1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tocqueville, Alexis Henri Charles Maurice Clerel, Comte de

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26
Tocqueville, Alexis Henri Charles Maurice Clerel, Comte de

TOCQUEVILLE, ALEXIS HENRI CHARLES MAURICE CLEREL, Comte de (1805-1859), was born at Verneuil on the 29th of July 1805. His family on the father's side were of good descent, and distinguished both in the law and in arms, while his mother was the granddaughter of Malesherbes. Alexis de Tocqueville was brought up for the bar, or rather for the bench, and became an assistant magistrate in 1830. A year later he obtained from the government of July a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in America, and proceeded thither with his life-long friend Gustave de Beaumont. He returned in less than two years, and published a report, but the real result of his tour was the famous De la Démocratie en Amerique, which appeared in 1835, and very soon made his reputation (3rd ed. 1868). It was at once caught up by influential members of the Liberal party in England, which country Tocqueville soon after visited, and where he married an Englishwoman. Returning to France, he was elected a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (Jan. 6, 1838), and beginning life as a country gentleman at Tocqueville, he thought to carry out the English ideal completely by standing for the chamber of deputies. But, with a scruple which illustrated his character, he refused government nomination from Molé, and was defeated. Later he was successful, and sat for several years both before and after the revolution of February, becoming in 1849 vice-president of the assembly, and for a few months minister of foreign affairs. He was a warm supporter of the Roman expedition, but an equally warm opponent of Louis Napoleon, and after being one of the deputies who were arrested at the coup d'état he retired from public life. Twenty years after his first, he produced another book, De l'Ancien régime, which almost, if not quite, equalled its success. His health was never very strong, and in 1858 he broke a blood-vessel. He was ordered to the south, and, taking up his residence at Cannes, died there on the 16th of April 1859. He had published some minor pieces during his lifetime, and his complete works, including much unpublished correspondence, were produced after his death in uniform shape by H. G. de Beaumont (Œuvres completes de Tocqueville, 9 vols., 1860-1865).

During the last twenty years of his life, and for perhaps half that time after his death, Tocqueville had an increasing European fame. His manner, which is partly imitated from Montesquieu, has considerable charm; and he was the first and has remained the chief writer to put the orthodox liberal ideas which governed European politics during the first half or two-thirds of the 19th century into an orderly and attractive shape. He was, moreover, as has been said, much taken up by influential persons in England — N. W. Senior, John Stuart Mill and others — and he had the great advantage of writing absolutely the first book of reasoned politics on democratic government in America. Besides, he was, if not an entirely impartial writer, neither a devotee nor an opponent of democracy. All this gave him a very great advantage which he has not yet wholly lost. At the same time he had defects which were certain to make themselves felt as time went on, even without the alteration of the centre of liberal opinion which has taken place of late years. The chief of these was a certain weakness which can hardly be described by any word more dignified than “priggishness.” His correspondence with Molé, above alluded to, is an instance of this, and it was also reflected on in various epigrams by countrymen and contemporaries; one of these accuses him of having “begun to think before he had begun to learn,” while another declares that he avait l'air de savoir de toute éternité ce qu'il venait d'apprendre. He appears both in reading history and in conducting actual political business to have been constantly surprised and disgusted that men and nations did not behave as he expected them to behave. This excess of the deductive spirit explains at once both the merits and the defects of his two great works, which will probably remain political classics, though they are less and less likely to be used as practical guides.

See Heinrich Jacques, Alexis de Tocqueville; ein Lebens- und Geistesbild (Vienna, 1876); James Bryce, The Predictions of Tocqueville (Baltimore, 1887); Count de Puymaigre, Les Souvenirs d'Alexis de Tocqueville (1893); and Correspondance entre Alexis de Tocqueville et Arthur de Gobineau (1908).

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