Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America and the Habits of (Young) Hearts


Today is the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville. It is remarkable that his monumental Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, remains arguably the best and most insightful treatment of the American Experiment. After the tragic and horrific disappointments of the French Revolution, successive failed attempts at republican government, and the Napoleonic regime, America offered this discouraged French aristocrat much needed evidence that self-government of the people, by the people, and for the people was, indeed, possible.

"There is one thing which America demonstrates invincibly, and of which I had been in doubt up till now: it is that the middle classes can govern a state. I do not know if they would come out with credit from thoroughly difficult political situations. But they are adequate for the ordinary run of society. In spite of their petty passions, their incomplete education and their vulgar manners, they clearly can provide practical intelligence, and that is found to be enough."

What Tocqueville discovered was that the true genius of the American order lay not in a system, program, or even in the prudent mechanics of government. Rather, he recognized that self-government required habits of heart as well as mind. Animated by what he called the “spirit of religion,” the still early American republic provided Tocqueville with a living and vital case study of a people committed to the Common Good as an extension of love of neighbor.

In the nearly two centuries that have passed since Tocqueville’s visit to these shores, we have confronted the fragility of our American Experiment. Even there, the Frenchman’s insights are valuable: In order to escape the corrosive effects of certain Modern tendencies that he saw afflicting his native land, Tocqueville’s appreciation for the commitment to incarnational human relationships found in local community reveals an essential component in recovering and revitalizing the early vibrancy of the polity.

Today, students at OLMC School read selections from Democracy in America to learn from Tocqueville as they begin to prepare to assume the mantle of responsibility for their country. More importantly, though, as students at a school that fosters the habits of shared inquiry and a common academic pursuit, they come to understand the vitality of a learning community organized around a love for truth, goodness, and beauty—and consequently, for one another. In this way, we honor our commitment to nurturing in them the very habits of heart that Tocqueville identified as essential to sustaining the American Experiment in ordered liberty.

Further Reading:

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

“The Habit of Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville and the Pleasures of Citizenship,” Adam Gopnik

“Equality, Tyranny, and Despotism in Democracy: Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville,” Patrick Deneen

The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Ryszard Legutko