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tocquevilleAuthor: Barry Stocker

Tocqueville is a major figure in liberalism the United States and Britain as well as his home country of France. In France he was a parliamentarian and government minister in the period up to 1851when there was genuine parliamentary politics.

His political career was greatly enhanced by the publication of Democracy in America, which established him as the man who understood the direction of politics and society in the modern world. He had various links with Britain: his wife was English, he wrote an essay on the English Poor Law, he befriended liberal minded people in his visits including John Stuart Mill.

Mill wrote lengthy reviews of both parts of the Democracy, and Tocqueville’s influence is apparent in On Liberty, where Mill uses the idea of ‘tyranny of the majority’ developed by Tocqueville in the Democracy. The Democracy is based on a trip Tocqueville made to the United States to observe prison conditions, and which gave him the chance to observe a new political phenomenon: democracy and republicanism in an expanding state. It is a complex book reflecting the cultural and literary sensibilities of Tocqueville, and his personal and family status in between the aristocratic and democratic worlds.

The book is a fusion of political theory, political science, sociology, literature, and travelogue, and thus would be hard to write now. The complexity of the United States is discussed with an aphoristic force, which expresses his own conflicting passions and the ambiguity of what he saw. There is a underlying tension between: Tocqueville’s admiration for democracy as a social spirit of equality, which becomes expressed in political institutions; and his nostalgia for the aristocratic spirit of individual excellence and honour. The complexity of his personality, and of the Democracy, creates particularly rich ground for differing interpretations of Tocqueville from across a broad political spectrum. There is some ambiguity, as in any great book, but some interpretations are just wrong, seizing on passages in isolation. Such mistakes include trying to link Tocqueville with the current religious right in the United States. Tocqueville in the manner of the Enlightenment believed that religion, particularly Catholic Christianity, was a positive moral force in human history, which provided a basis for liberty in its ethics, but never suggested that theology should be at the basis of political thought; he was not even a Christian himself, but rather a Deist who believed in God, without believing in the truth of any religious text, and he certainly thought there should be a church-state separation.

Maybe the most common mistake is to confuse Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for local self-government in the United States with an uncritical attitude, and with a negative attitude towards the state above the most local level. Tocqueville makes it clear that he thinks the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is most dangerous at the local level, since it is more likely that opinion will become very homogenised and intolerant within a small sphere. Participation in the public sphere of a great nation provides some correction to local conformity, and this should be reinforced by a strong federal government. Tocqueville quotes the Federalist Papers of 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, which advocated a stronger federal government through acceptance of the new Constitution; and he associates himself with the ‘Republican’ element in American politics which stood for a relatively centralised form of federalism.

Tocqueville also distinguished between political centralisation, which he supports, and administrative centralisation which he opposes. He admires local self-government in the sense that everyone participates in administration of the locality through taking individual responsibility for local tasks. For Tocqueville civic (referring to voluntary associations) and political participation are vital components of liberty, as for him liberty was not just being left alone by the state, but something we create through active participation in society at the political, voluntary and economic levels.

Economic prosperity and freedom are seen as resulting from a widespread interest in participation in economic ventures, which is continuous with the spirit of political and voluntary participation. The economy should be freed from state interference, but the state should take some responsibility for the welfare of the poorest. The poorest should be supported but not through a redistribution of wealth downwards. Tocqueville admired the spirit of equality which is at the basis of democracy where it leads individuals to try to rise up economically, but feared its other tendency of pulling the richest down to the level of the poor. He also feared that those who became rich through industry and commerce would be a harsh and unsympathetic replacement for the old aristocracy. This is matched by the fear that democracy might lack an equivalent to the old aristocracy in guiding the state with a perspective beyond the immediate movements of popular passion; he identifies courts of justice and the legal profession as a possible replacement.

Tocqueville certainly did not think that pursuit of wealth is immoral, and admired the tendency he observed for Americans to both pursue wealth and to be generous with wealth. He was anxious that this kind of good self-interest might turn into a very narrow individualism. In his typically ambiguous manner he thought equality and liberty reinforce each other through balanced and limited government, but also feared that a democratic and equal world might become despotic through the disappearance of individuality in a more uniform world, and in a passive attitude towards the central state.