Brief Biography of Alexis de Toqueville
Tocqueville was born to a family of Catholic aristocrats that owned an ancient chateau in Normandy, and that included several members who had been sent to the guillotine for their support of the royal family during the French Revolution. He was educated in Metz, France before becoming a lawyer and judge. While working in Versailles, he met a prosecutor named Gustave de Beaumont. During the uncertain last months of the Bourbon Restoration, the two—who would become close friends—decided to propose a journey to the United States in order to study its unique penitentiary system, which many in France hoped to emulate. They travelled to America for a nine-month stay in 1831. While Tocqueville increasingly left the prison project to his friend (though the two would publish their findings about American prisons in 1833), he devoted the next eight years to working on Democracy in America, which would be published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. In 1841, Tocqueville was elected to the French Chambre des Députés: he served in this capacity until the Revolutions of 1848, after which he left politics for good. Tocqueville published his final work, entitled The Old Regime and the Revolution, in 1856. Three years later, in 1859, he died of tuberculosis.
Historical Context of Democracy in America
While Tocqueville refers to early American history stretching back to the sixteenth century, and especially highlights the establishment of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, his work also assumes a general familiarity with the events of the American Revolution against England, of which it had long been a colony. The Revolution officially began in April 1775, with a skirmish in Lexington, Massachusetts—the cause of Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride. After thirteen colonial delegations met in Philadelphia in June and July 1776, they (as the new Congress) officially endorsed Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the new nation of the United States of America. (Fighting would continue until the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781). In 1777, though, Congress adopted the first version of a national constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, which gave a great deal of freedom to the states. After—as Tocqueville mentions—such a radical program proved unworkable, a constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787 led to the formation of an entirely new form of federalist government, including the separation of powers that Tocqueville would so admire. Much of the political tumult of the early years of the United States would continue to be characterized by debates between Federalists, who insisted on the need for more centralized power, and Republicans, who preferred greater freedom to be given to the states. Meanwhile, when Tocqueville embarked on his voyage to America in 1831, it was in large part in response to a volatile political situation back home in France. Indeed, the prior 40 years had seen radical changes in his own home country, including the French Revolution, which had (beginning in 1789—not long after the establishment of the American constitution) had overthrown the aristocratic ancien régime. Napoleon Bonaparte was elected and then seized power as an emperor, before 1818 saw the “Restoration” brought the French royal family back into power, and throughout the 1820s the government attempted to systematically reinstate the privileges and restrictions of an earlier time. Tocqueville opposed this attempt to return France to an aristocracy, but he also opposed the violent pro-democratic uprisings that ensued in 1830. The “July Revolution” ended with the crowning of Louis-Philippe, the “bourgeois king”—though Tocqueville looked with suspicion upon this new government as well. Tocqueville, then, saw certain parallels between America and France, in that they had both undergone a democratic revolution at the turn of the 19th century, and both nations were home to many people fighting to extend rights and equal conditions to more people. However, France was in a more obvious state of tumult and political uncertainty than America in the 1830s.
Other Books Related to Democracy in America
Tocqueville was influenced and inspired by the Federalist Papers, a collection of articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1787-1788, which dealt with major issues concerning the American constitution and political life in their young country. Their attempts to respond to and help to construct early American politics would prove highly useful to Tocqueville’s own project. In the French context, Tocqueville’s readers would have found his work reminiscent of the Baron de Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters, which described the imaginary travels of two Persian men through France in order to satirize and critique contemporary French society. Though Democracy in America strikes a different tone from Persian Letters, the books share a belief that a foreigner may have a valuable perspective on the strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions of a country and its culture.
Key Facts about Democracy in America
Full Title: Democracy in America
When Written: 1831-1840
Where Written: France
When Published: 1835 (Part I); 1840 (Part II)
Genre: Political writing
Setting: Though writing from his native country of France, Tocqueville’s text primarily draws on his experiences traveling through the United States.
Point of View: The book is a work of political argumentation, but Tocqueville often explicitly invokes a first-person perspective, citing his own personal experiences in America.
Extra Credit for Democracy in America