essays

Sep 1, 1982

Tocqueville: On Prisons & Modern Despotism

“The new despotism [will] rely on isolation, equality…private production and consumption[,] the eclipse of public life, and the loss of a meaningful future.”

Roger Boesche
Occidental College

“The Prison: Tocqueville’s Model for Despotism.” The Western Political Quarterly 33 (December 1980): 550–563.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805–1859) idea of political despotism becomes clearer when we compare it to Tocqueville’s (and Beaumont’s) long ignored writings on Pennsylvania’s prison system, a system he labeled “the most complete despotism.”

The ostensible reason that Tocqueville and Beaumont voyaged to the United States in 1831 was to study prisons. Upon returning to France, Tocqueville undertook Democracy in America only after he and Beaumont had written a book detailing prison reforms in the United States: On the Penitentiary System of the United States and Its Applications in France. Few critics have related this book on prisons to Tocqueville’s political thinking, yet it might have as much to say as Democracy in America and the Old Regime, both of which works harbored the fear that modern democracy contains a tendency to a qualitatively and historically new kind of despotism, a despotism for which the Pennsylvania prison might serve as a prototype.

“Early in his political career, Tocqueville emerged as a sometimes passionate advocate of the prison reforms enacted by the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 1820s and 1830s. Reformers during these decades in the United States attempted to solve the problems of insanity, poverty, and crime through incarceration—in the asylum, the poor-house, and the prison—isolating the recalcitrant and teaching industrial discipline to the able-bodied. The Pennsylvania prison system, embraced both by Tocqueville and the Quaker reformers, astonishes our twentieth century sensibilities, an astonishment mitigated only slightly when we grasp that these reformers genuinely believe that a thorough going rehabilitation and reform of many (certainly not all) prisoners was possible. The pivot on which this reform of the prisoners turned was thought to lie, strange as it seems, in the architecture of the prison, because the architecture alone made possible the one indispensable ingredient: the absolute isolation of the prisoner. The Quaker theory of prison reform can be summarized quite quickly: each prisoner was to be placed in solitary confinement, each would then experience tremendous anxiety and remorse, each would attempt to divert thoughts of despair by hard work, eventually each prisoner’s anxiety would lead him to welcome the visits and conversation of priests and outstanding citizens, and finally the sheer force of isolation and anxiety would lead the prisoner to alter his ideas, habits and instincts—and the rehabilitation would be complete.”

The prison’s predominant characteristics were a rigid isolation of prisoners, strict equality, productive labor, and the complete privatization of life. Tocqueville suggests that by using the terror created by this system, especially the despair generated by solitary confinement, the prison often succeeded in reshaping the prisoner’s mind and reforming his very “instincts.” In a strikingly parallel fashion, Tocqueville chooses the same characteristics to depict the emerging political despotism. The new despotism, too, will rely on isolation, equality, an obsession with the private production and consumption of goods, the eclipse of public life, and the loss of a meaningful future—all of which will render men passive, dominated by a centralized government and a suffocating majority opinion.