Democracy in America

De La Démocratie en Amérique (French pronunciation: ​[dəla demɔkʁasi ɑ̃n‿ameˈʁik]; published in two volumes, the first in 1835[1] and the second in 1840)[2] is a classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville. Its title translates as On Democracy in America, but English translations are usually simply entitled Democracy in America. In the book, Tocqueville examines the democratic revolution that he believed had been occurring over the previous several hundred years.

Democracy in America
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville title page.jpg
Title page of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, printed at New York, 1838
AuthorAlexis de Tocqueville
Original titleDe la démocratie en Amérique
PublisherSaunders and Otley (London)
Publication date

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead.[3] They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling the United States, studying the prisons, and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character. The two also briefly visited Canada, spending a few days in the summer of 1831 in what was then Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario).[citation needed]

After they returned to France in February 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont submitted their report, Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France), in 1833. When the first edition was published, Beaumont was working on another book, Marie, ou, L'esclavage aux États-Unis (Marie, or, Slavery in the United States, published as two volumes in 1835), a social critique and novel describing the separation of races in a moral society and the conditions of slaves in the United States. Before finishing Democracy in America, Tocqueville believed that Beaumont's study of the United States would prove more comprehensive and penetrating.[4]


He begins his book by describing the change in social conditions taking place. He observed that over the previous seven hundred years the social and economic conditions of men had become more equal. The aristocracy, Tocqueville believed, was gradually disappearing as the modern world experienced the beneficial effects of equality. Tocqueville traced the development of equality to a number of factors, such as granting all men permission to enter the clergy, widespread economic opportunity resulting from the growth of trade and commerce, the royal sale of titles of nobility as a monarchical fundraising tool, and the abolition of primogeniture.[5]

Tocqueville described this revolution as a "providential fact"[5] of an "irresistible revolution," leading some to criticize the determinism found in the book. However, based on Tocqueville's correspondences with friends and colleagues, Marvin Zetterbaum, Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis, concludes that the Frenchman never accepted democracy as determined or inevitable. He did, however, consider equality more just and therefore found himself among its partisans.[6]

Given the social state that was emerging, Tocqueville believed that a "new political science" would be needed, in order to:

[I]nstruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its motives, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true instincts for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.[7]

The remainder of the book can be interpreted as an attempt to accomplish this goal, thereby giving advice to those people who would experience this change in social states.[citation needed]

Tocqueville's message is somewhat beyond the American democracy itself, which was rather an illustration to his philosophical claim that democracy is an effect of industrialization.[citation needed] This explains why Tocqueville does not unambiguously define democracy and even ignores the intents of the Founding Fathers of the United States regarding the American political system:[citation needed]

To pursue the central idea of his study — a democratic revolution caused by industrialization, as exemplified by America — Tocqueville persistently refers to democracy. This is in fact very different from what the Founding Fathers of the United States meant. Moreover, Tocqueville himself is not quite consistent in using the word ‘democracy’, applying it alternately to representative government, universal suffrage or majority-based governance:

The American institutions are democratic, not only in their principle but in all their consequences; and the people elects its representatives directly, and for the most part annually, in order to ensure their dependence. The people is therefore the real directing power; and although the form of government is representative, it is evident that the opinions, the prejudices, the interests, and even the passions of the community are hindered by no durable obstacles from exercising a perpetual influence on society. In the United States the majority governs in the name of the people, as is the case in all the countries in which the people is supreme. Democracy in America, Book I, Ch IX

Such an ambiguous understanding of democracy in a study of great impact on political thought could not help leaving traces. We suppose that it was Tocqueville’s work and not least its title that strongly associated the notion of democracy with the American system and, ultimately, with representative government and universal suffrage. The recent ‘Tocqueville renaissance’, which enforces the democratic image of the United States and, correspondingly, of other Western countries, also speaks for the role of Tocqueville’s work.

— Andranik Tangian (2020) Analytical Theory of Democracy, pp. 193-194[8]

Main themesEdit

The Puritan foundingEdit

Tocqueville begins his study of the U.S. by explaining the contribution of the Puritans. According to him, the Puritans established the U.S. democratic social state of equality. They arrived equals in education and were all middle class. In addition, Tocqueville observes that they contributed a synthesis of religion and political liberty in America that was uncommon in Europe, particularly in France. He calls the Puritan Founding the "seed" of his entire work.[citation needed]

The Federal ConstitutionEdit

Tocqueville believed that the Puritans established the principle of sovereignty of the people in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.[citation needed] The American Revolution then popularized this principle, followed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which developed institutions to manage popular will.[citation needed] While Tocqueville speaks highly of the U.S. Constitution, he believes that the mores, or "habits of mind" of the American people play a more prominent role in the protection of freedom. These include:[citation needed]

  • Township democracy
  • Mores, laws, and circumstances
  • Tyranny of the majority
  • Religion and beliefs
  • The family
  • Individualism
  • Associations
  • Self-interest rightly understood
  • Materialism

Situation of womenEdit

Tocqueville was one of the first social critics to examine the situation of U.S. women and to identify the concept of separate spheres.[9] The section Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly So Called of the second volume is devoted to his observations of women's status in U.S. society. He writes: "In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different."[10]

He argues that the collapse of aristocracy lessened the patriarchal rule in the family where fathers would control daughters' marriages, meaning that women had the option of remaining unmarried and retaining a higher degree of independence. Married women, by contrast, lost all independence "in the bonds of matrimony" as "in America paternal discipline [by the woman's father] is very relaxed and the conjugal tie very strict."[11] Tocqueville considered the separate spheres of women and men a positive development, stating:[9]

As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, ... to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply,—to the superiority of their women.[12]


The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in the United States to what he sees as the failings of democracy in his native France.[13]

Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy. These include his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into "soft despotism" as well as the risk of developing a tyranny of the majority. He observes that the strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government, a separation all parties found agreeable. He contrasts this to France, where there was what he perceived to be an unhealthy antagonism between democrats and the religious, which he relates to the connection between church and state.[citation needed]

Tocqueville also outlines the possible excesses of passion for equality among men, foreshadowing the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.[citation needed]

Insightful analysis of political society was supplemented in the second volume by description of civil society as a sphere of private and civilian affairs, mirroring Hegel.[14]

Tocqueville observed that social mechanisms have paradoxes, as in what later became known as the Tocqueville effect: "social frustration increases as social conditions improve".[15] He wrote that this growing hatred of social privilege, as social conditions improve, leads to the state concentrating more power to itself.[citation needed]

Tocqueville's views on the United States took a darker turn after 1840, however, as made evident in Craiutu and Jennings' Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings.[16]


In volume I of his work, Tocqueville analyzes the elements of American society that have allowed the development of its democratic, republican and representative system of government. At the same time, he constantly compares them with his native France –– and with Europe, in general–– and criticizes any extreme that has been or could be reached: both an absolute government and a broadly democratic one, since both involve risks. The first volume is divided into part I and part II.

On the other hand, volume II deals with American society as such: its customs, its ideas, its philosophical methods, and how certain factors, even individual or family, develop phenomena that allow it to be at peace. The second volume is divided into four parts: the influence of democracy on intellectual movements in the United States; the influence of democracy on the feelings of Americans; the influence of democracy on customs; and, finally, the influence that democratic ideas and feelings have on political society.

Volume IEdit

The first part mentions the social state of Anglo-Americans, which is defined as "the product of a fact, or even laws, or both together, that define the cause that rife the customs and regulatory ideas of the conduct of nations" (p. 111); Likewise, it declares it as imminently democratic, governed by state laws with effects on property not only material or territorial, but also family, as well as the effect of its egalitarian division: the destruction of the connection between the spirit of the family and the preservation of the land.

On the other hand, he also talks about the political consequences, mainly in what he defines as the law of laws: the principle of sovereignty –– which was the one that governed most of the English colonies in America–– latent and crucial, since ensures that each individual has an equal portion of sovereignty and, therefore, will seek to respect society and its different unions –– in three ways: the township, the county and the State–– simply by knowing it is useful to him or herself. and necessary to regulate[1]. It analyzes the types of decentralized administration and their consequences in the United States, and mentions that, although there is a governmental centralization[2], this is manifested mainly in society, since Americans "do not obey a man, but justice or the law." (p. 146), and it is the action of individual forces that is combined with social ones[3].

In the second part, Tocqueville continues with the ideas of the first. He begins by stating that, in America, “people are the ones who create the law and execute it”[4] (p. 206), however, it also allows an imminent phenomenon to occur: that the democratic and representative government, in reality, is that of the majority of citizens ––who, however, seek the good of the country––. To explain the participation of citizens[5], Tocqueville talks about political parties, associations[6], and how they converge in democracy and representation[7]; He also mentions an interesting phenomenon: the tyranny of the majority, which is an obstacle to democratic governments[8]. It also maintains that "democratic institutions awaken and activate the passion for equality, without being able to fully satisfy it" through universal suffrage, and this contributes to the fact that arbitrariness in public positions does not represent a danger, even though the "media class” is what the law makes (p.237). However, despite recognizing that the political constitution of the United States is one of the forms that democracy can exist, American institutions are not the only ones that should be adopted. (p. 252).

He establishes the United States as with a "government that follows the will of its people"[9] (p.245), that has not participated in wars and has an unknown recruitment of men. Therefore, Tocqueville considers democracies as the most appropriate forms of directing a peaceful society[10], since they favor the growth of the internal resources of the State, and favor the defense of rights[11] and interests[12] within its vast freedom.

In the economic aspect he mentions the question of taxes and how they affect the different classes, as well as the fixing of salaries (specifically those of the officers) and the way in which they decrease the higher the rank. The reason for this is that "democracy uses an enormous sum to satisfy the needs of the people" (p.240).

[1] Likewise, he highlights that there is no society more educated and involved in its politics than the American one. Therefore, it is clear that participation is crucial for the United States.

[2] As well as an administrative. (p.227)

[3] In addition, he establishes that it will always be the strength of the citizens as a group that will prevail and cause greater well-being, rather than a figure of governmental authority, since it is impossible for it to have the details of the life of its entire population.

[4] That is why the same population appoints their representatives every year, to ensure that the government remains truly representative.

[5] However, and as will be mentioned later, at the risk of tyranny of majority, the parties constantly provoke disturbances and strive to seek their support.

[6] Within which another important issue is manifested, a null hatred between social classes. (p.228). However, he does recognize the existence of three classes: the rich, those who are not, but live with good and facilities, and those who have little or no property. (p.236)

[7] Made up of minnorities.

[8] Although, however, it benefits them that there are two elections for the Senate. In the same way, he considers that, in a democracy, the government is known to be a “necessary evil” (p. 232)

[9] However, he also acknowledges the "irritable patriotism" of the Americans. (p. 257).

[10] Furthermore, he recognizes that a great privilege of Americans is to be able to repair their mistakes.

[11] That they are nothing more than "the virtue introduced to the political world." (p. 258).

[12] Of the greatest number of people of a certain sector or class.

Volume IIEdit

The first part deals with the philosophical method of the Americans, how they are guided by the same rules imposed by themselves, although also influenced by religion[1], specifically Christianity. For this very reason, Americans are forced to accept the dogmas and moral truths of Christianity. (p. 400). Tocqueville emphasizes that, although the United States has a democratic state and constitution, its revolution was not. Likewise, he has perceived that in America, the "majority" is in charge of creating opinions[2]. It is precisely the tyranny of the majority that also oppresses them, and accustoms them to given truths, immediate pleasures, and simple successes.

However, he also recognizes that religion represents the most desirable dogmatic beliefs, and that men always have a vested interest in creating fixed ideas about God. Despite this, he also states that while men live in greater equality and similarity, it is more important that religion does not clash with socially accepted ideas and the general interests of the majority. In the United States, priests and clergy maintain their distance from public affairs, this being an example of the limitation of religion within it, since they know the "intellectual empire of the majority" (p. 418) and respect it.

In the second part, Tocqueville argues that individuals are born loving equality, but that it presents difficulties[3]. However, freedom has manifested itself in different ways, in such a way that democratic societies have placed it below equality. This subordination explains why democratic societies lately offer to be individualistic[4]. This individualism, however, has to be fought in the institutions, since despotism is an almost certain guarantee of man's isolation (p. 480), and associations[5] between peers are what would then make up civil life.

In the third part he analyzes the influence of democracy on the family and the structures of social relations and their individuals –– specifically in women––. Tocqueville establishes that in the United States the family does not exist[6]. The aspects that modify family relationships are the power of the opinions of the authority figure, the division of the patrimony and the correspondence between the ties. He reinforces his idea that, although democracy ensures equality and makes children independent, at the same time relationships with the community and their interests can separate and differentiate them. In other words, democracy weakens social ties, but strengthens natural ones[7]. On the other hand, when speaking of women, he recognizes that the American woman enjoys the pleasures that are allowed to her, without abandoning herself to them; however, they irremediably lose her independence with marriage (p. 560), but she never falls as ignorant and simple, but as knowing what is expected of her, and she sets out to tolerate the new condition that she herself has chosen. Despite this, Americans consider that nature has divided men and women their physical and moral constitution, so they insist on dividing the functions of both to achieve progress.

Finally, in the fourth part, Tocqueville remarks that during his stay in the United States he was able to realize how easily the democracy of the social state can turn into despotism (p. 650). He acknowledges that democratic governments have become violent and cruel, but that their crises are very sporadic. Likewise, he imagines and speculates what the new despotism will look like in the world, and how it can be regulated[8]. He concludes that the new society he describes is a nascent one, so it is impossible to discern what will happen after the revolutions. Each system has its vices and virtues, there are good and bad instincts, so it is necessary to seek care in judging societies with both current and past ideas. Likewise, it criticizes that Providence has not created the human race independent or slave, and that it depends on the nations of our time whether equality will lead to servitude or freedom, progress or misery (p. 664)

[1] Religion was what allowed the creation of Anglo-American societies, therefore, it is immersed and gives strength to American sentiment.

[2] So individuals no longer have to form their own.

[3] Because it can establish itself in civil society and not reign in the political world (p. 473).

[4] Unlike selfishness, individualism refers to a peaceful and thoughtful feeling in which each individual isolates himself from the mass and creates a society for his own use.

[5] From individual men with united similar tastes, thoughts and interests.

[6] Although, it exists at the beginning, when the children grow up they separate and the bonds are lost.

[7] As he brings family members closer, he separates citizens.

[8] Either through servitude, or other means to ensure subjection to certain public affairs.


Democracy in America was published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the other in 1840. It was immediately popular in both Europe and the United States, while also having a profound impact on the French population. By the twentieth century, it had become a classic work of political science, social science, and history. It is a commonly assigned reading for undergraduates of American universities majoring in the political or social sciences, and part of the introductory political theory syllabus at Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and other institutions. In the introduction to his translation of the book, Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield calls it "at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America."[17]

Tocqueville's work is often acclaimed for making a number of astute predictions. He anticipates the potential acrimony over the abolition of slavery that would tear apart the United States and lead to the American Civil War, as well as the eventual superpower rivalry between the United States and Russia, which exploded after World War II and spawned the Cold War.[citation needed]

Noting the rise of the industrial sector in the American economy, Tocqueville, some scholars have argued, also correctly predicted that an industrial aristocracy would rise from the ownership of labor. He warned that 'friends of democracy must keep an anxious eye peeled in this direction at all times', observing that the route of industry was the gate by which a newfound wealthy class might potentially dominate, although he himself believed that an industrial aristocracy would differ from the formal aristocracy of the past.[citation needed]

On the other hand, Tocqueville proved shortsighted in noting that a democracy's equality of conditions stifles literary development. In spending several chapters lamenting the state of the arts in America, he fails to envision the literary renaissance that would shortly arrive in the form of such major writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. Equally, in dismissing the country's interest in science as limited to pedestrian applications for streamlining the production of material goods, he failed to imagine America's burgeoning appetite for pure scientific research and discovery.[citation needed]

According to Tocqueville, democracy had some unfavorable consequences: the tyranny of the majority over thought, a preoccupation with material goods, and isolated individuals.[citation needed]

Democracy in America was interpreted differently across national contexts. In France and the United States, Tocqueville's work was seen as liberal, whereas both progressive and conservatives in the British isles interpreted his work as supporting their own positions.[18]

Translated versions of Democracy in AmericaEdit

This translation was completed by Reeve and later revised by Francis Bowen. In 1945, it was reissued in a modern edition by Alfred A. Knopf edited and with an extensive historical essay by Phillips Bradley.[citation needed]
Bilingual edition based on the authoritative edition of the original French-language text.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). De la démocratie en Amérique. I (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica; de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). De la démocratie en Amérique. II (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica
  2. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (1840). De la démocratie en Amérique. III (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica; de Tocqueville, Alexis (1840). De la démocratie en Amérique. IV (1st ed.). Paris: Librairie de Charles Gosselin. Retrieved 24 June 2015. via Gallica
  3. ^ Johri, Vikram. "'Alexis de Tocqueville': the first French critic of the US". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
  4. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. p. 13. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  5. ^ a b Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  6. ^ Zetterbaum, Marvin (1967). Tocqueville and the problem of democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  7. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  8. ^ Tangian, Andranik (2020). Analytical Theory of Democracy. Vols. 1 and 2. Studies in Choice and Welfare. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39691-6. ISBN 978-3-030-39690-9.
  9. ^ a b Kerber, Linda K. (1988). "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History". The Journal of American History. University of North Carolina Press. 75 (1): 9–39. doi:10.2307/1889653. JSTOR 1889653. Full text available online
  10. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter XII: How the Americans understand the Equality of the sexes". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 101.
  11. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter X: The young Woman in the Character of a Wife". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. pp. 79–81.
  12. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter XII: How the Americans understand the Equality of the sexes". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 106.
  13. ^ L. Jaume, Tocqueville, Fayard 2008
  14. ^ Zaleski, Pawel. "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality". Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. Felix Meiner Verlag, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2007. 50.[1]
  15. ^ Swedberg, Richard (2009). Tocqueville's Political Economy. Princeton University Press. p. 260. ISBN 9781400830084.
  16. ^ Crăiuțu, Aurelian; Jennings, Jeremy (2009). "Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings".
  17. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80532-8.
  18. ^ Bonin, Hugo (2021). "Friend or foe? British receptions of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, 1835–1885". British Politics. doi:10.1057/s41293-021-00182-8. ISSN 1746-9198.
  19. ^ "Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Note on the Translation". Retrieved 2012-06-23.
  20. ^ ASIN 0060956666
  21. ^[full citation needed]
  22. ^ ASIN 0140447601
  23. ^ "Democracy in America: Translator's Note – Arthur Goldhammer". Archived from the original on 2012-07-26. Retrieved 2012-06-23.
  24. ^ "Democracy in America De la Démocratie en Amérique". Archived from the original on 2011-02-03. Retrieved 2012-06-23.


  • Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1996)
  • Morton, F. L. "Sexual Equality and the Family in Tocqueville's Democracy in America," Canadian Journal of Political Science (1984) 17#2 pp. 309–324 in JSTOR
  • Schleifer, James T. The Chicago Companion to Tocqueville's Democracy in America (U of Chicago Press, 2012)
  • Schneck, Stephen. "New Readings of Tocqueville's America: Lessons for Democracy," Polity (1992) 25#2 pp. 283–298 in JSTOR
  • Welch, Cheryl B. ed. Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Zetterbaum, Marvin. Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy (1967)


  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.; Olivier Zunz, ed.) (The Library of America, 2004) ISBN 1-931082-54-5
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (George Lawrence, trans.; J. P. Mayer, ed.; New York: Perennial Classics, 2000)
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, trans., ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

French studiesEdit

  • Jean-Louis Benoît, Tocqueville Moraliste, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2004.
  • Arnaud Coutant, Tocqueville et la Constitution démocratique, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2008.
  • A. Coutant, Une Critique républicaine de la démocratie libérale, Paris, Mare et Martin, 2007.
  • Laurence Guellec, Tocqueville : l'apprentissage de la liberté, Michalon, 1996.
  • Lucien Jaume, Tocqueville, les sources aristocratiques de la liberté, Bayard, 2008.
  • Eric Keslassy, le libéralisme de Tocqueville à l’épreuve du paupérisme, L'Harmattan, 2000
  • F. Melonio, Tocqueville et les Français, 1993.

External linksEdit