Alexis Keller


1Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris en 1805, eleven years after the end of the period of revolutionary upheaval following the Revolution of 1789. He died in Cannes in 1859, eight years after the Louis Napoléon’s coup d’état Between the two dates France had seen the second abdication of Napoleon I after Waterloo in 1815, the fall of the last of the Bourbons and the reign of Louis-Philippe after 1830, the revolution of 1848, the ephemeral second Republic that gave way to the Second Empire in 1851. In 1833, Tocqueville published, along with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, a report entitled Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France [‘On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application in France’], which aroused lively interest in the relative milieux. Then, after nine months’ travel which offered him the opportunity to analyze American society at the time, he published the volumes of De la démocratie en Amérique [‘On democracy in America’], which were an immediate success and opened to him the doors of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (1838), the National Assembly (1839), and the Académie Française (1841). In 1840, he published the two following volumes – the second Democracy – which left many readers of the time perplexed, but designated him as the thinker of modern democracy. The coup d’état of 2 December 1851 put an end to his political career and allowed him to work on the writing of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution , which appeared in 1856.

2Today’s commentators often compare Montesquieu to Tocqueville, and it is a commonplace of the political and sociological literature to make the latter into a disciple of the former (Raymond Aron, Seymour Drescher, Melvin Richter; François Furet 1978, Jean-Claude Lamberti). This comparison is very old and did not escape the publicists and politicians of the Restoration. In the 1830s, Montesquieu was the absolute authority for all partisans of representative government, from the legitimists of Gazette de France to the moderate republicans of the National. On the methodological level, the author of L’Esprit des lois passed for the founder of a “school” to which Thiers and Mignet belong, a school that “is content to relate things faithfully, and has as its purpose to be instructive, as its obligation to be precise; its narratives have all the simplicity of witnesses testifying, its sincere pen […] articulates all the facts attested in chronological order and accompanied by their true circumstances” (Le Siècle, 28 May 1837). Tocqueville had, his contemporaries said in substance, Montesquieu’s art of discovering the deep meaning and range of the work, to understand the present and avoid the sentimental effusions of the Romantics. “M. de Tocqueville is austere in his forms, didactic and rational in his conclusions, like a man who believes that logic rules the world; his book is the rigorous development of a governing idea, and one feels that the imitation of Montesquieu, combined with the will to be sober, bounds the flight of a fortunate nature, and perhaps takes from him more than it gives” (Louis Carné, Revue des deux mondes, March 1837, p. 655). Tocqueville is thus the person who updates L’Esprit des lois, explains Royer-Collard, by scrupulously studying the gears of a great republic which Montesquieu could not know about.

3 Democracy in America indeed offers a subtle description of the American life and a theoretical analysis of the type of society that had been born in the Unites States. Accepting the diagnosis of the doctrinary liberals – Guizot, Rémusat, Royer-Collard – Tocqueville was the first to understand that the political program of liberal thought could not be accomplished without going beyond that compromise between the old aristocratic society and political modernity represented by the “English Constitution” or, in France, the charter of 1814. About that time, his liberal colleagues did not wish to challenge completely the principles inherited from the French Revolution, despite sometimes radical egalitarian demands, but they remained attached to a formula of which Tocqueville had the merit of seeing from the start the untenable character. The regime defended by Guizot and his political friends supposed above all that civil equality and political rights cannot be reconciled with an “elite”, though an open one, but limited, that of “abilities”. The liberalism of the doctrinaires thus had from the beginning a certain conservative dimension, half-way between the retrograde nostalgias of the counter-revolutionaries and the egalitarian aspirations of the most radical republicans or democrats (Pierre Rosanvallon, 1985). Tocqueville depended naturally on this heritage to elaborate his conception of democracy. If the terminology is not always fixed in is writings, if the sense of the word democracy is never completely stabilized (Pierre Rosanvallon, 1993), it still relates to two essential meanings: democracy as a “social state” and democracy as a “political organization”. And this distinction, which is central in his work, allows us to understand his debt towards Montesquieu and the way in which he prolongs his thought.

4The author of L’Esprit des lois had enriched the classical theory of political regimes by identifying the nature and principle of each government. Adopting a classical definition of the nature of a government, he had innovated by assigning to each government a principle “which made it work” and searching for “the human passions that made it move” (“qui le fai[sait] agir » et en cherchant « les passions humaines qui le [faisaient] mouvoir ”, EL, III, 1). Thus was established a relation between a type of government and a type of society, and Montesquieu had deduced from that the relations of natural concordance between a republic and a small territory, the medium dimensions and monarchy, and between empires and the risk of despotism (EL, VIII, 16-19). Tocqueville for his part observed the success of a large modern republic and, to avoid contradicting L’Esprit des lois, repeated what Montesquieu said about the “federative republic” which “has all the interior advantages of republican government and the exterior strength of the monarchical one” (“a tous les avantages intérieurs du gouvernement républicain et la force extérieure du monarchique”, EL, IX, 1). Yet to him the criterion of dimension does not suffice to characterize a “social state” and he sought to specify the essential social characters of democracy. His sociological analysis culminated in the discovery of a dominant character that forms and modifies all the others: “equality of stations” which is, in the final analysis, the “social” principle of democracy, as love of equality is its “moral” principle. While defining the “principle” in quite a different way from Montesquieu, Tocqueville remained firmly faithful to his thought on that point. For both authors there is a deep relationship between a type of society and a type of power. In this sense, neither one can allow for social organization alone to determine the mode of government. Both thinkers pursue the same objective – to define the conditions of a free regime – but unlike Montesquieu, the author of Democracy in America no longer believes in “aristocratic” solutions. The liberal side of him wins out over the legacy of aristocratic tradition.

5Moreover, Tocqueville is not content to borrow the comparative method from Montesquieu. He considerably perfects its tools, as Melvin Richter has remarkably shown in his analysis, and he enriches the concepts necessary for sociological analysis. He elaborates the concept of a “social state” precisely because he cannot manage to analyze in satisfactory fashion the American “national character”. Thus, “uneasiness” (inquiétude), first taken in 1831 as an expression of the American national character (Voyage en Amérique, in Œuvres, t. I, p. 200-201), finally appears in chapter XIII of the Democracy of 1840 (Œuvres, t. II, p. 648-651) as the product of a “social state” and even as the product of a perfect harmony with the institutions and norms of society. The analysis of “the social democratic state” is thus more and more substituted for the search for a “national character” – a notion inherited from the “general spirit” defined by Montesquieu – and is developed independently of reflections on the nature of political regimes. “The social state”, he writes at the beginning of the 1835 Démocratie, “is ordinarily the product of a fact, sometimes of laws, most often of these two causes together; but once it exists, we can consider it itself as the first cause of most of the laws, customs and ideas that govern the conduct of nations; what it does not produce, it modifies” (t. II, p. 50).

6In book XIX, chapter 4 of L’Esprit des lois Montesquieu had defined the general spirit of a nation as the result of all the factors that govern men, “climate, religion, laws, the government’s maxims, examples of things past, mores, manners” (“le climat, la religion, les lois, les maximes du gouvernement, les exemples des choses passées, les mœurs, les manières”, EL, XIX, 4) and, in this sense, the two great works of Tocqueville can be understood as studies on the American and French national characters. Montesquieu had however clearly specified at the end of the chapter that “as, in each nation, one of the causes acts with more force, the others yield to it by the same amount” (EL, XIX, 4). This lesson of Montesquieu must be applied to the three conceptions of law used by Tocqueville, which signified for him, as the divine dimension of law disappeared and the moral dimension declined, the purchase of laws on the national character is all the stronger. But Tocqueville is separated from Montesquieu by the Revolution. France was no longer the one that was described – though not named – in chapter 5 of book XIX and it was no longer possible for Tocqueville still to believe that “most peoples of Europe are still governed by mores” (EL, VIII, 8). If that was true in certain respects for the America he had visited (“it seems one there breathes an air of antiquity and biblical aroma”, Democracy in America, t. II, p. 36) – it was assuredly no longer the case of the France that was cut off from its past and transformed by the revolutionary period. There the risk remained that the reign of law might not in fact be the reign of the legislator and that it remains absent from the nation’s “character”.

7One who rereads book XIX of L’Esprit des lois wondering how Tocqueville was able to contemplate it finds many responses to that question. The method indicated in the first chapter, which consists in being more attentive “to the order of things than to the things themselves” (EL, XIX, 1), is also that of Tocqueville. A sentence in the second chapter summarizes L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution all by itself: “Liberty itself has appeared unbearable to peoples that were not used to enjoying it. And so it is that pure air is sometimes harmful to those who have lived in swampy lands” (“La liberté même a paru insupportable à des peuples qui n’étaient pas accoutumés à en jouir. C’est ainsi qu’un air pur est quelquefois nuisible à ceux qui ont vécu dans des pays marécageux”, EL, XIX, 2). Chapters five and eight directly introduce Tocqueville’s reflection on individualism. And it is in chapter 27, the second of the great “English” chapters of L’Esprit des lois, that Tocqueville found the idea of a formation of mores necessary to a free society by the effect of a liberal constitution. That is the lesson he kept in mind when he compared America and France and from which he began in expressing his political program in 1831: “In America, free mores have made the political institutions free; in France, it is the political institutions that must constitute the mores. That is the goal we must strive for, but without forgetting the point of departure” (Voyage en Amérique, t. I, p. 167).

8In a preparatory note dated 4 September 1838, we read this: “How the equality of ranks suggests to men the taste for freedom and equality, why democratic peoples love equality more than freedom” (Democracy in America, t. II, p. 1112). The same ideas figure moreover in the title of one of the most famous chapters of Democracy in 1840: “Why democratic peoples show more ardent and more durable love for equality than for freedom” (II, II, 1). Beyond the introduction, the chapter’s contents hardly answers to the announcement made in the title except for a brief half-page where the author recalls that the principal passion of democratic periods is the love of equality. In fact, Tocqueville goes beyond the announced subject by devoting the end of the chapter to the effects of revolutions on the love of equality, and to what one might call the effects of the liberty and equality on mores. Here he meets Montesquieu and his analysis of the causes of “the spirit of extreme equality”. Montesquieu had written that great popular victories could be at the origin of this “spirit of extreme equality”, and the author of Democracy in America shows that the very success of the democratic revolution produced that effect. In many respects, he is a relay between Montesquieu and Weber when he opposes the drawbacks of freedom to those of equality, different in their political consequences. “The goods that freedom provides only become evident in the long run”, he explains. “The advantages of equality are felt at once, and each day they are seen to flow from their source” (ibid., p. 609-610). The succession of the chapters in the Democracy of 1840 allows us to measure the distance taken little by little with respect to Montesquieu. Hoping at first to deal with the corruption of democracy as an effect of extreme equality, Tocqueville developed Montesquieu’s idea in an original way, showing that this situation is first the product of the revolutionary spirit.

9The first chapters of the last part of the 1840 Democracy show how uniformity, individualism and jealousy with respect to the intermediate powers work together to favor centralization in democratic societies. And the last section of the 1840 Democracy introduces a new idea of major importance for liberal political theory: revolutionary ideas and tendencies, rather than fading away with time, tend to develop proportionately with administrative centralization and the absence of political freedom. But the great novelty is indeed his theory of despotism and that is where he again joins with Montesquieu. It is indeed the role of the famous chapter entitled “What kind of despotism democratic nations have to fear” (II, IV, 6; ibid., p. 834) to paint for us a democratic despotism, quite distinct from revolutionary despotism. It is true that Burke, Mme de Staël and Benjamin Constant had already denounced the links of democracy with despotism. But they had insisted mostly on revolutionary despotism and their works seemed less useful to the author of Democracy in America to the degree that a “great political revolution” had become improbable. As a faithful disciple of Montesquieu, Tocqueville shows how “democratic despotism” reverses the essential moral and political characters of liberal democracy, while preserving the representative institutions. In appearance, the state is in the service of society and individuals, but in reality it is straying from its finality by diminishing individual freedoms. By provoking an exacerbated form of individualism, it discourages the public spirit and in so doing destroys what Montesquieu called the “principle” of a regime.

10If Montesquieu had shown that despotism, through its passion for uniformity, destroyed the intermediary bodies necessary for moderate monarchy (EL, V, 14), Tocqueville shows that democracy degrades into a new despotism when it destroys all the foci of liberty and action between an individual and the state. Local democracy, associations and opinion movements thus disappear little by little. Furthermore, Montesquieu had concentrated mostly on the despotism of one man. Tocqueville, for his part, tries to portray something more difficult: despotism arising from the sentiments and ideas of the men it is going to oppress. He hopes thus to make his contemporaries understand that democracy, handed over exclusively to its specific tendencies, is not strong enough to escape corruption. Without the liberal dimension, it fades away and becomes corrupted.

11Tocqueville never cited either Condorcet, or Benjamin Constant himself. Mme de Staël, to whom they owe much, and he infrequently mentioned the doctrinary liberals – Guizot, Royer-Collard or Rémusat – to whom he owes even more. But the most extraordinary thing is that he almost never mentions Montesquieu, of whom he is one of the best disciples. He very early wished to define himself as “a liberal of a new kind” and his work is to be understood as an attempt to found a new liberalism, beyond the positions of his famous predecessor. Throughout his work, he constantly turned back to the method and political principles of Montesquieu, and constructed his theoretical model on the basis of the conceptual categories of L’Esprit des lois. That was the whole meaning of the words he addressed on 10 November 1836 to his friend Louis de Kergorlay: “There are three men with whom I live a little every day; they are Pascal, Montesquieu and Rousseau” (Correspondence of Alexis de Tocqueville and Louis de Kergorley, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 1977, t. XIII, p. 418).


Tocqueville, Œuvres, Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1991-2004, 3 vol.

Seymour Drescher, Tocqueville and England, Harvard University Press, 1964.

Raymon Aron, Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

Melvin Richter, “Comparative Political Analysis in Montesquieu and Tocqueville”, Comparative Politics, vol. I, no. 2, 1969, p. 129-159.

François Furet, Penser la Révolution française, Paris: Gallimard, 1978; “Le système conceptuel de La Démocratie en Amérique”, in L’Atelier de l’histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1982, p. 217-254.

Jean-Claude Lamberti, Tocqueville et les deux démocraties, Paris: PUF, 1983.

Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Moment Guizot, Paris: Gallimard, 1985

Pierre Manent, Tocqueville et la nature de la démocratie, Paris: Fayard, 1993.

Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville et les Français, Paris: Aubier, 1993.

Pierre Rosanvallon, “L’histoire du mot démocratie à l’époque moderne”, in La Pensée politique 1, Situations de la démocratie, Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, Pierre Rosanvallon ed., Paris: Gallimard-Seuil, 1993, p. 11-29.

Bibliographical reference

Keller Alexis , « Tocqueville », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :