Alexis de Tocqueville, foreign observer of liberty in practice

Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29th, 1805. His "Democracy in America" (1835 and 1840) was based on his extensive travels in the United States, and is today regarded as a classic defence of both liberty and democracy, though de Tocqueville saw that there was a tension between the two, one that required a balance. He described himself as "neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative," but wrote that liberty was his "foremost passion."

"But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom".

De Tocqueville spotted that America was radically different from Europe in that people in the US had no respect for breeding or background, as they did in Europe. By contrast, Americans respected hard work, drive, ambition, and seeking to become rich. All of these were disdained by the European upper classes, he observed, regarded as crass and vulgar, and inappropriate to their class. Many of them inherited wealth and took it for granted, while most ordinary Europeans could not aspire to it.

In America, though, "the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented," and it was "where commoners never deferred to elites." America was relatively classless, and when ordinary Americans saw rich people enjoying their wealth, it encouraged them to expect that hard work would enable them to do the same. America, in a word, was aspirational, where Europe was not.

This fed into democracy, not always with favourable outcomes. He thought one of the outcomes of majority rule was that it encouraged conformity in thought, and acted to suppress individual thinking. He said he didn't know of any country where there was "less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America".

"The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution."

Because Americans refused to defer to those who de Tocqueville thought possessed superior intelligence and talents, it promoted equality, but along with that equality came mediocrity. Those possessing such talents could not expect to wield political power, as they might elsewhere, so they made money instead.  

He also warned that democracy was capable of great oppression if it became despotic, because whereas European despots could only affect small groups of people, a despotic democracy could affect "a multitude of men." He also saw the possibility that a democracy might treat its people with paternalism, treating them like sheep to be cared for instead of as autonomous individuals.

He liked and admired America, thinking it the best country in which to be poor. He recognized that it was something new in the world, somewhere that the liberty he valued could find expression in giving people the chance to advance their lives and prosper to a degree not possible elsewhere. His other great work, "The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution" (1856) emphasized that while the modernization and centralization of the French state had begun under Louis XIV, and the French Revolution had continued that, the  Revolution's rulers were too imbued with abstract ideas to be successful in practice. This could not be said of the Americans.