Books Politics

Review: The Man Who Understood Democracy by Olivier Zunz

Olivier Zunz. The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis De Tocqueville. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s name is synonymous with democracy. After all, his most famous work, Democracy in America, is a grand treatise over the American democratic experiment and remains an indispensable book on the nature of American politics especially as seen by a foreign sympathizer but also filled with warnings of potential danger to the grand experiment. Tocqueville came to believe that the “measure of any form of government…was liberty and equality.” How, exactly, did this aristocrat turned nuanced champion of democracy embrace a republican form of democratic governance where “all citizens [had] the liberty to act within an agreed-upon legal framework”? 

It is important to use and understand Tocqueville’s definition of democracy from the onset to know what he meant by democracy and what enamored him to write Democracy in America instead of our own contemporary prejudices. For Tocqueville, democracy is not majoritarian rule. Rather, it is the liberty and equality enshrined by law and protected by strong institutions and a legal framework—a constitution—that upholds and promotes liberty and equality.

Tocqueville’s democracy, then, is a republic (that legal and constitutional framework with strong civil and legal institutions) where individual will, activity, and life is open to its citizenry. Citizens choose to improve their lives on their own volition without fear of political repercussion. True democracy in Tocqueville’s eyes can only exist with strong republican institutions and laws supporting it because only strong republican institutions and laws ensure the relative calm and order which permits social freedom to flourish.

A World in Transformation

Born into an aristocratic military family that was decimated by the Terror of the French Revolution, Tocqueville grew up in the milieu of the Restoration after the collapse of the tyrannical French republic and the despotism of Napoleon Bonaparte. This made him acutely perceptive to the dangers of demagogic tyranny. It also made him aware of the need for reform to avoid bloody social revolution. 

The young Alexis was educated in classics and church theology by a tutor, before attending university and studying law and history. It was at university that he experienced his first existential crisis, his discovery of agnostic philosophy, which would periodically come back to haunt him time and again even though he professed enduring fidelity to Catholicism while apparently retaining nagging doubts throughout his life (he was Catholic, but certainly no dogmatist). Away from his family, he also sired a child out of wedlock and became intoxicated by the history lectures of future reformer and Prime Minister François Guizot.

“This biography,” Olivier Zunz writes in The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis De Tocqueville, “tells how Tocqueville developed his ideas in the context of the charged political events of his lifetime.” Zunz explores how the very real manifestation of political turbulence affected Tocqueville’s political thinking and leanings. What made Tocqueville unique, and what made him such a keen observer and writer of politics, was that he lived in a world in transformation.  

Born after the American Revolution and in the throes of the French Revolution and Terror, Tocqueville’s adolescence was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars. His formative young adulthood occurred during the maelstrom of the Restoration and the Revolution of 1830. His adulthood saw the rise of Jacksonian democracy in America and working under the July Monarchy in France (1830-1848) before dying on the eve of the American Civil War. Tocqueville’s life straddled the most turbulent period of human history before the world wars. His was a world rapidly changing, much like our own. He lived through war, revolution, industrialization, and the end of the old world and the birth of the new.

Tocqueville in America

When Tocqueville left France after witnessing the July Revolution of 1830, he came to a nascent United States undergoing its own social and political metamorphosis. After Tocqueville and his companion Gustave de Beaumont arrived in New York, they entered “a country where the social revolution of Jacksonian democracy was transforming the constitutional principles that the founding generation had established.” This was the age of white male enfranchisement and populist battling against the remnants of the Federalist oligarchy. While not blind to injustices and imperfections in American society, Tocqueville was enamored by “the larger democratic promise of America” immediately upon his arrival. The bustling and burgeoning civil society and social life struck him as extraordinary.  

New England, of course, won the apple in Tocqueville’s eye for the spirit of democracy and “the larger democratic promise of America.” 

Tocqueville’s New England confidants and correspondents—which included the leading men of politics, history, and religion including Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, a visiting Henry Clay, and leading Unitarian theologians Jared Sparks and William Ellery Channing—informed the French visitor of the manner of American democratic development: local government first, national government last. As Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America: ‘The local community was organized before the country, the country before the state, and the state before the union.’” From this realization Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy was the product of bottom-up civic energy and personal virtue and not top-down statist imposition drawn up by bureaucrats and university professors. Democracy emanated from the people in their local communities and not as bureaucratic dictates from a federal government hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As Zunz succinctly summarizes concerning Tocqueville’s beliefs, “Democracy rested on local self-rule practiced over a long period of time.” 

Furthermore, it was from his New England observations that Tocqueville understood the genius of the American founding. Jared Sparks, the “Plutarch of America,” argued that while democracy had dangers, strong political and legal institutions were designed to keep the mob and their potentially oppressive passions checked. Strong governors and judges committed to the Constitution—which admittedly required much virtue on their part—were “reliable institutional guarantees” against the dangers that majoritarian tyranny could manifest. In other words, strong institutions and laws are not oppressive but the best safeguard of liberty against the real danger: mob passion. When those institutions decay, mob danger intensifies and citizen virtue collapses, demagogues could strike. 

Religion and Liberty

When traversing through upstate New York and the Great Lakes of what is now the American Midwest, Tocqueville was also walking and riding through the lands of the Second Great Awakening and the proliferation of new Protestant sects and denominations who strived “for more authentic experiences of faith and repentance.” Here, Tocqueville’s commentary on religion in America is well-known. He is considered the prophet of religion and liberty as not only coexisting but codependent on each other; Tocqueville’s endorsement of the separation of church and state was predicated on his belief that non-coerced religiosity benefited both religious institutions and their individual adherents.  

The multiplicity of religious movements and different sects was interpreted (wrongly by Tocqueville it must be said) as evidence of religious tolerance. In reality, what Tocqueville encountered was more religious separatism than tolerance. Nevertheless, Tocqueville’s vision of religious liberty within democratic society was influenced by his encounters with American spiritual revival and his misunderstanding of the desire for individual purity and free choice in religious expression as broader social tolerance (though we can certainly share Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for religious tolerance). In Tocqueville’s eyes, religion as practiced in America was the natural companion of democracy.

Zunz does a great job acknowledging what is now passé and easily dismissed in the twenty-first century: the belief that democracy needed its citizenry to be ‘level-headed, religious, and highly educated’” if it was to succeed. Today’s malaise and democratic despotism (though we never mention the despotism part) is a reflection of Tocqueville’s insight learned from the leading Americans during his travels. The want to utterly transform society is revolutionary; it is therefore a license to tyranny as Tocqueville’s family knew first-hand from the Terror of the French Revolution.

While Zunz, like many other moderns, may not believe in the necessity of virtue and religious belief for the success of democratic government and the liberty it promises, he makes no apologetic remarks for what Tocqueville plainly states concerning the future success of republican democracy. An unvirtuous and generally irreligious people will succumb to mob tyranny. This is not something to desire. That was something the Founding Fathers were worried about. It should remain something we’re worried about. Whatever democracy that is, it is a fraud to the democracy that Tocqueville loved and promoted. It just so happens that the fraudulent and despotic form democracy can take, the form Tocqueville warned against, seems to be the form of democracy now being peddled and promoted in the twenty-first century.

The Hope of America

What marveled Tocqueville in New England and the broader “West” (today’s Ohio River valley region) was that Americans “proudly believed in their own intellectual superiority” and “the immense energy” that Americans displayed in their lives. America and Americans were a people and nation on the move. The energy of America and the Americans Tocqueville encountered was inspirational. They embodied the energy of boundless opportunity, advancement, and self-improvement, as well as the freedom of conscience and choice in spiritual matters that Tocqueville associated with democracy. Americans were hopeful and optimistic, and this hope and optimism drove Americans onward and upward. 

Tocqueville also observed and was anxious about the prospects of further democratic growth in America. He acutely observed tensions within American society, tensions of demagoguery, domestic and racial division, and the dangers of majoritarian tyranny. What Tocqueville critiqued in majoritarian tyranny was “uniformity of thought.” Uniformity of thought would endanger democracy because democracy is premised on the opposite: a diversity of thought and opinion working itself out in social, political, and institutional means wherein as many citizens as possible get to exercise their will to live, love, and worship. Tocqueville’s criticism of the tyranny of the majority was a criticism of uniform thinking and unicameralism in politics—the very uniformity in thought and strong-arm politics that various acidic forces within America are at this time trying to promote.

Despite the tensions and dangers in democracy, Tocqueville remained optimistic because of the high degree of religiosity, commitment to individual virtue, and the democratic-republican sentiment in America (which was growing elsewhere in the world, especially his native France). In the contest between servitude and freedom, Tocqueville pondered that “God had held [America] in reserve” as the last bastion of liberty against encroaching servitude and tyranny. For a long time, many Americans shared this sentiment. Many still share this sentiment though that belief is undeniably waning—perhaps to the detriment of the United States and the world.

In Tocqueville’s mind, religion would be the final bastion of democracy in the United States. As American churches were already “pillars of liberty,” the religious would be the most energetic in their want to preserve liberty. Furthermore, the cultivation of virtue demanded by religion would make religious Americans the needed citizens to uphold strong and just laws against tyrannical passions. Educated in theology as he was, Tocqueville knew from his theological education that the appetites, the passions, were the pathway to sin and slavery. Writing so aptly on this issue, Tocqueville noted: 

Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic which they set forth in glowing colors than in the monarchy which they attack; it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?

Why Tocqueville Still Matters  

Returning to France, Tocqueville would go on to write Democracy in America and begin theorizing about democracy’s future and hoped that France would follow America’s democratic spirit and energy. He was then thrust into French politics, taking his theory and trying to apply it practically in the political arena. The events of July Revolution before going to America, the political malaise in France demanding reform, then the social and revolutionary violence that threatened to end constitutional reforms and plunge France back into the abyss of tyranny (whether from radical liberals and socialists or royalists), forced Tocqueville to pivot. Despite these pivots and imperfections in Tocqueville’s political career, he remained committed to the principles of self-government, self-improvement, and the democratic spirit of energy and civil society vibrancy he witnessed in the United States during the rest of his life in France and his time in the French legislature.

Tocqueville’s life and his reflections on democratic politics is an enduring reminder to Americans, most especially, of our own inheritance and what we should jealously cherish and safeguard. Democracy is not a top-down imposition like so many of our intellectuals think but emanates from the people, a people who are virtuous and religious, who seek self-governance rather than bureaucratic security, and who will guard that reality from an usurping administration that wants to govern us in the name of efficiency or a demagogue who would rule us by force of his own will and demand absolutely obedience to him. Democracy is demanding.

Lastly, Tocqueville’s democratic political science is implicitly undergirded by a theology of hope. He regularly noted that religion and democracy intermix, that American churches served as beacons and pillars of liberty and democratization. Zunz rightly acknowledges that in Tocqueville’s estimation, drawing from the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers, that liberty wasn’t about license but “a call to moral and material self-improvement.”  

*This review was first published in VoegelinView, 23 October 2022.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding ArcadiaThe Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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