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James T. Schleifer

ISBN: 978-1-509-51891-3 October 2018 Polity 200 Pages

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Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat paradoxically famous for his insights into democracy and equality, is one of history’s greatest analysts of American society and politics. His contributions to political theory and sociology are of enduring significance.

This book, from one of the world’s leading experts, is a clearly written and accessible introduction to Tocqueville’s social and political theories. Schleifer guides readers through his two major works, Democracy in America (1835/40) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), as well as his working papers, correspondence, and other writings. Schleifer examines Tocqueville’s essential themes and explores the various meanings of his key terms, including equality, democracy, liberty, and revolution. He combines a skillful exposition of Tocqueville’s analysis of the beneficial and harmful consequences of democracy with a crystal clear discussion of his often overlooked economic ideas and social reform proposals.

Schleifer traces both the overall unity and the significant changes in Tocqueville’s ideas, demonstrating the complexity and subtlety of his thought and the importance of his legacy. It will be essential reading for all scholars, students, and general readers interested in the history of political thought, political theory, American politics, and sociology.

Ch. 1. Alexis de Tocqueville: A Brief Biography

Ch. 2. Tocqueville’s First Principles

Democracy on the March

Three Causes: Circumstances, Laws, and Mores

The Complexity of Society

Rejection of Absolutes

The Right of Property

Impartiality and Moderation

Ch. 3. Tocqueville’s Major Themes





Ch. 4. Consequences of Democracy: How Does Democracy Change Society?

Harmful Consequences

Taste for Material Well-Being

The Reign of Commerce and Commercial Attitudes


Tyranny of the Majority

Despotism of One Man

Centralization and the New Democratic Despotism

Beneficial Consequences

Social Energy, Economic Activity, and Increased Well-Being



Psychological Consequences: The New Democratic Man

Imagined Consequences

Ch. 5. Proposed Cures: What Is To Be Done?

Secondary Bodies: Localities, Provinces, and Associations

Individual Rights and Freedom of the Press

Interest Well Understood


Higher Purposes

Ch. 6. Tocqueville, Economic Ideas, and Social Reform

Economic Ideas

Social Reform

The Role of Government

Justice Revisited

Ch. 7. Tocqueville’s Reputation and Continuing Relevance

Initial Success and Enduring Interest



Suggestions for Further Reading

Works Cited and Consulted


“This comprehensive and sensitive introduction will be hard to outclass. Schleifer shows, in clear and elegant prose, the meaning and significance of Tocqueville’s writings and why his reflections on democracy continue to be so pertinent, especially in these troubled times.”
Michael Drolet, Worcester College, Oxford

“James Schleifer’s new book sheds fresh light on the enduring relevance of Tocqueville’s ideas on democracy and offers an excellent account of the current interest in his works in non-Western contexts (Japan, China). By placing Tocqueville’s writings and ideas in dialogue with those of other thinkers from Weber to Hayek to Piketty, Schleifer masterfully demonstrates why the author of Democracy in America remains an indispensable reference for our postmodern age.”
Aurelian Craiutu, Indiana University, Bloomington