Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1805-1859) French social theorist and politician; the outstanding classical interpreter of religion's role in modern American democracy and prerevolutionary France. The son of an aristocratic and monarchist family, Tocqueville's travels in America, England, and Ireland led him to a reformist political stance in support of democratic institutions.

Before traveling to America and after experiencing the social chaos and despotism in early-nineteenth-century France, Tocqueville suspected that democracy led inevitably to "a debased taste for equality, which leads the weak to want to drag the strong down to their level and which induces men to prefer equality in servitude to inequality in freedom" (1969 [1835-1840]: 49). He feared that this servile egalitarianism would lead to despotism by leaving people defenseless against public opinion.

In contrast, Tocqueville encountered in America a "legitimate passion for equality which rouses in all men a desire to be strong and respected" (p. 49). He traced this legitimate egalitarianism to the pervasive influence of American democratic institutions and saw it at work most extensively in the American propensity to form "voluntary associations" to address myriad shared needs. Tocqueville observed and chronicled religion's role in sustaining this voluntarist ethos and providing the social space in which much reformist organizing occurs. He traced the way that religion in America accepts self-interest as a prime motivation in people's lives, yet so revitalizes engagement in common endeavors that people come to appreciate and commit themselves to social institutions that transcend their private worlds. This "enlightened self-interest" represents for Tocqueville the key for understanding the flourishing of American democracy.

Yet Tocqueville cautioned that the American self-reliance also could lead people to pursue only their own private interests, and he coined a new term, individualism , for this tendency. He cautioned that individualism ultimately could lead to such an erosion of common concern that it would undermine democratic life.

Richard L. Wood


S. Drescher, Tocqueville and England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964)

S. A. Hadari, Theory in Practice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989)

R. Herr, Tocqueville and the Old Regime (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962)

J. C. Koritansky, Alexis de Tocqueville and the New Science of Politics (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1986)

J. Lively, The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965)

J. P. Mayer, Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Viking, 1966)

A. de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955 [1856])

A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday, 1969 [1835-1840])

A. de Tocqueville, Recollections (London: MacDonald, 1970 [1893])

A. de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

I. M. Zeitlin, Liberty, Equality, and Revolution in Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Little, Brown, 1971)

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

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