Robert C. Frederiksen

Florida State University

Tallahassee, FL 32308


            The theories of Alexis de Tocqueville have had a profound effect on the concepts of democracy, penology and crime and punishment.  Tocqueville’s historical background deeply influenced his theories.  His early experiences and travels to America were instrumental to the forming of his theories.  Equality of conditions is a central theme throughout all of his theories.  He argued equality is essential to democracy and it is the lack of quality that leads to crime.  Critics of Tocqueville cite this reliance on equality as his major weakness.  Despite these criticisms, Tocqueville’s theories remain popular 150 years after his death. 




Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805.  He was born into a noble family from Normandy, France shortly after the French Revolution.  Most of his family had been executed during the “Reign of Terror” (Siedentop, 1994: 1).  His parents were spared from the guillotine, but imprisoned for several months awaiting execution.  This had a profound effect on both Tocqueville and his parents.  His father Herve, hair had turned white at the age of twenty-four, while his mother deeply psychologically scared, became something of an invalid (Mayer, 1960: 2). The French Revolution made a great impression on Tocqueville.  As a child he was preoccupied by the idea of imprisonment or exile.  Tocqueville wrote of his youth, “I remember thinking of the chances of prison…I had succeeded in imagining for myself an almost agreeable idea of that fearful place”  (Siedentop, 1994: 2).

At the age of sixteen, Tocqueville entered the Royal College of Metz for his first formal schooling (Siedentop, 1994: 3).  Here he began to distance himself from his aristocratic background.  Tocqueville developed the idea of the “true” aristocracy, one in which the French nobility fought alongside the people for equality (Siedentop, 1994: 4).  While at Metz, Tocqueville was instructed by the wise French priest Abbe Lesueur.  Lesueur and Tocqueville became extremely close.  Lesueur served as a kind of surrogate mother for Tocqueville.  He encouraged Tocqueville’s education while nurturing his strong religious faith (Mayer, 1960: 3).

In 1820 Tocqueville left Lesueur to live with his father in Paris.  His father an elected official often left young Tocqueville by himself.  To occupy his time, Tocqueville began to read eighteenth century philosophies from his father’s library.  Readings works from authors such as Descartes affected his faith.  It caused him to question his religious faith, from which he never fully recovered (Siedentop, 1994: 5). 

Shortly after moving to Paris, Tocqueville decided to study law.  The “Great Debate” in French politics was occurring in Paris at this time.   The Villele government had introduced a series of bills designed to restore the “old regime,” the aristocracy (Siedentop, 1994: 6).  This struggle played an important part in Tocqueville’s life.  Tocqueville identified with the liberal movement opposed to restoring the aristocracy.  He joined the Society for Christian Morality, a liberal social group that espoused moral equality and civil liberty (Siedentop, 1994: 6).  Tocqueville became an advocate for the “good cause” of liberalism.  He continued to work on his legal career, but was making little progress.

In 1830, revolution once again threatened France.  Charles X dismissed the legislature in an attempt to re-establish the aristocracy in France (Siedentop, 1994: 8).  The thought of civil war haunted Tocqueville as it did during his childhood.  He became convinced that re-establishing the aristocracy was not the answer to France’s political problems (Siedentop, 1994: 9).  During this time Tocqueville contemplated going to America.  If he could observe and understand American democracy perhaps he could apply it to France.  Prison reform was one of the reforms discussed as a result of the 1830 Revolution.  The United States had just instituted a new prison system in Philadelphia and New York.  Tocqueville and his colleague Gustave de Beaumont received permission to travel to the United States to inspect the new prison system (Siedentop, 1994: 10).

Tocqueville and Beaumont reached New York City in May 1831 (Mayer, 1960: 9).  They were both impressed with the lack of social classes as compared to feudal Europe.  This new social equality had not previously been seen in Europe.  They immediately noticed the frantic commercial activity of the United States.  Everyone seemed to be part of the “market-place” mentality (Siedentop, 1994: 10).  Tocqueville described what he called “a absence of government” in the United States (Siedentop, 1994: 10).  In contrast to France, Americans seemed to manage their own affairs with little government control.  He became convinced America was the model of reform for France.  Tocqueville and Beaumont continued to travel the United States.  In New England they found the model for the autonomous township (Siedentop, 1994: 11).  The township was a self-governing local community based on self-reliance and mutual cooperation.  In the south, Tocqueville noted slavery was the closest thing to aristocracy in the United States (Siedentop, 1994: 12).  Completing their studies, Tocqueville and Beaumont departed the United States in 1832 (Mayer, 1960: 10).

In 1835, Tocqueville published his famous work Democracy in America.  It was immediately hailed as a great success in both France and the United States (Commager, 1993: 9).  Tocqueville’s book became the preeminent study of democracy in the New World.   No one who has written about the United States was more perceptive than Alexis de Tocqueville (Commager, 1993: ix).  Democracy in America aroused great interest in the citizens of the United States (Hereth, 1986: 9).  To Americans, Tocqueville’s work provided a unique understanding of themselves.  Tocqueville, like most Americans of the 1830s, perceived the United States as the paradigm of the new democratic age (Hereth, 1986: 9).  Tocqueville’s work made Americans realize how unique and special their situation was.  Nowhere else in the world had a government based on democracy, equality and freedom flourished.  As a result, Democracy in America made Americans appreciate they lived in a truly unique country.

Tocqueville’s background and experiences played an important role in his ideas on democracy and his theories on crime and punishment.  From his noble roots and fear of civil war to his liberal ideology, Tocqueville was a definite product of his environment.  The political and social unrest of France during early 1800’s had a profound impact on him.  Finally, his travels to America and experiences here also helped to shape his ideas and theories.  




            Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory of Democracy is based on three “generative principles.”  The first of these “generative principles” is equality of conditions.  For Democracy to exist there must be equality.  In his famous work Democracy in America, Tocqueville (1840: 35) states “rights must be given to each citizen or to no one.”  It is this equality of conditions that serve as the seeds of Democracy. 

When Tocqueville arrived in America he was immediately struck by the equality of conditions among its inhabitants.  For the most part, Americans of the 1830s enjoyed an atmosphere of social equality.  (The noted exception, of course being the slaves)  This social equality did not exist in aristocratic Europe.  The aristocracy, although declining, still had considerable power in Europe.  In the aristocracy social and political power was based on name and birth.  Nobility, political influence, and wealth could be passed on from one generation to the next.  Social classes were fixed.  Rarely did one move up in social class.  This lack of social equality prevented democracy from taking hold in Europe.  In the United States there was no aristocracy or rigid social classes, in its place was equality.  According to Tocqueville, this equality of conditions served as a “generative principle” for Democracy (Manenet, 1996: 1).

Another “generative principle” for democracy was sovereignty of the people.  Sovereignty of the people is tied to equality of conditions.  For the people to be sovereign they must be equal.  Tocqueville states, “from the beginning, the principle of sovereignty of the people had been a generative principle of the majority of English colonies of America” (Manenet, 1996: 3). Sovereignty of the people means rule by the people.  Unlike Europeans, Americas had no loyalties to the aristocracy or monarchy.  Not being subject to the aristocracy or monarchy allowed Americans to rule themselves.   “The Anglo-Americans are the first nation…to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people,” wrote Tocqueville (1980: 52).

This, however, was not the case prior to the American Revolution.  Prior to the Revolution, the American colonies exercised sovereignty of the people at the local level. The New England Townships characterized this.  Tocqueville recognized that local communities, particularly New England townships, were the basis of sovereignty of the people.  “In the township, as well as everywhere else, the people are the only source of power”  (Tocqueville, 1980: 73).  Tocqueville (1980: 87) goes on to say, “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”  For Tocqueville the township was the source of sovereignty of the people.

Sovereignty of the people is inherent to democracy.  Like equality of conditions, without sovereignty of the people democracy cannot exist.  Tocqueville observed, “that the principle of sovereignty of the people governs the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans…In nations which recognize the sovereignty of the people, every individual possess an equal share of power” (Manenet, 1999: 5).  Thus, sovereignty of the people is fundamental to democracy. 

Just as sovereignty of the people is a “generative principle,” so is public opinion.  Public opinion is what drives democracy.  It puts ideas into action.  The force of public opinion changes ideas into everyday reality.  Tocqueville calls this the “dogma of the sovereignty of the people”   (Manenet, 1999: 5).  This “dogma” fuels democracy.  It gives purpose and direction to government and politics.  According to Tocqueville (1980: 112), “the dogma of the sovereignty of the people…directs the majority of human actions.”  Without public opinion, democracy has no direction.  Without direction, democracy cannot function.  This sense of direction and purpose makes public opinion a “generative principle” of democracy. 

While public opinion is vital to democracy, it can also be detrimental at the same time.  Tocqueville suggested this when he spoke of the “tyranny of the majority” (Commager, 1993: 18). The tyranny of the majority suggests that in a democracy, the majority will inevitably seek to tyrannize the minority.  In other words, the majority of public opinion will persecute the minority.  Tocqueville warns of the tyranny of the majority when he says, “the power of the majority in America is not only preponderant, but irresistible” (Commager, 1993: 19).  He continues, “the power of the majority surpasses all the powers with which we are acquainted in Europe” (Commager, 1993: 22).  The tyranny of the majority creates something of a paradox.  One the one hand, the power of the majority is needed to sustain democracy, while on the other; the tyranny of the majority can destroy democracy.  Only through a careful system of checks and balances can democracy avoid this pitfall, even then the tyranny of the majority may be unavoidable. 

Despite the prospects of the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville felt democracy was the way of the future.  He believed that democracy was the destiny for modern nation states and that monarchies and aristocracies would soon disappear.  Democracy represented the negation of the aristocracy (Drescher, 1968: 29). Tocqueville used the term “providential” when describing the spread of democracy (Zetterbaum, 1967: 23).  Tocqueville wanted to convey a sense of predetermined historical and divine triumph.  In order for democracy to triumph the “generative principles” of equality of conditions, sovereignty of the people, and public opinion needed to exist.


            Tocqueville based his theory of crime and punishment on the social conditions of his time and his travels to America.  The social conditions of the 1830s played a significant role in the founding of Tocqueville’s theory of crime and punishment.  The turbulence of the French Revolution and the violence of the “Reign of Terror” helped to shape Tocqueville’s theories.  In addition, his travels to America and his study of the American penitentiary system helped to form his theories of punishment.

            Deviance, according to Tocqueville, was the result of social conditions.  Those with less opportunity were more apt to commit crimes.  He believed poverty and inequality contributed to deviance.  In his famous book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France, which he co-authored with Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville (1964: 172) states, “It is well known that most individuals on whom the criminal law inflicts punishment have been unfortunate before they become guilty.”  The idea that poverty and inequality contribute to deviance can be traced back to Tocqueville’s experiences during the French revolution in which thousands of French peasants were incarcerated for being poor or executed for their political views. Speaking of the Revolution, Tocqueville (1964: 147) stated, “Misfortune is particularly dangerous for those whom it befalls,” stated.

            This view of deviance deeply influenced Tocqueville’s ideas on punishment of criminal offenders.  Tocqueville believed in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders, not in the harsh punishment of them.  He believed rehabilitating offenders into productive citizens was in the best interest of society.  The object of the prison system “is to reform” offenders wrote Tocqueville (1980: 46).  He was opposed to “mass storage” of criminals without some type of rehabilitation.  When examining the prisons of the American South Tocqueville was shocked, “In locking up the criminals nobody thinks of rendering them better, but only taming their malice; they are put in chains like ferocious beasts; and instead of being corrected, they are rendered brutal” (Jacoby, 1994: 379). 

In addition, Tocqueville was strictly opposed to the death penalty.  He felt the death penalty and other forms of corporal punishment were barbaric.  Speaking of the death penalty and corporal punishment, Tocqueville (1964: 185) states, “Must we not ardently wish that the last traces of such barbarism should disappear from all the United States?”  Tocqueville’s distaste for the death penalty and other forms of “degrading punishment” may be due to the execution of his relatives during the “Reign of Terror.”  “Punishment which degrade the guilty, are incompatible with a penitentiary system, the object of which is to reform them,” writes Tocqueville (1964: 189).

This focus on rehabilitation led Tocqueville to advocate the New England Penitentiary system.  The word “penitentiary” comes from the word penitence.  Originally developed by the Quakers of Pennsylvania the penitentiary was a place where criminals would reflect and repent for their crimes (sins).  After reflecting on their crimes and repenting for their sins, the former offenders would be reintegrated back into society. 

The penitentiary relied on solitary confinement.  Tocqueville (1980: 103) wrote, “Thrown into solitude he reflects, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it.”  In the penitentiary system, prisoners were separated from one another and communication was forbidden.  Allowing prisoners to communicate would lead to further corruption.  “In the association of the wicked, it is not the less guilty who act upon the more criminal, but the more depraved who influence those who are less so.”  (Beaumont and Tocqueville, 1964: 167)  The principle of the penitentiary system was that prisoners were held in solitary confinement not only to prevent harmful contact between them, but also to induce them to reflect on their crimes. 

Tocqueville observed when the penitentiary system was applied in the extreme, the effects of absolute solitary confinement could be devastating.  Tocqueville (1964: 139) described what happen at the state of New York’s Auburn prison, “the unfortunates, on whom this experiment was made, fell into a state of depression, so manifest, that their keepers were struck with it.”   Based on the results of the Auburn prison Tocqueville opposed absolute solitude.  “This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills” (Jacoby, 1994: 374).  Instead, Tocqueville suggest a system of partial solitude, by leaving the prisoners in their cells at night and forcing them to work during the day.  This partial solitude would allow offenders to reflect on their crimes while at the same time rehabilitate them through honest work.

This idea of rehabilitation characterizes Tocqueville’s theory of crime and punishment. Throughout his writings on the American penitentiary system he focused on the reform of the deviant.  While Tocqueville sought to control deviance through rehabilitation, he knew deviance being a product of social conditions could not be controlled without improving social equality and improving opportunity. 




Since the time of it’s publishing in 1840, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has been analyzed and critiqued.  One of the major criticisms of Tocqueville is that he neglected to take economic factors into consideration.  Pope (1986: 74) asserts Tocqueville failed to concern himself with economic factors.  Some critics feel Tocqueville’s focus on equality and his neglect of economic considerations may have been his “greatest blind spot” (Pope, 1986: 78).  The discussion of economic factors leads to a comparison between Marx and Tocqueville.

In comparing Marx’s social theory to Tocqueville’s one sees important differences.  Marx’s theory focused on economic structure and reflected the importance of the means of production.  For Marx, social conflict arose from the exploitation of the working class (proletariat) by the capitalist Bourgeoisie.  By controlling the means of production the capitalist ruling class “enslaved” the working class (Pope, 1986: 80).  Democracy was and illusion capitalism used to control the proletariat.

Unlike Marx, Tocqueville did not see Democracy as an illusion, but as an inevitable social condition.  For Tocqueville (1993: 62) Democracy was humanity’s “evolutionary destiny.”  Tocqueville based his social theory on equality of conditions.  Social conflict, as well as democracy, depended upon equality of conditions.  Without equality democracy could not exist, leading to social conflict.  For Tocqueville, economic power was an important source of American freedom.  Economic power was seen as liberating, not exploitive.  Tocqueville (1993: 71) writes, “Mobility is extensive and wealth circulates rapidly, the rich most of whom were poor…”  This idea of economic mobility distinguishes Marx from Tocqueville.

Another major criticism of Tocqueville is he overestimated the egalitarianism of Jacksonian America (Pope, 1986: 84).  Tocqueville portrays America of the 1830s as an egalitarian society of opportunity and equality.  Tocqueville (1993: 77) described the United States as “opportunity is widespread and the poor can, with luck and hard work, move up; wealth and poverty constitute possibly temporary situations, not permanent inequality.”

Critics respond to Tocqueville’s claims that “far from being an era of egalitarianism, Jacksonian America was an age of inequality” (Pope, 1986: 100).  Clearly America was less egalitarian than Tocqueville described.  Many Americans were poor.  Economic mobility was not as common as Tocqueville had described.  He overestimated the middle class while under estimating the opulence of the wealthy (Pope, 1986: 87).

Another major criticism of Tocqueville’s description of America was it did not take into account the inequality suffered by the slaves, Native Americans, and women.  How could a society claim to be egalitarian when a major portion of its population lived as slaves?  How could a society claim to be egalitarian when it forcefully relocated its original inhabitants?  How could a society claim to be egalitarian when half of its population could not vote on the basis of gender?  These were tough questions.  To be fair, Tocqueville (1993: 84) did criticize the practice of slavery in America calling it “the closest thing to aristocracy in America.”

There is little doubt that Tocqueville overestimated the equality of conditions in Jacksonian America, but in many ways compared to the aristocratic societies of Europe, America was indeed egalitarian (Pope, 1986: 87).  The Constitution held that all men had been created equal.  There were no legal barriers to upward mobility.  All Americans were equal before the law.  Many Americans were middle class people of modest fortune.  Thus, compared to the restrictive aristocratic societies, Jacksonian America was egalitarian.

Despite its criticisms Tocqueville’s theory remains popular.  While it may have “romanticized” Jacksonian America Tocqueville’s theory is still the preeminent view of democracy.  Tocqueville’s theory is still the most positive and popular discussion of democracy.


            Tocqueville’s theories regarding democracy and crime remain popular today.  Even 160 years after it was published Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America remains admired.  It is still required reading in many political science undergraduate programs.  Tocqueville’s ideas on crime and politics are in some ways more accepted today than when he was alive.  He is considered somewhat of an “icon” of modern democracy.  Scholars, journalists, politicians, judges, and even presidents have quoted Tocqueville. 

      Tocqueville has remained popular not only for his ideas of democracy, but also for his ideas on crime and punishment   In his article, Convict Labor Policies, Henry Calvin Mohler (1925: 558) wrote “Tocqueville, the eminent French scholar and reformer, who studied American prison systems, stated that the presence of the contractors in the prison would, sooner or later, lead to the total ruin of the discipline.”  Tocqueville’s ideas of punishment are also referred to in Lord Windlesham’s book Politics, Punishment and Populism.  In his book Lord Windlesham (1998: 3) examines the political debate of crime and punishment in America.  Windlesham notes in his preface that "like others before me [Tocqueville], I came from outside to study the penal system and ended with some wider impressions of the workings of government in America."            
Tocqueville’s ideas on social control are reflected in Gary T. Marx’s (1991: 39) article "The New Surveillance."  In this article, Marx explores new surveillance techniques and other control measures employed by social control agencies.  Marx states, “the spread of undercover means of gathering information seemed to represent one more example of the extension of state power feared by Alexis de Tocqueville and later social theorists.”  Marx begins his article with a quote from Tocqueville, “Everywhere the State acquires more and more direct control over the humblest members of the community and a more exclusive power of governing each of them in his smallest concerns. This gradual weakening of the individual in relation to society at large may be traced to a thousand things”
            In their article, “Volunteerism and Arrest in the Transition to Adulthood,” Cristopher Uggen and Jennifer Janikula (1999: 342) examine Tocqueville’s ideas on volunteerism and juvenile delinquency.  Their article begins with the following quote.  “Tocqueville posited that ‘by dint of working for one's fellow citizens, the habit and taste for serving them is at length acquired.’ Informal social control theories similarly suggest that voluntary service gradually draws persons to virtue.” 

Numerous books have been written on Tocqueville and his theories.  In his book entitled Tocquevillian Democracy, Michael Barone (1995: 124) critiques the American justice system.  Barone argues that, “The Tocquevillian America of the 1990s has opted clearly, on both crime and welfare, for more discipline and less therapy. These were not the decisions of Washington elites or academic experts, who almost uniformly favor therapy; they were forced by the people on their national leaders, or were the product of local officials and citizens acting in disregard of elite opinion. Since the 1960s, liberal elites used the federal government, and the leverage of federal dollars, to impose therapy-type approaches on social work and crime-fighting across the country, with success far greater than the amount of federal spending would suggest.”

In his article, “Judicial statesmanship, the jurisprudence of individualism, and Tocqueville's common law spirit,” Paul Carrese (1998: 472) examines the Tocquevellian theory of justice and present day judicial practices.  In his article he states, “Tocqueville's account of judging unites two concerns separated in recent debates over constitutional interpretation, use of discretion to serve the rule of law and respect for tradition. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey the majority upholding Roe is properly concerned with rule of law, while Justice Scalia properly criticizes departures from text and tradition.” 

Clearly Tocqueville’s theories remain popular today.  One reason he remains popular is because he appeals to all sides of the political and social spectrum.  One does not have to be a liberal or conservative to appreciate Tocqueville’s theories.  Politicians often quote Tocqueville because it is “vogue” to do so.  More importantly, Tocqueville’s theories of crime and punishment remain popular because they are based on timeless principles of equality, liberty and justice.  While these principles may be somewhat vague and idealistic, they remain ingrained in the American perception of crime and justice.  As a result, Tocqueville will probably remain popular for another 160 years. 





            Barone, M. (1995). Tocquevillian Democracy. New York: Free Press.


            Beaumont, G., & Tocqueville, A. (1964). On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France. Chicago: Vail-Ballou Press. (Original work published 1833).


            Carrese, P. (1998) Judicial statesmanship, the jurisprudence of individualism, and Tocqueville's common law spirit. The Review of Politics, 60, 465-95.  University of Notre Dame Press


            Commager, H. (1993). Commager on Tocqueville. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.


            Drescher, S. (1968). Dilemmas of Democracy, Tocqueville and Modernization. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.


            Hereth, M. (1986). Alexis de Tocqueville, Threats to Freedom in Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.


            Jacoby, J. (1994). Classics of Criminology (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.


            Manent, P. (1996). Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.


Marx, G. (1991). The New Surveillance. National Forum 7, 32-37. Baton Rouge, Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi


            Mayer, J. (1960). Alexis de Tocqueville, A Biographical Study in Political Science. New York: Harper and Brothers.


            Mohler, H. (1925). Convict Labor Policies. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 15, 558. Chicago : The Institute


            Pope, W. (1986). Alexis de Tocqueville; His Social and Political Theory. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.


            Siedentop, L. (1994). Tocqueville. New York: Oxford University Press.


            The Alexis de Tocqueville Institute. Retrieved September 14, 2000, from the World Wide Web:


            Tocqueville, A. (1980). On Democracy, Revolution and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1849).


            Tocqueville, A. (1993). Defense of Human Liberty. New York: Garland Publishing. (Original work published 1805-1859).


Uggen, C. & Janikula, J. (1999) Volunteerism and Arrest in the Transition to Adulthood. Social Forces, 78, 331-62. Chapel Hill, N. C., University of North Carolina.        


            Windlesham, L. (1998). Politics, Punishment, and Populism. Oxford:

Oxford University Press.


            Zetterbaum, M. (1967). Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.