Lesson Plans

Alexis de Tocqueville’s America

Written by David Mawson, Doherty High School, Worcester Public Schools


Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat born in 1805 (the year after Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor of France) traveled to the United States in 1831. Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, were sent by the French government to study new experimental prisons in the U.S. The experiences and observations made during their subsequent nine-month journey became the basis for “Democracy in America.” One historian has called it “perhaps the greatest commentary ever written about any culture by any person at any time.”

Starting in Newport, R.I., on May 9, 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont embarked on a remarkable journey, traveling the length and breadth of the infant United States, from the East Coast to the Mississippi River. While they fulfilled their duty to report on the American penal system, Tocqueville and Beaumont decided to spend most of their time observing American democracy in action. After interviewing more than 200 Americans, the young men returned to France, where Tocqueville spent the next eight years writing two volumes on his observations. In 1840 the two volumes became “Democracy in America.”

This compendium fascinated the French, but Democracy in America has proven over time to be even more valuable to American readers as it gives an insightful outsider’s view of American culture and politics.

In this unit, students learn to interpret the United States of 1831-32 through text and images. Teachers may use a number of resources, including maps, primary documents, and onlince presentations of artifacts as a way to transmit information about the culture of Jacksonian America. The unit is intended to help students transport themselves back in time to see the United States as Alexis de Tocqueville saw it in 1831.

Guiding Questions

  • What was it about the United States that Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont found so fascinating? How did their experiences while traveling through the young United States influence the writing of Tocqueville's Democracy in America?
  • What was different about life in America that was different from life in Europe? What did Tocqueville see about the roles of women that were unique to the United States?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should:

  • Understand the nature of life in the United States in 1831-32.
  • Understand what it was life to travel in the United States in 1831-32.
  • Understand the differences between life in the United States and life in Europe in 1831-32.
  • Understand why Tocqueville's Democracy in America is such an influential commentary about the United States.

Background Information for the Teacher

Among the aspects of American Democracy that Tocqueville explored in Democracy in America are the notion of equality (limited at the time to adult white males, but not bound by class as in aristocratic Europe); a representative political system (as defined by its branches of government and system of checks and balances); the growth of political parties (Andrew Jackson’s Democrats had just been “born”); and the American legal system. The commentary also speaks frankly about what Tocqueville saw as American democracy’s drawbacks – most notably what he called the “tyranny of the majority.”

Although Tocqueville did not see that this “tyranny of the majority” as yet existed to any great degree in America, he saw evidence of it developing. He noted, for example, that in the North, free black males who had the right to vote often were discouraged from doing so by the white majority. Even freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, was affected by majority opinion in America.

Unlike many of his contemporaries in Europe, who believed that democracy in America would eventually dissolve into anarchy, Tocqueville feared that Americans would become so satisfied with being equal to one another, they would abandon their deep interest and involvement in self-government. Were that to happen, Tocqueville cautioned, government could become as oppressive as any cruel European monarchy. Americans would end up having equality through slavery.

Tocqueville’s observations were not limited to political issues; he also commented at length in “Democracy in America” about American life. He also addressed such cultural aspects of American life as education, race relations, religion, the role of women and manners.

Preparing to Teach this Unit


Download or bookmark the materials you plan to use for the activity. In addition, the following materials might be useful for students preparing to interpret primary documents



Student understanding of Tocqueville’s views on American women may be assessed in a variety of ways. Possibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Lesson 1 could be assessed as a writing exercise. Students could be directed in class to develop a compare and contrast chart or essay. The lesson could also culminate in a longer research paper.
  • Lesson 2 would include in-class presentations in which the students act out their roles. A rubric has been provided for assessment.
  • Lesson 3 could be used for an in-class Socratic dialogue or could be the concluding written activity for the unit.

Standards Alignment

The unit conforms with the Massachusetts Frameworks for U.S. History I, specifically:

USI.23 Analyze the rising levels of political participation and the expansion of suffrage in antebellum America. (C, H)

Seminal Primary Documents to Consider: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume I (1835) and Volume II (1839)

Skills Used

Using primary sources, working collaboratively, graphic representation of material, critical thinking, interpreting archival documents and artifacts.

Time Required

Entire unit would take five 50-minute class periods, plus extension activities that would be completed outside of class time. Teachers may break out activities for one- or two-day lessons if time does not allow for an entire unit.