Tocqueville, Democracy in America

An excerpt from

Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville

Edited, translated and with an introduction
by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop


A Note on the Translation

Our intent has been to make our translation of Tocqueville's text as literal and consistent as we can, while still readable. By "readable" we mean what can easily be read now, not what we might normally say. Of the two extremes in translating, staying as close as possible to the original and bringing it as close as possible to us, we are closer to the former. A book as great as Tocqueville's should inspire a certain reverence in translators, not only because it is so intelligent or because its style is so perfect but also because the intelligence and the style go together and need as much as possible to be conveyed together in English. Precisely to bring Tocqueville to us requires an effort, both in translating and in reading, to get close to him, and to become familiar with his terms, his rhetorical flights, his favorite expressions.

Recognizing that translation is always imperfect, we have sought all the more to be modest, cautious, and faithful. Every translator must make many choices, but in making ours we have been guided by the principle, admittedly an ideal, that our business is to convey Tocqueville's thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today. By refraining as much as possible from interpretation, we try to make it possible for readers to do their own thinking and figure out for themselves what Tocqueville means. As translators we respect the diversity of interpretation best when we do not offer one ourselves. Tocqueville wrote the following reproach to Henry Reeve, his friend and author of the first English translation of Democracy in America: "Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions, you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy." We are not likely to receive such an authoritative message, but we hope very much that we do not deserve one.

Henry Reeve was trying to be helpful to Tocqueville's readers by preventing them from thinking too well of democracy, but he was being too kind to them. It is better to let them, or force them, to make their own discoveries. We would rather attract readers to Tocqueville than bring him to them, and make him too cheaply available for our purposes today (which are not those of Henry Reeve). We do not want people to stop quoting Tocqueville—God forbid! But perhaps they should quote more faithfully, and work a little harder when they read him. Yet, having spoken up for fidelity, we have to confess immediately that the very title of Tocqueville's work would be translated more accurately as On Democracy in America. The book is not known in America under that title, and in translating, even the most stringent rule has its exceptions.

We do provide notes meant to be helpful, identifying events and allusions no longer familiar in our day. We also specify Tocqueville's references to other places in his own text. Because the book is long and Tocqueville has so many notes of his own, we have not attempted to reproduce the many marginal notations and rejected drafts that can be found in the two French editions of the work, one by Jean-Claude Lamberti and James T. Schleifer (published by Pléiade) and the other by Eduardo Nolla (published by Vrin). We were also somewhat averse to implicating ourselves in the risky business of interpreting what Tocqueville meant from what he decided not to say. Tocqueville's text and notes frequently quote passages into French from English, for example from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and The Federalist. Instead of retranslating such quotations we have merely used the original English, while remarking any changes Tocqueville may have made in his translation or citation (for he sometimes exercised a right to be unfaithful that we as his inferiors do not claim). Tocqueville's own footnotes are numbered in our translation, editorial notes are marked with symbols. His longer endnotes, which should not be overlooked, are given roman numerals. His references in both footnotes and endnotes have been checked and corrected. All editorial insertions in Tocqueville's text are enclosed in brackets.

We also offer an extensive subject index to Democracy in America. We do this somewhat against our inclination, as such an index may give a sense of false security to those users who are pressed for time. But the book is large and various, and the author frequently reverts to a subject taken up earlier in a different context. It may be useful to have these instances collected even if many relevant passages not expressly raising a particular subject are necessarily omitted from its entry in the index. The reader should treat the index as the beginning of his search and not the end. We also supply a corrected list of the sources Tocqueville cites in the book.

We have kept Tocqueville's long sentences and short paragraphs. Among problems we encountered in translating particular words or phrases was semblables, "those like oneself," which Tocqueville uses frequently when one might expect "equals." Intelligence is sometimes "intelligence," sometimes "intellect"; and on the contrary, pouvoir and puissance have both to be translated "power," thus losing the subtle distinction in French, which derives from the Latin potestas and potentia. Chaque jour is rendered "every day," sometimes "each day," depending on whether the point seems to be repetition or separateness. We also sometimes say "daily." For the important word inquiet we settled on "restive," with its connotation of rebelliousness and intent, better, it seems to us, than the more random "restless." Occasionally we had to translate inquiet as anxious, and the reflexive s'inquiéter is milder still, "worry." Esprit is either "spirit" or "mind." Moeurs are "mores," on some occasions "morals" or "morality"; the term is not ethically neutral for Tocqueville, as it is today. We give liberté as "freedom" to preserve the connection with libre, "free," even though this choice would have produced "freedom, equality, and fraternity" if Tocqueville had cited the revolutionary formula. We would have loved to translate sein as "bosom," to preserve the reputation of the French, and sometimes we do; but usually, it is "heart," a nearby organ, and sometimes merely "within." We render particuliers as "particular persons," saving the word "individuals" for individus.

We have used the French text printed in the Pléiade edition, essentially the same as the one in the Gallimard edition, which is based on the last editions of the two volumes that Tocqueville saw himself. Following the Pléiade edition we have omitted two texts of speeches that Tocqueville added himself to the 1848 edition. They are readily available and they are not part of the book.


One of the best written and most influential books about the United States, Tocqueville's Democracy in America has been translated only twice previously in 160 years. Neither of the earlier translations has the fluidity, accuracy, and elegance of this completely new translation, based on the recent critical French editions of the text.

Here online is a small sample of what we believe will be the definitive translation of this classic book on America and the American political system.

To the left is "A Note on the Translation." You may also read two pertinent chapters, "On the Use That the Americans Make of Association in Civil Life" and "Why the Americans Show Themselves So Restive in the Midst of Their Well-Being."


And more from

"In elective states, . . . at the approach of the election and long before it arrives, the wheels of government in a way no longer function except of themselves. . . . At the approach of an election, the head of the executive power thinks only of the conflict being prepared; he no longer has a future; he can undertake nothing and pursues only feebly what another is perhaps going to complete." (page 121)

"Parties in the United States as elsewhere feel the need to group themselves around one man in order more easily to reach the intelligence of the crowd. They therefore generally make use of the name of the presidential candidate as a symbol; they personify their theories in him. . . . Long before the appointed moment arrives, the election becomes the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds." (page 127)



Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages xci-xciii of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America
Edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
©2000, 816 pages, 1 halftone
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-80532-0
Paper $22.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-80536-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Democracy in America.

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