Culture and Recreation
Who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
Aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was only 26 years old when he traveled to New York with his colleague and friend, Gustave de Beaumont (1802–1866), to study and observe American democracy.
Though Tocqueville set out with the pretext of studying the American penal system on behalf of the French government (both he and Beaumont were magistrates at the time), he had the deliberate and personal goal of conducting an onsite investigation of the world’s first and then only completely democratic society: the United States. Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled for nine months through New England, eastern Canada, and numerous American cities, including New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and New Orleans, Louisiana.
The pair returned to France in 1832 and the following year published their study, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France. Once this official obligation was behind him, Tocqueville left his post as magistrate and moved into a modest Paris apartment. There he devoted two years to writing Democracy in America (1835, 1840). The work was soon proclaimed the classic treatment of its subject throughout the Western world and secured Tocqueville’s fame as political observer, philosopher, and, later, sociologist.
Tocqueville proclaimed that during his travels, “Nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions …. All classes meet continually and no haughtiness at all results from the differences in social position. Everyone shakes hands….” But he also foresaw the possibility that the principles of economic equality could be undermined by the American passion for equality, which not only “tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great,” but also “impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level.” While he warned against the possible “tyranny of the majority” as a hazard of democracy, he also added that law, religion, and the press provide safeguards against democratic despotism.