Alexis de Tocqueville was a study in contradictions: a French aristocrat of proud heritage who trumpeted the inevitable, salutary rise of democracy, using the United States as his exemplar; a cosmopolitan with an English wife and many friends in the Anglo-American world who brandished a fervent French nationalism; an antislavery advocate who felt no discomfort in supporting the French colonization of Algeria and hired as his main assistant Arthur de Gobineau, who later published one of the founding texts of white supremacy; and finally a man of delicate constitution who undertook an arduous trip on horseback into the wilderness of northern Michigan in order to see Native Americans and new settler communities for himself. Such inconsistencies make for a fascinating story, and in The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz, a French-educated historian who has taught US history for decades at the University of Virginia, shows that he is ideally suited to tell it.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, became an instant classic and has remained one to this day. On its hundredth anniversary in 1935, the French government presented a bust of the author to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article at the time referred to the book as “perhaps the greatest, most lucid, and most impartial commentary that free institutions in general, and American self-government in particular, had ever received.” Democracy in America served as a kind of textbook for US students for many generations, but it is now more often cited than read. That dutiful disregard may be the fate of all such masterworks, especially one that runs about eight hundred pages, but Zunz has succeeded in restoring its appeal, first by vividly retracing its origins and then by skillfully evoking the enduring excitement and relevance of its analysis.

Tocqueville did not sail to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1831—a thirty-five-day trip—in order to write a book about American democracy. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, both low-level magistrates, got unpaid leave from their positions to study the American prison system. The moment was right: Tocqueville saw no future for himself in the judiciary, especially with the recent change in regime. After three days of insurrection in 1830, King Charles X had been forced to abdicate, and though Tocqueville’s family had long supported the Bourbon monarchy, he kept his options open by swearing loyalty to the new constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe d’Orléans. He was nonetheless caught between two stools, so with money from their families and nearly seventy letters of introduction to prominent American officials and legal experts, the two young men set off on their journey.

After they arrived they hardly sat still, traveling immediately to New York, up the Hudson River and the Mohawk Valley to the Great Lakes, to Michigan and as far as the frontier of settlement in Wisconsin, then through Canada to New England. After spending time in Boston and Hartford, they journeyed south to Philadelphia and Baltimore, then to western Pennsylvania, and followed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers down to New Orleans. From there they returned via Washington, D.C., to New York. Along the way they visited every imaginable kind of prison, from Sing Sing Penitentiary to privately funded asylums and poor houses, but they also met with officials, politicians—including former president John Quincy Adams and President Andrew Jackson—bankers, shippers, and clergymen, not to mention Native Americans, French Canadians, and ordinary tourists sharing passage on steamboats.

More than nine months after arriving, they went home with notebooks crammed with information gleaned from some two hundred contacts. Beaumont knew that he wanted to write about the evils of slavery in the United States, and Tocqueville hoped to write about the American experiment with democracy, but he was discouraged by his “jumble of notes,” “disconnected ideas,” and “isolated facts.” They came back to France in the midst of a deadly cholera epidemic, with Tocqueville facing what we would call a clinical depression of the sort that plagued him throughout his life.

First they had to produce their report on prisons, which they finished quickly because Beaumont wrote most of it. As an alternative to forced labor gangs, they advocated the building of cells and the use of solitary confinement on the grounds that the separation of prisoners encouraged atonement and reflection, perhaps even greater religiosity. After publishing the report in early 1833, the two men turned to their separate books. Beaumont published his combined novel and social commentary, Marie, or Slavery in the United States, in 1835. They remained friends and collaborators for the rest of their lives despite a difficult moment in the mid-1840s, when Tocqueville felt that Beaumont did not rush quickly enough to his defense after a prominent newspaper attacked him as a die-hard supporter of the previous Bourbon regime. In fact, Tocqueville had been moving steadily to the center and in 1849 served briefly as foreign minister in the French Second Republic, which was established after the revolution of 1848.


In their account of the American penitentiary system, Beaumont and Tocqueville had drawn attention to the importance of religion: “In America, the progress of the reform of prisons has been of a character essentially religious.” This became one of the signature themes of Tocqueville’s analysis of American customs. Despite or perhaps because of his own ongoing crisis of Catholic faith, he immediately saw that religion was not just compatible with American democracy but also fundamental to it:

Although religion in the United States never intervenes directly in government, it must be considered as the first of America’s institutions, for even if religion does not give Americans their taste for liberty, it does notably facilitate their use of that liberty.

Because many French Enlightenment figures had vociferously criticized the Catholic Church, and the French Revolution of 1789 had included a shocking episode of official dechristianization, most previous commentators had considered democracy inherently hostile to religion. Tocqueville changed the course of the debate, yet at the same time he gestured toward American exceptionalism, starting with American attitudes toward religion. Democracy—by which he usually meant an emphasis on equality of condition—might be coming to every society, but could its political form of a republic endure anywhere other than the United States? This question troubled Tocqueville throughout his life.

The French aristocrat attributed the continuing success of the American republic to three main political causes: its federal form, the proliferation of local institutions such as civic associations and town meetings, and the power of the courts to “correct the aberrations of democracy.” Even more striking, however, were the “habits of the heart” of which religious belief and religious variety were the prime movers. Americans respected the bond of marriage and cherished the domesticity of the family; they emphasized pragmatic general education of the many over the brilliant theoretical accomplishments of the few; and their manners were sometimes vulgar but not brutal or mean, and sincere rather than following aristocratic rules of etiquette.

Men’s attitudes toward women therefore differed as well. In democratic societies, Tocqueville affirmed, women were bound to be more equal to men, but they would still occupy distinct positions and never want to contest the authority of men in the family and in politics (so he said). His wife, Mary Mottley, a middle-class English woman six years his senior whom he married in 1835, offered him the kind of home and emotional support that he had admired in American families, though he was chagrined that they had no children.

Tocqueville was not blind to the conflicts supposedly smoothed over by the American habits of toleration and togetherness. He condemned Jackson’s policy of forced relocation of Native Americans and argued against slavery, while also suggesting that reconciliation between whites and emancipated Blacks could prove especially challenging in the United States. He saw the differences between North and South over slavery as a potential cause of disunion but feared even more the potential tyranny of the majority, which could take the form of a suffocating conformity of opinion, constant legislative instability, or oppression of minorities. To underline his point, Tocqueville recounted his conversation with a Pennsylvanian whom he asked why free Blacks did not vote even though they had the right to do so. “But the majority harbors strong prejudices against the Negroes,” his interlocutor explained, “and our officials do not feel strong enough to guarantee the rights that the legislature had bestowed on them.”

In short, Tocqueville feared that the “great democratic revolution” might end up sacrificing true liberty to a specious equality. Equality was easy in the sense that everyone aspired to it and felt passionately attached to it. Liberty, on the other hand, required learning new habits and constant vigilance. “Nothing is harder than the apprenticeship of liberty,” he wrote. The rush toward equality could facilitate mob rule, as in the case of whites preventing free Blacks from voting or, in the worst-case scenario, despotism. “Despotism often presents itself as the remedy for all ills suffered in the past,” Tocqueville warned, and modern democratic societies were especially susceptible to it because the citizens could be enticed to give up political liberty as long as their equality was assured. For this reason he did not support universal male suffrage, either in the United States or at home. The tension between liberty and equality took on even greater importance when he turned to analyzing momentous events in France.

Zunz’s account of Beaumont and Tocqueville’s journey and the subsequent writing of Democracy in America is riveting; to construct it, he has to toggle back and forth between a complicated collection of journals, letters, and memoirs as well as the underlying grid of what is now known about the politics, social life, and culture of the many different places they visited in 1831–1832. Given all the work involved, it is perhaps unsurprising that Zunz feels he must note every single thing that Tocqueville overlooked: he missed the sources of Protestant denominationalism, ignored the Second Great Awakening, neglected industrial organization, didn’t think through the implications of Louisiana’s legal system, didn’t realize that the Jacksonians of Albany were Masons, etc.


Yet Tocqueville was only twenty-five and Beaumont four years older when they went to the United States, their command of English was less than certain, and the journey was far from easy. By 1830, for instance, the travel time between New York City and Buffalo had been reduced to four days, but the two men did not always take steamboats or coaches. Who would not sympathize with Tocqueville’s encounter with

the animal that in English is called mosquito…. I declare that I have never experienced a torment like the one that they made me suffer during the whole course of this voyage [to the Michigan wilderness]…. During the day, they kept us from sketching, writing, staying for a single moment in one place. At night they circulated by the thousands around us; any part of the body that we left uncovered instantly served as an invitation.

Could someone in his position get everything right? Isn’t it more unexpected that he could expound the American experiment even better than the Americans themselves?

When Tocqueville wrote on the first page of Democracy in America that “a great democratic revolution is taking place among us,” he meant in France as well as the US. Upon returning home he wanted to help foster the French transition; he considered himself ideally suited to an independent political role because he recognized that aristocracy was dead but democracy had only begun to germinate. He wanted to be a “liberal of a new kind,” aligned neither with “the friends of order” nor with the “dirty democrats of our age.”

Although he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 on his second try, he did not make much of an impression because he refused to align himself with any group and displayed paltry oratorical skills. He could not abide the “half-hearted pieties, fickle ideas, and mediocre men” he found around him. His proposal for immediate emancipation of slaves in the French colonies gained no traction (slavery was finally abolished as part of the revolution of 1848), and he irritated his English friends when, defending national sovereignty, he fulminated against British naval patrols boarding French ships in order to block the trade in slaves.

He had more influence on the question of Algerian colonization, if only because his views aligned with the general French consensus that the military conquest of Algeria was essential to shoring up France’s standing as a major power. Tocqueville visited Algeria twice, in 1841 and 1846, the second time with his wife, and viewed the situation there through a lens fashioned in America. He did not advocate treating the Arabs the ways the Americans treated the Native Americans, but he did think of Algeria as a French frontier. The French should teach the Arabs the virtues of private property, he argued, and show them a better way to live while maintaining French superiority and control of government. Democracy was the destiny of the French settlers, just as it had been for the American ones, not the future awaiting the natives.

Zunz’s account of Tocqueville’s second great work, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (1856), is less satisfying, though the falloff in intensity is understandable. Tocqueville never finished the second volume of his projected study of the revolution because he died at fifty-three in 1859 of the nineteenth century’s great scourge, tuberculosis. Yet despite its anodyne title, The Ancien Régime has had lasting success; it is still read because it is short and punchy, and like Democracy in America it is widely recognized as a founding text of liberalism. Its mood is very different, however. In Democracy in America Tocqueville wrote with hopeful excitement about his discoveries of democratic prospects, but when he came to write The Ancien Régime, he was angry and frustrated with the tendency of the French to blithely give up their hard-won liberties to a despot, this time to Napoleon I’s nephew Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Unlike his friend Beaumont, Tocqueville had not supported the electoral reform movement that set in motion the revolution of 1848. Yet when his efforts to save the constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe failed, he decided to run for a seat in the new Constituent Assembly in April 1848 even though all adult men now had the right to vote. He won, but his joy was short-lived. When workers revolted against the new government in June because it had closed recently established workshops for the unemployed, a veritable civil war broke out in Paris. Tocqueville fervently supported the government’s crackdown, writing to a friend that “what is at stake is not the shape of a political regime but property, family, and civilization—in short, everything that makes life worth living.” At least 1,500 people died in the intense street fighting, some 12,000 insurgents were put on trial, and 4,000 were sentenced to deportation (though in the end fewer than 500 were sent to Algeria).

When Louis-Napoléon was elected to the new position of president of the Second Republic in December 1848, Tocqueville accepted the post of foreign minister because he thought the constitutional clause limiting the president to one term would neutralize Louis-Napoléon’s authoritarian ambitions, which he could not support. He was fired along with the rest of the cabinet in October 1849 and then knew what was coming. On December 2, 1851, the anniversary of Napoleon I’s coronation in 1804, Louis-Napoléon staged a coup, arrested Tocqueville and many other deputies, and used the army to crush resistance. Not content with increased powers and the prospect of unlimited ten-year terms, he became Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s son had died in 1832) after a referendum. There were few no votes, though one in five voters abstained. “I feel like a foreigner in my own country,” Tocqueville wrote to his brother Édouard. Both his brothers promptly rallied to the regime, preferring authoritarianism to the uncertainties of the republic.

After writing down his memories of the 1848 revolution (published only in 1893), Tocqueville decided to study the revolution of 1789, since it was the moment when the French first set the pattern of giving up their liberties to a despot. He intended to analyze the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but as he worked he moved steadily backward toward the origins of the 1789 rupture. Spending much of his time in archives located in Tours, which was just across the Loire River from the house he and his wife had taken in 1853 for his health, Tocqueville came to his most critical insights: monarchical centralization had prepared the French to accept the administrative tyranny of the Bonapartist regime by destroying local initiative, and by pulverizing the political power of the nobility, France’s monarchs had made its remaining social and economic privileges repugnant to the rest of the population.

Zunz is particularly astute in explaining Tocqueville’s use of comparisons between France on the one hand and Britain and the German states on the other. French peasants were more likely to be restive because the nobles played no positive part in their lives and because they were better off than peasants in the German lands. (This phenomenon is now known as the revolution of rising expectations.) Since French monarchs had suppressed or bypassed the local institutions that might have challenged them, French intellectuals could have a much more decisive influence in shaping public opinion, and they were more likely to propose utopian solutions than practical alternatives. In short, Tocqueville uncovered the deep structures that had shaped French politics rather than remaining on the surface of personalities and parties.

Despite his misgivings, Tocqueville never renounced the revolution of 1789 and never gave up on the possible reconciliation of liberty and equality in democracies. For him 1789 was a time for the French

when love of equality coexisted in their bosoms with love of liberty; when they hoped to establish institutions that were not only democratic but also free; when they sought not only to destroy privileges but to recognize and consecrate rights.

After his former secretary Gobineau published his four-volume Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855), he countered that the theories were “false” and “pernicious” and would comfort American slaveholders and Germans who believed in an Aryan race. Tocqueville harbored many of the prejudices of his era, but he overcame a surprising number of them in order to write with lucidity and elegance about the great political transformation of modern times.