Alexis de Tocqueville came from an ancient Norman noble family. Through his mother he was related to Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, once minister under Louis XVI, whom he defended as his attorney when the king was tried and condemned to death. Malesherbes was also guillotined, a fate barely avoided by Tocqueville's parents. Alexis was trained and served briefly as a magistrate. In 1831 he went to the United States, ostensibly on a mission to write an official report on American prisons, but his real purpose was to study democracy firsthand. The first part of De la démocratic en Amérique appeared in 1835; the second, in 1840. The volume's success enabled him to begin his political career as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, where he served as head of the commission reporting on Algeria, recently conquered by France. Although he rejected the racial theories of Joseph Arthur Gobineau, his positions on the French treatment of Algerians differed from his criticism in De la démocratic en Amérique of how native Americans were dealt with by the United States. But Tocqueville championed both the abolition of slavery in the French colonies and reform of the French prison system.
After the 1848 revolution Louis-Napoléon was elected the first president of the Second Republic. Although Tocqueville served briefly as his foreign minister, following the coup d'état and plebiscite that made Louis-Napoléon emperor, he withdrew from political life and wrote two important works on the level of the Démocratic, his Souvenirs and L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, the one completed volume of the three he intended on the origins of the French Revolution, the Revolution itself, and the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte and his establishment of a martial empire. His search for the origin and nature of Bonapartist plebiscitary dictatorship in democracy, revolution, and war was among the most powerful sources of his later work.