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Economic Insights

Alexis de Tocqueville
Chronicler of the American Democratic Experiment
The Early Years
We are pleased to add this piece on
Alexis de Tocqueville to our series of profiles
that began with Frédéric Bastiat and Friedrich
von Hayek. Both Bastiat and Hayek were
strong and influential proponents of individual liberty and free enterprise. While they
approached those topics from a theoretical
perspective, Tocqueville’s views on early
American and French democracy were based
on his keen personal observations and historical analysis. Although Tocqueville was
Bastiat’s contemporary, even serving with him
in the French Chamber of Deputies during the
great turmoil in post-revolutionary France,
he is best known for his travels in the United
States, where he observed and studied
American democracy in action in the 1830s.
The result was his two-volume classic,
Democracy in America.
We hope this brief biography of the
man who painted a vivid portrait of the
American people helps students and others
better understand the unique character of
our democracy and freedom. For a fuller
treatment, look up a new book, Tocqueville on
American Character, by Michael A. Ledeen of
the American Enterprise Institute, published
by Truman Talley Books.
— Bob McTeer
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Born in Paris in 1805, AlexisCharles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville
entered the world in the early and most
powerful days of Napoleon’s empire.
His parents were of the nobility and
had taken the historical family name of
Tocqueville, which dated from the
early 17th century and was a region
of France known previously as the
Leverrier fief.
Tocqueville’s father supported the
French monarchy and played no serious role in public affairs until after
Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo,
which followed the restoration of the
monarchy under the Bourbon king Louis
XVIII in 1814. The elder Tocqueville
then served as prefect successively at
Metz, Amiens and Versailles. Alexis followed his father in civil employment
when, at the age of 21, he was
appointed magistrate at Versailles. Alexis
had studied rhetoric and philosophy in
secondary school and at the College
Royale before studying law for three
years in Paris.
It was at Versailles that Alexis met
Gustave de Beaumont, a deputy public prosecutor, who became both his
lifelong friend and his traveling companion to America. Ostensibly, their
trip through America was a leave for
the two men to study the prison system in the eastern United States. But
according to Beaumont, behind that
pretext lay an interest in and a desire
to study American democracy more
And so, Tocqueville and Beaumont
landed in New York on May 10, 1831,
and began what became one of history’s most famous journeys. The result
was two books, both of which would

bring Tocqueville fame and honors. In
1833, about a year after Tocqueville
returned to France, the report on
American prisons, The U.S. Penitentiary
System and Its Application in France,
was published.
Things in France changed for Beaumont and Tocqueville upon their return
after 10 months in America. Both men
left the judiciary. Beaumont was officially let go, and Tocqueville resigned
in sympathetic protest. Tocqueville then
had ample time to work on his masterpiece, Democracy in America. Volume 1
was published in 1835. The English
translation appeared later that same year
to wide European and American acclaim.
The more philosophical Volume 2 was
published in 1840.
From its first appearance, this work
has been considered a masterpiece of
observation, speculation, historical
writing and sound political theorizing.
Its author was elevated to the League of
Honor, the Academy of Moral and

Is a Democracy Immune
from the Despotic Impulse?
I believe that it is easier to establish an
absolute and despotic government among a
people in which the conditions of society are
equal than among any other; and I think that if
such a government were once established
among such a people, it not only would oppress
men, but would eventually strip each of them of
several of the highest qualities of humanity.
Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly
to be dreaded in democratic times.
I should have loved freedom, I believe, at
all times, but in the time in which we live, I am
ready to worship it. ■
— From Democracy in America, Vol. 2, 322

An Early Advocate of ‘Welfare Reform’
There are two kinds of welfare. One leads
each individual according to his means, to alleviate
the evils he sees around him. This type is as old
as the world; it began with human misfortune.
Christianity made a divine virtue of it and called it
charity. The other, less instructive, more reasoned,
less emotional, and often more powerful, leads
society to concern itself with the misfortunes of its
members and is ready systematically to alleviate
their sufferings. This type is born of Protestantism
and has developed only in modern societies. The
first type is a private virtue; it escapes social action;
the second, on the contrary, is produced and regulated by society. It is therefore with the second that
we must be especially concerned.
At first glance, there is no idea that seems
more beautiful and grander than that of public charity. Society is continually examining itself, probing
its wounds, and undertaking to cure them. At the
same time that it assures the rich the enjoyment of
their wealth, society guarantees the poor against
excessive misery. It asks some to give of their surplus in order to allow others the basic necessities.
This is certainly a moving and elevating sight….
Almost two and a half centuries have passed since
the principle of legal charity was fully embraced by
our neighbors [England], and one may now judge
the fatal consequences that flowed from the adoption of this principle….Since the poor have an
absolute right to the help of society, and have a
public administration organized to provide it everywhere, one can observe in a Protestant country
the immediate rebirth and generalization of all the
abuses with which its reformers rightly reproached
some Catholic countries. Man, like all socially organized beings, has a natural passion for idleness.
There are, however, two incentives to work: the
need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life. Experience has proven that the major-

ity of men can be sufficiently motivated to work
only by the first of these incentives. The second is
effective only with a small minority. Well, the charitable institution indiscriminately open to all those
in need, or a law that gives all the poor a right to
public aid, whatever the origin of their poverty,
weakens or destroys the first stimulant and leaves
only the second intact. The English peasant, like the
Spanish peasant, if he does not feel the deep desire
to better the position into which he has been born,
and to raise himself out of his misery (a feeble
desire which is easily crushed in the majority of
men)— the peasant of both countries, I maintain,
has no interest in working, or, if he works, has no
interest in saving. He therefore remains idle or
thoughtlessly squanders the fruits of his labors.
Both these countries, by different causal patterns,
arrive at the same result: the most generous, the
most active, the most industrious part of the nation
devotes its resources to furnishing the means of
existence for those who do nothing or who make
bad use of their labor….Is it possible to escape the
fatal consequences of a good principle? For myself
I consider them inevitable….Any measure that
establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and
gives it an administrative form thereby creates an
idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the
industrial and working class. This, at least, is its
inevitable consequence if not the immediate result.
It reproduced all the vices of the monastic system,
minus the high ideals of morality and religion that
often went along with it. Such a law is a bad seed
planted in the legal structure. Circumstances, as in
America, can prevent the seed from developing
rapidly, but they cannot destroy it, and if the present generation escapes its influence, it will devour
the well-being of generations to come. ■
— From Memoir on Pauperism, 51– 58

tine by the narrowest of margins.) He
sat on the committee that drafted the
new French constitution, but his opinions in support of both separation of
powers and bicameralism were rejected
by the whole assembly. Tocqueville’s
effectiveness in the legislature was
greatly hampered by his inability to
Having completed the new constitution by the end of 1848, France then
elected its first independent president,
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of
Napoleon I. Tocqueville distrusted
Louis Napoleon, and his misgivings
were shortly borne out.
Tocqueville became a member of
the new National Assembly in 1849 and
the new government’s emissary to
Germany. He was named foreign minister as Louis Napoleon sought, without
subtlety, to secure Tocqueville’s support. But when Louis dissolved the
National Assembly in 1851 because
under the constitution he could not
be re-elected, Tocqueville withdrew his
guarded support. Louis staged a military coup. For his vocal opposition to
this act of political usurpation, Tocqueville was imprisoned overnight. He
wrote an account of his ordeal and a
strong criticism of Louis Napoleon’s
tactics that was smuggled out of France
and published in Britain’s London Times.
In general, Tocqueville was more effective as an observer–writer than as a

The Final Years
Political Sciences and finally, in 1841,
to the French Academy. Democracy in
America was translated into all major
languages at the time and sold all over
the world.

The Political Years
Tocqueville ran for the Chamber of
Deputies, losing in 1837 but winning in
1839 and then serving continuously
until 1848, voting as an independent
constitutionalist. He married Mary Mottley in 1835 and, upon his mother’s
death the following year, inherited the
family estates in Tocqueville. After the

revolution of 1848, which Tocqueville
alone predicted a month before it
occurred, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly in Paris. With LouisPhilippe’s abdication, the so-called
Second Republic died in 1848.
Although Tocqueville had little
love for the departed monarchy, he
feared the Parisian revolutionaries
because he considered all revolutions a
threat to general liberty as they unfolded. (His view, no doubt, was influenced by his own family’s tribulations
during the French Revolution. His
father and mother escaped the guillo-

In the spring of 1849, Tocqueville
became ill and was diagnosed with
tuberculosis. By 1852, he was forced
to withdraw from public affairs because he refused to take a loyalty
oath to the new regime and also
because he was in failing health. He
went into “internal exile.” 1 But he continued to write until his death at 54 in
1859. His book Souvenirs (1851) was
a mirror through which he observed
himself. 2
Another celebrated work, The
Ancient Regime and the Origins of
the French Revolution (1856), demon-

An Amazing Prediction
About America and Russia
There are at the present time two great
nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same
end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans.
Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and
while the attention of mankind was directed
elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and
the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.
All other nations seem to have nearly
reached their natural limits, and they have only
to maintain their power; but these are still in the
act of growth. All the others have stopped, or
continue to advance with extreme difficulty;
these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the
obstacles that nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter,
civilization with all its arms. The conquests of
the American are therefore gained by the plowshare; those of the Russian by the sword. The
Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to
accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the
unguided strength and common sense of the
people; the Russian centers all the authority of
society in a single arm. The principal instrument
of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude.
Their starting point is different and their courses
are not the same; yet each of them seems
marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the
destinies of half the globe. ■
—From Democracy in America, Vol. 1, 434

strated that the strongly implied egalitarian leanings of Democracy in America
had become tempered by an equally
intense distrust of popular revolutionary periods.
Tocqueville traveled widely and
saw a great deal of political intrigue
during his productive middle years,
and he left us a rich legacy of early
sociological insights.3 He was an accurate observer, even though he was
passionately intense toward all his
subjects. Yet, despite his zeal, as a historian and chronicler he managed to
remain virtually dispassionate.4 In this
approach, Tocqueville set a standard
that modern social scientists and historians would do well to emulate. He

remains one of the most reliable
sources on the early history of the
United States, for unlike so many of
his literary contemporaries, he harbored
no animus toward the country and was
an honest observer.
Over the years, some commentators have raised questions about
Tocqueville’s visit to America, mostly
centered on its timing and execution.
For example, the entire trip lasted 286
days, a short period given the scope of
his planned travel and the state of public and private transportation. Of those
days, 271 of which were in the United
States, 140 were spent in cities— mostly
in the North and West —and only 40
were spent in the South. Is Tocqueville’s analysis biased by Northern
urbanity? Biographer Andre Jardin best
sums up this unfortunate, if accidental,
allocation of travel time: “It was during
these years [specifically, 1836] that
Michael Chevalier made the distinction,
which has remained classic, between
two types of Americans, the Yankee
and the Virginian. Tocqueville observed
and listened to the first much more
than to the second. This was not deliberate—the latter part of their stay was
disrupted...and unforeseen incidents
forced them to change their plans so
that they were not able to remain in
Charleston, where they had intended to
study Southern society, or to visit James
Madison, the former president, now in
retirement at Montpelier, his home near
Charlottesville, Virginia.”5
To what extent Tocqueville might
have produced a different work had he
spent more time in the American South,
with its major cultural differences when
compared with the industrial North,
must remain speculative. But given his
time and travel limitations, Tocqueville
produced a magnificent account of
the “essence of America” as he saw and
felt it.
Democracy in America is a classic
of both historiography and sociology.
Tocqueville is much more a 19th century interpreter of America—and its
various possible futures—than a detailoriented diarist on a long field trip. His

A Timely Reminder About
Wealth, Freedom and Public
Life, with a Sober Prediction
Thus the men of democratic times require
to be free in order to procure more readily those
physical enjoyments for which they are always
longing. It sometimes happens, however, that
the excessive taste they conceive for these same
enjoyments makes them surrender to the first
master who appears. The passion for worldly
welfare then defeats itself and, without their perceiving it, throws the object of their desires to a
greater distance. There is, indeed, a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic
people. When the taste for physical gratifications
among them has grown more rapidly than their
education and their experience of free institutions, the time will come when men are carried
away and will lose all self-restraint at the sight of
the new possessions that they are about to
obtain. In their intense and exclusive anxiety to
make a fortune they lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of
each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary
to do violence to such a people in order to strip
them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves
willingly loosen their hold. The discharge of
political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their
occupations and business. If they are required to
elect representatives, to support the government
by personal service, to meet on public business,
they think they have no time, they cannot waste
their precious hours in useless engagements;
such ideal amusements are unsuited to serious
men who are engaged with the more important
interests of life. These people think they are following the principle of self-interest, but the idea
they entertain of that principle is a very crude
one; and the better to look after what they call
their own business, they neglect their chief
business, which is to remain their own
masters….By such a nation [a wealthy, selfabsorbed one] the despotism of faction is not
less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual. When the bulk of the community are
engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand
in public affairs. At such times it is not rare to
see on the great stage of the world, as we see in
our theaters, a multitude represented by a few
players, who alone speak in the name of an
absent or inattentive crowd; they alone are in
action, while all others are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they
change the laws and tyrannize at will over the
manners of the country; and then men wonder
to see into how small a number of weak and
worthless hands a great people may fall. ■
—From Democracy in America, Vol. 2, 140 –42

work elucidates why he admired
America but doesn’t omit those aspects
he didn’t admire. He lists in detail some
of his fears for the new nation’s possible future. Americans can still profit immensely from his discourses on the
problematic nature of pure, majoritydriven power, a fear shared by the
founders who wrote the U.S. Constitution.
Like Lafayette before him, Tocqueville left America the better for having
been here. His body rests today on his
old estate in the village of Tocqueville,
near modern-day Normandy. ■
— Robert L. Formaini
Senior Economist


Jardin (1988), Part V.
Jardin (1988), 453.
Barzun (2000), 538.
Barzun (2000), 537.
Jardin (1988), 107.

Barzun, Jacques (2000), From Dawn to
Decadence (New York: Harper Collins).

A New and Unique Despotism — Democratic Bureaucracy
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 the trouble of living?…
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….
Our contemporaries are constantly excited by
two conflicting passions: they want to be led and
they wish to remain free. [Emphasis added] ■
— From Democracy in America, Vol. 2, 318 –19

Jardin, Andre (1988), Tocqueville: A Biography
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
Tocqueville, Alexis de (1990), Democracy in
America, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books),
orig. pub. 1835.
——— (1990), Democracy in America, Vol. 2
(New York: Vintage Books), orig. pub. 1840.
——— (1997), Memoir on Pauperism
(Chicago: Ivan Dee), orig. pub. 1835.

Economic Insights is a publication of the
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The views
expressed are those of the authors and should
not be attributed to the Federal Reserve System.
Please address all correspondence to
Economic Insights
Public Affairs Department
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P.O. Box 655906
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Why Does Democratic Government Always Grow?
In democratic communities nothing but the
central power has any stability in its position or any
permanence in its undertakings. All the citizens are
in ceaseless stir and transformation. Now, it is in
the nature of all governments to seek constantly to
enlarge their sphere of action; hence it is almost
impossible that such a government should not ultimately succeed, because it acts with a fixed principle and a constant will upon men whose position,
ideas, and desires are constantly changing.
It frequently happens that the members of the
community promote the influence of the central
power without intending to. Democratic eras are
periods of experiment, innovation and adventure.
There is always a multitude of men engaged in difficult or novel undertakings, which they follow by
themselves without shackling themselves to their
fellows. Such persons will admit, as a general principle, that the public authority ought not to interfere
in private concerns; but, by an exception to that
rule, each of them craves its assistance in the particular concern on which he is engaged and seeks
to draw upon the influence of the government for

his own benefit, although he would restrict it on
all other occasions. If a large number of men
applies this particular exception to a great variety
of different purposes, the sphere of the
central power extends itself imperceptibly in all
directions, although everyone wishes it to be
Thus a democratic government increases its
power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is
on its side; every incident befriends it; the passions
of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may
be asserted that the older a democratic community
is, the more centralized will its government
become….The foremost or indeed the sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the
supreme power in a democratic community is to
love equality, or to get men to believe you love it.
Thus the science of despotism, which was once so
complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a
single principle. ■
— From Democracy in America,
Vol. 2, 294 and 302