Democracy in America

From Academic Kids

De la démocratie en Amérique (published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840) is a classic French text by Alexis de Tocqueville on the United States in the 1830s and its strengths and weaknesses. A literal translation of its title is On Democracy in America, but the common translation of the title is Democracy in America.


Tocqueville's visit to the Americas

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, both French aristocrats, were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling around the United States, taking notes not only on prisons, but on all aspects of American society, including the nation's economy and its political system. The pair of men also briefly visited Canada, spending a few days in the summer of 1831 in what was then Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario).

After they returned to France in February 1832, the two men submitted their penal report, entitled Du système pénitentaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France, in 1833. Beaumont would soon write a novel about race relations in the United States. Tocqueville, on the other hand, who was fascinated by American politics, wrote an analytical political and social tract, Democracy in America, which would become the far more influential work.


The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States when it failed in so many other places.

Tocqueville also speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing both possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy, including his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into what he calls "mild despotism."


Democracy in America was published in numerous editions in the 19th century. It was immediately popular in both Europe and the United States. By the twentieth century, it had become a classic work of political science, social science, and history. It is commonly assigned reading for undergraduates majoring in the political or social sciences.

Tocqueville's work is often acclaimed for making a number of predictions which were eventually borne out. Tocqueville correctly anticipates the potential of the debate over the abolition of slavery to tear apart the United States (as it indeed did in the American Civil War). He also predicts the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers.

Democracy in America was also seen to have its potential downside: the despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of majorities, the absence of intellectual freedom which seemed to him to degrade administration and bring statesmanship, learning, and literature to the level of the lowest. 'Democracy in America' predicted the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant. It is arguable whether these predictions also came to fruition.

Democracy in America is acclaimed for its author's perception, but it has also been criticized by recent scholars for gaps in its discussion; for instance, Tocqueville almost ignores mentioning poverty in the cities.

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