Who Was Alexis de Tocqueville?

A Brief Bio and Intellectual History

Drawing of Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian considered one of the founders of sociology.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was a French legal and political scholar, politician, and historian who is most well known as the author of the book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Though not a sociologist by training or trade, Tocqueville is recognized as one of the thinkers that inspired the discipline due to his focus on social observation, his knack for situating current events in historical context (now considered a cornerstone of the sociological imagination), and his interest in the causes of certain social patterns and trends, and of differences among societies. In all of his works, Tocqueville’s interests lied in the positive and negative consequences of various forms of democracy on various aspects of social life, from economics and law to religion and art.

Biography and Intellectual History

Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805 in Paris, France. He was the great-grandson of the statesman Chretien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a liberal aristocratic victim of the French Revolution and a political model for Tocqueville. He was educated by a private tutor until high school and then attended high school and college in Metz, France. He studied law in Paris and worked as a substitute judge in Versailles. 

In 1831, Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, a friend and colleague, traveled to the United States to study prison reforms and spent nine months in the country. They hoped to return to France with knowledge of a society that would make them fit to help shape France’s political future. 

The trip produced the first joint book published by the two, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France, as well as the first part of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville spent the next four years working on the final portion of Democracy in America, which was published in 1840. Largely due to the success of the book, Tocqueville was named to the Legion of Honor, the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and the French Academy. The book was and remains so popular because it deals with issues such as religion, the press, money, class structure, racism, the role of government, and the judicial system – issues that are just as relevant today as they were then. A great deal of colleges in the U.S. use Democracy in America in political science, history, and sociology courses, and historians consider it one of the most comprehensive and insightful books ever written about the U.S.

Later, Tocqueville toured England, which inspired the book, Memoir on Pauperism. Another book, Travail sur l’Algerie, was written after Tocqueville spent time in Algeria in 1841 and 1846. During this time he developed a critique of assimilationist model French colonialism, which he shared in the book.

In 1848 Tocqueville became an elected member of the Constituent Assembly and served on the Commission responsible for creating the new Constitution of the Second Republic. Then, In 1849, he became France's Minister of Foreign Affairs. The next year President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte removed him from his post, after which Tocqueville became quite ill. In 1851 he was imprisoned for opposing Bonaparte’s coup and was barred from holding further political offices. Tocqueville then retreated to private life and wrote L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution. The first volume of the book was published in 1856, but Tocqueville was unable to complete the second before he died of tuberculosis in 1859.

Major Publications

  • The U.S. Penitentiary System and its Application in France (1833)
  • Democracy in America (1835-1840)
  • The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)
  • Recollections (1893)

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.