In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont visited the United States on behalf of the French government to study American prisons. In their nine months in the U.S. they studied not just the prison system but every aspect of American life, public and private the political, economic, religious, cultural, and above all social life of the young nation. From Tocqueville's copious notes of what he had seen and heard came the classic text De la Démocratie en Amérique, published in two large volumes, the first in 1835, the second in 1840. The first volume focused primarily on political society; the second, on civil society. Tocqueville's account of the travels and adventures of the two Frenchmen aimed to get down the truth about America, not only to praise the new country's strengths but also to critique its shortcomings when these were all too evident to outside eyes.
For Tocqueville, virtually every aspect of the new republic was fascinating: the laws and the customs, the manners and the mores of a people so very different from the populations of the kingdoms of Europe. He was particularly interested in the success of democracy in America, specifically of republican representative democracy, which seemed to have failed elsewhere, most conspicuously in revolutionary France. Perhaps because Tocqueville, an aristocrat, was by no means sympathetic to "pure" democracy, which seemed tainted by its associations with the Terror of the French Revolution, he examined American democracy with a thoroughness such as had never been seen before, and seldom if ever since. Tocqueville considered the tendency of democracy to degenerate into either the tyranny of the majority or what he called soft despotism, a sovereign power that extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules. . . .it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” (Book IV, chapter 6.)
Tocqueville noted that religion played a leading role in American life in the 1830s, due to its being constitutionally separated from government. Far from objecting to this situation, he observed that Americans found this disestablishment quite satisfactory, in contrast to France, with its outright antagonism between avowedly religious people and supporters of democracy.
The Liberty Fund bilingual Democracy in America includes Eduardo Nolla's historical-critical edition of the French text and notes on the lefthand pages and James Schleifer's English translation on the right. This is the fullest historical-critical edition of the Democracy, and the notes offer an extensive selection of early outlines, drafts, manuscript variants, marginalia, unpublished fragments, and other materials. From the foreword to the French edition: This new Democracy is not only the one that Tocqueville presented to the reader of 1835, then to the reader of 1840. It is enlarged, amplified by a body of texts. . . . the reader will see how Tocqueville proceeded with the elaboration of the main ideas of his book.”
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 1859) was a French writer and politician. With his friend Gustave Beaumont he spent nine months in America and with him published a study of the American penal system and its applicability to France. Tocqueville's fame was established by his De la Démocratie en Amérique, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, was a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1848 and of the Legislative Assembly in 1849, was minister of foreign affairs in 1849, and was imprisoned in 1851 for his opposition to the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon. At his
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