Philanthropy and Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville on Associations and Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: In the past weeks, HistPhil contributors such as Larry Kramer and Olivier Zunz have made mention of Alexis de Tocqueville in their respective Q&As. Here, Olivier Zunz goes into further detail on the nineteenth-century French scholar’s thoughts on associations and philanthropy. In a subsequent post, Emma Saunders-Hastings asks whether American philanthropy today is democratic in the Tocquevillian sense, or rather, aristocratic. 

Students of American civil society routinely acknowledge Tocqueville’s seminal two-volume treatise Democracy in America (1835, 1840).  The reason is that Tocqueville posited the “art of joining” in voluntary associations as the “fundamental science” of democracy.  He famously explained that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all minds” learned how to guard against such democratic perils as excessive individualism, the tyranny of the majority, and the stifling effects of administrative centralization simply by “constantly joining together in groups.”  But we should turn to Tocqueville not only for his discussion of “the art of joining”; he also had much to say about the art of giving and the role of philanthropy in America.

Tocqueville began assembling his thoughts on associations as soon as he and travel companion Gustave de Beaumont arrived in the United States in 1831 for their 9-month journey.  Civil life in New England impressed the young travelers.  While in Boston, Tocqueville sought the help of Unitarian minister and historian Jared Sparks to investigate the early history of the New England town. In the first volume of Democracy, he made the New England town a model voluntary association and the point of departure of American democracy.

In building his case for the necessity of free and active associations in a democracy, Tocqueville relied on his notes of conversations with Americans as well as a close study of legal documents.  He also got help from two great minds, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Madison, who gave him contradictory advice.  The first insisted a “general will” should unite people; the second saw instead that factional disagreements guaranteed freedom.  In the penultimate draft of Democracy in America, Tocqueville characterized the New England town as “the social contract in proper form that Rousseau dreamed of in the following century.” But he had second thoughts and deleted this sentence.  Tocqueville was generally reluctant to mention Rousseau by name in his book for fear of alienating a conservative French readership he wanted to draw to democracy.  In this case, however, Tocqueville countered Rousseau’s “general will” with Madison’s endorsement of factions as countervailing powers.  Tocqueville began reading The Federalist on a steamboat down the Mississippi, returned to it back in France, embraced Madison’s views of factionalism as protection against despotism, and then developed his larger theory of associations.

Although the young Tocqueville learned a great deal about America, he remained oblivious to the debates (that had informed Madison) on the threat political factions posed to the survival of the early republic.  But Tocqueville was attuned to the French political fights of his days.  In 1834, as Tocqueville was still writing the first Democracy, the French government passed a repressive law against voluntary associations to which Tocqueville strenuously objected. He responded by highlighting in his book the positive impact of American associations.  He chose first the tariff convention of Philadelphia fighting for free trade in 1831 as an example of political liberty; he underscored the influence of temperance societies on family life. He formalized and developed more fully in the 1840 volume the organic connection between political and civil associations he established in the 1835 volume.

I have retraced these steps briefly to underscore how Tocqueville was able to move a discussion of factionalism into a fully developed theory of associations, but only after a decade of ruminations on American history and social theory influenced by political activism.  There is no such sophistication regarding American philanthropy in Democracy in America but Tocqueville nonetheless recognized philanthropy as a large part of American life.  He was not talking about big-money philanthropy in a country where “walls of whitewashed brick and columns of painted wood” still stood in the place of marble.  He observed rather a form of mutual aid in sync with his newly developed theory of associations.

Tocqueville was a social reformer and, like his contemporaries, he understood philanthropy to mean social reform.  He and Beaumont investigated American penitentiaries during their American travels with an eye towards reforming French prisons.  This was the official reason for their visit, and it led to an official report. In 1835, the year Democracy appeared, Tocqueville delivered a Memoir on Pauperism to the Royal Academy of Cherbourg where he attacked the British system of “legal” charity as a method of impoverishment that not only increased the “indigent population” but “their laziness along with their needs and their idleness with their vices.” He then began countering welfare with a second disquisition on pauperism in 1837 in which he promoted workers’ associations.  He secured from Beaumont, who was traveling in England at the time, information on savings banks in Scotland.  Tocqueville never completed this second study but integrated some of it in the 1840 volume of Democracy:  “As men mingle and conditions become more equal, the poor man comes to have more resources, enlightenment and desires.  He conceives the idea of improving his lot, and he seeks to accomplish this through saving.  Saving thus daily gives rise to an immense number of new repositories of small capital, the slowly and patiently accumulated fruit of the labor of many people.  These sums increase steadily but most would remain unproductive if they continued to be dispersed.  This has given rise to a philanthropic institution that unless I miss my guess will soon become one of our greatest political institutions. Charitable men have come up with the idea of collecting the savings of the poor and putting them to productive use.”

It is also in the second Democracy that Tocqueville simultaneously expressed his well-known fear that administrative centralization may well take the initiative away from associations and put it in the hand of the state—a prediction he felt would apply first to European countries.  “Nearly all the charitable institutions of old Europe were in the hands of private individuals or corporations,” Tocqueville remarked, but “all have fallen more or less under the sway of the sovereign, and in a number of countries the sovereign controls them.  It is the state that has undertaken virtually alone to give bread to the hungry, aid and shelter to the sick, and work to the idle, the state that has made itself virtually the sole healer of all miseries.” It is worth recalling, however, that Tocqueville clearly separated government from administration.  He advocated a strong government for affairs of state provided it did not interfere in the routine of people’s lives.

Did Tocqueville have something to add about philanthropy, not its older acceptation of reform-oriented work, but its current meaning of giving for the common good?

The second Democracy is peppered with references to forms of mutual aid in America and the accumulation of gestures of sympathy, sentences such as “I have often seen Americans make large and genuine sacrifices to the public good, and I have noted on countless occasions that when necessary they almost never fail to lend one another a helping hand.”

What we find in Tocqueville is a powerful theory that people work for the common good because they find their private interest in philanthropy.  He wanted a democracy where people could have the liberty to improve their own lot and at the same time contribute to the common good.  For him, there was no contradiction between these two goals.  As he put it, “American moralists do not hold that a man should sacrifice himself for his fellow man because it is a great thing to do; they boldly assert rather, that such sacrifices are as necessary to the man who makes them as to the man who profits from them.”  It is an idea remarkably tolerant of human weaknesses and, to my mind, persuasive for that very reason.  Tocqueville turned self-interest into a collective asset and famously labeled the mechanism “self-interest properly understood.”

It took Tocqueville some time to establish a positive connection between “self-interest” and collective betterment. In his travels, he at first saw American people fending only for themselves everywhere he turned. “Private interest rears its head here constantly, reveals itself openly, and proclaims itself to be a social theory,” Tocqueville wrote disparagingly to his friend Ernest de Chabrol from New York in 1831. But he later changed his mind and posited instead an “enlightened love” of oneself that led Americans to “sacrifice a portion of their time and wealth” to the common good. Using language he borrowed, this time openly, from Montesquieu, Tocqueville speculated that in America, “interest” had replaced “virtue” as the motivation for working for the community. Turning self-interest into a benefit for all, Tocqueville argued, was a positive development for civilization because as an impulse, it was in much greater supply than virtue. He added somewhat mischievously:  “Happy is the New World, where man’s vices are almost as useful to society as his virtues.”

-Olivier Zunz

Olivier Zunz is Commonwealth Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Changing Face of Inequality, 1982, Making America Corporate, 1990, Why the American Century?, 1998, and Philanthropy in America: A History, 2012. He is also the editor of Reliving the Past, 1985, The Landscape of Modernity, 1992,and Social Contracts under Stress, 2002. His work on Alexis de Tocqueville includes editing The Tocqueville Reader, 2002, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 2004, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America, 2010.


Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835, 1840), trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Olivier Zunz (New York: The Library of America, 2004).

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835, 1840), ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schleifer, a bilingual edition augmented by Tocqueville’s draft manuscripts (Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund, 2010).

Alexis de Tocqueville, “Memoir on Pauperism,” in Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform trans. and ed. Seymour Drescher (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1968).

Olivier Zunz, ed.  Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and their Travels trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).

2 thoughts on “Alexis de Tocqueville on Associations and Philanthropy

  1. Pingback: Is American Philanthropy Really Democratic in the Tocquevillian Sense? | HistPhil

  2. Pingback: What if Tocqueville had travelled to Prussia, instead of the U.S.? | HistPhil

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