Alexis de Tocqueville

In Summary

Selected chapters from Tocqueville's  Democracy in America from JMC teacher programs.

“I think that if we do not manage little by little to introduce and finally to establish democratic institutions among us, and if we abandon giving all citizens the ideas and sentiments that first prepare them for liberty and then allow them the practice of those ideas and sentiments, there will be independence for no one, neither for the bourgeois, nor for the noble, nor for the poor, nor for the rich, but an equal tyranny for all.”


Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America, Vol 1, Ch 17


Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 on behalf of the French government to study the prison system. While touring the country, Tocqueville began writing Democracy in America, a two-volume, in-depth analysis of American society, culture, and politics.

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Tocqueville begins Democracy in America by reflecting on the natural increase in human equality throughout history and the democratic revolution that was spreading across the globe. The striking equality of conditions in the U.S. led him to believe that European countries were not far behind and that, “the gradual development of equality of conditions is a providential fact; it has the principal characteristics of one: it is universal, it is lasting, it escapes every day from human power; all events, like all men, serve its development.” The rest of the book contains his observations about many aspects American politics and society.


Author Introduction

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Painting of a county election from 1846: a cynical depiction of American democracy

Majority Rule in a Democratic Republic


The principle of majority rule defines democracy. A successful democratic republic is ruled by the majority but does not allow the majority to tyrannize the minority. In these chapters, Tocqueville examines how majority rule operates in the United States and how the decentralization of power prevents the majority from becoming tyrannical.


Vol 1, Ch 15: Unlimited Power of  Majority and its Consequences


Vol 1, Ch 16: Causes Mitigating Tyranny in the United States


In the next chapter, Tocqueville reviews the specific aspects of America that have secured a democratic republican government for so long. The three primary causes Tocqueville cites are Providence, the laws, and the habits and mores of the people. Democracy in America is about the unique brand of democracy enjoyed by Americans, and this chapter summarizes the circumstances and behaviors Tocqueville believes make the country so exceptional.


Vol 1, Ch 17: Principle Causes Maintaining the Democratic Republic

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Equality of Condition


One of the central themes of Democracy in America is equality. In these chapters, Tocqueville describes two unique effects high levels of equality have on American society and how individuals behave and interact with one another.


Vol 2, Part 1, Ch 8: The Principle of Equality Suggests to the Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man


Vol 2, Part 3, Ch 13: That the Principle of Equality Naturally Divides the Americans into a Number of Small Private Circles

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Individualism and Associations


Tocqueville notes that in very democratic and equal societies, it is natural for citizens to be more individualistic. Increased individualism can have negative effects on the society because citizens are less concerned with the well-being of fellow citizens. The United States, however, does not seem to suffer ill-effects of individualism because of the tendency of citizens to unite in various kinds of associations. The chapters below describe the problem of individualism and how Americans combat the negative effects of it.


Vol 2, Part 2, Ch 1-9: Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of  Americans


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