Alexis de Tocqueville was the outsider who explained what made an adolescent United States tick. His book, Democracy in America, was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Two centuries later, de Tocqueville's observations ring truer than ever.
In the late 18th century, France and the United States had one thing in common: Revolution. Both nations fought – with each other’s help – to overcome despotic, feudal rule. Both revolutions sought to create societies marked by liberty, equality, and fairness under the law. Both societies communicated these ideals in similar defining documents, both made public in 1789: The Bill of Rights and the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen). Both documents led to the creation of constitutions, which defined processes for governance by rotating elected representation rather than by an absolute monarch who ruled for life.
But as 1789 drew to a close, while the US was busy electing its first president, the French Revolution had been hijacked by extremist factions on both the radical left and ultra-conservative right, plunging its short-lived experiment in republicanism into chaos. The chaos was called The Reign of Terror. Frenchman fought Frenchman, their weapons: imprisonment, sham trials, and the guillotine. Basically, if you disagreed with those in power, they took your head.
The Terror’s worst years were 1792-5, but the turmoil ebbed and flowed for the next 100 years. French leaders came and went along with systems of governance, ping-ponging from republic to monarchy to empire. Born in 1805 during the reign of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexis de Tocqueville was spared from the violence thanks to his big brain: His tutor convinced his parents to send him to school instead of the military. He was thus groomed for a career in politics. But he loved the study of history best.
In 1830, a new regime took power in France, this time led by King Louis Phillipe. Alexis hated the conservative new king intent on dragging the French back into its feudal past. So he sought a job that would take him far away, preferably to the United States. In 1831, his wish came true when he and a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, received permission to travel there to study prison reform. Neither young man intended to limit his explorations to poking around dingy old prisons, however.
Alexis, in particular, wished to observe a working republic, to experience a society where most men could vote and participate in the political process. He wanted to understand better how the U.S. had succeeded in separating government and religion. Most of all, he hoped to determine with his own eyes if the US Republic was stable; if it had truly created democracy without resorting to terror.
The two young men, both fluent English speakers, traveled the United States for nine months. They toured the great cities of Boston and New York. They wandered the wild frontiers of the Ohio Valley and Kentucky. They took a steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. They talked to everyone they met, from president to Indian Chief to city dweller and farmer.
When they returned home, Gustav went to work on the prison reform report; he also penned a novel. Alexis continued to travel, visiting Ireland and England, while organizing his thoughts about the US Republic into a manuscript. After three years, he had a book.
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, was published in 1835 when Alexis was only 30 years old. A highly enjoyable read – equal parts philosophical treatise, travelogue, and sociological study – it was an international sensation. Alexis argued that the secret success of US democracy was the squashing of hereditary social classes. He found that US citizens enjoyed greater social and economic equality where class differences had most eroded. Many people participated; even women were part of this revolution, he said. Its advancement and cultural ethos emanated from the desires of the majority. One day, he believed, all world governments would look like the USA.
The exceptions to the rule, however, were native peoples and slaves. Slavery in particular made democracy in the South more fragile, leaving white slave owners open to laziness and violence. In other words, democracy functioned better in an environment of tolerance rather than racial segregation.
He also noted potential dangers. The USA, he wrote, suffered from excessive materialism and the domination of the wealthy. He saw racial inequality and violence as a cancer that would sicken, and perhaps kill, the patient if not eliminated. He noted that for a US-styled democracy to work, participation was a must. In other words, if too many Americans decided not to exercise their right to vote, mediocre and/or dictatorial leadership would result.
Back in France, Alexis went into politics. In 1848, he helped to install democratic governance in his birth nation again. But it was not to last. Though Louis Napoleon, nephew of the eponymous dictator, was elected President of the 2nd Republic that year, he declared himself – like his uncle before him – Emperor of France four years later, in 1852.
That’s when Alexis dropped out, isolating himself in his rural chateau. He spent his last days writing history. He passed away in 1859. He was 53 years old.
Eleven years later, in 1870, Louis Napoleon was dethroned and democracy restored for a third time in France. The Third Republic would last until Hitler’s occupation in 1940. Today, Alexis de Tocqueville is considered one of the greatest thinkers, historians, and cultural critics of the nineteenth century and a bit of a seer too. That’s why we’re proud to name him a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Christian Delaunay of Paris and Boston for bringing the man and his ideas to our attention. Though 188 years old, they still feel fresh today.
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