The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville
25-year-old Alexis deTocqueville spent only nine-and-a-half months touring America in 1831-32. He saw much, he missed much, but he emerged from this trip with a powerful new understanding of modern history as a vital struggle between liberty and equality, and he produced a body of work that has helped Americans and others around the world think of themselves and their society anew.
What Tocqueville found in America, to his surprise, was a society where equality of status at birth (for the white population—Tocqueville, a committed abolitionist, was always clear about that)—could generate liberty for ordinary citizens to realize their potential and achieve their lives.
Great thinkers do not always have a life worthy of detailed telling. We often understand them better in conversation with other great minds across the ages rather than with their contemporaries. In this respect, however, Alexis de Tocqueville stands apart. His early life was shaped by the aftermath of the Revolutionary Terror in France, and he died two years before the start of the American Civil War. He was witness to a profound transformation of society and was as passionate about participating in politics to promote the right blend of equality and liberty as he was about studying the subject.
[Recorded on September 22, 2022.]
History Camp Authors
America's Summer Roadtrip 2020
Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Changing Face of Inequality, 1982, Making America Corporate, 1990, Why the American Century?, 1998, Philanthropy in America: A History, 2012, and most recently The Man Who Understood Democracy. The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville, 2022. He is also the editor of Reliving the Past, 1985, The Landscape of Modernity, 1992, and Social Contracts under Stress, 2002. His work on Alexis de Tocqueville also includes editing The Tocqueville Reader, 2002, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 2004, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America, 2010, and Tocqueville’s Recollections (1850-1851), 2016.
Olivier Zunz has been a Guggenheim fellow and has held visiting professorships at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Collège de France, among other appointments abroad. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia.