The French statesman and writer Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was the author of "Democracy in America, " the first classic commentary on American government written by a foreigner.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805, of an aristocratic Norman family. He studied law in Paris (1823-1826) and then was appointed an assistant magistrate at Versailles (1827).
The July 1830 Revolution which, with middle-class support, put Louis Philippe on the throne, required a loyalty oath of Tocqueville as a civil servant. He was suspect because his aristocratic family opposed the new order and was demoted to a minor judgeship without pay. Tocqueville and another magistrate, Gustave de Beaumont, asked to study prison reform in America, then an interest of the French government. Granted permission but not funds (their families paid their expenses), Tocqueville and Beaumont spent from May 1831 to February 1832 in the United States. Their travel and interviews resulted in On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1832). Then followed Tocqueville's famous Democracy in America (vol. 1, 1835; vol. 2, 1840), an immediate best seller. By 1850 it had run through 13 editions.
Tocqueville was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839. He opposed King Louis Philippe but after the Revolution of 1848 again served as a deputy. Tocqueville was foreign minister for a few months in 1849 and retired from public affairs at the end of 1851. During his last years he wrote The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). He died in Cannes on April 16, 1859.
Despite his aristocratic upbringing, Tocqueville believed that the spread of democracy was inevitable. By analyzing American democracy, he thought to help France avoid America's faults and emulate its successes. Chief among his many insights was to see equality of social conditions as the heart of American democracy. He noted that although the majority could produce tyranny its wide property distribution and inherent conservatism made for stability. American literature, then still under European influence, he felt would become independent in idiom and deal with plain people rather than the upper classes. The American zeal for change he connected with a restless search for the ideal. Noting the permissiveness of democracy toward religion, he anticipated denominational growth. Discerning natural hostility to the military, he foresaw an adverse effect of prolonged war on American society. He anticipated that democracy would emancipate women and alter the relationship of parents to children. He saw danger in the dominance of American politics by lawyers.
Though his work has been criticized for some biases, errors, omissions, and pessimism, Tocqueville's perceptive insights have been continually quoted. He ranks as a keen observer of American democracy and as a major prophet of modern societies' trends.
Tocqueville's The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (1893; trans. 1896; new trans. 1970) was published after his death. The best books about him are George W. Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938), abridged by Dudley C. Lunt as Tocqueville in America (1959); Jacob P. Mayer, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Study in Political Science (1960); and Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966). Edward T. Gargan, Alexis de Tocqueville: The Critical Years, 1848-1851 (1955), is an important study, and Gargan's De Tocqueville (1965) is a short introduction to Tocqueville's thought. Also useful are Jack Lively, The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (1962), and Seymour Drescher, Tocqueville and England (1964) and Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization (1968).