Alexis de Tocqueville and the Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville
(1805 – 1859)

On July 29, 1805, French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was born. He is best known for his Democracy in America, where he analyzed the rising living standards and social conditions of individuals and their relationship to the market and state in Western societies. Today, it is considered an early work of sociology and political science.

Tocqueville started his political career around 1830. He defended the abolitionists in parliament, supporting free trade and the colonisation of Algeria. In the 1830’s, he was given the task to observe American prisons, which he traveled across the country for. Next to his examinations, the politician also created very detailed manuscripts on the life and political situation in America. After about two years, he returned with a report, representing the foundation of his most famous work, De la démocratie en Amerique published in 1835.

Next to America, Tocqueville also traveled through Europe, publishing several political works. When Tocqueville completed his journey to Algeria, he noticed problems in the French system of colonisation, building on assimilation. Instead, he preferred the British methods of avoiding a mixture of populations. When traveling to Ireland, he provided the most detailed information about the country and it’s political as well as religious situation, which he published successfully after returning.

Tocqueville’s most famous work Democracy in America consists of two parts, published in 1835 and 1840. In it, the political thinker and philosopher examines the democratic revolution of which he believed to have happened over the past 700 years. During his travels through America, Tocqueville noticed that the aristocracy was about to disappear and that some kind of equality was established from which the modern world could generally benefit. In order to Tocqueville, important factors responsible for these effects were for instance the growing economic opportunities which led to the growth of commerce and trade. Also he saw the abolition of primogeniture and the fact that all men were able to enter the clergy as influential for the described developments.

Seeing these changes, Tocqueville demanded new political sciences. At the beginning of his America studies, the thinker describes the contributions of the Puritans, who in his mind were mostly responsible for America’s state of democracy. They established equalities in education and a synthesis of religion and liberty. Another big topic of Tocqueville’s analysis depicted the situation of women. He was one of the first to examine ‘their’ situation, finding out that the patriarchal order in families decreased due to the collapse of the aristocracy. Tocqueville explains that women in the America he observed were more independent and remained unmarried much longer. Even though Tocqueville did not view women potentially able to act as equal to men, he welcomed their new role and growing independence in the American society.

In general, this work analyzes the differences between the American democracy and the failings of democracy in France. He also gives insights on the possible future of the Unites States’ democracy seeing dangers as well as many advances. The books turned out to be an immediate success and were popular in Europe and the United States. It became a classical work and is assigned in most American and European universities as a major work in political theory. The predictions he made in the book are still highly discussed at this time. To his major predictions belong the possible tyranny of the majority over thought, the preoccupation with material goods, and isolated individuals.

Alexis de Tocqueville passed away on April 16, 1859.

At yovisto, you may enjoy Stephen B. Smith lecturing about Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He also gives insights on the person Alexis de Tocqueville and his motivations in political philosophy.

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