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Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?

At this second encounter, Beaumont expressed the opinion that Tocqueville later enshrined in Democracy: “He [Père Richard] thinks as I do that this multiplicity of different cults will one day end, either in natural religion, that is to say in the absence of all outward cult, or in Catholicism.” Here as elsewhere Tocqueville concluded things about America because of prejudices he brought with him from France. He was educated by a priest, the Abbé Lesueur, who instilled in him the notion that any “real” religion must claim to be the only one. American religious tolerance he could read only as indifference to religious truth. What he wrote early in his stay would be his view through the rest of his trip and while writing Democracy:

It seems clear to me that the reformed religion is a sort of compromise, a kind of representative Monarchy, a kind of religion that may well fill an epoch, serve as transition from one state to another, but which could never constitute a definitive state, and which is nearing its end.

We should never forget that Tocqueville was not writing an objective account of what he saw in America. He was writing for the French, delivering a minatory message to them—warning them that they could not resist the world’s growing egalitarianism à ou-trance, but they could control the worst effects of it if they learned from America’s experience. As Bryce noted, “His heart was in France, and the thought of France, never absent from him, unconsciously coloured every picture he drew.” His focus is made clear in the urgent letters he wrote back home, wanting to be instructed on what questions he should be asking Americans—that is, what could he learn that would be most useful to France:

You appreciate how necessary it is for us to know the opinions prevalent among us [Frenchmen] if we wish to modify them…. You must give us your ideas as to what would be the most useful to examine in this country…. On a multitude of points we don’t know what to ask because we are ignorant of what [opinion] exists in France and because, without comparison to make, the mind doesn’t know how to proceed. It is therefore absolutely necessary that our friends of France furnish us in part with what we need, if we wish to acquire some useful notions here.

This ulterior motive for study is a subtly distorting agent throughout Democracy. Tocqueville had crossed the ocean convinced that France must not become like America, though it could not resist the absorption of some democratic forces. How best to inoculate his own country against its dangers was the first and final task he set himself. He was convinced that the wrong approach was that of Lafayette, who affirmed the essential unity of American and French liberalism. Though Beaumont was related to Lafayette (and would later marry his cousin, Lafayette’s granddaughter), he and Tocqueville thought that “the hero of two worlds” was (in Pierson’s words) “a vain and dangerous demagogue.” Lafayette had just visited America, to a rapturous response, and there is nothing more comic in Beaumont’s letters than his description of the panic he and Tocqueville felt that they could be coerced into drinking a toast to Lafayette at any banquet they attended.


The didactic purpose of Democracy, with its intended French audience, accounts for the problem of “the two Democracies“—that is, the difference between the book’s first volume, which seems optimistic about America and its future, and the darker second volume, published five years later, which dilates upon the grim side of America’s experiment. Actually, these are two steps in a single process. In the first volume, Tocqueville is trying to persuade his countrymen that they cannot simply ignore or reject the world trends of which America is the primary exemplar. Some Frenchmen of his class still maintained that democracy was an inherently unstable and unsustainable form of government, one that would undo itself in the very process of intruding itself. Tocqueville was there to tell them that, no, democracy can—under certain circumstances (which are not those of France), and within certain limits (that hamper it even in America)—succeed.

The second step in his argument, insisted on in the second volume, is that America’s success is not total, and does not mean that France could or should adopt its program. It should oppose so far as possible the “universal suffrage” (as he thought it) of America. Mill notes that he was actually talking about limited male suffrage: “In the American democracy, the aristocracy of skin, and the aristocracy of sex, retain their privileges.” Tocqueville wrote while still in America:

Only a pretentious or weak mind could, after seeing America, maintain that in the present state of the world her political institutions could be applied to others…[yet] there is not a people but could usefully appropriate some fragments [of her system].

In the “darker” volume Tocqueville develops the idea of the “tyranny of the majority” adumbrated in the first volume. The conviction that greater freedom of mind leads to greater imprisonment of thought is a Gallic paradox of the sort that many love in Tocqueville, though Bryce notes how little empirical basis it had. Tocqueville’s description of the “tyranny” is famous:

In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own…. The fact that the political laws of the Americans are such that the majority rules the community with sovereign sway materially increases the power which that majority naturally exercises over the mind. For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor. This political omnipotence of the majority in the United States doubtless augments the influence that public opinion would obtain without it…. The intellectual dominion of the greater number would probably be less absolute among a democratic people governed by a king than in the sphere of a pure democracy, but it will always be extremely absolute; and by whatever political laws men are governed in the ages of equality, it may be foreseen that faith in public opinion will become for them a species of religion, and the majority its ministering prophet [emphases added].

This view of democracy as lacking the nonconformist urge of Protestantism shows why Tocqueville thought that Catholicism was the religion of America’s future. A priest, the vice-president of Maryland’s College of Saint Mary, told him:

Public opinion accomplishes with us what the Inquisition was never able to do. I have seen, I have known a multitude of young men who, after receiving a scientific education, thought they had discovered that the Christian religion was not true. Carried away by the fire of youth, they began to maintain this opinion openly…. Well! Some were obliged to leave the country, or to vegetate there miserably. The others, feeling that the struggle was unequal, were constrained to return, outwardly, into the ways of religion, or at least keep their mouths shut. The number of those thus beaten by public opinion is very considerable.

This went into Democracy:

Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion.

Tocqueville’s view of democracy as productive of mental conformity was very popular in America during the 1950s, when Tocqueville had one of his major spurts in popularity. That popularity has, at various times, depended on the way his aphoristic and almost oracular style can be mined for whatever lessons people want to enforce for their own purposes. The critics of Eisenhower’s purportedly snoozy regime loved to cite Tocqueville on the tyranny of the majority: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

People quote such sweeping generalizations when they can be used for their immediate purpose, and the floating quality of Tocqueville’s maxims lends them very readily to such appropriation. His popularity is in large part derived from the ease with which detached maxims can support the fashion of the day. Conservatives find in him a proleptic attack on the welfare state, a defense of states’ rights, and the insistence on democracy’s need of a supporting religion. Liberals find in him the praise of equality as the essence of democracy and the central role he gives to courts of law.

But his best critics have seen the limits of his pronouncements de haut en bas, based as they are on imperfectly studied particulars. Tocqueville does not connect cultural attitudes with their material base, so that (as Bryce wrote) “some [judgments] were true of America, but not of democracy in general, while others were true of democracy in general but not true of America.” Mill, despite his sympathy with Tocqueville’s view that egalitarianism was inevitable, found invalid his research methods. The effects the French author attributed to equality could arise from a material base where equality was missing, while they were not present where equality prevailed without an enabling material base:

So far is it, indeed, from being admissible that mere equality of conditions is the mainspring of those moral and social phenomena which M. de Tocqueville has characterized that, when some unusual chance exhibits to us equality of conditions by itself, severed from that commercial state of society and that progress of industry of which it is the natural concomitant, it produces few or none of the moral effects ascribed to it. Consider, for instance, the French of Lower Canada. Equality of conditions is more universal there than in the United States, for the whole people, without exception, are in easy circumstances, and there are not even that considerable number of rich individuals who are to be found in all the great towns of the American republic. Yet do we find in Canada that go-ahead spirit—that restless impatient eagerness of improvement in circumstances—that mobility, that shifting and fluctuating, now up now down, now here now there—that absence of classes and class-spirit—that jealousy of superior attainments—that want of deference for authority and leadership—that habit of bringing things down to the rule and square of each man’s own understanding—which M. de Tocqueville imputes to the same cause in the United States? In all these respects the very contrary qualities prevail.12

The same disjunction, but reversed, is evident in the England of Mill’s time, where a class system prevents real equality, but the material base creates in the middle class the same psychological attitudes Tocqueville attributes to democracy: “[Do] the American people, both in their good qualities and in their defects, resemble any-thing so much as an exaggeration of our own middle class?” Mill concludes: “M. de Tocqueville then has, at least apparently, confounded the effects of democracy with the effects of civilization.”

The trouble with Tocqueville is that he set out to describe the American mind as if there were such a thing. He approached his task with the aim of reducing all aspects of America to a single framework:

In America all laws emanate in some way from the same concept (pensée). All of society is based, as it were, on a single reality; all flows from a unique principle. One might compare America to a great forest pierced by many straight paths, all of which converge on a single point. One need only find this hub, then everything can be taken in by one sweep of the eye.


The taste for the grand simplification is apparent in all of Tocqueville’s work. Some much prefer his book The Old Regime and the Revolution, since he was not writing there, as in Democracy, of another country while looking over his shoulder at France. He was writing about France. But even there, François Furet observed that he showed no interest in the material bases of a national culture:

His economic analysis is always superficial and vague…. Moreover, his picture of peasant life as a whole is marked by a complete ignorance of the technical aspects of rural economy…. Tocqueville, whose historical learning, except for the eighteenth century, was quite superficial, had a rather banal, indeed legend-like, notion of the history of the French nobility.13

Moreover, since Tocqueville considered a comparative method necessary to any historical study, he ran through his book a continual comparison of the old regime in Germany with that in France. To prepare himself on the subject of Germany, he went to Bonn—for two months. He expressed regret that he could not spend more time there; but, just as in America, he formed his impressions early. After only a month’s residence, he could write:

Since my arrival here, I have lived only in the Germany of the last century, and I see with a certain satisfaction that the ideas of it that I had developed for myself without knowing the country and only by abstract reasoning, in researching why the Revolution took place among us rather than among them, those ideas appear to me fully confirmed by the detail of the facts. The political condition and especially the social condition of this country seem to be exactly what I had supposed.14

Obviously, there are some provocative propositions advanced by Tocqueville, no matter how insecurely based in empirical observation, and many have developed these points on their own, some near their starting point in Tocqueville’s texts, and more of them at some distance from it. Some of the most heavily worked ideas are the way equality can subvert liberty, the way masses can develop a herd instinct, the fact that prosperity is a better seed ground for revolution than penury (what became known in the 1960s as the “revolution of rising expectations”), and the prevalence of mores (moeurs) over institutions. This latter point has been a favorite with some communitarian sociologists, who refer to Tocqueville’s praise of moeurs as “habits of the heart.” The point was raised in the first volume of Democracy, though its strongest statement is in a letter written between the publication of the first and second volumes:

I am quite convinced that political societies are not what their laws make them, but what sentiments, belief, ideas, habits of the heart, and the spirit of the men who form them, prepare them in advance to be, as well as what nature and education have made them.

But Tocqueville’s application of his own propositions is often questionable. Take the whole matter of moeurs as more important than institutions. In his analysis of the Old Regime, he argues that the central administration from Versailles (the bureaucratie) introduced equality even before the Revolution, since it equally “put the government alongside each Frenchman, to be his tutor, his guardian, and if need be his oppressor.” In the paradox that Tocqueville is fashioning, the defenders of liberty against bureaucratie are what other historians had attacked as enemies of freedom—the aristocracy, the Church, the middle class, and the local courts. He says of the aristocracy that “it not only had manly mores, it increased the virility of the other classes by its example.” This “idyllic” picture of the aristocracy, says François Furet, perpetuates “the mythical image of its glorious past.”15

The treatment of the Church in the Old Regime is just as idealized. The priests, we learn, “were as opposed to despotism, as favorable to civil liberty, and as enamored of political freedom as the Third Estate or the nobility.” It was a blow to freedom to take away Church lands, since

I do not know if, all in all, and notwithstanding the shocking vices of some of its members, there has ever been a clergy more remarkable than the Catholic clergy of France at the moment when the Revolution overtook it, one more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time with more faith, as its persecution well demonstrated.

The middle class under the old regime is praised because it was a “pseudo-aristocracy,” jealous of its rights. And the courts and parliaments offered similar resistance to the bureaucracy.

Some love the paradox of completely reversing all older views of the Revolution, but how does Tocqueville’s analysis fit his own precepts? The Old Regime’s elements of liberty made up a formidable bundle of moeurs, against which the bureaucracy was a single institution, of recent origin and without even the full support of the monarchy. How then could a “paper” structure prevail after the Revolution over such deeply rooted “habits of the heart” in nobles and priests and businessmen and judges? And worse is to come. When the Revolution occurs, with a brief outburst of freedom, Tocqueville claims that the inertia of the bureaucracy channeled the nation quickly back into a liberty-destroying equality. Here, by sleight of hand, the bureaucracy has itself acquired the force of moeurs from whose strong hold the people could not wrestle themselves free. In his view, the bureaucracy of the Old Regime caused a reaction against itself that was the Revolution, but then defeated the Revolution by its “traditional” hold on people. Equality once again defeated liberty.

Tocqueville’s strange defense of the Old Regime depends on his assessment of the pre-Revolutionary bureaucracy. François Furet, who has written many things (some vague) in praise of Tocqueville, destroys this central thesis on the bureaucracy. Tocqueville said that the bureaucracy was staffed mainly by commoners, without ties to the liberty-nourishing forces of the past. This was simply one of Tocqueville’s a priori convictions, one not grounded in evidence. As Furet wrote:

Unfortunately, this analysis is based throughout on mistaken assumptions. In the first place, the administrative officials of the eighteenth century—one has only to think of the intendants—were by no means “almost all…commoners.” Secondly, they were deeply divided, not only by their personal ambitions and their networks of patronage, but also by their political and ideological choices—witness the sharp division between physiocrats and antiphysiocrats. Moreover, the most “functional” administrators, i.e., those directly connected with the central power—the bureaucracy of Versailles, the intendants and their deputies (subdélégués)—would not survive the Revolution, not even its first phase.

In other words, the “tradition” of administrative equality is made to cancel the Revolution in Tocqueville’s fantasy, even though the bearers of that tradition disappeared the minute the Revolution occurred. If the “custom” of the bureaucracy was so powerful, who spoke for that custom when the bureaucrats were eliminated? The muddled argument of The Old Regime seems to reflect a basic muddle in Tocqueville’s mind over one of the things that his admirers most value, the importance of moeurs, since—according to Furet—“he never clearly states just what he means by ‘mores,’ ‘frame of mind,’ ‘habits,’ ‘feelings,’ and ‘ideas.’”


The Old Regime thus raises more pointedly the question some find un-resolved in Democracy. Was Tocqueville a liberal in any but a contextual French sense of his time—or was he even that? When Mill praised what he saw as the egalitarianism (however tempered) of Democracy‘s first volume, a friendly correspondence with Tocqueville ensued, in which the latter wrote effusive and often-quoted professions of liberal belief—for instance, “I love liberty by taste, equality by instinct and reason.” But the friendship suffered many strains in the 1840s, when, as Alan Ryan put it, Tocqueville “moved sharply to the right.” Support for French imperialism was not a thing Mill could endorse:

It is a small irony of the history of ideas that John Stuart Mill, who earned his living managing the affairs of India, had to tread very delicately when urging on his friend the need for great nations to conciliate one another rather than get into fights. The Tocqueville who celebrated the savage and brutal conquest of Algeria is a less obvious recruit for liberalism than the Tocqueville who celebrated the New England township.16

Tocqueville had always suspected that equality was the enemy of liberty. In Democracy, he thought the danger could be held at least partially in check in certain (i.e., American) conditions. He was certain by the time he wrote The Old Regime that equality meant the death of liberty. Furet notes: “As he said himself, Tocqueville was a democrat by intellect, but an aristocrat at heart.”17 In his case, at least, the habits of the heart prevailed.

  1. 12

    It is interesting that Tocqueville would take Mill’s comments on Canada and make them his own in The Old Regime and the Revolution, where he was agreeing, at last, that equality is at odds with liberty. See Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, translated by Alan S. Kahan (University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 280–281: “In Canada, at least as long as Canada remained French, equality was joined with absolute government.”

  2. 13

    François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 151–154.

  3. 14

    Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society, edited by Roger Boesche (University of California Press, 1985), p. 306.

  4. 15

    Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, pp. 145, 149. See also: “Guizot felt that aristocracy was an obstacle to liberty, while Tocqueville saw it as the foundation and bulwark of liberty” (p. 139).

  5. 16

    Alan Ryan, “Visions of Politics,” The New York Review, June 27, 2002, p. 35.

  6. 17

    François Furet, “The Passions of Tocqueville,” translated by David Bellos, The New York Review, June 27, 1985, p. 23.

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