Democracy in America

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Democracy in America
Title page of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, printed at New York, 1838
AuthorAlexis de Tocqueville
Original titleDe la démocratie en Amérique
PublisherSaunders and Otley (London)
Publication date
Original text
De la démocratie en Amérique at French Wikisource
TranslationDemocracy in America at Wikisource

De La Démocratie en Amérique (French pronunciation: [dəla demɔkʁasi ɑ̃n‿ameˈʁik]; published in two volumes, the first in 1835[1] and the second in 1840)[2] is a classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville. Its title literally translates to Democracy in America. In the book, Tocqueville examines the democratic revolution that he believed had been occurring over the previous several hundred years.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters, Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead.[3] They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling the United States, studying the prisons and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character. The two also briefly visited Canada, spending a few days in the summer of 1831 in what was then Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario).

After they returned to France in February 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont submitted their report, Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France), in 1833. When the first edition was published, Beaumont was working on another book, Marie, ou, L'esclavage aux États-Unis (Marie, or, Slavery in the United States, published as two volumes in 1835), a social critique and novel describing the separation of races in a moral society and the conditions of slaves in the United States. Before finishing Democracy in America, Tocqueville believed that Beaumont's study of the United States would prove more comprehensive and penetrating.[4]


He begins his book by describing the change in social conditions taking place. He observed that over the previous seven hundred years the social and economic conditions of men had become more equal. The aristocracy, Tocqueville believed, was gradually disappearing as the modern world experienced the beneficial effects of equality. Tocqueville traced the development of equality to a number of factors, such as granting all men permission to enter the clergy, widespread economic opportunity resulting from the growth of trade and commerce, the royal sale of titles of nobility as a monarchical fundraising tool, and the abolition of primogeniture.[5]

Tocqueville described this revolution as a "providential fact"[5] of an "irresistible revolution," leading some to criticize the determinism found in the book. However, based on Tocqueville's correspondences with friends and colleagues, Marvin Zetterbaum, Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis, concludes that the Frenchman never accepted democracy as determined or inevitable. He did, however, consider equality more just and therefore found himself among its partisans.[6]

Given the social state that was emerging, Tocqueville believed that a "new political science" would be needed, in order to:

[I]nstruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its motives, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true instincts for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.[7]

The remainder of the book can be interpreted as an attempt to accomplish this goal, thereby giving advice to those people who would experience this change in social states.[citation needed]

Tocqueville's message is somewhat beyond the American democracy itself, which was rather an illustration to his philosophical claim that democracy is an effect of industrialization.[citation needed] This explains why Tocqueville does not unambiguously define democracy and even ignores the intents of the Founding Fathers of the United States regarding the American political system:[citation needed]

To pursue the central idea of his study—a democratic revolution caused by industrialization, as exemplified by America—Tocqueville persistently refers to democracy. This is in fact very different from what the Founding Fathers of the United States meant. Moreover, Tocqueville himself is not quite consistent in using the word 'democracy', applying it alternately to representative government, universal suffrage or majority-based governance:

The American institutions are democratic, not only in their principle but in all their consequences; and the people elects its representatives directly, and for the most part annually, in order to ensure their dependence. The people is therefore the real directing power; and although the form of government is representative, it is evident that the opinions, the prejudices, the interests, and even the passions of the community are hindered by no durable obstacles from exercising a perpetual influence on society. In the United States the majority governs in the name of the people, as is the case in all the countries in which the people is supreme. Democracy in America, Book I, Ch IX

Such an ambiguous understanding of democracy in a study of great impact on political thought could not help leaving traces. We suppose that it was Tocqueville’s work and not least its title that strongly associated the notion of democracy with the American system and, ultimately, with representative government and universal suffrage. The recent 'Tocqueville renaissance', which enforces the democratic image of the United States and, correspondingly, of other Western countries, also speaks for the role of Tocqueville’s work.

— Andranik Tangian (2020) Analytical Theory of Democracy, pp. 193-194[8]

Main themes[edit]

The Puritan founding[edit]

Tocqueville begins his study of the U.S. by explaining the contribution of the Puritans. According to him, the Puritans established the U.S. democratic social state of equality. They arrived equals in education and were all middle class. In addition, Tocqueville observes that they contributed a synthesis of religion and political liberty in America that was uncommon in Europe, particularly in France. He calls the Puritan Founding the "seed" of his entire work.[citation needed]

The Federal Constitution[edit]

Tocqueville believed that the Puritans established the principle of sovereignty of the people in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The American Revolution then popularized this principle, followed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which developed institutions to manage popular will. While Tocqueville speaks highly of the U.S. Constitution, he believes that the mores, or "habits of mind" of the American people play a more prominent role in the protection of freedom. These include:[citation needed]

  • Township democracy
  • Mores, laws, and circumstances
  • Tyranny of the majority
  • Religion and beliefs
  • The family
  • Individualism
  • Associations
  • Self-interest rightly understood
  • Materialism

Situation of women[edit]

Tocqueville was one of the first social critics to examine the situation of U.S. women and to identify the concept of separate spheres.[9] The section Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly So Called of the second volume is devoted to his observations of women's status in U.S. society. He writes: "In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different."[10]

He argues that the collapse of aristocracy lessened the patriarchal rule in the family where fathers would control daughters' marriages, meaning that women had the option of remaining unmarried and retaining a higher degree of independence. Married women, by contrast, lost all independence "in the bonds of matrimony" as "in America paternal discipline [by the woman's father] is very relaxed and the conjugal tie very strict."[11] Yet despite this lack of independence, He believed America would "raise woman and make her more and more the equal of man" and praised America for having more legal protections for women than in France.[9] Tocqueville believed women would be contributors to America's prosperity and strength despite the limitations of the time, stating:[9]

As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, ... to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply,—to the superiority of their women.[12]


The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in the United States to what he sees as the failings of democracy in his native France.[13]

Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy. These include his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into "soft despotism" as well as the risk of developing a tyranny of the majority. He observes that the strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government, a separation all parties found agreeable. He contrasts this to France, where there was what he perceived to be an unhealthy antagonism between democrats and the religious, which he relates to the connection between church and state.[citation needed] Recent scholarship has pointed out that Tocqueville did not speak to or attend to any African American women in the course of his study, though their views on democracy, autonomy, and freedom largely aligned with his, if slavery were abolished.[14]

Insightful analysis of political society was supplemented in the second volume by description of civil society as a sphere of private and civilian affairs, mirroring Hegel.[15]

Tocqueville observed that social mechanisms have paradoxes, as in what later became known as the Tocqueville effect: "social frustration increases as social conditions improve".[16] He wrote that this growing hatred of social privilege, as social conditions improve, leads to the state concentrating more power to itself.[citation needed]

Tocqueville's views on the United States took a darker turn after 1840, however, as made evident in Craiutu and Jennings' Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings.[17]


Democracy in America was published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the other in 1840. It was immediately popular in both Europe and the United States, while also having a profound impact on the French population. By the twentieth century, it had become a classic work of political science, social science, and history. It is a commonly assigned reading for undergraduates of American universities majoring in the political or social sciences, and part of the introductory political theory syllabus at Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and other institutions. In the introduction to his translation of the book, Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield calls it "at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America."[18]

Tocqueville's work is often acclaimed for making a number of astute predictions. He anticipates the potential acrimony over the abolition of slavery that would tear apart the United States and lead to the American Civil War, as well as the eventual superpower rivalry between the United States and Russia, which exploded after World War II and spawned the Cold War.[citation needed]

Noting the rise of the industrial sector in the American economy, Tocqueville, some scholars have argued, also correctly[citation needed] predicted that an industrial aristocracy would rise from the ownership of labor. He warned that 'friends of democracy must keep an anxious eye peeled in this direction at all times', observing that the route of industry was the gate by which a newfound wealthy class might potentially dominate, although he himself believed that an industrial aristocracy would differ from the formal aristocracy of the past.[citation needed]

On the other hand, Tocqueville proved shortsighted in noting that a democracy's equality of conditions stifles literary development. In spending several chapters lamenting the state of the arts in America, he fails to envision the literary renaissance that would shortly arrive in the form of such major writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. Equally, in dismissing the country's interest in science as limited to pedestrian applications for streamlining the production of material goods, he failed to imagine America's burgeoning appetite for pure scientific research and discovery.[citation needed]

According to Tocqueville, democracy had some unfavorable consequences: the tyranny of the majority over thought, a preoccupation with material goods, and isolated individuals.[citation needed]

Democracy in America was interpreted differently across national contexts. In France and the United States, Tocqueville's work was seen as liberal, whereas both progressives and conservatives in the British Isles interpreted his work as supporting their own positions.[19]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). De la démocratie en Amérique. Vol. I (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica; de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). De la démocratie en Amérique. Vol. II (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica
  2. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1840). De la démocratie en Amérique. Vol. III (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica; de Tocqueville, Alexis (1840). De la démocratie en Amérique. Vol. IV (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica
  3. ^ Johri, Vikram. "'Alexis de Tocqueville': the first French critic of the US". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
  4. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. p. 13. ISBN 0-226-80532-8. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ a b Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  6. ^ Zetterbaum, Marvin (1967). Tocqueville and the problem of democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  7. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  8. ^ Tangian, Andranik (2020). Analytical Theory of Democracy. Vols. 1 and 2. Studies in Choice and Welfare. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39691-6. ISBN 978-3-030-39690-9. S2CID 216190330.
  9. ^ a b c Kerber, Linda K. (1988). "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History". The Journal of American History. University of North Carolina Press. 75 (1): 9–39. doi:10.2307/1889653. JSTOR 1889653. Full text available online
  10. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter XII: How the Americans understand the Equality of the sexes". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 101.
  11. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter X: The young Woman in the Character of a Wife". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. pp. 79–81.
  12. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter XII: How the Americans understand the Equality of the sexes". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 106.
  13. ^ L. Jaume, Tocqueville, Fayard 2008
  14. ^ Gates, Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2017). Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers. Penguin.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Zaleski, Pawel. "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality". Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. Felix Meiner Verlag, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2007. 50.[1]
  16. ^ Swedberg, Richard (2009). Tocqueville's Political Economy. Princeton University Press. p. 260. ISBN 9781400830084.
  17. ^ Crăiuțu, Aurelian; Jennings, Jeremy (2009). Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840340. ISBN 9780511840340.
  18. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  19. ^ Bonin, Hugo (2021). "Friend or foe? British receptions of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, 1835–1885". British Politics. doi:10.1057/s41293-021-00182-8. ISSN 1746-9198. S2CID 236226826.
  20. ^ "Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Note on the Translation". Retrieved 2012-06-23.
  21. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1863). Bowen, Francis (ed.). Democracy in America. Vol. I. Translated by Reeve, Henry (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Sever and Francis. ISBN 9780665415944. Retrieved 26 May 2023 – via Internet Archive.;de Tocqueville, Alexis (1864). Bowen, Francis (ed.). Democracy in America. Vol. II. Translated by Reeve, Henry (4th ed.). Cambridge: Sever and Francis. Retrieved 26 May 2023 – via Internet Archive.
  22. ^ ASIN 0060956666
  23. ^ Democracy in America. University of Chicago Press.
  24. ^ ASIN 0140447601
  25. ^ "Democracy in America: Translator's Note – Arthur Goldhammer". Archived from the original on 2012-07-26. Retrieved 2012-06-23.
  26. ^ "Democracy in America De la Démocratie en Amérique". Archived from the original on 2011-02-03. Retrieved 2012-06-23.


  • Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1996)
  • Morton, F. L. "Sexual Equality and the Family in Tocqueville's Democracy in America," Canadian Journal of Political Science (1984) 17#2 pp. 309–324 in JSTOR
  • Schleifer, James T. The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville's Democracy in America (U of Chicago Press, 2012)
  • Schneck, Stephen. "New Readings of Tocqueville's America: Lessons for Democracy," Polity (1992) 25#2 pp. 283–298 in JSTOR
  • Welch, Cheryl B. ed. Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Zetterbaum, Marvin. Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy (1967)


  • Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, Henry Reeve, tr., revised edition (2 vols., Cambridge, 1862)[1]
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.; Olivier Zunz, ed.) (The Library of America, 2004) ISBN 1-931082-54-5
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (George Lawrence, trans.; J. P. Mayer, ed.; New York: Perennial Classics, 2000)
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, trans., ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

French studies[edit]

  • Jean-Louis Benoît, Tocqueville Moraliste, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2004.
  • Arnaud Coutant, Tocqueville et la Constitution démocratique, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2008.
  • A. Coutant, Une Critique républicaine de la démocratie libérale, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2007.
  • Laurence Guellec, Tocqueville : l'apprentissage de la liberté, Michalon, 1996.
  • Lucien Jaume, Tocqueville, les sources aristocratiques de la liberté, Bayard, 2008.
  • Eric Keslassy, le libéralisme de Tocqueville à l’épreuve du paupérisme, L'Harmattan, 2000
  • F. Melonio, Tocqueville et les Français, 1993.

External links[edit]

  1. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1863). Bowen, Francis (ed.). Democracy in America. Vol. I. Translated by Reeve, Henry (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Sever and Francis. ISBN 9780665415944. Retrieved 26 May 2023 – via Internet Archive.;de Tocqueville, Alexis (1864). Bowen, Francis (ed.). Democracy in America. Vol. II. Translated by Reeve, Henry (4th ed.). Cambridge: Sever and Francis. Retrieved 26 May 2023 – via Internet Archive.