Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was a French
political thinker and historian. His most famous works are Democracy
in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old
Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored
the myriad and profound effects of the rising equality of social
conditions on both the individual and the state in western societies.
was born in Verneuil-sur-Seine (Île-de-France) and died
in Cannes, although his family had its origins in the landed nobility
of Normandy, where several places are named after his family.
His work is based on his travels in the United States, Democracy
in America, is frequently used in courses in 19th century United
States history. An eminent representative of the liberalism political
tradition, his advocacy of private charity rather than government
aid to assist the poor has often been cited admiringly by conservatives
and classical liberals, particularly in the late 20th and early
also made an observational tour of England, producing Memoir on
Pauperism. In 1841 and 1846, he traveled to Algeria. His first
travel inspired his Travail sur l'Algérie, in which he
criticized the French model of colonization, based on an assimilationist
view, to which he preferred the British model of indirect rule,
which didn't mix different populations together. He went as far
as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists
and the "Arabs" through the implementation of two different
legislative systems (half a century before its effective implementation
with the 1881 Indigenous code).
In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville praised
the New World and the democracy it would bring, while at the same
time warning against the dangers of tyranny of the majority and
what he called 'mild' despotism. He saw democracy as an equation
that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual
as well as the community.
thought that extreme social equality would lead to isolation,
more intervention by the government and thus less liberty. A critic
of individualism, Alexis de Tocqueville thought that association,
the coming together of people for common purpose, would bind Americans
to an idea of nation larger than selfish desires, thus making
a civil society which wasn't exclusively dependent of the state.
a supporter of colonialism, he also endorsed the common racialist
views of his epoch. Tocqueville notes that among the races that
exist in America:
first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power
and in happiness, is the white man, the European, man par exellence;
below him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate
races have neither birth, nor face, lor language, nor mores in
common; only their misfortunes look alike. Both occupy an equally
inferior position in the country that they inhabit; both experience
the effects of tyranny; and if their miseries are different, they
can accuse the same author for them."
concluded that removal of the Negro population from America was
the best solution to problems of race relations for both Americans
of African and European descent. French historian of colonialism
Olivier LeCour Grandmaison has underlined how Tocqueville openly
talked of "extermination" about the colonization of
Western United States and the Indian Removal period.
however would be the second best solution to race relations if
blacks were not removed or wiped out by a race war. According
to him assimilation of blacks would be almost impossible and this
was already being demonstrated in the Northern states. As Tocqueville
predicted formal freedom and equality and segregation would become
this population's reality after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.
Australian historian Marilyn Lake recently links the "whites
only" policy in Australia to the lessons its leaders learned
from the Reconstruction period in America. American political
scientist Rogers Smith views Tocqueville as one source of white
supremacist thought in America.
however was the best solution for Native Americans. But since
they were too proud to assimilate,they would inevitably become
extinct because of displacement. Both populations were "undemocratic",
or without the qualities, intellectual and otherwise, needed to
live in a democracy. Tocqueville shared many views on assimilation
and segregation of his and the coming epochs, but he opposed Gobineau's
scientific racism theories which the latter had exposed in his
essay on The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55).
French conquest of Algeria
While most French intellectuals prefer to make of Tocqueville
the representative of the liberal tradition, historian Olivier
LeCour Grandmaison demonstrated that in less noble works, Tocqueville
made the apology of the brutal techniques employed during the
1830s conquest of Algeria:
France I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve,
deplore [the army] burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing
unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate
necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must
accept... I believe the laws of war entitle us to ravage the country
and that we must do this, either by destroying crops at harvest
time, or all the time by making rapid incursions, known as raids,
the aim of which is to carry off men and flocks"
the case", continued Tocqueville, "we may say in a general
manner that all political freedoms must be suspended in Algeria"
According to LeCour Grandmaison, "de Tocqueville thought
the conquest of Algeria was important for two reasons: first,
his understanding of the international situation and France’s
position in the world, and, second, changes in French society."
who despised the July monarchy (1830-1848), believed that war
and colonization would "restore national pride, threatened,
he believed, by "the gradual softening of social mores"
in the middle classes. Their taste for "material pleasures"
was spreading to the whole of society, giving it "an example
of weakness and egotism"." Applauding the methods of
General Bugeaud, Tocqueville went as far as saying that "war
in Africa" had became a "science": "war in
Africa is a science.
is familiar with its rules and everyone can apply those rules
with almost complete certainty of success. One of the greatest
services that Field Marshal Bugeaud has rendered his country is
to have spread, perfected and made everyone aware of this new
science". Years before the Crémieux decrees and the
1881 Indigenous Code that would separate European Jews colons,
given French citizenship, and Muslims, Tocqueville advocated racial
segregation in Algeria: "There should therefore be two quite
distinct legislations in Africa, for there are two very separate
communities. There is absolutely nothing to prevent us treating
Europeans as if they were on their own, as the rules established
for them will only ever apply to them"
LeCour Grandmaison's work has been contested by Jean-Louis Benoît,
who claimed that these quotes (also used by Tzvetan Todorov) had
been instrumentalized to discredit Tocqueville. However, Jean-Louis
Benoît did admit that Tocqueville was a strong support of
colonialism and of segregation between Europeans and Arabs. In
a reference to an August 22, 1837 proposal, Benoît shows
that Tocqueville distinguished the Berbers from the Arabs, and
considered that these last ones should have a self-government
(a bit on the model of British indirect rule, thus going against
the French assimiliationist stance). Benoît thus admits
that Tocqueville proned racial segregation. Benoît also
quotes Tocqueville's 1847 Rapport sur l'Algérie: "Let's
not repeat, in the middle of the 19th century, the history of
the conquest of America. Let's not imitate those bloody examples
that the human kind's opinion has seared".
suggests that the most dangerous moment for an evil government
is usually when it begins to reform itself. Only great ingenuity
can save a prince who undertakes to give relief to his subjects
after long oppression. The sufferings that are endured patiently,
as being inevitable, become intolerable the moment it appears
that there might be an escape. Reform then only serves to reveal
more clearly what still remains oppressive and now all the more
are sleeping on a volcano... A wind of revolution blows, the storm
is on the horizon." (Speaking in the Chamber of Deputies,
1848, just prior to the outbreak of revolution in Europe)
and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But
notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty,
socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude."
are at the present time two great nations in the world—I
allude to the Russians and the Americans—All other nations
seem to have nearly reached their national limits, and have only
to maintain their power; these alone are proceeding—along
a path to which no limit can be perceived."
"The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize
they can bribe the people with their own money."
"They (the emperors) frequently abused their power arbitrarily
to deprive their subjects of property or of life: their tyranny
was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the greater
number; .. But it would seem that if despotism were to be established
amongst the democratic nations of our days it might assume a different
character; it would be more extensive and more mild, it would
degrade men without tormenting them."
"The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is
born to be a slave."
"Americans are so enamoured of equality they would rather
be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."
"The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous
nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object
of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference."
"A weak government is threatened most when it begins to reform."
principal cause of disparities in the fortunes of men is intelligence."
"Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to
"I studied the Quran a great deal. I came away from that
study with the conviction that by and large there have been few
religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammad. As
far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so
visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than
the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are
in my opinion more to be feared, and I therefore regard it as
a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation
to paganism itself."
"Mahommed professed to derive from Heaven, and he has inserted
in the Koran, not only a body of religious doctrines, but political
maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science. The
gospel, on the contrary, only speaks of the general relations
of men to God and to each other - beyond which it inculcates and
imposes no point of faith. This alone, besides a thousand other
reasons, would suffice to prove that the former of these religions
will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age,
whilst the latter is destined to retain its sway at these as at
all other periods."