Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805. His parents, both of aristocratic background, narrowly avoided the guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution, and were exiled to England. They were later able to return to France during the reign of Napoleon. His father supported the Bourbon monarchy, eventually becoming Prefect of Versailles in 1826 and made a peer by Charles X in 1827.
Tocqueville entered the College Royal in Metz in 1821, at the age of 16, to study philosophy, and it was during these years that he began having doubts about the role of the aristocracy's role in France's government. He moved to Paris in 1823 to study law, and in 1827 became apprentice magistrate at the Versailles Court of Law. His sympathies became increasingly liberal, and he began voicing the opinion that a decline in the aristocracy was inevitable.
During the July Revolution of 1830, Charles X abdicated and Louis-Philippe ascended the throne. Power shifted from the Bourbons to the Orleans family, and Tocqueville's father lost his peerage. Tocqueville himself was in a precarious position due to his own political views, and under the pretext of wanting to study prison reform in America he obtained permission to travel there with long-time friend Gustave de Beaumont in 1831. He hoped to gain knowledge about the budding democratic system that could be used to influence France's political development. The result of the excursion was Tocqueville's best-known work, Democracy in America.
The first part of the book, published in 1835, was a highly positive and optimistic account of American government and society, and was well received throughout Europe. In it, Tocqueville records his observations of American society from the perspective of a detached social scientist. He portrayed it as an equation that balanced liberty with equality, concern for the individual with concern for society. He maintained that hard work and money-making comprised the dominant ethic of the country, that the common man enjoyed an unprecedented level of dignity, and observed that commoners never deferred to elites. He contrasted this view with European society, in which, he felt, no one cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, and the upper classes found it crass and vulgar to care about anything as common as money.
Published in 1840, the second volume of Democracy in America was more pessimistic, claiming that the result of equality in America was a "middling mediocrity" - a sort of mob rule where intellectualism is distained and the will of the commoner (i.e., the uneducated majority) becomes enacted.
The work was influential and well-regarded when published, and today is considered a foundational text of political and social science; it is assigned reading for most American students majoring in those fields. Tocqueville is widely quoted, and many of his predictions regarding America's future were prescient; he foresaw both the US Civil War and the rise of economic superpowers.
Tocqueville remained active in France's political life until Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte took over the government in a coup in 1851, which Tocqueville strongly opposed. After a brief imprisonment, he was barred from political office for refusing to swear allegiance to the new regime. He died of tuberculosis on 16 April 1859.
This article is from the April 21, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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