Biography of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805. Tocqueville's father was a royalist prefect from Normandy who supported the Bourbon monarchy, his great-grandfather was a liberal aristocrat killed in the French Revolution, and his mother was a devout Roman Catholic who strongly advocated a return on the Old Regime.
Tocqueville's father's appointments as prefect of different towns meant that he lived away from the family for much of Tocqueville's early life. In his father's absence, Abbe Lesueur was Tocqueville's tutor. At age 16 Tocqueville entered the College Royal in Metz to study philosophy. During this time Tocqueville began to have doubts about the role of the aristocracy in French government and suffered a deep religious crisis that would effect him for the rest of his life. After finishing at the College Royal at age 18, Tocqueville moved back to Paris where he studied law.
In the meantime, Tocqueville's father's career had been steadily advancing until, in 1826, he became prefect of Versailles (the most influential prefecture in France) and in 1827 was made a peer by Charles X. At the same time, Tocqueville received a position as apprentice magistrate at the Versailles court of law. During this period Tocqueville began to have increasingly liberal sympathies as a result of his belief that the decline of the aristocracy was inevitable.
The July Revolution of 1830, in which Charles X abdicated and Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne, had strong repercussions on Tocqueville's life. As a result of the revolution and the change of power from the Bourbon to the Orleans family, Tocqueville's father lost his peerage and Tocqueville's position in France became precarious. Seeing that France was moving toward increasing democratization, he looked to the United States as a political model. With the pretext of wanting to study prison reforms in America, Tocqueville obtained permission to travel there in order to gain knowledge of American political development, knowledge which he hoped to use in order to influence France's political development. After his trip to America, Tocqueville visited England to study the British system of government.
In 1835, the first part of Democracy in America was published. A highly positive and optimistic account of American government and society, the book was very well received throughout Europe. That same year Tocqueville married Mary Motley, an Englishwoman. The marriage was a scandal to Tocqueville's family because they considered Mary Motley to be of inferior birth. Tocqueville's mother died in 1836.
After the death of his mother Tocqueville reentered politics. In 1837 he ran for the Chamber of Deputies but lost, mostly because of his noble background. The following year he was named to the Legion of Honor for Democracy in America, and in 1839 he was elected to the Chamber.
In 1840 the second part of Democracy in America was published. This volume was substantially more pessimistic than the first, warning of the dangers despotism and governmental centralization, and applying his ideas and criticisms more directly to France. As a result, it was not received as well as the first part, except in England where it was acclaimed highly.
In 1841 Tocqueville was elected to the French Academy and the Academy of Moral and Political Science. That same year he visited Algeria, a French colony, and sharply criticized the French military and bureaucracy in the country.
In the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville advocated expanding naval power to challenge British dominance and supported the Catholic Church's teaching role in a dispute between the Church and the University. This act was consistent with the beliefs he outlined in Democracy in America regarding the importance of religion in a democracy. In his political views, Tocqueville was moving increasingly toward the left. He became one of the owners of the radical newspaper Le Commerce in 1844, but left the paper the next year because of its immanent financial failure. In 1846 he aligned himself with the "new left" faction in the Chamber, but when there was a rejection of parliamentary and electoral reform by the Chamber and the leftist parties began a banquet campaign to garner support for the opposition, the new left did not join because it did not want to encourage political agitation. Tocqueville gave a speech early in 1848 predicting the outbreak of a revolution, but his warning was ignored.
Tocqueville was opposed the Revolution of 1848, but worked to help form the new government in the revolution's aftermath. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly and helped to write the constitution of the Second Republic. The following year Tocqueville was elected to the Legislative Assembly and became Vice President of the Assembly and Minister of Foreign Affairs. This position did not last long, however, because President Louis-Napolean Bonaparte dismissed him later that year. After his dismissal Tocqueville suffered a physical breakdown and went to Italy to recover his health.
Tocqueville returned to Paris in 1851, before Louis-Napoleon's coup to take over the government. Strongly opposed to the coup, Tocqueville was imprisoned briefly and then barred from holding public office because he refused to swear allegiance to the new regime.
Excluded from political life, Tocqueville focused on writing The Old Regime and the French Revolution in the early 1850s. This work is an account of French history leading up to the French Revolution in 1789 which emphasizes factors which led to the failure of the Revolution and the continual lapses into despotic government which Tocqueville witnessed during his lifetime.
In 1856 Tocqueville's father died. Just a few years later, on April 16, 1859, Tocqueville himself died of tuberculosis. His Recollections were published posthumously in 1893.