Political Science Tocqueville’s Political Thought
by
Diana Boros
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0249

Introduction

Alexis de Tocqueville (b. 1805–d. 1859) was a French politician and writer, considered variously as historian, sociologist, and political theorist. His two most well-known works are Democracy in America (2 vols., 1835–1840), and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In the latter, along with the less well-known but equally useful and vibrant memoir Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 (1893), he analyzed the causes of the French Revolution and reflected on the relationship between equality and freedom. In all these texts, vis à vis his painstakingly observant approach, he examined how the broad social structures of a society affect the daily lives of individuals, and their relationships both to politics and economics. In complement to his writings, Tocqueville was also involved in French politics for much of his life, retiring in 1851 after twelve years of service. In political office, he famously supported abolitionism but also the French colonization of Algeria, leading to considerable unresolved debate among scholars as to how Tocqueville’s liberal values can be reconciled with his imperialistic views. Tocqueville’s two-volume Democracy in America, translated into fifteen languages, is arguably his most read work. Published in 1835 (Vol. 1) and 1840 (Vol. 2), it is a thoughtful and highly detailed vision of American life in the early years of the still-expanding Republic and has remained a uniquely adaptable analysis of American democracy. His primary observation is that America functions under an “equality of conditions” (he denounced slavery but considered it an isolated and not systemic evil), and that this affects all aspects of daily life. Despite the vast and important exceptions to this in America at the time, for Tocqueville the lack of strict hierarchical class structures in society was overwhelmingly new. His frequent references to the “ancien régime” demonstrate the comparative nature of the work and remind the reader that its author was very much an outsider, a keen observer—and admirer—from the sidelines. In the Democracy, Tocqueville argued that this leveling of “conditions” in the United States, and the mobility across social classes, trickled down to give new life to every interaction between individuals, and between individuals and their government. While Tocqueville believed both in the inevitability and the beauty of democracy, he also famously noted what he saw as the great tragedy of American democratic life—that this great equality could too easily work to discourage participation both in public life and in the pursuit of freedom of thought. Tocqueville argued that a “new political science” was needed that would work to resolve these potential dangers. Tocqueville’s works have paved the way for thinking about many of our most salient political concepts—equality, liberty, individualism, materialism, religion, gender and social norms, colonialism, slavery, revolution, and others—in exciting and varied ways.

French Primary Texts

The works listed here comprise Tocqueville’s primary writings in their original French. The authoritative Gallimard edition of Tocqueville’s Oeuvres, tome I (Tocqueville 1991), Oeuvres, tome II, (Tocqueville 1992), and Oeuvres, tome III (Tocqueville 2004) is regarded as the chief primary source for a complete collection of his writings. His major works include the two-volume De la démocratie en Amérique (Tocqueville 2012a), L’Ancien régime et la Révolution (Tocqueville 1985 and Tocqueville 1993, the latter a more recent edition), and Souvenirs (Tocqueville 1999); see also Lettres choisies—Souvenirs (Tocqueville 2003). Other lesser-known works include Voyages en Angleterre et Irlande (Tocqueville 1982) and Quinze jours dans le desert (Tocqueville 2012b).

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Voyages en Angleterre et Irlande. Edited by J. P. Mayer. Collection Idées 462. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1982.

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    As is Tocqueville’s strength, this modest-sized text contains thoughtful observations on the political cultures of both countries that still resonate in the 2010s. Texts extracted from Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. L’Ancien régime et la Révolution. Edited by J. P. Mayer. Collection Folio Histoire 5. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1985.

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    Originally published in 1856; Mayer’s edition was first published in 1964.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Oeuvres, tome I. Edited by André Jardin with the collaboration of Françoise Mélonio and Lise Queffélec. Collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 379. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1991.

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    First volume of complete works by a leading French publisher. Includes Travail sur l’Algérie (1841).

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Oeuvres, tome II. Edited by André Jardin with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Lamberti and James T. Schleifer Collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 385. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1992.

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    Second volume of complete works by a leading French publisher.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. L’Ancien régime et la Révolution. Compiled by Françoise Mélonio. Paris: Editions Flammarion, 1993.

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    Originally published in 1856. Mélonio’s more recent edition, from a major French publisher.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Souvenirs. Edited by Luc Monnier. Preface by Claude Lefort. Notes by J. P. Mayer and B. M. Wicks-Boisson. Collection Folio Histoire 94. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1999.

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    Tocqueville’s private journal during the Revolution of 1848; provides an unnervingly accurate forecast of future societal struggles. It was published by his wife and collaborator Gustave de Beaumont after his death. A total of 528 pages.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Lettres choisies—Souvenirs: 1814–1859. Edited by Laurence Guellec and Françoise Mélonio. Collection Quarto. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2003.

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    Selected letters of Tocqueville’s are included in this 1428-page edition of Recollections.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Oeuvres, tome III. Introduction by François Furet and Françoise Mélonio. Texts presented by François Furet and Françoise Mélonio, prepared and annotated by Françoise Mélonio. Collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 503. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2004.

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    Third volume of complete works by a leading French publisher. Includes L’etat social et politique de la France avant et depuis 1789.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. De la démocratie en Amérique: Souvenirs, L’Ancien régime et la Révolution. Edited by Françoise Mélonio. Preface by Jean-Claude Lamberti. Postface by‎ James T. Schleifer. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 2012a.

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    Notable collection of works, with three leading Tocqueville scholars at its helm—Mélonio as editor, with Lamberti writing the preface and Schleifer the postface.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Quinze jours dans le desert. Collection Folio 5412. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2012b.

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    This 112-page volume chronicles Tocqueville’s journey into America’s frontier lands in 1831.

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