Tocqueville, Comparative History, and Immigration in Two Democracies

Article excerpt

Although mass migration to the United States and to France did not occur until after Tocqueville's visit to America, by rereading Tocqueville's classic De la democratie en Amerique through the lens of immigration history, we can question some of the common assumptions about Franco-American differences. First, Tocqueville's comparativist gaze needs to be re-examined, especially with regard to the way in which it has been repeatedly invoked during the Tocquevillian renaissance of the last thirty years to differentiate the French and American experiences. Second, if Tocqueville did not discuss immigrants per se, his analysis of voluntary associations points to an important component of civil society which has been present both in France and the United States ever since immigrants began arriving en masse. Theories about the rise and decline of civil society as well as generalizations about Franco-American differences need to be challenged by including immigration associations in a new Tocquevillian analysis of democracy in both countries.

Keywords: immigration, Tocqueville, civil society, voluntary associations, comparative history


Tocqueville says nothing about immigrants in America. Neither "immigre(s)," "immigration" or the word "immigrant(s)" appear in De la democratie en Amerique. (2) This is hardly surprising, for two reasons: the word and the reality, that is, the French language and the American context. In Tocqueville's native tongue, the term is absent in the 1835 (6th) edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Academie francaise. The term emigration was for years the French word of choice to describe those who had changed countries. (Emigres of course retained its more restrictive meaning, referring to those who fled the Revolution.)

But it is also logical that Tocqueville did not describe that which did not yet exist. There were few immigrants to behold in the United States in 183031. Immigration was not yet a mass phenomenon, and the initial groups that had come to America two centuries before were conceived of as pilgrims, colonists, or settlers, but not as immigrants per se. (3) They had, in any case, by Tocqueville's time become "Anglo-Americans" or "Americans" in his terminology. As Tocqueville put it, these emigrants conceived of their encounter with the new land as a table rase. Benefiting from relatively homogeneous origins, they spoke the same language, had no sense of superiority over one another, and constituted the point de depart for the democracy that Tocqueville hailed. (4) Mass immigration did not occur until the mid-nineteenth century, well after Tocqueville had gone home, when the Germans and Irish came to American shores, bringing untold (and unwanted) diversity to the Anglo-French-Dutch amalgamation of the founding citizens. (5)

If Tocqueville came too early to see the mass immigration of the nineteenth century, can we still use him to discuss immigration to the United States and a fortiori to France, where mass immigration would be somewhat later still? There are two ways in which Tocqueville's classic text provides insight into an issue that would only grow in importance in the century after his visit. First of all, we can return to Tocqueville's comparativist gaze, both in and of itself and the way in which it has been repeatedly invoked during the Tocquevillian renaissance of the last thirty years. Secondly, if Tocqueville did not discuss immigrants per se, he spoke of something that struck him as fundamental to American society and that, I will argue, is intimately tied to immigration history on both sides of the Atlantic: voluntary associations.

The Comparative Gaze

Tocqueville's inquiry into American democracy, as we know, was not a unilateral fact-finding venture. (6) It was structured by questions about French politics, and the results were informed by this comparative perspective. Tocqueville's Democratie tells us as much about France as it does about l'Amerique. …