Philanthropy in "Democracy in America" by de Tocqueville

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Alexis de Tocqueville, a French civil servant from an aristocratic family, wrote "Democracy in America" following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32. He writes extensively about the American phenomenon of forming "associations" of all types including professional, social, civil, and political. He believed that associations extended democracy beyond the scope of elected offices, to the level of people who share a common.


Alexis de Tocqueville, a French civil servant from an aristocratic family, wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32. Tocqueville journeyed to the United States with a fellow governmental employee, Gustave de Beaumont. Their stated reason for the trip was to study the American penal system, but Kramnick asserts that Tocqueville had a larger goal in mind—one with great personal significance. "Studying American prisons was merely an excuse to get the official leave of absence required for the trip. . .Beaumont and Tocqueville saw the journey as a career-creating opportunity. Tocqueville, in particular, had begun to contemplate a political career, and. . .he sensed that understanding America. . .would provide a useful edge for anyone involved in the politics of an evolving French democracy" (Kramnick 2003, xvii).

Beaumont assumed the task of writing and publishing the study of the penal system. Tocqueville's primary contribution from the trip, however, was the study that became Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

While Democracy in America is not a founding document of the United States, it was highly influential from the time of its publication through Tocqueville's death in 1859. A renaissance began in 1935, on the occasion of the centennial of its publication. That modern interest has continued through the present; it includes several English translations, and the application of Tocqueville's observations to such events as the threat of totalitarianism during World War II, the Cold War, and contemporary American electoral politics. It has been used as a manifesto by politicians and social philosophers on both the political left and right (Kramnick 2003, xli-xlvii).

Tocqueville does not use the word "philanthropy " which means literally, "the love of people." But he writes extensively about the American phenomenon of forming " associations " of all types including professional, social, civil, and political. It is in this discussion of associations that the modern student may understand how Tocqueville's observations relate to philanthropy—now understood to mean the contribution of financial support and volunteer resources to the not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations which aim to serve the public good and improve the quality of human lives.

Tocqueville's description of associations is an enduring impact of Democracy in America . Tocqueville's extensive analysis of the role associations play in strengthening and moderating democracy are widely cited, and highly influential on the structure of American philanthropy. Tocqueville viewed the proliferation of associations as a unique response that was not only critical to the success of the experiment of democratic government, but also served to provide for the well-being of all of its citizens in accordance with a sense of equality that was previously unknown (Tocqueville 1840).

"In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded" (Tocqueville 1840, 599).

Historic Roots

As a son of aristocrats but an advocate of reform in his own country, Tocqueville served not only as a governmental employee, but also as a student of civil society. He gave serious consideration to his country's options for governing itself, and in researching Democracy in America , became an advocate of both democracy (elected representative government) and federalism (power distributed among the national government, its states, and their municipalities).

As France moved toward eventual democratic rule and struggled with defining the role of the monarchy and nobility, Tocqueville "saw the decline of the aristocracy as irreversible" and "thought federalism a more promising antidote to centralization" (Kramnick 2003, xv).

Again, Kramnick suggests that studying the young American democracy was the real purpose of the trip. "Behind Tocqueville's desire to go to America, ostensibly to study prisons was his concern with broader political issues such as centralization, localism, and, of course, federalism" (Kramnick 2003, xviii).


In his study of democracy and federalism, Tocqueville found that Americans had embraced the idea of associations with a zeal unknown in the aristocracies of France and England. He believed that associations extended democracy beyond the scope of elected offices, to the level of people who share a common interest around which they effect action for large groups of people. By forming and joining associations, Americans are casting a sort of ballot about the issues which are important to them, their families, and their communities.

In linking the ideals of democracy with formal associations, Tocqueville showed that America's success as a non-aristocracy relies on philanthropy to provide for its people (Kramnick 2003, xxiv). "Aristocratic societies always contain. . .a small number of very powerful and wealthy citizens each of whom has the ability to perform great enterprises single-handed. In aristocratic societies men feel no need to act in groups because they are strongly held together. . .A nation in which individuals lost the capacity to achieve great things single-handed without acquiring the means of doing them in a shared enterprise would quickly revert to barbarism" (Tocqueville 1840, 597).

Likewise, Tocqueville accurately foresaw the importance of charitable organizations in providing for the common welfare of people. "It is simple to see the time approaching when man will be decreasingly able to produce alone the commonest necessities of life. The tasks of government will therefore constantly increase and its very exertions must daily extend its scope. . .The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through the reciprocal influence of men upon each other . . . these influences are practically non-existent in democratic countries. Thus, they have to be created artificially, which is what associations alone can achieve" (Tocqueville 1840, 598).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

It is unlikely that Tocqueville would have predicted the enormous growth in the number of not-for-profit associations; today there are some 865,000 (Marsicano). But he did believe that the ability of the economy to expand to a capacity that satisfies the needs of people of all economic strata was dependent upon the non-profit sector. "In the United States, there is no limit to the inventiveness of man to discover ways of increasing wealth and to satisfy the public's needs. The most enlightened inhabitants of each district constantly use their knowledge to make new discoveries to increase the general prosperity, which, when made, they pass eagerly to the mass of the people" (Tocqueville 1840, 594).

Tocqueville notes that Americans form associations for many different purposes. He states that "Americans group together to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association" (Tocqueville 1840, 596).

Michael Marsicano, CEO and president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, provides a contemporary perspective on the interrelated roles of associations, philanthropy, and government in the United States that validates Tocqueville's analysis. "No country in the history of the world has so creatively and effectively combined philanthropy and government service. . .When we as individuals, however, volunteer our hard-earned dollars to advance society by freely giving from our own pockets, government taxes us less. The government gives us a tax deduction. As a matter of public policy, the law of the land rewards us for taking a personal role in the advancement of society. We are able to give less to Caesar when we give more to others. This is uniquely American and profoundly important. . .In America, government sees philanthropy as a partner. And you can even use your tax deduction to contradict government. If you believe the direction headed by Caesar is wrong, he will still give you a tax deduction when you freely finance the opposite direction. . .nonprofit board. . .members serve as an extended form of representative democracy. These individuals have been empowered to spend what otherwise would have been Caesar's to spend" (Marsicano 2003).

Key Related Ideas

Tocqueville understood democracy from two perspectives. "Alongside his social reading of democracy as a society of nearly equal men - a relatively new concept - is his political sense of democracy as the sovereignty of the people, the people ruling themselves." (emphasis added) (Kramnick 2003, xxvi).

Tocqueville drew a connection between the formation and effectiveness of associations in solving social problems, and the availability of a free press . While he wrote specifically of newspapers, the only mass medium of his day, his comments are equally appropriate today as the press has expanded to include broadcast, cable, satellite, and Internet delivered media. "It often happens that, in democratic countries, a large number of men who want or need to form an association cannot do so because they fail to see or find each other. . .Then a newspaper appears to publish the opinion or idea which had occurred simultaneously but separately to each of them. . .The newspaper has brought them together and continues to be necessary to keep them together" (Tocqueville 1840, 601).

Tocqueville observed that associating with other like-minded people to improve the common welfare requires personal sacrifice. "The love and respect of your neighbors must be gained by a long series of small services, hidden deeds of goodness, a persistent habit of kindness, and an established reputation of selflessness" (Tocqueville 1840, 593). "I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support" (Tocqueville 1840, 594-595).

Tocqueville did not pretend, however, that associating for the common good is done without concern for one's own self interest. He referred to this as the doctrine of self-interest, properly understood. "American moralists do not claim that one must sacrifice oneself for one's fellows because it is a fine thing to do but they are bold enough to say that such sacrifices are as necessary to the man who makes them as to those gaining from them. . .They do not, therefore, deny that every man can pursue his own self-interest but they turn themselves inside out to prove that it is in each man's interest to be virtuous" (Tocqueville 1840, 610). "Enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and inclines them to devote freely a part of their time and wealthy to the welfare of the state" (Tocqueville 1840, 611).

Important People Related to the Topic

Translators of literature into other languages provide an important service, not only in making the original work accessible, but also in providing nuance that aids the scholar in understanding the various possible interpretations of the original text. In another sense, later authors who rely on a work to inspire their own work provide further enlightenment on the application of that work to contemporary problems.

  • Gerald E. Bevan: Bevan translated the 2003 Penguin edition of Democracy in America , which is quoted herein. Bevan aimed to make the text accessible to the modern reader. He writes in his translator's note, "The style I have used is self-consciously easy to read yet aims at an available elegance. While the original displays the characteristic euphony of the French language, this version has not been afraid to convey the meaning using the broader dimension of English idiom" (Kramnick 2003, li).

  • Phillips Bradley: Bradley provided a very popular and accessible English edition of Democracy in America in 1945.

  • Patrick d'Herouville: Herouville is a descendent of Alexis de Tocqueville and an investment banker with BNPParibas in Paris. He and his family have granted permission for United Way of America to use the Alexis de Tocqueville name for the Alexis de Tocqueville Society and the coat-of-arms for the Million Dollar Roundtable.

  • Isaac Kramnick: Kramnick wrote an insightful introduction for the Bevan edition, placing Democracy in America in contemporaneous context.

  • Harold Laski: Laski, was an English socialist who "wrote often about Tocqueville in the 1930s, claiming that one lesson of Democracy in America was that once a people started on the path to equality there was no logical end to the journey short of abolishing all significant material differences among people" (Kramnick 2003, xliii).

  • George Lawrence: Lawrence provided an English translation in 1966.

  • J.P. Mayor: Mayor edited George Lawrence's translation in 1966.

  • Eugene McCarthy: McCarthy, a United States senator from Wisconsin, re-visited Tocqueville to examine current American problems in the 1978 book America Revisited: 150 Years after Tocqueville (Kramnick 2003).

  • Henry Reeve: Reeve wrote the first English translation in 1838, contemporaneous with the original French publication.

  • Richard Reeves: Reeves, an author, syndicated columnist, and visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, wrote American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of American Democracy, in which he embarked upon the same journey across the country that Tocqueville did (Kramnick 2003).​


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Caruso, Fred. Alexis de Tocqueville Speaks On Associations and the Worldwide Movement Toward Democracy-A Pocket Primer.

C-SPAN. The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour Exploring Democracy in America . Assessed 7 December 2003.

Goldin, Milton. Review of Lester M. Salamon, Helmut K. Anheier, Regina List, and S. Stefan Toepler Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector (2002).

Jordan, Vernon E., Jr. We Cannot Live for Ourselves Alone. [no longer available].

Kramnick, Isaac. Introduction to Democracy in America and Two Essays on America . London: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN: 0140447601.

Marsicano, Michael. Philanthropy Distinguishes America . 10 January 2003.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America and Two Essays on America . London: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN: 0140447601.

United Way of America. The Alexis de Tocqueville Society® of United Way . (2002).

Virginia, University of (American Studies program). Democracy in America.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University.