How to Practice Democracy: Lessons from Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’

It’s been said that the best book about democracy–and the best book about America–was actually written by a young French nobleman. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his book “Democracy in America” based on his extensive travels through the United States in 1831. Tocqueville lived in post-revolutionary France and believed that democracy was the way of the future–not just for France, but for the whole world.

Today’s Guest:

  • Dr. Bill Cook taught history for 42 years at the State University of New York in Geneseo. He’s a medieval historian by trade, but he is also an expert on Alexis de Tocqueville’s book “Democracy in America,” and he taught a course on it over a dozen times. He has retired from academia and now devotes his time to his educational foundation. You can find out more about the Bill Cook Foundation at

Who Was Alexis de Tocqueville?

Alexis de Tocqueville -- America Daily
Painting of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau.

Could you tell us a little about Tocqueville and why he was so interested in the American experiment?

Dr. Cook: Sure. He came from a noble family from Normandy, but he was born after the revolution. He was a lawyer and had some minor positions in legal circles in the country. And in 1831 when he was 25 years old, he decided, for a number of reasons, he wanted to leave France for awhile.

By that time, he’d come to the conclusion that democracy was inevitably going to spread throughout the world, including to France, which had had a change in government just in 1830. And so he knew that since the United States is already in 1831 the oldest democracy in the world, he decided he wanted to come here. — Dr. Cook

Dr. Cook: He found a kind of way to do it that was very clever. He and a friend of his who accompanied him asked the government to let them have a leave of absence from their jobs so they could come study a new prison system that was developing in the United States that we call the penitentiary system. It was something that France really needed. It needed to reform its prisons. And here’s this new system developing in various formats in America. And so Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont sail off to the United States to study prisons. And they did. And, in fact, when they got back to France, they wrote a book about prison reform. So they did their job.

His Real Reason for Visiting: Studying Democracy

Dr. Cook: But Tocqueville admits in a letter he wrote while on the boat to America, the real reason for coming was to learn about democracy and to see what the French could learn from it. From the very beginning, he was aware of the fact the French couldn’t copy America’s democracy, however good it is, because France has a different history, a different set of traditions and so on. So he wanted to learn and then see what was applicable and to speculate on how it’s applicable for his own country when sooner or later it was going to become democratic too.

Tocqueville’s Travels in America

Gustave de Beaumont -- America Daily
Portrait of Gustave de Beaumont, 1848.

Dr. Cook: He and Gustave de Beaumont traveled for about nine months in the United States. They met two U.S. presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson was in the White House at the time. They also went all over the country. They were in New York City. They were in Albany. They paralleled the Erie Canal. They went to French speaking Canada for awhile as well. They went to Green Bay, Wisconsin, which really was the sticks in 1831. They sailed down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans–on the Ohio and then the Mississippi. Then they came back to Washington DC. So they really got an extraordinary tour of the United States, including importantly for Tocqueville areas where there were slaves.

He was so appalled by slavery and he saw it so out of character for American democracy that it just really jarred him. And his friend Gustave de Beaumont was so jarred that he actually wrote a novel about blackness in America when he got back to France. — Dr. Cook

Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

Dr. Cook: He [Tocqueville] came back to France in 1832. He published a volume called “Democracy in America” in 1835 and then added a second volume, which is really to be read as one long book, six years later in 1841. They were almost immediately translated into English as well as circulating in France and were well known, well known books virtually since their publication. Each volume won an award from French literary society. So it was recognized almost immediately, if not as a classic, at least as a very fine book.

The Foundations of American Democracy

So what did Tocqueville view as the foundation of American democracy?

Dr. Cook: He says early on that the essence of democracy is what he calls equality of conditions. And that personal freedom, what we would probably think of as a foundational part of democracy, actually springs from equality of conditions in the sense that if everybody is equal, then groups of people simply can’t bind other people. If I’m equal to you, you can’t tell me what I can’t say. So that freedom follows from this idea called equality.

That does not mean everybody has the same income or the same education. It doesn’t mean that at all. What it means is everybody operates in the same ballpark for laws. So he comes from a country where, after all, people who had been in the nobility before the French Revolution were governed by a different set of laws, at least in part. They were treated in different courts and in a judicial form very differently from one another, whether you’re a peasant or a noble. — Dr. Cook

How to Practice Democracy

What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? How can people practice democracy if they’re new to it? Like maybe coming from China or a country that doesn’t have a democratic tradition?

Dr. Cook: There is such a thing as a democratic family. And here’s the way I would illustrate this: Let’s say you’re a freshman and you go back home for the first time. When you get back home, what happens? And I’d say, I think probably in an American family, a family that has been here a long time…probably your dad would say to you, or your mom, what do you want to eat tonight? Or what food do you want me to make tonight? … In a family that moved here from an authoritarian place, much more likely it would simply be this is what we will eat or this is where we will go out for dinner.

Basically that’s what he thought, that there is such a thing as the American family because, again, democracy is not so much a system of government as it is a set of values. Again, what he calls habits of the heart, and then you develop that habit of the heart of equality in a way in the United States that isn’t automatically transferable or recognizable to other parts of the world. — Dr. Cook

The Importance of Civil Societies in a Democracy

Dr. Cook: Let me tell you a personal story. I was invited to give a speech a few years ago in Slovakia to a group of 17- and 18-year-old students from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It was called “New in the EU.” So this was how do we live in our own country as democratic societies and how do we unite as part of the European Union? Of course, that all happened after the fall of communism, and I realized that–I was thinking about these kids I was talking to–all their parents were raised in and lived most of their lives under communism. And one of the things communism discourages is any kind of civil society. You just don’t have the rotary club or whatever in Beijing or many places because the government is smart enough to know that those kinds of civil societies can become dangerous.

I said, you know, you’re probably being told in school, if you want to be a good citizen, go vote. And that’s true. I said, here’s what I want to say. If you want to be a good citizen, volunteer to coach the local boys in soccer. Volunteer to help some of your neighbors who are old because it’s that building of social networks and social organizations that’s going to be doing the building block, not of writing the constitution, that’s already done, but actually creating a democratic society, creating those habits of the heart that Tocqueville talks about. — Dr. Cook

Press play at the top to listen to the rest of Dr. Cook’s interview and find out how Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights from 1831 can help inspire and unite us today.