All About Alexis de Tocqueville

Who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
An aristocratic Frenchman who came to the U.S. in 1831 -- when he was only 25 years old -- and later wrote Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions. The book is frequently quoted by journalists and politicans.

When did he live?
Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805 in Paris. His parents were Herve-Bonaventure Clerel de Tocqueville, a descendant of a noble Norman family, and Louise Le Peletier de Rosanbo, granddaughter of Malesherbes and sister-in-law of Chateaubriand. His older brothers were named Hippolyte and Edouard. He died April 16, 1859 in Cannes. Tocqueville is buried in the village of Tocqueville near Normandy.

What was his background?
Tocqueville came from an aristocratic background and he had a private tutor, the abbe Lesueur, until high school and then attended high school and college in Metz. He studied law in Paris and worked as a substitute judge in Versailles before coming to the U.S. In 1839 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of Valognes and later to the Constituent Assembly and Legislative Assembly. He briefly served as minister of foreign affairs.

Was he married?
He married Mary Motley, an English woman, in 1835. They had no children.

What books did he write?
The U.S. Penitentiary System and its Application in France with Gustave de Beaumont (1833)
Democracy in America (Volume I, 1835 and Volume II, 1840)
The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)
Recollections (1893, published posthumously)

Are any of Tocqueville's descendents alive today?
Tocqueville's great-great-grandniece, Marie-Henriette Tocqueville, died in 1994. Her husband, Count Guy d' Herouville, and two of their sons (one of whom is named Alexis) still live in France. Another son lives in London.

Why is his book, Democracy in America, so popular?
The book deals with issues like religion, the press, money, class structure, racism, the role of government, the judicial system, etc. -- issues that are just as relevant today as they were then. Democracy in America has undergone several periods of popularity throughout the century, but it's never been as popular as it is now. Scores of colleges around the country use the text in political science and history courses, and historians consider it one of the most comprehensive and insightful books ever written about the U.S.

Still curious? For more detailed information about Alexis de Tocqueville, follow the links below ...

Early Life and American Journey, 1805 - 1831

July 29 - Alexis de Tocqueville is born in Paris and spends most of his younger years in Verneuil, where his father, Herve, is mayor. As a child, Alexis was tutored by the Abbe Leseur.

Tocqueville's father serves as prefect throughout France - Angers, Beauvais, Dijon, Metz, Amiens and Versailles. In 1817, Tocqueville moves from Metz to Paris with his mother, Louise.

Tocqueville returns to Metz at his father's request to attend secondary school and the college royal, where he studies rhetoric and philosophy.

Studies law in Paris while living with his mother in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

December - Goes to Italy with his brother Edouard and visits Rome, Naples and Sicily; writes Voyage en Sicile.

Appointed juge auditeur (mediator) at the court of law in Versailles, an unsalaried apprenticeship.

Takes an apartment in rue d'Anjou with Gustave de Beaumont, the deputy public prosecutor at the court of Versailles.

In Versailles he meets Mary Motley, of England, who later becomes his wife.

Reads and discusses history with Beaumont; both of them are taking Francois-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot's course in the history of civilization in France.

The July Revolution: Charles X, the last Bourbon king, is overthrown and replaced by the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe, who obliges all civil servants to swear an oath of loyalty. Tocqueville reluctantly takes the oath August 16 and again in October when he is promoted to juge suppleant (substitute judge).

August - Tocqueville begins thinking of visiting the United States.

October - Beaumont writes a report to the minister of the interior on the reform of the French penal system.

February 6 - Tocqueville and Beaumont are given an 18-month leave to study the penal system in the United States.

April 2 - They embark for America from Le Havre, France.

For a complete chronology of the journey, see "Tocqueville's American Journey"

May 9 - Arrive at Newport, Rhode Island, going on to New York; thereafter they travel as far west as Green Bay, on Lake Michigan, north to Quebec and south to New Orleans.

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Democracy in America and Early Political Career, 1832 - 1848

February 20 - Leave for France, arriving home in late March. Beaumont begins writing Du systeme penitentiaire with Tocqueville supplying facts and ideas.

May 17 - Tocqueville resigns his position as juge suppleant when he learns of Beaumont's dismissal (May 16) as deputy public prosecutor.

January - Tocqueville and Beaumont publish Du systeme penitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application en France, winning the French Academy's Montyon Prize.

August - Tocqueville visits England and meets Nassau William Senior.

September - Tocqueville begins writing Democracy in America at his parents' home in Paris, 49 rue de Verneuil.

August 14 - Finishes the first part of Democracy in America.

December 24 - a prepublication article by Leon Faucher appears in Le Courier francais.

January - Gosselin publishes an edition of fewer than 500 copies of Democracy in America.

March 16 - Tocqueville meets Henry Reeve, who becomes a lifelong friend and the official translator of his work, in Paris.

March 31 - Chateaubriand introduces Tocqueville to the select salon of Mme Recamier.

April 25 - August 23 - Tocqueville and Beaumont visit England and Ireland, studying industrial towns such as Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

June - The book's success leads to a second edition (the eighth edition, in 1840, will include the second and final part).

October - John Stuart Mill's highly complimentary review of Democracy in America appears in the London Review.

October 26 - Tocqueville and Mary Motley are wed at the Church of Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin, Paris, with his cousin Louis de Kergorlay and Beaumont as witnesses.

Tocqueville's mother, Louise, dies. When her property is divided, Tocqueville receives the chateau and lands of Tocqueville and the title of cmte, which he does not use.

Tocqueville receives the Montyon prize from the French Academy for Democracy in America

July - Beaumont marries Clementine de Lafayette, granddaughter of the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834)

March - Tocqueville is elected deputy from Valognes, sitting on the left of center, and is considered an expert on prisons and slavery.

July 23 - As rapporteur for a committee on slavery, Tocqueville files a report advocating the immediate emancipation of all slaves in French possessions, which is published as a pamphlet by the Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

November - Completes the manuscript of the second part of Democracy in America

April 20 - Democracy in America, part II, is published simultaneously in Paris and in London, in a translation by Henry Reeve.

October - John Stuart Mill writes a perceptive review of Tocqueville's work in the Edinburgh Review

May 4 - June 11 - Tocqueville goes to Algeria with his brother Hippolyte and Beaumont, visiting Algiers, Mostaganem, Philippeville (now Skikda) and other cities and villages.

October - Tocqueville writes Travail sur l'Algerie.

December 23 - Tocqueville is elected to the French Academy.

Tocqueville actively engages in debates in the Chamber of Deputies on issues such as the slave trade, Algerian colonization and reforms and the question of succession after Louis-Phillipe's death, in which he favors an elective regency.

Tocqueville sits for a portrait drawing by Theodore Chasseriau, brother of his friend Frderic Chasseriau.

June 29 - With others, Tocqueville purchases the newspaper Le Commerce.

August - Le Commerce fails; it is sold in November.

January 27 - Speaking in the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville prophesies the coming revolution and attacks the too-narrow base of the French political system.

February 24 - Louis-Philippe abdicates and the Second Republic is declared dead.

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Politics andThe Ancient Regime, 1848 - 1859

April 24 - Tocqueville is elected to the Constituent Assembly.

May 17 - Tocqueville is elected to a committee charged with drawing up a new constitution.

December 10 - Louis-Napoleon is elected president and forms a new cabinet led by Odilon Barrot.

May 7 - Tocqueville goes to Germany to observe the revolution there firsthand.

May 13 - Tocqueville is elected to the new legislative Assembly by a large margin. Less than a month later, Louis-Napoleon appoints him minister of foreign affairs.

October 31 - Louis-Napoleon replaces Tocqueville and other ministers after the Barrot ministry topples.

March - Tocqueville suffers his first pulmonary attack and is seriously ill with tuberculosis.

July - At the Chateau de Tocqueville, he begins writing his Souvenirs, reflections on the February Revolution and on his ministry. He is reelected president of the departmental council of la Manche.

November 1 - April 14 - With Mme de Tocqueville, he goes to Sorrento, Italy to convalesce.

July - Tocqueville finishes Souvenirs.

December 2 - Louis-Napoleon seizes control of government in a coup d'etat.

December 3 - Tocqueville, along with about 50 other representatives, is imprisoned overnight at Vincennes for his opposition to the coup.

December 11 - Tocqueville secretly conveys and anonymously publishes an article in the London Times condemning the coup.

July - Once more at the Chateau de Tocqueville, Tocqueville resigns from the departmental council of la Manche when the new regime requires an oath of allegiance.

June - Tocqueville settles for a year in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, in Touraine, where he tries to regain his health and begins research on his work on the Ancien Regime.

June - September - With Mme de Tocqueville, he visits Germany to study the vestiges of feudalism and the fading revolution there.

November 6 - He settles in Compiegne, where his father lives.

July - Tocqueville moves to the Chateau de Tocqueville, where he continues writing.

January - Tocqueville finishes revising his study on the Ancien Regime. The manuscript is read by his father, Herve, his brothers Edouard and Hippolyte, Beaumont and others.

February 16 - In Paris, Tocqueville negotiates with Michael Levy for the publication of L'Ancien Regime et la Revolution.

June 9 - His father, Herve, dies.

June 16 - L'Ancien Regime is published simultaneously in France and England (translated by Henry Reeve) and is a great success.

June - He returns to the Chateau de Tocqueville

June 19 - Tocqueville goes to the British Museum in London to do research on the revolution.

October - Begins writing the first book of his sequel to L'Ancien Regime.

April - Goes to Paris to study papers of municipal authorities, at the archives.

May - He returns, ill with tuberculosis, to the Chateau de Tocqueville.

October 28 - At the advice of physicians, he goes to Cannes and soon hires a reader for intellectual stimulus.

December - His brother, Hippolyte, comes to Cannes for three months.

April 6 - Beaumont arrives at Tocqueville's bedside.

April 9 - Tocqueville's cousin, Louis de Kergolay, arrives in Cannes.

April 16 - Tocqueville dies. A religious ceremony is held in Cannes, after which his body is moved to Paris and placed in the crypt of the Eglise de la Madeleine and then transported to the village of Tocqueville. He is buried in the cemetery there May 10.

Source: "A Passion for Liberty: Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy and Revolution" by Andrew J. Cosentino; Library of Congress, Washington, 1989

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