Alexis de Tocqueville’s unilateral vision of America

April 12, 2012

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville

Part of this unilateral [egalitarian] interpretation of the American reality comes from the exegesis liberal scholars made of the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). This young French aristocrat visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. In 1835 he published his celebrated work Democracy in America, which quickly became the classic reference book for any analysis of American democratic society.

As historian Edward Pessen of the City University of New York has said, Tocqueville’s work is the most influential and enduring analysis ever written about American democracy of that time. While other works have been largely laid aside, the interpretation of Tocqueville continues to enjoy widespread acceptance.[1]

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

The Viscount of Tocqueville unabashedly proclaimed himself an aristocrat: “I am an aristocrat by instinct.” Sadly, however, he was persuaded that aristocracy had had its day and that he could not have “any natural affection for it, since that aristocracy had ceased to exist, and one can be strongly attached only to the living.”[2]

This pessimism proceeded from his peculiar historical vision. “The nations of our time,” he wrote, “cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal.”[3] The French aristocrat lamented this march toward equality, but saw it as historically inevitable and futile to resist: “Mankind today is impelled by an unknown force that moves it, at times gently, at times violently, toward the destruction of aristocracy. We may try to regulate or to slow down this force, but we cannot vanquish it.”[4] He even contended that this process was willed by Providence: “To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God.”[5]

Resigned to this course of events, Tocqueville devoted his immense intelligence and insight to trying “to regulate or to slow down” the revolutionary march toward total egalitarianism. He did so by defending the values of “liberty” as a means to prevent it from ending up in state despotism or mob rule. “It depends upon [the nations] themselves,” he warned, “whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”[6]

Lady Leonora Speyer, American violinst, was the daughter of Count Ferdinand von Stosch of Mantze in Silesia, who fought for the Union.

When Tocqueville toured the United States in 1831, he thought he had found a society that had made the transition from the Old Regime based on aristocracy to a new order based on equality without succumbing to despotism or mob rule. In America, “he contended, “a state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty.”[7]

Tocqueville returned to France determined to provide his fellow countrymen and Europeans an example of a modern society in which equality had triumphed without encroaching on liberty. This was the origin of his perceptive Democracy in America. This goal, more apologetic than scientific, made Tocqueville concentrate his attention almost exclusively on the democratic and dynamic aspects of the country, while overlooking the strong aristocratic elements that still existed. The result was a penetrating but one-sided picture of the United States which served as the source of much of the liberal scholarship regarding the American system.[8]

Tocqueville’s work presented Europe—then in revolutionary turmoil—with a fascinating vision of a prosperous and almost totally democratic country, where family, aristocratic and hereditary values had been virtually extinguished.

At la Roquette prison on May 24, 1871, four leaders of the Commune (left) giving the orders, troops shot the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Darboy; Abbe Deguerry; three Jesuit priests; and Judge Bonjean, President of the Paris Court of Appeals.

“In America the aristocratic element has always been feeble from its birth; and if at the present day it is not actually destroyed, it is at any rate so completely disabled that we can scarcely assign to it any degree of influence on the course of affairs. The democratic principle, on the contrary, has gained so much strength by time, by events, and by legislation, as to have become not only predominant, but all-powerful. No family or corporate authority can be perceived; very often one cannot even discover in it any very lasting individual influence.”[9]

According to Tocqueville’s interpretation, in the first half of the nineteenth century the United States was a society dominated by the masses. There were few very rich men but also few very poor ones. The rich were almost all “self-made men” of humble origin, their wealth not extending to the third generation. It was a dynamic and mobile society, with the rich and the poor rising and falling within the social kaleidoscope. In this society, social differences were insignificant. The word servant was taboo, prisoners shook hands with their wardens, workers dressed like the bourgeois, politicians, even those from patrician families, flaunted humble origins, and the general vulgarity of manners testified to the predominance of the lower classes.[10]

Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White (Mrs Henry White), wife of an American diplomat.

Tocqueville summarizes his ideas:

“Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people…. [This equality] gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws.

“…The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.”[11]

As one can deduce from this synthesis of Tocqueville’s thinking regarding American society, he did not escape falling prey to the American myth. As Edward Pessen points out, “Tocqueville does not always make clear whether it is the American democratic society or an abstract democratic model of his own devising that underlies some of his imaginative flights.”[12]

Various interpretations of this unilateral vision largely dominated American historiography and sociology until the middle of the present century. Sociologists labeled this vision the “pluralist school” because its adherents emphasize the horizontal, ecumenical and dynamic aspects of American society, neglecting factors of social stratification. Modern scholarship, however, has rectified this vision. “This charming canvas of a crude but exhilarating social democracy,” explains Pessen, “has been largely demolished by modern research.”[13] This is what we shall now expound.


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 146-149.


[1] Cf. Edward Pessen, Riches, Class and Power Before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath & Co., 1973), p. 1. Pessen is Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College at the City University of New York and a specialist in the pre-Civil War era.

[2] Quoted in David Brudnoy, “’Liberty by Taste’: Tocqueville’s Search for Freedom,” in Modern Age—The First Twenty-Five Years: A Selection, George Panichas, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1988), p. 157.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books [1945] 1990), Vol. 2, p. 334

[4] Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), p. 50.

[5] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, p. 7.

[6] Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 334.

[7] Ibid., p. 333.

[8] Tocqueville also inspired conservative scholarship. His Democracy was addressed to the Americans as much as to the Europeans. He pointed to those pitfalls that could derail the American experiment, and called for the preservation of certain values, particularly religion and family, as a means of keeping the experiment within proper bearings. For a conservative interpretation of Tocqueville, see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot, 6th rev. ed. (South Bend. Ind.: Gateway Editions, 1978), pp. 178-195.

[9] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, pp. 52-53.

[10] Cf. Pessen, Riches, Class and Power Before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath & Co., 1973), pp. 2-3.

[11] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, p. 3.

[12] Pessen, Riches, Class and Power Before the Civil War, p. 2.

[13] Edward Pessen, “Status and Social Class in America,” in Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States, Luther S. Luedtke, ed. (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Information Agency [1987] 1988), p. 276.


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