Alexis de Tocqueville

1805 to 1859


Alexis de Tocqueville was a gentleman-scholar who emerged as one of the world’s great prophets. More than a century and a half ago, when most people were ruled by kings, he declared that the future belonged to democracy. He explained what was needed for democracy to work and how it could help protect human liberty.  At the same time, he warned that a welfare state could seduce people into servitude. He saw why socialism must lead to slavery.

Tocqueville staked his life on liberty. “I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights,” he wrote. “I am neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative…Liberty is my foremost passion.”

Reflecting on his famous book Democracy in America, historian Daniel J. Boorstin observed: “The most interesting question for the newcomer to Tocqueville is why this book, of all the myriad travel accounts of the United States, should have become a classic — the standard source for generalizing about America. From Tocqueville’s era, two best-selling books on the United States —Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) and Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842) —by more clever stylists and more acute observers than Tocqueville, survive only as scholarly footnotes. They tell us about those curious earlier Americans, but Tocqueville tells us about ourselves. He speaks to us every day.”

Tocqueville was a good listener with a keen memory.  He had a remarkable mind capable of discerning trends which almost all his contemporaries missed. He drew shrewd lessons from experience. He envisioned the insidious long-term consequences of government intervention.

To be sure, as a member of the landed gentry who earned most of his income from tenant farmers, Tocqueville shared the usual aristocratic prejudices against business enterprise. He hardly uttered a word about the industrial revolution which enabled millions to avoid starvation

He worked long hours completing important books despite health problems which plagued him. He suffered migraine headaches, neuralgia and stomach cramps lasting a week at a time. Undoubtedly these afflictions were a major reason why he was often irritable.

In his books, Tocqueville seems like a realist, yet his letters suggest he was a romantic who dreamed of great adventures and endured bouts of depression. At 19, he wrote a friend that he wished “to roam about for the rest of time.” When he was nearly 30, after Democracy in America became a hit, he lamented: “Oh! How I wish that Providence would present me with an opportunity to use, in order to accomplish good and grand things…this internal flame I feel within me that does not know where to find what feeds it.” At 41: “Perhaps a moment will come in which the action we will undertake can be glorious.”

Tocqueville, according to Yale University historian George Wilson Pierson, was “almost diminuitive in stature; a dignified, reserved, shy little gentleman, delicate of feature and restrained in gesture.  Proud, dark, troubled eyes arrested the glance and fitfully illuminated his pale and serious face. A sensitive mouth and lightly cleft chin, below a strong aquiline nose, betrayed his breeding and bespoke a more than ordinary determination. The finely shaped head was darkly framed in his long black hair, which he wore falling in locks to his shoulders, in the proud fashion of the day. When receiving, or conversing, he waved his narrow hands with grace and distinction…when he spoke, a resonant and moving voice, surprising so in small and frail a body, made his listeners forget all but the intense conviction and innate sincerity of the man.”

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clerel de Tocqueville was born the youngest of three boys July 29, 1805 in Paris. His father Herve-Louis-Francois-Jean-Bonaventure Clerel was a landed aristocrat descended from Norman nobles. His mother was Louise-Madeleine Le Peletier Rosanbo. They were imprisoned during the French Revolution, maintained their royalist ties throughout the Napoleonic era, and after the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in 1815 Herve served as a regional government administrator. Alexis was tutored by Abbe Lesueur, a priest who taught devotion to the Catholic Church and the French monarchy.

At 16, Alexis began exploring his father’s library which included such provocative French Englightenment authors as Montesquieu and Voltaire. “When I was prey to an insatiable curiosity whose only available satisfaction was a large library of books,” he recalled, “I heaped pell-mell into my mind all sorts of notions and ideas which belong more properly to a more mature age. Until that time, my life had passed enveloped in a faith that hadn’t even allowed doubt to penetrate into my soul. Then doubt entered, or rather hurtled in with an incredible violence, not only doubt about one thing or another in particular, but an all-embracing doubt. All of a sudden I experienced the sensation people talk about who have been through an earthquake.”

Rather than become an officer in the French army like his two brothers, Alexis preferred the intellectual career for aristocrats—law. He studied law from 1823 to 1826, then traveled in Italy with his brother Edouard. Alexis’ most memorable experience was seeing how war and despotism had ravaged the land. He pondered how once-mighty civilizations could perish.

In 1827, his father got him appointed as a judge at Versailles, serving the Bourbon monarchy, but he was uncomfortable. “I had spent the best years of my youth,” he wrote later, “in a society that seemed to be regaining prosperity and grandeur as it regained freedom; I had conceived the idea of a regulated and orderly freedom, controlled by religious belief, mores and laws; I was touched by the joys of such a freedom, and it had become my whole life’s passion…”

On July 25, 1830, people rebelled and drove the Bourbon King Charles X into exile.  The new king was Louis Philippe from the House of Orleans. Tocqueville figured this was better than chaos, so he took a new loyalty oath like many other judges, outraging his friends and relatives. But the king didn’t trust hold-overs. Tocqueville was demoted to a post without pay.

His warm and easy-going friend Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow judge at Versailles, was in a similar fix. Since the Chamber of Deputies talked about reforming the criminal code, Tocqueville and Beaumont got official permission to study America’s prison system. Their families would pay expenses. The two men canvassed friends and relatives about possible contacts in America. They read American literature. They read some of the travel books which Europeans had written about America. Tocqueville spent 40 francs on a leather trunk to carry two pairs of boots, a silk hat, hose and other fashionable apparel, plus note paper and a copy of Cours d’economique politique by French laissez faire economist Jean-Baptise Say.

On April 2, 1931, Tocqueville and Beaumont boarded the American ship Le Havre which carried 163 passengers and a cargo of silk from Lyon. After four days of sea-sickness, Tocqueville and Beaumont adopted a schedule which they continued in the states: up around 5:30 AM, work till breakfast at 9, then work from 11 to 3 PM when they have dinner and work until bedtime—they didn’t join other passengers for supper. In 38 days, they reached New York.

During the next nine months, they toured cities—New York, Albany, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal and Quebec. They passed through towns like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Knoxville, Louisville, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh. They ventured into the hinterlands as far west as Lake Michigan. They visited Niagara Falls. They travelled along the Hudson River Valley. They saw the Mohawk River Valley, setting for James Fenimore Cooper’s bestselling novel, The Last of the Mohigans.  They took a boat trip down the Mississippi River. They inspected many prisons.They met notable Americans such as Unitarian William Ellery Channing, historian Jared Sparks, Senator Daniel Webster, former President John Quincy Adams and Texas adventurer Sam Houston. They talked with lawyer Salmon Chase who was to become Supreme Court Chief Justice and with Charles Carroll, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Soon after they left America on February 20, 1832, they began to write the promised book on America’s penal system. Beaumont did most of it. The book was published in January 1833 as Du systeme penitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application en France. They believed many prisoners could be reformed through isolation and work, but they insisted the primary purpose of imprisonment must be to punish wrongdoers. The work was a critical success, and the Academie Francaise awarded them the prestigious Montyon Prize.

Although they had talked about collaborating on a book on America, their interests diverged. Beaumont, most concerned about slavery, wrote a novel called Marie, ou l’esclavage aux Etats-Unis. Tocqueville was fascinated with American social and political life because of the difficulties his own country had developing institutions favorable to liberty. Tocqueville attributed French political problems to centralized government: “Most of those people in France who speak against centralization do not really wish to see it abolished; some because they hold power, others because they expect to hold it.”

Tocqueville observed that liberty makes for a peaceful social order. “Picture to yourself,” he wrote a friend, “a society which comprises all the nations of the world — English, French, German: people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness a hundred times greater than our own…How are they welded into one people?  By community of interests. That is the secret!”

Tocqueville decided that before he could write about liberty and democracy, he had to visit England, which he did in 1833. He wrote that it was “the land of decentralization. We have a central government, but not a central administration. Each county, each borough, each district looks after its own interests. Industry is left to itself…It is not in the nature of things that a central government should be able to supervise all the wants of a great nation. Decentralization is the chief cause of England’s material progress.”

He spent almost a year writing the first two volumes of De la Democratie en Amerique. He worked in an attic room of his parents’ Paris house, 49 rue de Verneuil, Paris. In mid-September 1833, he wrote Beaumont: “Upon arriving here, I threw myself on America in a sort of frenzy. The frenzy is still going on, though now and then it seems to die down.  I think my work will benefit more than my health, which suffers a little from the extreme exertion of my mind; for I hardly think of anything else as I fire away…From morning until dinner time my life is altogether a life of the mind and in the evening I go to see Mary.”

He was referring to Mary Mottley, an English commoner he had met while a judge at Versailles. They got married October 26, 1835. She had a calming influence, but unfortunately, she couldn’t keep up with his interests.  “In our hearts we understand each other,” he told a friend, “but we cannot in our minds. Our natures are too different. Her slow and gradual way of experiencing things is completely foreign to me.” They didn’t seem to have much fun.

Meanwhile, the first two volumes came out on January 23, 1835.  Tocqueville was 29. The publisher, Gosselin, reportedly hadn’t read the manuscript and agreed to issue only 500 copies. But Tocqueville publicized the book via newspaper advertisements, and an ideological adversary unintentionally drew attention to the book by attacking it in a newspaper article. An immediate hit, the book won another Montyon Prize which brought a 12,000-franc award, and it was reprinted eight times before the third and fourth volumes appeared in April 1840. They were less successful commercially than the first two, but critics considered them more important, and they helped buoy Tocqueville’s reputation.

Henry Reeve, a 22-year-old editor of the influential Edinburgh Review, began translating the book into English, and a revised version remains the most popular translation. In the October 1835 London and Westminster Review, English thinker John Stuart Mill called Democracy in America “among the most remarkable productions of our time.” Mill gave the third and fourth volumes an even bigger boost in the October 1840 Edinburgh Review: “the first philosophical book ever written on Democracy, as it manifests itself in modern society; a book, the essential doctrines of which it is not likely that any future speculations will subvert, to whatever degree thay may modify them…” Mill asked Tocqueville to write an article for the London and Westminister Review, giving him further exposure in the English-speaking world. The book was also translated into Danish, German, Italian, Russian, Serbian and Spanish.

His book had a lasting impact because he offered a broad vision rather than a journalistic chronicle which would become dated. He was interested in the workings of democracy and illustrated general principles with his observations about America, the largest country to try democracy. He was concerned about what America meant for liberty in France and elsewhere.

Tocqueville was the man who discovered American individualism.  Although he described it somewhat negatively in one place, he talked approvingly about self-help, a hallmark of American individualism. For example: “The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it.”

Tocqueville explained the American dream: “There is no man who cannot reasonably expect to attain the amenities of life, for each knows that, given love of work, his future is certain…No one is fully contented with his present fortune, all are perpetually striving, in a thousand ways, to improve it.  Consider one of them at any period of his life and he will be found engaged with some new project for the purpose of increasing what he has.”

Tocqueville commended the peaceful influence of free enterprise. “I know of nothing more opposite to revolutionary attitudes than commercial ones. Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity. Commerce renders men independent of one another, gives them a lofty notion of their personal importance, leads them to seek to conduct their own affairs, and teaches how to conduct them well; it therefore prepares men for freedom, but preserves them from revolutions.”

Tocqueville observed how liberty and the need for social cooperation give people incentives to be virtuous. “I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another. The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness.”

Tocqueville denounced American slavery, saying “the laws of humanity have been totally perverted.” He anticipated civil war. He predicted blacks and whites would have a tough time getting along after the abolition of slavery, but he expressed confidence that blacks could do fine if truly liberated: “As long as the Negro remains a slave, he may be kept in a condition not far removed from that of the brutes; but with his liberty he cannot but acquire a degree of instruction that will enable him to appreciate his misfortunes and to discern a remedy for them.”

Tocqueville warned against war and violent revolution: “it is chiefly in war that nations desire, and frequently need, to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war…A people is never so disposed to increase the functions of central government as at the close of a long and bloody revolution…The love of public tranquility becomes at such times an indiscriminate passion, and the members of the community are apt to conceive a most inordinate devotion to order.”

With phenomenal foresight, Tocqueville predicted that the welfare state would become a curse. For example:  “Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification’s and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

“Our contemporaries,” he continued, “combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.”

Like some other 19th century gentleman-scholars such as Thomas Macaulay, Tocqueville hoped to shape public policies.  He spent a dozen frustrating years as an elected representative in the Chamber of Deputies and Constituent Assembly where he focused on such controversies as abolishing slavery in French colonies.  For five months, he served as Finance Minister.  But he had little influence on Francois Guizot (pro-business) or Louis Adolph Thiers (moderate opposition) who utterly dominated French politics during this era.

During the Revolution of 1848 which toppled King Louis-Philippe, socialism reared its ugly head. Tocqueville was far ahead of his time in seeing why it must mean slavery, as he told fellow representatives: “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

Since Tocqueville believed individuals should be judged on their own merits, he rejected the racist theories of Arthur de Gobineau who wrote The Inequality of Human Races (1855). For example, Tocqueville told Beaumont that Gobineau “has just sent me a thick book, full of research and talent, in which he endeavors to prove that everything that takes place in the world may be explained by differences of race. I do not believe a word of it…” To Gobineau, he wrote, “What purpose does it serve to persuade lesser peoples living in abject conditions of barbarism or slavery that, such being their racial nature, they can do nothing to better themselves, to change their habits, or to ameliorate their status?”

In Tocqueville’s last great work, L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (1856), he interpreted the French Revolution which ignited war throughout Europe. Once again, he confronted the demon of centralized government: “the object of the French Revolution was not only to change an ancient form of government, but also to abolish an ancient state of society…clear away the ruins, and you behold an immense central power, which has attracted and absorbed into unity all the fractions of authority and influence which had formerly been dispersed amongst a host of secondary powers, orders, classes, professions, families and individuals, and which were disseminated throughout the whole fabric of society.”

Tocqueville’s health had always been delicate, but it took a turn for the worse in March 1850 when he spat blood — tuberculosis. It went into remission for several years, then became more serious. He could talk only in a low voice. Advised to spend time in a sunny climate, he and Mary went to Cannes, January 1859. Lord Broughham, an English friend who lived there, made available his luxurious library so Tocqueville could relieve the boredom of illness.

He suffered agonizing pain in his stomach and bladder. On March 4, 1859, he wrote Beaumont: “I know nothing that has ever grieved me so much as what I am going to say to you…COME. COME, as fast as you can…I embrace you from the depth of my soul.” Beaumont hurried to be by Tocqueville’s side.

He lost consciousness and died around 7 PM, April 16th. He was buried in Tocqueville, Normandy, his family’s birthplace. The following year Beaumont, steadfast for more than 30 years, published his friend’s works and correspondence.

Tocqueville fell out of fashion during the late 19th century, perhaps because Germany, not America, seemed to have caught the wave of the future. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck embraced socialism and established the first modern welfare state, and people everywhere looked to Germany for leadership.

But socialist centralization led to communism, fascism, National Socialism and other brutal tyrannies..The welfare state shackled hundreds of millions more with taxes and regulations.  Then after World War II, America emerged as the world’s brightest hope. Tocqueville predicted it all.

Now he’s hailed as a prophet.  Recent decades have brought the most comprehensive biography of him (1988) and new editions of his complete works—the latest beginning in 1991.  Today everyone can see for themselves the wonder of this troubled man who peered into the mists of time, warned against the horrors of collectivism and boldly proclaimed redemption through liberty.

Essays from 1835

What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear


Tocqueville warns of the dangers from a nurturing government "extending its arm over the whole community," in this selection from Democracy in America.

I had remarked during my stay in the United States that a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism; and I perceived, upon my return to Europe, how much use had already been made, by most of our rulers, of the notions, the sentiments, and the wants created by this same social condition, for the purpose of extending the circle of their power. This led me to think that the nations of Christendom would perhaps eventually undergo some oppression like that which hung over several of the nations of the ancient world.

A more accurate examination of the subject, and five years of further meditation, have not diminished my fears, but have changed their object.

No sovereign ever lived in former ages so absolute or so powerful as to undertake to administer by his own agency, and without the assistance of intermediate powers, all the parts of a great empire; none ever attempted to subject all his subjects indiscriminately to strict uniformity of regulation and personally to tutor and direct every member of the community. The notion of such an undertaking never occurred to the human mind; and if any man had conceived it, the want of information, the imperfection of the administrative system, and, above all, the natural obstacles caused by the inequality of conditions would speedily have checked the execution of so vast a design.

When the Roman emperors were at the height of their power, the different nations of the empire still preserved usages and customs of great diversity; although they were subject to the same monarch, most of the provinces were separately administered; they abounded in powerful and active municipalities; and although the whole government of the empire was centered in the hands of the Emperor alone and he always remained, in case of need, the supreme arbiter in all matters, yet the details of social life and private occupations lay for the most part beyond his control. The emperors possessed, it is true, an immense and unchecked power, which allowed them to gratify all their whimsical tastes and to employ for that purpose the whole strength of the state. They frequently abused that power arbitrarily to deprive their subjects of property or of life; their tyranny was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the many; it was confined to some few main objects and neglected the rest; it was violent, but its range was limited.

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that, in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands and might interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do. But this same principle of equality which facilitates despotism tempers its rigor. We have seen how the customs of society become more humane and gentle in proportion as men become more equal and alike. When no member of the community has much power or much wealth, tyranny is, as it were, without opportunities and a field of action. As all fortunes are scanty, the passions of men are naturally circumscribed, their imagination limited, their pleasures simple. This universal moderation moderates the sovereign himself and checks within certain limits the inordinate stretch of his desires.

Independently of these reasons, drawn from the nature of the state of society itself, I might add many others arising from causes beyond my subject; but I shall keep within the limits I have laid down.

Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger, but these crises will be rare and brief. When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience. I do not deny, however, that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms that democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst.

When the sovereign is elective, or narrowly watched by a legislature which is really elective and independent, the oppression that he exercises over individuals is sometimes greater, but it is always less degrading; because every man, when he is oppressed and disarmed, may still imagine that, while he yields obedience, it is to himself he yields it, and that it is to one of his own inclinations that all the rest give way. In like manner, I can understand that when the sovereign represents the nation and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived serve not only the head of the state, but the state itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public. To create a representation of the people in every centralized country is, therefore, to diminish the evil that extreme centralization may produce, but not to get rid of it.

I admit that, by this means, room is left for the intervention of individuals in the more important affairs; but it is not the less suppressed in the smaller and more privates ones. It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other.

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations that have introduced freedom into their political constitution at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task; but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the play things of their ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men. After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.

It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.

A constitution republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts has always appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.

Interest Rightly Understood


In this selection Tocqueville discusses the ways that self-interest "rightly understood" disciplines people "in the habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, [and] self-command."

I doubt whether men were more virtuous in aristocratic ages than in others, but they were incessantly talking of the beauties of virtue, and its utility was only studied in secret. But since the imagination takes less lofty flights, and every man's thoughts are centered in himself, moralists are alarmed by this idea of self-sacrifice and they no longer venture to present it to the human mind.

They therefore content themselves with inquiring whether the personal advantage of each member of the community does not consist in working for the good of all; and when they have hit upon some point on which private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate, they are eager to bring it into notice. Observations of this kind are gradually multiplied; what was only a single remark becomes a general principle, and it is held as a truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow creatures and that his private interest is to do good.

I have already shown, in several parts of this work, by what means the inhabitants of the United States almost always manage to combine their own advantage with that of their fellow citizens; my present purpose is to point out the general rule that enables them to do so. In the United States hardly anybody talks of the beauty of virtue, but they maintain that virtue is useful and prove it every day. The American moralists do not profess that men ought to sacrifice themselves for their fellow creatures because it is noble to make such sacrifices, but they boldly aver that such sacrifices are as necessary to him who imposes them upon himself as to him for whose sake they are made… .

The Americans, on the other hand, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one… .

The principle of self-interest rightly understood is not a lofty one, but it is clear and sure. It does not aim at mighty objects, but it attains without excessive exertion all those at which it aims. As it lies within the reach of all capacities, everyone can without difficulty learn and retain it. By its admirable conformity to human weaknesses it easily obtains great dominion; nor is that dominion precarious, since the principle checks one personal interest by another, and uses, to direct the passions, the very same instrument that excites them.

The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self- command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits. If the principle of interest rightly understood were to sway the whole moral world, extraordinary virtues would doubtless be more rare; but I think that gross depravity would then also be less common. The principle of interest rightly understood perhaps prevents men from rising far above the level of mankind, but a great number of other men, who were falling far below it, are caught and restrained by it. Observe some few individuals, they are lowered by it; survey mankind, they are raised.

I am not afraid to say that the principle of self-interest rightly understood appears to me the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the men of our time, and that I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves. Towards it, therefore, the minds of the moralists of our age should turn; even should they judge it to be incomplete, it must nevertheless be adopted as necessary.

I do not think, on the whole, that there is more selfishness among us than in America; the only difference is that there it is enlightened, here it is not. Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest; we want to save everything, and often we lose it all. Everybody I see about me seems bent on teaching his contemporaries, by precept and example, that what is useful is never wrong Will nobody undertake to make them understand how what is right may be useful?

No power on earth can prevent the increasing equality of conditions from inclining the human mind to seek out what is useful or from leading every member of the community to be wrapped up in himself. It must therefore be expected that personal interest will become more than ever the principal if not the sole spring of men's actions; but it remains to be seen how each man will understand his personal interest. If the members of a community, as they become more equal, become more ignorant and coarse, it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their selfishness may lead them; and no one can foretell into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow creatures.

I do not think that the system of self-interest as it is professed in America is in all its parts self- evident, but it contains a great number of truths so evident that men, if they are only educated, cannot fail to see them. Educate, then, at any rate, for the age of implicit self-sacrifice and instinctive virtues is already flitting far away from us, and the time is fast approaching when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to exist without education.

Associations in Civil Life


In this excerpt from Democracy in America, Tocqueville examines the decentralized, voluntary associations he found throughout the United States and contrasts them with his native France, where the state played a far more central role in people's lives.

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.

I have since traveled over England, from which the Americans have taken some of their laws and many of their customs; and it seemed to me that the principle of association was by no means so constantly or adroitly used in that country. The English often perform great things singly, whereas the Americans form associations for the smallest undertakings. It is evident that the former people consider association as a powerful means of action, but the latter seem to regard it as the only means they have of acting.

Thus the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes. Is this the result of accident, or is there in reality any necessary connection between the principle of association and that of equality?

Aristocratic communities always contain, among a multitude of persons who by themselves are powerless, a small number of powerful and wealthy citizens, each of whom can achieve great undertakings single-handed. In aristocratic societies men do not need to combine in order to act, because they are strongly held together. Every wealthy and powerful citizen constitutes the head of a permanent and compulsory association, composed of all those who are dependent upon him or whom he makes subservient to the execution of his designs.

Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy, but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation: whereas if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered. A people among whom individuals lost the power of achieving great things single-handed, without acquiring the means of producing them by united exertions, would soon relapse into barbarism… .

Unhappily, the same social condition that renders associations so necessary to democratic nations renders their formation more difficult among those nations than among all others. When several members of an aristocracy agree to combine, they easily succeed in doing so; as each of them brings great strength to the partnership, the number of its members may be very limited; and when the members of an association are limited in number, they may easily become mutually acquainted, understand each other, and establish fixed regulations. The same opportunities do not occur among democratic nations, where the associated members must always be very numerous for their association to have any power.

I am aware that many of my countrymen are not in the least embarrassed by this difficulty. They contend that the more enfeebled and incompetent the citizens become, the more able and active the government ought to be rendered in order that society at large may execute what individuals can no longer accomplish. They believe this answers the whole difficulty, but I think they are mistaken.

A government might perform the part of some of the largest American companies, and several states, members of the Union, have already attempted it; but what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association? It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other. Will the administration of the country ultimately assume the management of all the manufactures which no single citizen is able to carry on? And if a time at length arrives when, in consequence of the extreme subdivision of landed property, the soil is split into an infinite number of parcels, so that it can be cultivated only by companies of tillers will it be necessary that the head of the government should leave the helm of state to follow the plow? The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies. Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another. I have shown that these influences are almost null in democratic countries; they must therefore be artificially created, and this can only be accomplished by associations.

When the members of an aristocratic community adopt a new opinion or conceive a new sentiment, they give it a station, as it were, beside themselves, upon the lofty platform where they stand; and opinions or sentiments so conspicuous to the eyes of the multitude are easily introduced into the minds or hearts of all around. In democratic countries the governing power alone is naturally in a condition to act in this manner, but it is easy to see that its action is always inadequate, and often dangerous. A government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry. No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands. Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor. Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.

As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to. The first time I heard in the United States that a hundred thousand men had bound themselves publicly to abstain from spirituous liquors, it appeared to me more like a joke than a serious engagement, and I did not at once perceive why these temperate citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides. I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed by the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance.

They acted in just the same way as a man of high rank who should dress very plainly in order to inspire the humbler orders with a contempt of luxury. It is probable that if these hundred thousand men had lived in France, each of them would singly have memorialized the government to watch the public houses all over the kingdom.

Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.

Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased. 


Liberty is not a means to a political end. It is itself the highest political end.

Lord Acton

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