Alexis de Tocqueville Biography (French Historian and Political Theorist)


Who is Alexis de Tocqueville? Information on Alexis de Tocqueville biograph, life story, evalution and works.

Alexis de Tocqueville; (1805-1859), French historian and political theorist, whose studies of American democracy and the French Revolution were two of the most original and influential books of 19th century social science.

Charles Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Verneuil on July 29, 1805, into a family of Norman aristocrats. Tocqueville studied law and embarked on a judicial career. In 1831 he arranged to be sent to study the U. S. prison system. His observations resulted first in a report on American penitentiaries and then in his first masterpiece, De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), the first parts of which appeared in 1835. The book was an enormous success, and French critics hailed Tocqueville as the greatest political thinker since Montesquieu. See also Democracy in America.

Tocqueville became a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1838 and the Académie Française in 1841. In 1839 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Neither his health nor his temperament suited him for political leadership, and he was a cabinet minister only briefly, as foreign minister in 1849. Tocqueville was a moderate liberal who tried to balance equality with liberty. After the Revolution of 1848 broke out, however, he vigorously attacked the socialists, holding them responsible for the violence. He consequently approved of the repressive policies that followed. When Louis Napoléon seized power in 1851, on the other hand, Tocqueville protested and was arrested. After his release he returned to private life, devoting himself to his second masterpiece, L’Ancien Régime et la révolution ( 1856; The Old Regime and the Revolution). He died in Cannes on April 16, 1859.

Alexis de Tocqueville Biography (French Historian and Political Theorist)

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During the 19th century Tocqueville was widely considered one of the foremost proponents of liberalism. His modern reputation rests on his contributions to sociology and history. He himself asserted that his life s goal was “to show man how to escape tyranny.” He thought that liberty was threatened by the progress of the “principle of equality” embodied in democratic regimes, but he also believed that the-spread of democracy was inevitable and irreversible. He therefore undertook to appraise the threat and the promise of democracy. He concluded that although democracy equalized social classes and fostered wider political participation, it also tended to destroy traditional institutions that could protect the individual from despotic state power. Consequently, he warned that safeguards had to be erected against democracy’s potential “tyranny of the majority,” which could erode freedom and individuality.


Tocqueville’s great historical essay, The Old Regime and the Revolution, radically altered the historical interpretation of the French Revolution, for he showed that the Revolution did not constitute a sharp break with the past. He stressed rather the essential continuity between the old regime and the Revolution. He argued that the monarchy’s long effort to centralize and rationalize French institutions was completed by the Revolution, which he described as “the sudden and violent termination of a task at which ten generations had labored.”

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