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Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1835

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Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a work of history and political philosophy published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840. Tocqueville embarked on his own political career in France but is best known for his contributions to history and political philosophy.

The first volume is based on Tocqueville’s nearly yearlong sojourn in the United States, ostensibly to study its prisons and prison reform. In his introduction Tocqueville emphasizes that his main preoccupation is America’s example as a functioning democracy. He is painfully aware that the age of aristocracy has passed, but in Europe it has not been fully replaced with a viable alternative. He states plainly, “Therefore it is not only to satisfy a curiosity, otherwise legitimate, that I have examined America; I wanted to find lessons there from which we could profit” (12).

In the first part Tocqueville describes America’s geography: its large continent, Native populations, and vast opportunities for productive agriculture and European settlement. He devotes a great deal of time to describing the Puritans and their relatively enlightened political culture and social homogeneity. He argues that this allowed equality to exist as a foundation of English settlement in North America and influence the country’s entire development.

Tocqueville also describes township government in New England and how all citizens engage in politics through these gatherings. While he admits that township government is particularly advanced there, he makes the broader case that local government is particularly strong in the United States. This results in very strong legislatures, which “swallow up the dregs” of governmental power (84). Tocqueville argues that Americans “corrected their laws and saved the country” by adopting a federal system with clearly defined responsibilities for both state and national government (149).

Tocqueville’s great theme in this section is the power and extent of popular sovereignty. He notes that the president has fairly limited powers compared to Congress. American government is not run by skilled or brilliant men on a consistent basis, but it is a system of accountability. Tocqueville asserts:

 Those charged with directing the affairs of the public in the United States are often inferior in capacity and morality to the men that aristocracy would bring to power; but their interest intermingles and is identified with that of the majority of their fellow citizens (223).

Even as Tocqueville admits that democratic governments are more attentive to the interest of citizens, he is deeply concerned that majority opinion will squash individual initiative and acquire tyrannical force. He emphasizes repeatedly that it is only through awareness of law, legal rights, and legal norms that this tendency can be countered.

Unsurprisingly, Tocqueville is attentive to the prospect of American disintegration due to regional differences, especially distinctions over slavery. He insists that freedom for enslaved people will be a great source of instability, as racism will persist even if legal changes are made. As he surveys the comparative weakness of the federal system, Tocqueville declares that it “will therefore last only as long as all the states that compose it continue to want to be part of it” (355). He ultimately argues that “material interests” are likely to hold the nation together (357). Tocqueville considers expansion of the Union more threatening than differences over slavery. This is a useful reminder to readers that even intellectuals could not predict the future, as Tocqueville is generally not concerned with a Civil War over slavery, white supremacy, and the right of states to secede.

In Volume 2 Tocqueville devotes less time to the details of American society and governance and more to the sociocultural consequences of democracy. Tocqueville points out that democracy is more than a set of political practices: it also shapes attitudes toward art, literature, history, gender roles, and religion. He is particularly concerned that Americans are preoccupied with material gain and wealth acquisition. At one point he declares:

If men ever came to be contented with material goods, it is to be believed that little by little they would lose the art of producing them, and that in the end they would enjoy them without discernment and without progress, like brutes (522).

While Tocqueville expresses some distaste for the cultural forms of democracy, his greatest concern remains the tyranny of the majority, particularly how this might be coupled with a strong central government to squash all individual initiative. His dystopia is rooted in a state that desires a docile population, as he asserts:

 fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves (663).

For all his horror at the possibility of democracy run amok, Tocqueville remains certain that free associations are a key counterweight to the state, as an association “saves common freedoms” (668) when it resists the state and defends the rights of its members. He insists that his generation should abandon the attempt to restore aristocracy, to “attain the kind of greatness and happiness that is proper to us” (675).

Democracy in America is a multilayered work that spans genres, topics, and continents. On one hand, it is a historical work, as some of its assessments are rooted in Tocqueville’s personal observations of the United States. At the same time, it is a work of political philosophy, as Tocqueville asks himself what American government has to teach him and his fellow Europeans about democracy as a way of life. But the work is not without emotional resonance: Tocqueville admits to his own biases and resigns himself to life in a democratic age, even as he fears the worst of the new system may yet come to pass.

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