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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville Alexis de Tocqueville[1†]

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville, known as Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 – April 16, 1859), was a French aristocrat, diplomat, sociologist, political scientist, philosopher, and historian. He is renowned for "Democracy in America" (1835, 1840) and "The Old Regime and the Revolution" (1856), early works in sociology and political science. Tocqueville advocated for modernizing France post-Revolution, endorsing parliamentary government and cautioning against majoritarianism[1†].

Early Years and Education

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville, was born on July 29, 1805, in Paris, France[2†][3†]. His parents had been jailed during the Reign of Terror[2†][3†], which likely had a profound impact on his early life. Tocqueville was a great-grandson of the statesman Chrétien de Malesherbes (1721–94), a liberal aristocratic victim of the French Revolution and a political model for the young Tocqueville[2†].

Despite being plagued by severe bouts of anxiety since childhood, Tocqueville remained close to his parents throughout his life[2†]. He was almost diminutive in stature and acutely sensitive[2†]. Despite these challenges, he chose politics as his vocation and adhered to this choice until he was driven from office[2†].

Tocqueville’s educational journey began in Metz, where he attended college[2†][3†]. After college, he studied law in Paris[2†][3†][4†]. As a young man, Tocqueville read the theorists of the Enlightenment. The insights of Hume, Kant, and others led Tocqueville to give up on his faith and seek secular and rational explanations for politics and morality[2†][4†].

In 1827, Tocqueville became a judge[2†][3†][4†]. He prepared himself for political life while observing the impending constitutional confrontation between the Conservatives and the Liberals, with growing sympathy for the latter[2†]. He was strongly influenced by the lectures of the historian and statesman François Guizot (1787–1874), who asserted that the decline of aristocratic privilege was historically inevitable[2†].

Career Development and Achievements

After studying law in Metz, Tocqueville served as a deputy of the Manche department and was later promoted to the position of general counsellor[5†]. He seemed poised to pursue a career in politics[5†]. In 1830, the July Revolution exchanged one constitutional monarchy for another, resulting in the reign of “citizen king” Louis-Philippe[5†].

Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–1848) and then during the Second Republic (1849–1851) which succeeded the February 1848 Revolution[5†][1†]. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s 2 December 1851 coup and thereafter began work on "The Old Regime and the Revolution"[5†][1†].

Tocqueville is best known for his works “Democracy in America” (appearing in two volumes, 1835 and 1840) and “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (1856)[5†][1†]. In both of these works, he analyzed the living standards and social conditions of individuals, as well as their relationship to the market and state in Western societies[5†][1†]. “Democracy in America” was published after Tocqueville’s travels in the United States and is today considered an early work of sociology and political science[5†][1†].

Tocqueville argued the importance of the French Revolution was to continue the process of modernizing and centralizing the French state which had begun under King Louis XIV[5†][1†]. He believed the failure of the Revolution came from the inexperience of the deputies who were too wedded to abstract Enlightenment ideals[5†][1†]. Tocqueville was a classical liberal who advocated parliamentary government and was skeptical of the extremes of majoritarianism[5†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his works “Democracy in America” and "The Old Regime and the Revolution"[2†][1†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, particularly “Democracy in America”, is considered a perceptive analysis of the political and social system of the United States in the early 19th century[2†][3†]. He believed that equality was the great political and social idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action[2†][3†].

Tocqueville admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when "every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd"[2†][3†]. This observation reflects his deep understanding of the potential pitfalls of a democratic society, highlighting his analytical prowess[2†][3†].

In his analysis of the French Revolution in “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, Tocqueville argued that the importance of the French Revolution was to continue the process of modernizing and centralizing the French state which had begun under King Louis XIV[2†][3†]. He believed the failure of the Revolution came from the inexperience of the deputies who were too wedded to abstract Enlightenment ideals[2†][3†]. This critical perspective shows Tocqueville’s ability to dissect historical events and provide insightful commentary[2†][3†].

Tocqueville’s analysis of American democracy and the French Revolution has had a significant impact on both sociology and political science[2†][3†]. His works are still widely read and cited today, demonstrating the enduring relevance of his analyses[2†][3†].

Personal Life

Alexis de Tocqueville was born into an aristocratic family that had been significantly affected by the revolutionary upheavals in France[1†][3†]. Both of his parents had been jailed during the Reign of Terror[1†][3†]. His great-grandfather, a victim of the French Revolution, was guillotined[1†][4†].

In 1828, Tocqueville met Mary Motley, an English woman who had been raised in France[1†][6†]. Despite considerable opposition from his family, he married her in 1835[1†][6†]. Their relationship provided a stable and supportive backdrop to his political and intellectual pursuits.

Tocqueville suffered from frequent bouts of tuberculosis, a disease that was prevalent and often deadly at the time[1†][6†]. Despite his illness, he remained professionally active for most of his life, contributing significantly to political science and sociology.

Tocqueville passed away in Cannes, France, in 1859 at the age of 53[1†][2†][1†][6†]. His personal life, marked by the love of his wife, the support of his family, and his courage in the face of illness, added a layer of complexity to his intellectual persona.

Conclusion and Legacy

Alexis de Tocqueville’s comprehensive study of America has provided a way for all subsequent generations to see America’s founding values reflected through history[5†]. His observations on equality and individualism in “Democracy in America” continue to be an important resource for explaining America to Europeans and for explaining Americans to themselves[5†][3†][7†].

Tocqueville believed that freedom, prosperity, and knowledge were the keys to unlocking the best of humanity[5†]. He recognized that strong local institutions were necessary to promote a functioning society with active involvement from the citizens[5†][8†]. Recognizing the importance of public cooperation, Tocqueville advocated for the New England system because it fostered greater local freedom[5†][8†].

Tocqueville’s observations of America contributed to a sociological perspective on countries suffering under tyranny and its effects[5†][7†]. His work as a political scientist helped him establish a renowned reputation in France[5†][7†].

He died just at the onset of a revival of liberalism in France[5†][9†]. The nine-volume publication of his works, edited by Beaumont (1860–66), was received as the legacy of a martyr of liberty[5†][9†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Alexis de Tocqueville [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Alexis de Tocqueville: French historian and political writer [website] - link
  3. History - Alexis de Tocqueville - Democracy in America, Summary & Beliefs [website] - link
  4. Columbia University - The Core Curriculum - Alexis de Tocqueville [website] [archive] - link
  5. Stand Together Trust - Alexis de Tocqueville and America: The Enduring Legacy of an Outsider’s Perspective [website] - link
  6. The Famous People - Alexis De Tocqueville Biography [website] - link
  7. The SocioSite Project - Alexis de Tocqueville Biography - Contribution, Legacy and Facts [website] - link
  8. Independent Institute Blog - Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville—and Civil Society in Early America [website] - link
  9. Britannica - Alexis de Tocqueville - French Historian, Sociologist [website] - link
  10. New World Encyclopedia - Alexis de Tocqueville [website] - link
  11. Wikiwand - Alexis de Tocqueville - Wikiwand [website] - link
  12. Simple Wikipedia (English) - Alexis de Tocqueville [website] - link
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