Today in History: Alexis de Tocqueville born

July 29th, 2013

On July 29, 1805, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris. Tocqueville is most famous for his two-volume work, Democracy in America, which includes his observations about American political and social culture from a two-year tour of America.

Tocqueville was born into a wealthy aristocratic family and served in the French government as the deputy of the Manche department in Valognes from 1830–1851. In 1831, Tocqueville received permission to undertake a voyage to America to examine the nation’s prison system, and he traveled with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. While Tocqueville did spend some time visiting prisons, the majority of his travels considered American society in general.

After returning from America, Tocqueville published Democracy in America to help France better understand the balance between a longstanding but fading aristocratic order and a newly emerging democratic order. The book traces American history back to the Puritan settlers, and addresses the role of religion, family, and politics in American society. Tocqueville reported that he had “a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights,” and his travels in America convinced him that democracy required a balance between equality and liberty. Tocqueville considers why democracy succeeded in America noting that, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” 

For more on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, check out this lesson plan from EDSITEment.

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