Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville, Alexis de (älĕksēs də tôkvēlˈ) [key], 1805–59, French politician and writer. A nobleman, he was prominent in politics, particularly just before and just after the Revolution of 1848 (see revolutions of 1848), and was minister of foreign affairs briefly in 1849. His observations made in 1831–32 during a government mission to the United States to study the penal system resulted in De la démocratie en Amérique (2 vol., 1835; tr. Democracy in America, 4 vol., 1835–40), one of the classics of political literature. A liberal whose deepest commitment was to human freedom, Tocqueville believed that political democracy and social equality would, inevitably, replace the aristocratic institutions of Europe. On his visit he noticed and then noted in his great work a number of uniquely American characteristics: its citizens' pronounced focus on religion, their individualism, the decentralization of their political affairs, the participatory quality of its citizenship as well as the implicit dangers of its conformity, its system of majority rule, and the threat of despotism. He analyzed the American attempt to have both liberty and equality in terms of what lessons Europe could learn from American successes and failures. Tocqueville's other important works are L'Ancien Régime et la révolution (1856; tr. 1856), which stressed the continuance after the French Revolution of many trends that had begun before, and his Recollections (1893; tr. by A. Teixeira de Mattos, 1896; complete ed. by J. P. Mayer, 1949). There are numerous English editions of his works, correspondence, and travel notebooks.

See biographies by J. P. Mayer (tr. 1960, repr. 1966), J. Epstein (2006), H. Brogan (2007), and L. Damrosch (2010); studies by E. T. Gargan (1965), M. Zetterbaum (1967), S. I. Drescher (1968), R. Boesche (1987), L. E. Shiner (1988), S. A. Hadari (1989), S. Wolin (2001), J. Elster (2009), and L. Damrosch (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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