy in America became a hit, he lamented: “Oh! How I wish that Providence would present me with an opportunity to use, in order to accomplish good and grand things…this internal flame I feel within me that does not know where to find what feeds it.” At 41: “Perhaps a moment will come in which the action we will undertake can be glorious.”
Tocqueville, according to Yale University historian George Wilson Pierson, was “almost diminuitive in stature; a dignified, reserved, shy little gentleman, delicate of feature and restrained in gesture. Proud, dark, troubled eyes arrested the glance and fitfully illuminated his pale and serious face. A sensitive mouth and lightly cleft chin, below a strong aquiline nose, betrayed his breeding and bespoke a more than ordinary determination. The finely shaped head was darkly framed in his long black hair, which he wore falling in locks to his shoulders, in the proud fashion of the day. When receiving, or conversing, he waved his narrow hands with grace and distinction…when he spoke, a resonant and moving voice, surprising so in small and frail a body, made his listeners forget all but the intense conviction and innate sincerity of the man.”
Alexis‐Charles‐Henri Clerel de Tocqueville was born the youngest of three boys July 29, 1805 in Paris. His father Herve‐Louis‐Francois‐Jean‐Bonaventure Clerel was a landed aristocrat descended from Norman nobles. His mother was Louise‐Madeleine Le Peletier Rosanbo. They were imprisoned during the French Revolution, maintained their royalist ties throughout the Napoleonic era, and after the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in 1815 Herve served as a regional government administrator. Alexis was tutored by Abbe Lesueur, a priest who taught devotion to the Catholic Church and the French monarchy.
At 16, Alexis began exploring his father’s library which included such provocative French Englightenment authors as Montesquieu and Voltaire. “When I was prey to an insatiable curiosity whose only available satisfaction was a large library of books,” he recalled, “I heaped pell‐mell into my mind all sorts of notions and ideas which belong more properly to a more mature age. Until that time, my life had passed enveloped in a faith that hadn’t even allowed doubt to penetrate into my soul. Then doubt entered, or rather hurtled in with an incredible violence, not only doubt about one thing or another in particular, but an all‐embracing doubt. All of a sudden I experienced the sensation people talk about who have been through an earthquake.”
Rather than become an officer in the French army like his two brothers, Alexis preferred the intellectual career for aristocrats—law. He studied law from 1823 to 1826, then traveled in Italy with his brother Edouard. Alexis’ most memorable experience was seeing how war and despotism had ravaged the land. He pondered how once‐mighty civilizations could perish.
In 1827, his father got him appointed as a judge at Versailles, serving the Bourbon monarchy, but he was uncomfortable. “I had spent the best years of my youth,” he wrote later, “in a society that seemed to be regaining prosperity and grandeur as it regained freedom; I had conceived the idea of a regulated and orderly freedom, controlled by religious belief, mores and laws; I was touched by the joys of such a freedom, and it had become my whole life’s passion…”
On July 25, 1830, people rebelled and drove the Bourbon King Charles X into exile. The new king was Louis Philippe from the House of Orleans. Tocqueville figured this was better than chaos, so he took a new loyalty oath like many other judges, outraging his friends and relatives. But the king didn’t trust hold‐overs. Tocqueville was demoted to a post without pay.
His warm and easy‐going friend Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow judge at Versailles, was in a similar fix. Since the Chamber of Deputies talked about reforming the criminal code, Tocqueville and Beaumont got official permission to study America’s prison system. Their families would pay expenses. The two men canvassed friends and relatives about possible contacts in America. They read American literature. They read some of the travel books which Europeans had written about America. Tocqueville spent 40 francs on a leather trunk to carry two pairs of boots, a silk hat, hose and other fashionable apparel, plus note paper and a copy of Cours d’economique politique by French laissez faire economist Jean‐Baptise Say.
On April 2, 1931, Tocqueville and Beaumont boarded the American ship Le Havre which carried 163 passengers and a cargo of silk from Lyon. After four days of sea‐sickness, Tocqueville and Beaumont adopted a schedule which they continued in the states: up around 5:30 AM, work till breakfast at 9, then work from 11 to 3 PM when they have dinner and work until bedtime—they didn’t join other passengers for supper. In 38 days, they reached New York.
During the next nine months, they toured cities—New York, Albany, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal and Quebec. They passed through towns like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Knoxville, Louisville, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh. They ventured into the hinterlands as far west as Lake Michigan. They visited Niagara Falls. They travelled along the Hudson River Valley. They saw the Mohawk River Valley, setting for James Fenimore Cooper’s bestselling novel, The Last of the Mohigans. They took a boat trip down the Mississippi River. They inspected many prisons.They met notable Americans such as Unitarian William Ellery Channing, historian Jared Sparks, Senator Daniel Webster, former President John Quincy Adams and Texas adventurer Sam Houston. They talked with lawyer Salmon Chase who was to become Supreme Court Chief Justice and with Charles Carroll, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Soon after they left America on February 20, 1832, they began to write the promised book on America’s penal system. Beaumont did most of it. The book was published in January 1833 as Du systeme penitentiaire aux Etats‐Unis et de son application en France. They believed many prisoners could be reformed through isolation and work, but they insisted the primary purpose of imprisonment must be to punish wrongdoers. The work was a critical success, and the Academie Francaise awarded them the prestigious Montyon Prize.
Although they had talked about collaborating on a book on America, their interests diverged. Beaumont, most concerned about slavery, wrote a novel called Marie, ou l’esclavage aux Etats‐Unis. Tocqueville was fascinated with American social and political life because of the difficulties his own country had developing institutions favorable to liberty. Tocqueville attributed French political problems to centralized government: “Most of those people in France who speak against centralization do not really wish to see it abolished; some because they hold power, others because they expect to hold it.”
Tocqueville observed that liberty makes for a peaceful social order. “Picture to yourself,” he wrote a friend, “a society which comprises all the nations of the world — English, French, German: people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness a hundred times greater than our own…How are they welded into one people? By community of interests. That is the secret!”
Tocqueville decided that before he could write about liberty and democracy, he had to visit England, which he did in 1833. He wrote that it was “the land of decentralization. We have a central government, but not a central administration. Each county, each borough, each district looks after its own interests. Industry is left to itself…It is not in the nature of things that a central government should be able to supervise all the wants of a great nation. Decentralization is the chief cause of England’s material progress.”
He spent almost a year writing the first two volumes of De la Democratie en Amerique. He worked in an attic room of his parents’ Paris house, 49 rue de Verneuil, Paris. In mid‐September 1833, he wrote Beaumont: “Upon arriving here, I threw myself on America in a sort of frenzy. The frenzy is still going on, though now and then it seems to die down. I think my work will benefit more than my health, which suffers a little from the extreme exertion of my mind; for I hardly think of anything else as I fire away…From morning until dinner time my life is altogether a life of the mind and in the evening I go to see Mary.”
He was referring to Mary Mottley, an English commoner he had met while a judge at Versailles. They got married October 26, 1835. She had a calming influence, but unfortunately, she couldn’t keep up with his interests. “In our hearts we understand each other,” he told a friend, “but we cannot in our minds. Our natures are too different. Her slow and gradual way of experiencing things is completely foreign to me.” They didn’t seem to have much fun.
Meanwhile, the first two volumes came out on January 23, 1835. Tocqueville was 29. The publisher, Gosselin, reportedly hadn’t read the manuscript and agreed to issue only 500 copies. But Tocqueville publicized the book via newspaper advertisements, and an ideological adversary unintentionally drew attention to the book by attacking it in a newspaper article. An immediate hit, the book won another Montyon Prize which brought a 12,000-franc award, and it was reprinted eight times before the third and fourth volumes appeared in April 1840. They were less successful commercially than the first two, but critics considered them more important, and they helped buoy Tocqueville’s reputation.
Henry Reeve, a 22‐year‐old editor of the influential Edinburgh Review, began translating the book into English, and a revised version remains the most popular translation. In the October 1835 London and Westminster Review, English thinker John Stuart Mill called Democracy in America “among the most remarkable productions of our time.” Mill gave the third and fourth volumes an even bigger boost in the October 1840 Edinburgh Review: “the first philosophical book ever written on Democracy, as it manifests itself in modern society; a book, the essential doctrines of which it is not likely that any future speculations will subvert, to whatever degree thay may modify them…” Mill asked Tocqueville to write an article for the London and Westminister Review, giving him further exposure in the English‐speaking world. The book was also translated into Danish, German, Italian, Russian, Serbian and Spanish.
His book had a lasting impact because he offered a broad vision rather than a journalistic chronicle which would become dated. He was interested in the workings of democracy and illustrated general principles with his observations about America, the largest country to try democracy. He was concerned about what America meant for liberty in France and elsewhere.
Tocqueville was the man who discovered American individualism. Although he described it somewhat negatively in one place, he talked approvingly about self‐help, a hallmark of American individualism. For example: “The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it.”
Tocqueville explained the American dream: “There is no man who cannot reasonably expect to attain the amenities of life, for each knows that, given love of work, his future is certain…No one is fully contented with his present fortune, all are perpetually striving, in a thousand ways, to improve it. Consider one of them at any period of his life and he will be found engaged with some new project for the purpose of increasing what he has.”
Tocqueville commended the peaceful influence of free enterprise. “I know of nothing more opposite to revolutionary attitudes than commercial ones. Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity. Commerce renders men independent of one another, gives them a lofty notion of their personal importance, leads them to seek to conduct their own affairs, and teaches how to conduct them well; it therefore prepares men for freedom, but preserves them from revolutions.”
Tocqueville observed how liberty and the need for social cooperation give people incentives to be virtuous. “I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another. The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness.”
Tocqueville denounced American slavery, saying “the laws of humanity have been totally perverted.” He anticipated civil war. He predicted blacks and whites would have a tough time getting along after the abolition of slavery, but he expressed confidence that blacks could do fine if truly liberated: “As long as the Negro remains a slave, he may be kept in a condition not far removed from that of the brutes; but with his liberty he cannot but acquire a degree of instruction that will enable him to appreciate his misfortunes and to discern a remedy for them.”
Tocqueville warned against war and violent revolution: “it is chiefly in war that nations desire, and frequently need, to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war…A people is never so disposed to increase the functions of central government as at the close of a long and bloody revolution…The love of public tranquility becomes at such times an indiscriminate passion, and the members of the community are apt to conceive a most inordinate devotion to order.”
With phenomenal foresight, Tocqueville predicted that the welfare state would become a curse. For example: “Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification’s and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the 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 labors, 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 principal 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?”
“Our contemporaries,” he continued, “combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.”
Like some other 19th century gentleman‐scholars such as Thomas Macaulay, Tocqueville hoped to shape public policies. He spent a dozen frustrating years as an elected representative in the Chamber of Deputies and Constituent Assembly where he focused on such controversies as abolishing slavery in French colonies. For five months, he served as Finance Minister. But he had little influence on Francois Guizot (pro‐business) or Louis Adolph Thiers (moderate opposition) who utterly dominated French politics during this era.
During the Revolution of 1848 which toppled King Louis‐Philippe, socialism reared its ugly head. Tocqueville was far ahead of his time in seeing why it must mean slavery, as he told fellow representatives: “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
Since Tocqueville believed individuals should be judged on their own merits, he rejected the racist theories of Arthur de Gobineau who wrote The Inequality of Human Races (1855). For example, Tocqueville told Beaumont that Gobineau “has just sent me a thick book, full of research and talent, in which he endeavors to prove that everything that takes place in the world may be explained by differences of race. I do not believe a word of it…” To Gobineau, he wrote, “What purpose does it serve to persuade lesser peoples living in abject conditions of barbarism or slavery that, such being their racial nature, they can do nothing to better themselves, to change their habits, or to ameliorate their status?”
In Tocqueville’s last great work, L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (1856), he interpreted the French Revolution which ignited war throughout Europe. Once again, he confronted the demon of centralized government: “the object of the French Revolution was not only to change an ancient form of government, but also to abolish an ancient state of society…clear away the ruins, and you behold an immense central power, which has attracted and absorbed into unity all the fractions of authority and influence which had formerly been dispersed amongst a host of secondary powers, orders, classes, professions, families and individuals, and which were disseminated throughout the whole fabric of society.”
Tocqueville’s health had always been delicate, but it took a turn for the worse in March 1850 when he spat blood — tuberculosis. It went into remission for several years, then became more serious. He could talk only in a low voice. Advised to spend time in a sunny climate, he and Mary went to Cannes, January 1859. Lord Broughham, an English friend who lived there, made available his luxurious library so Tocqueville could relieve the boredom of illness.
He suffered agonizing pain in his stomach and bladder. On March 4, 1859, he wrote Beaumont: “I know nothing that has ever grieved me so much as what I am going to say to you…COME. COME, as fast as you can…I embrace you from the depth of my soul.” Beaumont hurried to be by Tocqueville’s side.
He lost consciousness and died around 7 PM, April 16th. He was buried in Tocqueville, Normandy, his family’s birthplace. The following year Beaumont, steadfast for more than 30 years, published his friend’s works and correspondence.
Tocqueville fell out of fashion during the late 19th century, perhaps because Germany, not America, seemed to have caught the wave of the future. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck embraced socialism and established the first modern welfare state, and people everywhere looked to Germany for leadership.
But socialist centralization led to communism, fascism, National Socialism and other brutal tyrannies..The welfare state shackled hundreds of millions more with taxes and regulations. Then after World War II, America emerged as the world’s brightest hope. Tocqueville predicted it all.
Now he’s hailed as a prophet. Recent decades have brought the most comprehensive biography of him (1988) and new editions of his complete works—the latest beginning in 1991. Today everyone can see for themselves the wonder of this troubled man who peered into the mists of time, warned against the horrors of collectivism and boldly proclaimed redemption through liberty.