Alexis de Tocqueville

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Democratic Values
History of Philanthropy
Tocqueville, Alexis de
Alexis de Tocqueville is known as the 19th century Frenchman who observed and wrote about early American democracy. He documented his keen observations of American traits and praised the American ethic to work together for the common good.


Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 - 1859) was a Frenchman who came to America in 1831 to study prison reform. In the two years of his journey through America, Tocqueville became fascinated by the lifestyle of Americans, and later wrote a book, Democracy in America. The two-volume book, still widely read today, addressed Americans' political institutions, as well as their love for equality, materialism, religious mores, and education. In addition to his book, Tocqueville left his diaries, which provide first-hand portraits of early America showing people's daily activities, the kind of clothes they wore, and the types of homes in which they lived. His insightful descriptions of American social interactions, including the treatment of Indians and slaves, create a vivid mental picture of life in the 1830s. Alexis de Tocqueville was only 25 years old when he arrived in America.

Historic Roots

On October 31, 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont submitted a request to the French government for funds to travel to America to study new prison reforms. The French government refused to help them, but granted them leave to travel to America in February 1831. Their journey was paid for by their families. Tocqueville's trip and later writings were to have a profound effect on our understanding of early American democracy and lifestyle.


Tocqueville's famous book, Democracy in America, deals with issues that are as relevant today as they were in the 1830s, such as class structure, racism, religion, the press, the role of government and the judicial system. The book has always been popular and is frequently quoted by journalists and politicians. Historians consider Democracy in America to be one of the most comprehensive and insightful books ever written about the United States, and many colleges use the text in political science and history courses.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Tocqueville was the earliest and one of the keenest observers of American associational life. Tocqueville found that Americans voluntarily joined together to accomplish things that in European countries were addressed by the wealth of the aristocracy, the Church, or the State. His accounts of American cooperation have served as a stimulus for much discussion and writing on the role of voluntary associations in the development of civil society and in American political life. He observed that voluntary giving, which in Europe was accomplished through religious charity and State support, took the form of mutual assistance in America. Americans banded together to build hospitals, prisons, churches and schools. Because they had no government or wealthy aristocracy, Americans became empowered to act on their own, a practice that also built strong representative government in the early years of the United States.



Between April 2, 1831, and February 20, 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, traveled across much of early America. They toured busy urban communities as well as the back roads of frontier settlements. Retracing their trip is a lesson in North American geography of the mid-18th century. Arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, the two travelers began their journey through the state of New York, visiting 13 different towns and cities. They traveled through New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts) and Quebec, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, traveling over the Allegheny Mountains. Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled extensively through the southern United States, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Virginia and Washington D. C., documenting their experiences and reflections related to race relations and slavery. They also explored the "western" states of Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Throughout his travels, Tocqueville studied American life, region by region. Maps are available on the Internet that chronicle his trip through the United States and Canada (see bibliography).


American and World History

Tocqueville was the descendant of an old aristocratic French family, and throughout his life he had a keen interest in understanding the human family through the study of history. His great-grandfather, Malesherbes, had bravely defended Louis XVI during the French revolution. His parents were imprisoned in the infamous Bastille, and only survived because Robespierre was overthrown before their scheduled execution. The year before Tocqueville traveled to America, another French revolution ousted Charles X, the last Bourbon king, and installed the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe, who forced all civil servants to swear an oath of loyalty. After studying law, the young Tocqueville started working for King Louis-Philippe, known as the "People's King," which created tensions within his family. This probably contributed to Tocqueville's wish to leave France for a long journey abroad, a trip that allowed him to wait and see how the unstable political conditions in his native France would develop.

Following the successful publication of Democracy in America in 1835 (Volume I) and 1840 (Volume II), Tocqueville became known as an expert on prisons and slavery. He published reports advocating the immediate emancipation of all slaves in French possessions. After his election to the French Academy in 1841, Tocqueville engaged in many debates on the slave trade, the French colonization of Algeria, and the question of succession after Louis-Philippe's death, in which he favored an elective regency. Speaking in the French Chamber of Deputies in 1848, Tocqueville prophesized the coming revolution, and later was elected to a committee charged with drawing up a new French constitution.



The American political system was observed closely in 1830s France. Relations between the United States and France had been close since the revolution in France, when many persecuted French found asylum in the United States. The experiment with democracy was still young in both countries, and the French were interested in seeing whether certain political institutions in one country could be transferred elsewhere under different political conditions. For Tocqueville, the opportunity to conduct a study of the American prison system was a welcomed reason to undertake his journey. In a letter to a friend, Tocqueville said, "I have long had the greatest desire to visit North America: I shall go see there what a great republic is like; my only fear is lest, during that time, they establish one in France."


Key Related Ideas

Preparing for a trip in the 1830s - Tocqueville and Beaumont made many preparations for their trip. They collected letters of introduction to ensure that they would be received by the finest and most important people in America. They bought and read copies of books that described the United States. All of Tocqueville's belongings had to be packed into one leather trunk, with an engraved nameplate. They included his clothing, a gun, writing supplies, two pairs of boots, three pairs of shoes and a silk hat. Beaumont had similar possessions, but also brought along two sketchbooks, watercolor paints, brushes, pen, ink and his flute.

Frontier life in the 1830s - In his writings, Tocqueville described average Americans as he met them, including descriptions of their houses and home furnishings, the fashions of the times, their relationships with neighbors, the treatment of strangers, Indians and slaves, and their participation in political life. He and Beaumont traveled widely, recording evidence of differences in lifestyle from state to state and region to region.


Import ant People Related the Topic

In his native country of France, key historical figures who helped shape Tocqueville's perceptions of political life included his great-grandfather, Malesherbes (who supported Louis XVI and met with an untimely end), Robespierre, King Louis-Philippe, the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis-Napoleon, and the American author James Fennimore Cooper (who spent time in France between 1826 and 1833). In America, Andrew Jackson was an influential political figure in molding Tocqueville's impressions of American political life.


Bode, Carl, ed. American Life in the 1840's. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Cosentino, Andrew J. A Passion for Liberty: Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy and Revolution. Washington: Library of Congress, 1989.

Grimstead, David, ed. Notions of the Americans: 1820-1860. New York: George Braziller, 1970.

Lacour-Gayet, Robert. Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War 1830-1860. New York: Ungar Publishing Company, 1969.

Langdon, William Chauncy. Everyday Things in American Life: 1776-1876. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941.

Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840. HarperPerennial, 1988.

Minnigerode, Meade. The Fabulous Forties 1840-1850: A Presentation of Private Life. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1924.

Pierson, George Wilson. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Case Western Reserve University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Case Western Reserve University.