Democracy in America: Biography

Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805, in Paris.  His aristocratic parents were almost guillotined in the French Revolution—his father was Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clerel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard, and his mother was Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo. His grandfather was a marquis of the ancien régime and was executed in the Revolution. His parents were exiled in England for a time and then returned to France under the rule of Napoleon. With the Bourbon Restoration, his father became a noble peer and prefect. The young Tocqueville attended the Lycée Fabert in Metz. 


He began his political career after the fall of the Bourbons under the July Monarchy in France (1830-1848). He was deputy of the Manche department in Valognes, which he maintained until 1851. He represented the classical liberal tradition of political ideas, defending abolition of slavery and free trade. He was elected general counselor of the Manche in 1842. After the fall of the monarchy in 1848, he was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly and helped draft the new Constitution of the Second Republic (1848-1851). He defended the idea of having two houses in the parliament and presidential election by universal suffrage, ideas he learned in America. 


In 1831 he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, both aristocratic lawyers and civil servants, received a government assignment to study the American prison system. They paid their own way to America, and stayed after the assignment to study democracy for almost two years. The result was Democracy in America, published in two volumes (1835 and 1840) making him instantly famous. It is considered one of the first works of political science. He also made a tour of England, writing a book about the poor, Memoir on Pauperism (1835).  He traveled to Algeria in 1841 and wrote Travail sur l’Algerie, criticizing French colonization for its assimilationist policy. He admired instead the British model of indirect rule. He also chronicled the Irish situation when he visited there in 1835. He was influenced by Plato, Aristotle and French Enlightenment philosophers.


His work deals with the passing away of the old system of monarchy and the rise of democracy in Europe. Caught in the seesaw swings of French politics from monarchy to violent socialist rebellions, he fought for the middle ground, the gradual and orderly introduction of democracy as he had found it in America. He retired from politics after Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup in 1851 to work on his last book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I (1856).  He died on April 16, 1859 in Cannes, from tuberculosis.