Alexis De Tocqueville Research Paper

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1. The Unity Of A Process

Born into a family of very old Norman nobility on July 29, 1805 in Paris, Tocqueville first studied philosophy and rhetoric at the College Royal in Metz, then law in Paris. In 1827, he was appointed to the judiciary and became a probationary judge at Versailles. Throughout the Restoration, he took part in the bitter struggle which set the old aristocracy, enclosed in its traditions, against the new France, led by the middle classes. After the Revolution of 1830, and having sworn—not without hesitation—the oath of allegiance to Louis-Philippe, he gave himself plenty of room as far as events were concerned by requesting a commission to conduct a survey into the American penitentiary system. This trip (April 1831 – February 1832), undertaken with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, resulted first in a report entitled Du Systeme penitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application en France (On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application in France) (1833), then the first two volumes of De la Democratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) (1835), and finally what is known as the Second Democratie (Second Democracy) (1840). The success of the first part of this work was enough to establish his reputation; in 1838 he was elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and, three years later, he entered the Academie francaise.

Tocqueville’s liking for philosophical reflection did not cancel out his sense of political action. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, and reelected several times in his Valognes constituency, he committed himself resolutely to the parliamentary path on the side of the constitutional opposition. On January 27, in a speech with a prophetic note, he announced the revolution which was to break out one month later. After the February Days, he was witness to the clashes of June 23 to 26, 1848 which put ‘the haves’ at odds with the ‘have-nots.’ His Souvenirs (Recollections) (1951–, Vol. XII) relate what this ‘great battle waged in Paris’ was like. A short-lived Minister for Foreign Affairs under the Prince President of the Second Republic, Tocqueville was returned to his studies for good with the coup d’Etat of December 2, 1851. L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (The Ancien Regime and the Revolution) appeared in 1856, the second great work which its author was anticipating expanding when tuberculosis cut short his life. He died on April 16, 1859 in Cannes.

Tocqueville’s work—which comprises the two great texts of 1835/40 and 1856, the Recollections, various papers, speeches, and reports, as well as a vast correspondence—draws its unity from the constant questioning which inspired it: why since 1789, in 1830, and then in 1848, was it always the same revolution which starts up again? The unity of the work also stems from the method adopted in order to understand the repetition—in Europe, and in France in particular—of the revolutionary process. Its comparative method, not systematized, but rather applied spontaneously, allowed it to avoid the perils that Euro-centricity and sociocentricity are denounced for today. ‘Whoever has only studied and seen France will understand nothing of the French Revolution.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 94) It was therefore without being obsessed with one singular case, and being free of all aristocratic prejudice, that Alexis de Tocqueville set about penetrating the essence of democratic society; by combining ‘holism’ and ‘individualism,’ he posited a diagnosis along with a prognosis on modern society whose value and validity were only recognized much later.

2. In Search Of Democracy

‘It is not only in order to satisfy curiosity—however legitimate—that I examined America,’ Tocqueville wrote ‘I wanted to find any lessons there from which we might profit [ … ] I confess that in America I saw more than just America; I sought an image of democracy itself, its tendencies, its character, its prejudices, its passions. I wanted to become acquainted with it, if only at least to know what we should hope or fear from it.’ (1951–, Vol. I, 1, p. 11) With this definition, the Tocquevillian project was set out as an effort to understand a ‘social state’ and, secondarily, a political regime. If the first readers of the 1835 work were attracted to the evocation of exotic locations, they were rather more invited to turn the American mirror upon themselves. Three years later, they were to see a different image of democracy which was less suited to charming them.

Tocqueville’s confessed search was not, in fact, separable from the recognition of a tendency— considered from the outset irresistible and irreversible—which was specific to modern societies: the march towards the equalization of conditions. Behind the analyses which were put forward, the contrast between aristocratic society and democratic society operated in a virtually permanent state, and it was the transition from the traditional order to the new arrangements in human relations that Tocqueville undertook to study. He approached this by going back to the principles which govern social states and to the institutions which arise out of them. From an early stage, he realized that one principle had to dominate and that the government which was called mixed, that is, which united an aristocratic element with a democratic one, was merely an idle fantasy. The English monarchy, with its strongly dominant aristocratic character, was still able to pass for the model of government; but it was the American system which was called upon to become the model for modern nations. Equally, Tocqueville also developed an ‘ideal type’ for democratic society, based on the equality of conditions and set against an aristocratic society founded on the hierarchy of status.

If the paths leading to democracy are marked out in different ways, ‘the great advantage of Americans is to have arrived [there] without having to undergo democratic revolutions, and to have been born equal rather than having to become it.’ While examining the customs—defined as ‘the moral and intellectual state of a people’—of Americans, Tocqueville assigned their foundation to a fully accepted equality of conditions. (1951–, Vol. 1, p. 300) In the USA, democracy was in some way ‘natural’; its inhabitants had not had to struggle against privileged groups, such as the ones which had resisted in France; they made up an immense middle class within which there was active mobility. Whatever was set down in custom was fostered by institutions—the commune, the jury, and numerous associations. Decentralization and communal democracy allowed citizens to take part in public affairs, and allowed the body social to regulate itself. ‘Each individual makes up an equal portion of the ruling body, and plays an equal part in the government of the State.’ The close bond between the political and the social was actually realized in this society, a society which acted upon itself and through itself, since power only existed within it. In this way, the negative effects of individualism were limited. As for the ills which could arise out of equality, liberty provided the cure. In this society where one endeavored to bring people together rather than to set them against each other, and where the most serious social antagonisms were excluded (one found rich people, not a rich class), religion made a powerful contribution to social regulation. Tocqueville clearly highlighted the role of religious beliefs in the bolstering of customs and the upholding of Republican institutions. Religion prevented the American citizen ‘from imagining everything and forbids him from daring to do everything.’ It ordered him to confine himself to the representation of that which was real and to the conception of that which was useful. Through this, the American mentality took shape—pragmatic, not speculative; with a firm grasp of the facts, not prey to ideology.

The general characteristics of the American model are set out clearly in Democracy in America II, along with its potential variations such as liberal democracy and revolutionary or democratic despotism; it also includes the amendment to the relationship between the passion for liberty and the passion for equality. Individualism—the childhood illness of democracy— is defined in this work as ‘a deliberate and peaceful feeling which inclines each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellow men and to withdraw from his family and friends. In this way, after having created for himself a small-scale society for his own benefit, he readily leaves wider society to itself.’ (1951–, Vol. I, 2, p. 105) In The Ancien Regime and the Revolution one again finds the threat this represents illustrated in the case of France, and the dangers signaled in 1840 which were brought up to date by the comparative analysis of the passions of democracy and of revolution. Another model, this time continental, was in place at the time and was in a way the negative of the American model.

3. The Analysis Of Social Change

‘What strikes the European who travels through the United States,’ Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America I, ‘is the absence of what we call government or administration.’ (1951–, Vol. I, 1, p. 69) In 1840, he further drew attention to his initial observation: ‘Wherever, at the head of a new venture, you see the government in France and a nobleman in England, in America you can be sure to find an association.’ (1951–, I, 2, p. 113) If it was true that a good government was one which taught its citizens to manage without it, this was not working in France. The backdrop to the 1856 work, which links the interpretation of an historical crisis with a theory of social change, was provided by feudalism and its networks of dependence and solidarity where masters and servants were united by reciprocal services. It was this system, social and political, with its intermediary groups, corporations, village communities, provincial assemblies, and so on, that the French monarchy had set about destroying by means of administrative centralization. No one benefited from it; neither the nobleman whose preeminence was affected, nor the bourgeois whose vanity was wounded, nor the ordinary man who still remained the underling. Discontent was universal.

By suppressing the intermediary bodies, by condemning the nobility—stripped of its function and devitalized—to appearing merely as the ornament of despotism, while at the same time encouraging the emergence of new elites but without satisfying their statutory ambitions, royalty had converted an organic whole where each individual was bound to a group into an homogenous mass oscillating between apathy and demand, submission and subversion. Such was the new social state: ‘men, no longer being bound to each other by any bond of caste, class, corporation, or family, are only too inclined to concern themselves with their own individual interests and too prone to considering only themselves and to withdrawing into a state of narrow individualism where every political virtue is stifled.’ Thus, centralization, the restriction of liberties, and the deterioration of public life combine forces. In this way, equality leads to despotism, since it is no longer built on liberty or on participation in communal affairs.

The explanatory variations which Tocqueville identifies therefore relate, as in the 1835 40 work, to characteristic customs, institutions, and circumstances. In the process which they deal with, the Revolution no longer appears as a rupture; the Terror had only prolonged the process of state centralization which had been initiated earlier. There was, in reality, a continuity between royal absolutism, revolutionary Jacobinism, and imperial politics. In the process in question, religion had also played an important role by virtue of the universalist dimension presented by Catholicism. At the same time, the Revolution—itself preaching the abolition of privilege and the equalization of conditions, had ‘itself become a kind of new religion, an imperfect religion.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 89) As a result of this, Tocqueville was in no doubt that ‘all the Revolution did would have been done without it; it was only a violent and hasty process with whose help the political state was adapted to the social state, the deeds to the ideas, and the laws to the customs.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 66)

One should take note of the manner in which Tocqueville analyzes the social conflicts and their origins and exacerbation. They were born in eighteenth century France in a short period of economic recession following a long phase of general prosperity. It was therefore not increased poverty which triggered off the conflicts, nor was it the weight of former coercive institutions which were the cause. The Revolution ‘did not break out in the regions where these institutions were better preserved and their discomfort and rigour felt most acutely by the people, but on the contrary in those regions where they were felt the least, in such a way that their yoke had seemed all the more unbearable precisely where it was the least heavy.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 99) It is a question here of situations that one analyzes today in terms of relative frustrations. Tocqueville recognized them perfectly in the case of the emancipation of the peasantry, just as he had in the case of the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. They made two strongly felt passions explosive: one was ‘the violent and inextinguishable hatred of inequality’; the other ‘more recent and less deep-rooted’ led individuals ‘to want to live not only equally, but also freely.’

These were the passions which the philosophes of the Enlightenment had stirred up. They provided a theoretical framework for social protest by showing the necessity of replacing traditional habits with new rules. Far removed from the affairs of state, with no practical experience and therefore inclined to conceive of ‘general and abstract theories in government matters,’ men of letters undertook to found cloud cuckoo land. Vain debates of ideas took the place of public life: ‘Political life was violently driven back into literature, and writers, taking the direction of public opinion in hand, found themselves from one moment to the next holding those positions which the leaders of political parties usually occupied in free countries.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 196) With this observation, Tocqueville paved the way to a sociology of intellectuals.

4. The Originality Of The Contribution

The author of Democracy in America was hailed by his contemporaries as a new Montesquieu. The historians of the nineteenth century saw in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution a major contribution to historiography. If the glory of Tocqueville knew no eclipse in the USA, his work did in France, however, fall into a kind of oblivion from which it did not emerge until after World War II. It is to Raymond Aron (1967) and Andre Jardin (1984)—who actively worked on the publication of the Oeuvres Completes (Complete Works)—as well as to Jean-Claude Lamberti (1970, 1983)—the author of the first statecommissioned thesis on Tocqueville—that one principally owes the renewal of interest in a work which from then on took its place among the classic works of sociology. There are many reasons for this long purgatory. Tocqueville was not a maker of systems as one so likes in France; he appeared as the champion of liberalism at a time when this current of thought was being strongly denounced; nor did his interpretation of the French Revolution seem ideologically sound; and then his way of thinking seemed to come under a mixed genre of headings—political philosophy, philosophy of history, and general sociology.

The reasons for Tocqueville’s return are by no means separable from the turnaround in the intellectual climate which took effect in the last two decades of the twentieth century. The new tendencies are well known—the decline of hypersocialized conceptions of the individual; the freeing of collective memory previously marked by the rupture of revolution; and the loosening in particular of the vice of monocausal determinism. On the latter, the Recollections give this opinion which is consistent with the orientation of the social sciences at the beginning of the twenty-first century: ‘I, for my part, hate these absolute systems, which make all the events of history dependent on great first causes, each one being linked to the other by a chain of inevitability, and which, as it were, remove men from the history of mankind.’ (1951–, Vol. XII, p. 84) The social protagonists are restored with a power of deliberation and decision, the choice of strategies, and a certain amount of room for maneuver through methodological individualism. They have ‘good reasons,’ as Raymond Boudon (1977) definitively emphasized, to act as they do, and it was these reasons which, in concrete situations, Tocqueville attempted to bring to light.

This writer was original and modern first and foremost through his method of implementation; it brings together observations, comparisons in space and time, and generalizations; it retains the significant fact without losing sight of the point of view of the collective whole; and the investigation which it guides is situated both on the macrosociological as well as the microsociological level. The rational reconstruction of the significance, in the end ascribed to human actions and historical events, is carried out from objective and subjective elements. The protagonists’ reasons are integrated into the explanatory schema along with their passions. Tocqueville, in fact, invites his reader to weigh up the importance of the passion factors; he urges him thus to ‘imagine’ through a sympathetic understanding the fate of the French peasant in the eighteenth century: ‘Imagine this man’s condition and calculate if you can the wealth of hatred and envy which has amassed in his heart.’ (1951–, Vol. II, 1, p. 106)

Tocqueville’s contribution to social science is also original in the way that it poses problems and formulates questions. Why, it is asked in the Memoire sur le pauperisme (On pauperism) (1835), are the countries which appear to be the most poverty-stricken the ones which, in reality, have the lowest number of inhabitants? And why, inversely, is a section of the population of the opulent nations forced to have recourse to the help of other people in order to live? A comparison between Portugal—where poverty was hardly to be seen because the responsibility was assumed by the networks of traditional solidarity— and England—whose social regulations were broken by the Industrial Revolution which created its wealth—provided the answer. It is therefore not simply a question of observing and describing— Democracy in America is not a simple monograph resulting from banal field research—but of under- standing the social processes arising from ‘good questions.’

Tocqueville’s way of thinking was modern, in particular because of the subject it was applied to—that is, democracy. A type of entirely new society was establishing itself in the nineteenth century. Emphasizing its principal traits—notably the reign of public opinion—and the dangers it comprised—in particular the tyranny of the majority—Tocqueville assigned its foundation to a dependent work force and the equality of conditions. The development of the egalitarian mentality which accompanies the establishment of democratic society is a source of dis- satisfaction that the hope of mobility is not up to appeasing. Inequalities, reduced in one sphere, spring up again elsewhere—there will never be an end to them. Individualism which causes social completeness to disintegrate brings about a displacement of the boundary which separates public space from the private sphere; the latter extends like a zone of retreat where one concern rules: that of material well-being. At the same time, the author of Democracy in America ‘saw,’ in a splendid passage where prophecy and prediction merge the ‘type of despotism that democratic nations have to fear.’ This was a vision of a ‘vast mass of people all alike and all equal,’ seeking trifling pleasures, all separated from each other, and above whom ‘rises up an immense guardian power, absolute, intricate, regulated, provident, and gentle,’ (1951–, Vol. I, 2, p. 324) which reduces men to the level of children by making them dependent—this tableau really is the Welfare State.


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