Quotations by Tocqueville, Alexis de


The best laws cannot make a constitution work in spite of morals; morals can turn the worst laws to advantage. That is a commonplace truth, but one to which my studies are always bringing me back. It is the central point in my conception. I see it at the end of all my reflections.

[Les meilleures lois ne peuvent faire marcher une constitution en dépit des mœurs ; les mœurs tirent parti des pires lois. C’est là une vérité commune, mais à laquelle mes études me ramènent sans cesse. Elle est placée dans mon esprit comme un point central. Je l’aperçois au bout de toutes mes idées.]

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
“De la supériorité des mœurs sur les lois” (1831)
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Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create: namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 1.14 (1835) [tr. Reeve and Bowen (1862)]
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We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America (1835)
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Patriotism is sometimes stimulated by religious enthusiasm, and then it is capable of prodigious efforts. It is in itself a kind of religion: it does not reason, but it acts from the impulse of faith and sentiment.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 1.14 (1835) [tr. Reeve and Brown (1862)]
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Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. … When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 1.15 (1835) [tr. Reeve & Bowen (1862)]
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There is … a manly and lawful passion for equality that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 1.3 (1885) [tr. Beeve and Bowen (1862)]
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The desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 2.2.10 (1840) [tr. Reeve and Bowen (1862)]
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Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 2.2.2 (1840) [tr. Reeve & Bowen (1862)]
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If I were asked … to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 2.3.12 (1840) [(tr. Reeve and Bowen (1862)]

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It is enthusiasm that flings the minds of men out of the beaten track and affects the great revolutions of the intellect as well as the great revolutions of the political world.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 2.3.21 (1840) [tr. Reeve & Bowen (1862)]
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When property becomes so fluctuating and the love of property so restless and so ardent, I cannot but fear that men may arrive at such a state as to regard every new theory as a peril, every innovation as an irksome toil, every social improvement as a stepping stone to revolution, and so refuse to move altogther for fear of being moved too far. I dread […] lest they should at last so entirely give way to a cowardly love of present enjoyment as to lose sight of the interests of their future selves and those of their descendents and prefer to glide along the easy current of life rather than to make, when it is necessary, a strong and sudden effort to a higher purpose.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, 2.3.21 (1840) [tr. Reeve and Bowen (1862)]
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The surface of Americna society is, if I may use the expression, covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, ch. 2 (1835) [tr. Reeve (1899)]
    (Source)

    Alt. trans.:
  • As above, but given as "... sometimes seep."
  • "American society, if I may put it this way, is like a painting that is democratic on the surface but from time to time allows the old acistocratic colors to peep through." [tr. Goldhammer (2004)]
  • "The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through."
Added on 12-Sep-18 | Last updated 12-Sep-18
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Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A stranger may be well inclined to praise many of the institutions of their country, but he begs permission to blame some of the peculiarities which he observes — a permission which is however inexorably refused.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, “Public Spirit in the United States” (1835) [tr. Reeve (1839)]
    (Source)
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America is therefore a free country, in which, lest anyone be hurt by your remarks, you are not allowed to speak freely of private individuals or of the State; of the citizen or of the authorities; of public or of private undertakings; or, in short, of anything at all, except it be of the climate and the soil; and even then Americans will be found ready to defend either the one or the other, as if they had been contrived by the inhabitants of the country.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, “Public Spirit in the United States” (1835) [tr. Reeve (1839)]
    (Source)
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Americans rightly think their patriotism is a sort of religion strengthened by practical service.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, “Public Spirit of the Townships of New England” (1835)
    (Source)

Alt. trans.: "For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance." [tr. Reeve (1839)]
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The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 13 (1835)
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In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 15 (1835)
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If it be of the highest importance to man, as an individual, that his religion should be true, the case of society is not the same. Society has no future life to hope for or to fear; and provided the citizens profess a religion, the peculiar tenets of that religion are of very little importance to its interests.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 17 (1835)

Alt. trans.: "Though it is very important for man as an individual that his religion should be true, that is not the case for society. Society has nothing to fear or hope from another life; what is most important for it is not that all citizens profess the true religion but that they should profess religion."

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The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 2 (1835)
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I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 3, part 1 (1835)
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“The will of the nation” is one of those expressions which have been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 4 (1835)
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In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 5 (1835)
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Useful undertakings which require sustained attention and vigorous precision in order to succeed often end up by being abandoned, for, in America, as elsewhere, the people move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, ch. 5 (1835)
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Indeed, I know of no country where the love of money occupies as great a place in the hearts of men, or where people are more deeply contemptuous of the theory of permanent equality of wealth.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, pt. 1, ch. 3 (1835) [tr. Goldhammer]
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If an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 1, pt. 2, ch. 14 (1835)
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In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 1, ch. 2 (1840)
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Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity. Commerce renders men independent of each other, gives them a lofty notion of their personal importance, leads them to seek to conduct their own affairs, and teaches how to conduct them well; it therefore prepares men for freedom, but preserves them from revolutions.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 3, ch. 21 (1840)

Alt. trans.: "Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions. Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger. It is patient, supple, and insinuating, only resorting to extreme measures in cases of absolute necessity. Trade makes men independent of one another and gives them a high idea of their personal importance: it leads them to want to manage their own affairs and teaches them to succeed therein. Hence it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to revolution."

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No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 3, ch. 22 (1840)
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All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 3, ch. 22 (1840)
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There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult — to begin a war and to end it.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 3, ch. 22 (1840)
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Every central government worships uniformity: uniformity relieves it from inquiry into an infinity of details.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 4, ch. 3 (1840)
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There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 2, ch. 8 (1835-1840) [ed Mayer, tr. Lawrence (1969)]
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The Americans, in their intercourse with strangers, appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, Vol. 2, sec. 3, ch. 16 (1840)
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The last thing abandoned by a party is its phraseology, because among political parties, as elsewhere, the vulgar make the language, and the vulgar abandon more easily the ideas that have been instilled into it than the words that it has learnt.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
France Before the Consulate, ch. 1 “How the Republic was ready to accept a master” (1862)

Alt. trans.:

  • "The last thing a political party gives up is its vocabulary. This is because, in party politics as in other matters, it is the crowd who dictates the language, and the crowd relinquishes the ideas it has been given more readily than the words it has learned."
  • The last thing that a party abandons is its language."
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The most important care of a good government should be to get people used little by little to managing without it.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Journey to America, 2, Notebook (20 Sep 1831) [tr. Lawrence (1971)
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The French want no-one to be their superior. The English want inferiors. The Frenchman constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety. The Englishman lowers his beneath him with satisfaction.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Journeys to England and Ireland (1835)
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The people grow tired of a confusion whose end is not in sight.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856)

Alt. trans.: "People are tired of a confusion whose end is not in sight." Referring to Bonaparte's ability to manipulate the public by drawing on their weariness of the Revolution.

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He who seeks freedom for anything but freedom’s self is made to be a slave.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Old Regime (1856)

Alt trans.: "The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave."
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Negotiating with men’s vanity gives one the best bargain, for one often receives the most substantial advantages in return for very little of substance.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Recollections, 3.3 (1893) [tr. Lawrence (1964)]
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Chance does nothing that has not been prepared beforehand.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Recollections, Part 2, ch. 1 (1893) [tr. De Mattos (1896)]

Full text.
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Rulers who destroy men’s freedom commonly begin by trying to retain its forms. … They cherish the illusion that they can combine the prerogatives of absolute power with the moral authority that comes from popular assent.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 2.3 (1836) [tr. Gilbert (1955)]
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Those who prize freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it for long.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 3.3 (1856) [tr. Gilbert (1955)]
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As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Letter to Ernest de Chabrol (9 Jun 1831)
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In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country. Ths Americans of the United States do not let their dogs hunt the Indians as do the Spaniards in Mexico, but at bottom it is the same pitiless feeling which here, as everywhere else, animates the European race. The world belongs to us, they tell themelves every day: the Indian race is destined for final destruction which one cannot prevent and which it is not desirable to delay. Heaven has not made them to become civilized; it is necessary that they die. Besides I do not at all want to get mixed up in it. I will not do anything against the,: I will limit myself to providing everything that will hasten their ruin. In time I will have their lands and will be innocent of their death. Satisfied with his reasoning, the American goes to the church where he hears the minister of the gospel repeat every day that all men are brothers, and the Eternal Being who has made them all in like image, has given them all the duty to help one another.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Notebook, 20 Jul 1831, Journey to America, ch., 7 [tr. Lawrence (1971)]
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