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Alexis de Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Best Known For:

  • His book Democracy in America (1835-1840).
  • His work in comparative and historical sociology.
  • His life in politics and writings on political science.

Birth:

Alexis de Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805.

Death:

He died April 16, 1859.

Early Life And Education:

Tocqueville was born in Paris, France. He was the great-grandson of the statesman Chretien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a liberal aristocratic victim of the French Revolution and a political model for Tocqueville. He was educated by a private tutor until high school and then attended high school and college in Metz, France. He studied law in Paris and worked as a substitute judge in Versailles before coming to the United States.

Career and Later Life:

In 1831, Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, a friend and colleague, traveled to the United States to study prison reforms in America. They also hoped to return to France with knowledge of a society that would make them fit to help shape France’s political future. They spent nine months in the U.S., out of which came their first joint book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France as well as Tocqueville’s first part of Democracy in America.

Tocqueville spent the next four years working on the final portion of Democracy in America, which was published in 1840. Largely due to the success of the book, Tocqueville was named to the Legion of Honor, the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and the French Academy. The book was, and still remains, so popular because it deals with issues such as religion, the press, money, class structure, racism, the role of government, and the judicial system – issues that are just as relevant today as they were then. A great deal of colleges in the U.S. use Democracy in America in political science and history courses, and historians consider it one of the most comprehensive and insightful books ever written about the U.S.

Tocqueville also toured England, in which afterward he wrote Memoir on Pauperism. He then traveled to Algeria in 1841 and 1846, which inspired his book Travail sur l’Algerie, in which he criticized the French model of colonization. He even went so far as to openly advocate racial segregation between the European colonists and the “Arabs” through the implementation of two different legislative systems.

In 1848 Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly where he became a member of the Commission charged with drafting the new Constitution of the Second Republic. In 1849, he entered the government as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Following dismissal from the position by President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in October of that year, Tocqueville suffered a physical collapse. After a slow recovery, he performed a final service for the Second French Republic. He was then briefly imprisoned for opposing Bonaparte’s coup in 1851 and was deprived of all political offices. He then retreated to his castle and began to draft L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution, publishing the first volume in 1856, but leaving the second one unfinished. Tocqueville eventually succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1859.

In all of his works, Tocqueville’s interests lied in the positive and negative consequences of various forms of democracy on various aspects of social life, from economics and law to religion and art.

Major Publications

  • The U.S. Penitentiary System and its Application in France (1833)
  • Democracy in America (1835-1840)
  • The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)
  • Recollections (1893)

References

Alexis de Tocqueville. (2011). Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/articles/Alexis-de-Tocqueville-39150

Johnson, A. (1995). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

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