Alexis de Tocqueville

Dafato Team | Oct 6, 2023

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Alexis Charles-Henri-Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville [alɛkˈsi ʃaʀl ɑ̃ˈʀi mɔˈʀis kleˈʀɛl dətɔkˈvil] († April 16, 1859 in Cannes) was a French publicist, politician and historian. He is considered the founder of comparative politics.

De Tocqueville was born the third son of Hervé Bonaventure Clérel de Tocqueville and Louise Le Peletier de Rosanbo (a granddaughter of the statesman Malesherbes). He spent his childhood in Verneuil-sur-Seine, where his noble father, like his mother, was royalist. From the age of ten, his father served successively in the prefectures of Angers, Beauvais, Dijon, Metz, Amiens, and Versailles, so de Tocqueville grew up mainly with his mother. His intellectual mentor at this time was the abbot Louis Lesueur.

In 1820, he moved in with his father in Metz, where he completed his studies in philosophy and rhetoric at the Collège Royal in 1823. During this time he fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant.

After moving to Paris and completing his law studies there, Tocqueville became an examining magistrate at Versailles in 1826. In the years that followed, he made the acquaintance of Gustave de Beaumont, with whom he later traveled to America, and of the Englishwoman Mary Motleys (1826), with whom he entered into a marriage in 1835 that remained childless. He listened to François Guizot's lectures on history at the Sorbonne in Paris (1829

In 1826, the government commissioned him to study the legal system and penal system in the United States of America. Tocqueville traveled the United States with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. For their work Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis, the two received a prize from the Académie française. The trip to America (from May 1831 to February 1832) and the experiences made there resulted in the famous major work De la démocratie en Amérique (two volumes, Paris 1835

Between 1839 and 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville belonged to the moderate opposition as a member of parliament. He opposed the Guizot government, which he believed had transformed French society into a gigantic apolitical corporation. Striving for prosperity alone, he declared, did not make good citizens. Unsuccessfully, he and his political friends - in the tradition of the generous, liberal French nobility - pursued the abolition of slavery. He played a special role before and during the February Revolution of 1848: in a January 29, 1848 speech to the Chamber of Deputies, he warned of coming events: "Do you not notice - how do I put it? - the revolutionary storm that is in the air?" This speech was henceforth considered prophetic, for barely a month later the monarchy under the "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe I had perished in the Revolution; Tocqueville himself left behind in his memoirs a true-to-life historical document of the events of the Revolution, the provisional government, and the suppressed June workers' revolts of 1848. Thus he describes the impact of the civil war atmosphere on his neighbors, who served in the National Guard, and on himself:

He strove for a new relationship between the Republic and the Church and, in the constitutional commission of the National Assembly after the 1848 Revolution, urged the elimination of the paralyzing centralization of political life in France. Here, however, he was already so resigned that he no longer took the floor in the negotiations on this subject. "There is only one thing that cannot be created in France, namely, a free government, and only one thing that cannot be destroyed, namely, centralization," he wrote in the 2nd part (chap. XI) of his memoirs. An attack on centralized administration was "the only means of bringing together a conservative and a radical." But the center of Tocqueville's political activity (even according to his own conviction of the importance of the subject) was to advance, promote, and order the conquest and colonization of Algeria. For him, the answer to his question, "How can mediocrity be prevented and great things be produced or promoted even in egalitarian societies?" lay in colonialism.

Two major trips to Algeria, several commission reports in the National Assembly, and several speeches testify to Tocqueville's unshakable conviction: Algeria should become a French colony with a French owning class and a primarily indigenous, serving class of non-equals.

After the February Revolution of 1848, he fought socialism and voted with the conservatives; he was one of their leading representatives. As a member of the Legislative Assembly, he helped shape the new constitution. In 1849, Tocqueville took over the Foreign Office, but resigned when Louis Napoléon, later Napoléon III, seized power in a coup d'état. In the coup on December 2, 1851, Tocqueville was arrested but released at Napoléon's intervention. Embittered by the loss of free-liberal conditions, he withdrew into private life. Now he wrote the Souvenirs, which - full of sarcastic remarks about his contemporary parliamentary colleagues - did not appear until long after his death, at his request. This was followed by his second major work, L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, the first volume of which appeared in 1856.

De la démocratie en Amérique describes, among other things, democracy in the context of political society. The book received the Prix Montyon in 1836 from the Académie française, of which Tocqueville became a member in 1841, and is still being discussed at universities today. In his analysis of American democracy, he elaborated on the causes of the way democracy functions in the United States. He shows the dangers of democratic government, which could lead to a "tyranny of the majority," and he describes how the American Constitution and its constitutional life countered this danger through decentralization and active citizen participation (Volume 1). In the second volume of the work, he then identifies another danger that he sees as inherent in democracy: the omnipotence of government, which could deprive citizens of initiative, gradually wean them from independent action, and thus degrade them to immature private citizens concerned only with their economic problems. Again, he shows how American democracy countered this danger: through decentralization, through the doctrine of well-understood self-interest, and through an influence of Christianity on the dominant standards of behavior.

Tocqueville as a colonialist

As early as 1828, Tocqueville advocated a military expedition to Algeria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1833, after Algiers had been taken by French troops in 1830, he considered acquiring land there. He became an expert on Algeria, which is most evident in his parliamentary career. If Tocqueville initially relied on private forces to settle Algeria, envisaging the assimilation of the Arab population, from 1841 he began to believe that only state policy was capable of completely conquering the country and bringing it into French possession. Since the envisaged total conquest failed because not enough European settlers could be won over, because the demographic situation in France, unlike in other European countries, was stagnating, and because Tocqueville no longer saw any chance of reaching an understanding with the Arabs, he became convinced from 1846 onward that French seizure could only be guaranteed under continued control and disenfranchisement of the native population, i.e. it would have to amount to a kind of early apartheid regime.

Thoughts about Algeria (1841)

In his Travail sur l'Algérie, published in German for the first time in 2006 in the Kleine politische Schriften under the title Gedanken über Algerien (Thoughts on Algeria), Tocqueville shows himself to be a "vehement advocate of the policy of conquest" (Harald Bluhm).Tocqueville writes that Algeria is so important for France because to renounce conquest would mean "to indicate to the world its certain decline" (p. 109). This was not justifiable after the losses already suffered by England (see Seven Years' War in North America). First of all, it was a matter of defeating Abd el-Kader, who in the meantime had copied and appropriated from the French everything "that he needed to subjugate them (his countrymen)" (p. 116). In the meantime, he says, confrontation with him is only possible in battle, since other concepts, such as the chance to play one off against the other and dominate everyone in this way, have not been used. Although he mentions that humanity and international law must be taken into account in the war to be waged (p. 120), at the same time he has to admit that "this war (all the experiences from the European battles are useless and often harmful" (p. 128). Thus Tocqueville argues against the proponents of mild approaches:

He explicitly recommends a trade ban for Arabs with the destruction of everything "that resembles a city" and a devastation of the country, especially since "murderous undertakings are sometimes indispensable and indispensable" (p. 120 f.). For the Armee d'Afrique, he says, natives, namely Zuaven, are important as mercenaries (p. 124), as are French officers and enlisted men who serve long in Algeria. He finds the work of the officers admirable, but at the same time wonders "what we should do with a multitude of such men if they returned to us" (for he is horrified by the thought that France will one day be "directed by an officer of the African army!" (p. 126 f.)

He advocates that colonization and conquest be pursued simultaneously, because in this way the military commitment of the settlers themselves could be counted on (p. 129), and wonders whether the conquered areas around Algiers should be protected by a fortification. In any case, the settlers' new land ownership should be recorded in a land register to be introduced, so that they would be protected against the arbitrariness of French authorities or the possible claim of their own military. For what was at stake was "a nation formed by Europeans" to "administer and secure the territory we have conquered" (pp. 136-139). A governor-general independent of Paris was to be appointed as the head of the administration, who was to prevent abuse of power and arbitrariness, so that Algeria would become more attractive to settlers. Their personal freedom was to be guaranteed with the freedom of their property, because "the colonies of all European peoples present the same picture. The role of the individual is everywhere greater than in the mother country, and not less" (p. 139). Therefore, "two very different sets of laws" had to be established, "because two strictly divorced societies exist there" and the rules established for Europeans "must always apply only to them" (p. 157). Given the conditions in the early 1840s, with four times as many soldiers as settlers, Tocqueville sees much to be done (p. 162).

Seloua Luste Boulbina concludes, vis-à-vis the thoughts Tocqueville develops on colonization, that while he could judge blacks, Arabs, and French workers with political clarity, he remained deaf to everything social.

Tocqueville's second major work, L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, is an analysis of the French Revolution. In this late work, too, mœurs plays a major role, although Tocqueville hardly uses the term in it. The practical sense of the Americans described, their mœurs brought in by the founding fathers and kept alive by the institutional order of the United States and passed on to those who come after them, stand in tense contrast to the political conditions and to the prevailing ways of thinking in France. Tocqueville shows in The Old State and the Revolution that most of the institutions and constitutional rules commonly counted among the achievements of the Revolution were not introduced by it, but existed before it.

Tocqueville also shows the same distance to the Great Revolution that is already apparent in his work on America. Tocqueville welcomes and affirms the results of the Revolution, he admires the magnanimity of the first revolutionaries, but he is convinced: the political results of the Revolution could also have been achieved in a gradual reform process. However, Tocqueville sees most of the results of the Revolution as having been prepared or enforced long before the events.

The centralization begun by the kings is only completed by the Revolution. It leads to an increasing similarity in the way of life of citizens without equal political rights and results in a loss of civic spirit, which is promoted by the omnipresent administration. A political class that does not notice what it is doing because it only administers, and citizens who do not learn to work together because they are administered from above, are counterparts to the American reality. The reality of pre-revolutionary France includes, on the one hand, intellectuals who are at war with a political practice that is not accessible to them, and who therefore build cloud-cuckoo homes and dream of a utopian perfect equality. Likewise, the old political class, the aristocracy, belongs to it, whose wealthy parts enjoy privileged rights that have long been given without corresponding local political tasks. Tocqueville shows how these aberrations lead to apolitical and anti-religious attitudes, which emerged in a centuries-long process of development. Where citizens are not used to working together - even if they are invited to do so by the institutions - rejection and often hatred or contempt arise.

After the Revolution, these pre-revolutionary mœurs now come to the surface, supported by the egalitarian order, and shape French political life. Also, as far as hostility to Christianity is concerned, Tocqueville - who, by his own admission, lost his faith - sees here the dangers of lack of humility and threatening megalomania, which then culminates in the two Napoleonic adventures. (This was to be described in the unfinished second volume of the work). These adventures became possible for him not least because of the lack of civic sense in a society marked by hatred and the absence of democratic mœurs.

The book about the Grande Révolution is full of hostile allusions to the seizure of power by the "petit Napoléon" and to his new policies. He describes, not entirely without reproach, that the French nobility - beyond the loss of its privileges - did not live up to its role as role model and leader - for Tocqueville one of the conditions for Napoléon III's coup d'état.

The book continues to have an impact today. For example, high-ranking officials of the Chinese Communist Party publicly recommended reading it in 2013: Both Li Keqiang, the CP's second-in-command, and Wang Qishan, the Politburo member responsible for fighting corruption, want it to make the so-called "Tocqueville effect" known in China and prevent it through timely reforms.

Tocqueville recognizes the historical singularity of the American and French Revolutions. He sees that the world has entered a new age, characterized first and foremost by greater equality. By this, Tocqueville understands the end of class privileges and an expansion of democratic rights. But while the whole world cheers this development, Tocqueville also points out the dangers of this progress, despite his approval in principle. In particular, he recognizes that more equality and democracy do not necessarily mean more freedom. In a critical confrontation with a Montesquieu reception that was already dominant at the time, Tocqueville emphasizes that the essence of democratic order is not democratic institutions, but liberal ways of thinking, behaving and speaking, as well as a discourse (the mœurs) imbued with these liberal mores.

This insight forms the central core of Tocqueville's work: He devotes his entire passion to showing how human freedom can be maintained in the modern world. According to Tocqueville, freedom is threatened in several ways. On the one hand, he sees it in the spreading individualism, which is favored in particular by an acquisition motive that dominates everything. As a result, individuals increasingly withdraw into their private lives and do not participate in public affairs. This apathy on the part of citizens favors a "benevolent despotism" characterized by a sprawling central state and an incapacitating bureaucracy. In the end, there is a threat of a relapse into dictatorship or even into an order that today is called totalitarian.

According to Tocqueville, freedom can be saved by what is commonly called civil society: by associations, freedom of the press, but above all by political participation, which in turn presupposes federal structures, especially strong and autonomous or semi-autonomous communities, and the principle of subsidiarity. These are the "schools of liberty" that Tocqueville finds in America and admires greatly. These institutions guarantee the mœurs mentioned above.

Tocqueville does not define the concept of freedom that is central to his work. As a result, there are a number of interpretations of Tocqueville today, some of which contradict each other. According to one interpretation, Tocqueville ultimately understood freedom as nothing other than human dignity. Another interpretation sees him as a very radical liberal who rejects all welfare state regulations and considers free initiative to be the center of liberal activity. Understood in this way, freedom for Alexis de Tocqueville is essentially freedom of action, be it that of the individual citizen or - and here lies his essential political accent - in cooperation with fellow citizens.

Alexis de Tocqueville distinguishes three major press functions:

The power of the press is to present diverse opinions and allow individuals to become more embedded in the social consciousness.

Tocqueville also pointed out that newspapers in different countries differ in content and format, and these differences result more from cultural and political reasons than economic ones.

He also stressed that the evil that the press produces is less than what protects citizens. The inclination of the press could be increased by creating more newspapers.

The Tocqueville effect is a phenomenon in sociology and social psychology. It is about the fact that revolutions do not break out when repression is at its most severe, but when the regime has already mellowed and is ready to reform, so that discontent can express itself without risk, as in the case of the Ancien Régime under Louis XVI, analyzed by Tocqueville, but also in the November Revolution in Germany after the reforms of Reich Chancellor Max von Baden, or in the Eastern Bloc after de-Stalinization by Nikita Khrushchev (1956) and 1989-1991 after perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev:

In sociology, the Tocqueville paradox is the phenomenon "that as social injustices are reduced, sensitivity to remaining inequalities increases at the same time."

In his honor, the Alexis de Tocqueville Society in France awards the Prix Alexis de Tocqueville every two years.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville
  3. ^ Boucaud-Victoire, Kévin (2017). La guerre des gauches. Editions du Cerf.
  4. ^ Véricour, Louis Raymond (1848). Modern French Literature. Gould, Kendall and Lincoln. p. 104.
  5. ^ a b Jaume, Lucien (2013). Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty. Princeton University Press. p. 6. The "liberal" label is not misplaced, because Tocqueville described himself as a liberal.
  6. ^ a b Kahan, Alan S. (2010). Alexis de Tocqueville. A&C Black. pp. 112–122.
  7. a b Alexis de Tocqueville Biography. In: Abgerufen am 1. Juli 2021 (englisch).
  8. Tocqueville. In: Archiviert vom Original am 9. Dezember 2014; abgerufen am 9. Dezember 2014.
  9. « Je ne me suis jamais dépouillé de mon titre, je ne l'ai jamais pris ni refusé. J'ai toujours pensé que c'était ce qui convenait dans un temps où les titres ne représentent plus rien » (lettre à Mme de Swetchine, 29 décembre 1856). Il est inhumé dans le caveau familial du cimetière de Tocqueville avec la simple mention : Alexis de Tocqueville , 1805-1859.
  10. Jean-Louis Benoit, Tocqueville, Perrin, 2013, p.372.
  11. Jean-Louis Benoit, Tocqueville, Perrin, 2013, p. 373.
  12. … « et s'il reste jamais quelque chose de moi dans le monde, ce sera bien plus la trace de ce que j'ai écrit que le souvenir ce ce que j'aurai fait. » Souvenirs, Gallimard, Au temps présent, 1942, p. 14.
  13. 1,0 1,1 Paul R Hansen, Contesting the French Revolution (2009) σελ. 3
  14. 3,0 3,1 3,2 Joshua Kaplan (2005). «Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance». The Modern Scholar. «14 διαλέξεις; (διαλέξεις #11 & #12) – δες δίσκο 6»
  15. Chisholm, Hugh, επιμ.. (1911) «Tocqueville, Alexis Henri Charles Maurice Clerel, Comte de» Εγκυκλοπαίδεια Μπριτάννικα (11η έκδοση) Cambridge University Press
  16. de Tocqueville, "Journey in Ireland, July–August, 1835" Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C, 1990
  17. 6,0 6,1 "Regularization" είναι ο όρος που χρησιμοποιεί ο ίδιος ο Τοκβίλ, δες Souvenirs, Τρίτο μέρος, σελ. 289–290 γαλλική έκδοση (Παρίσι, Éditions Gallimard, 1999).

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