Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the foremost scholars of the French Revolution and of the early American republic. Although he was a member of both the Académie Française and the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville is best remembered for his work as a political theorist. His observations on monarchical and representative government, commerce, and individual liberty make him perhaps the most influential of all modern social commentators. Tocqueville emphasized that healthy societies develop naturally from the free pursuit of legitimate ends; he mistrusted both aristocracy and centralized government, and he stressed the limits of any government’s ability to enact social change.
Paradoxically, for a thinker with libertarian sympathies, Tocqueville also mistrusted what he termed individualism. He argued that only under liberty could individuals construct the social bonds that constituted a fully mature and developed community and that intense communal activity was the natural outcome of liberty. Tocqueville argued that, without liberty, individuals would either embrace a hostile, isolated individualism, largely bereft of morality, or else they would become servile creatures of the state. Unsurprisingly, he disdained both of these outcomes. In a similar vein, Tocqueville mistrusted great concentrations of wealth. He feared the undue influence that extraordinary wealth could exert on governments, and he held that concentrated wealth was one of the chief evils produced by a government that grew beyond its proper bounds. Without unfair government privilege, Tocqueville thought, competition among individuals and the vicissitudes of ordinary life would exert a broadly leveling influence, enriching the poor and reining in the wealthy.
These themes run throughout his political works. Tocqueville’s unfinished masterpiece L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution argued that the French Old Regime improperly individualized and atomized French society. As the central government grew in power, it obliterated the private communal bonds that could otherwise have brought the citizens a more equitable and enriching social life. Each person was instead brought into a relationship of dependence on the state, in which the individual sought to extract state privileges from those around him, rather than living through peaceful exchange. Tocqueville documented how old, local forms of justice and administration were progressively vitiated, and how Paris, the capital city, had grown enormously in population and concentrated wealth. Tocqueville ascribed all of these developments to the state’s inordinate and unchecked power.
When the government was no longer able to keep up with the many demands on its finances, it collapsed. Yet Tocqueville was no friend of the French Revolution: Although his work was never finished, it is clear from his notes and from indications in his extant work that Tocqueville intended to argue that the Revolution actually systematized and reinforced the Old Regime’s centralization of political power. “When they envisaged all the social and administrative reforms subsequently carried out by our Revolutionaries, the idea of free political institutions never crossed their minds,” Tocqueville acidly wrote. Vigorous yet arbitrary rules of administration prevailed instead, coupled with a fierce insistence on national unity, of which the state was the only guarantor. Tocqueville found all of this inimical to liberty.
Once a minority view, Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution has in recent years become the consensus among academic historians. These historians have for the most part rejected Marx’s interpretation that the Revolution was a symptom of class warfare. Yet Tocqueville’s critique of state power is more far‐reaching than many historians and political thinkers are prepared to acknowledge; far from being a conservative, he condemned Old Regime paternalism even where it seemed the most harmless or well intentioned. As Tocqueville wrote, “Paradoxically enough, what made things worse was that the King and his Ministers were inspired by purely altruistic ideals; for by showing that methods of violence can be employed with good intentions by people of good will, they set a dangerous precedent.” Indeed, Tocqueville explicitly likened the Old Regime to socialism, in that both held property to a revocable privilege, not an inherent right: “This idea is basic to our modern socialism, and it is odd to find it emerging for the first time in France under a despotic monarchy.” The idea that the Old Regime and socialism had much in common was a frequent theme among such 19th‐century French liberals as Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, and it remains influential among libertarian historians today.
Tocqueville is best known for De la démocratie en Amérique, a sprawling analysis of American political and social life in the age of Andrew Jackson that was first published in 1835–1840. Europeans of his own day admired Tocqueville for the depth of his firsthand knowledge. From 1831–1832, Tocqueville had traveled extensively throughout the United States and interviewed people in every stratum of society, including Native Americans, slaves, merchants, clergy, and the president. Tocqueville’s analysis is commonly cited even today by academics and popular pundits alike, and it is without a doubt one of the most important political texts of the modern era.
Tocqueville’s understanding of American society emphasized the liberty, egalitarianism, and entrepreneurship of the new republic. He found that, in contrast to Europeans of the same period, Americans tended to discount social rank and mixed freely with different social classes. He argued that this social egalitarianism was only natural in a flourishing commercial society and that liberty had tended on the whole to strengthen rather than weaken Americans’ virtue. Freedom of the press had never been as widespread as it then was in America. American newspapers illustrated to Tocqueville American entrepreneurship and the American love of liberty, and these qualities positively astonished him.
His relationship to American egalitarianism was more complex. He admired the notion that no one should possess arbitrary governmental power. He despised slavery and condemned the laws and mores supporting it. Yet he also feared that equality of rank and condition might paradoxically lead to despotism: “As conditions become more equal among people,” he wrote, “individuals seem of less and society of greater importance … every citizen, having grown like the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands out conspicuously but the great and imposing image of the people itself.” Tocqueville knew all too well that tyrants might easily appropriate this image, as they had done in France. Thus, one strongly libertarian reading of De la démocratie en Amérique is that it is a story of American decline—from Jeffersonian liberty, to Jacksonian equality, to an all‐powerful state that will one day emerge as the avatar of the common man. “The idea of rights inherent in certain individuals is rapidly disappearing … the idea of the omnipotence and sole authority of society at large is coming to fill its place,” Tocqueville worried, with barely a pause for genuine liberty.
There are inconsistencies in Tocqueville’s defense of liberty, which are manifest in his approach toward the French colonies. Tocqueville wrote about Algeria first as a private citizen and then as a commissioned representative of the Chamber of Deputies. As Tocqueville scholar Jennifer Pitts has written, “Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria imply … that nation‐building legitimated the suspension of principles of human equality and self‐determination, and that French glory justified any aggression the nation could muster.” In 1841, he wrote, “Any people that easily gives up what it has taken and chooses to retire peacefully to its original borders proclaims that its age of greatness is over. It visibly enters the period of its decline.” Although few were as frank as Tocqueville about the massive costs, the violence, and the difficulties of colonialism, he nonetheless supported these endeavors and spent much of the 1840s defending this policy before the Chamber of Deputies. To his credit, however, Tocqueville always urged the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery in all French territories. Perhaps naively, he often hoped that colonialism could be achieved without violence, a notion that history has abundantly falsified.
Aron, Raymond. Main Currents in Sociological Thought: I. Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. Richard Howard and Helen Weaver, trans. New York: Basic Books, 1965.
Epstein, Joseph. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. George Lawrence, trans., J. P. Mayer, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
———. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Stuart Gilbert, trans. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1955.
———. Writings on Empire and Slavery. Jennifer Pitts, ed. and trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.