Biographical Information

Tocqueville   Lieber
Alexis de Tocqueville   Francis Lieber

Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805 in Verneuil, France. His ancestory posed a certain weight on his shoulders, as he was the descendant of an old aristocratic family. Malesherbes, his great-grandfather had bravely defended Luis XVI during the revolution. His parents had paid for their heritage with imprisonment in the infamous Bastille, and only survived because Robespierre had been overthrown before their execution. Alexis' great-grandfather and other relatives, however, were not as lucky.

His relation with Malesherbes on the on hand meant a background of loyalty to the king's family. On the other hand he was open for new political ide, as his great-grandfather had been the patron of Helvétius, a philosopher critical of the monarchy.

Family Background

Francis Lieber was born into a merchant family in 1798 in Berlin, Germany. Whe he was eight years old he watched French troops moving into Berlin, occupying the city after victorious battles of the Napoleonian army at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. This experience influenced his political conscience for life. In this time, Prussia's power had been crushed and the French army sweeping across Europe seemed invincible. Because of its defeat, Germany's national identity was in shambles. There was barely any 'German' identity in the first place, as the country at the time consisted of fractioned and fragmented regions, not a common national entity. Although the term 'national' was used frequently at the time, it was very vague and could signify a range of different views.

When his family talked of their 'national' orientation, they meant a desire to form a nation independent from France, an idea which gained in popularity during the time of French occupation. France extracted financial assets out of the conquered countries, levied heavy tariffs, and French soldiers had left the regions devastated. The feeling of humiliation arising from these factors constituted an essential unifying aspect in Germany at the time, leading to a national movement, which organized for example in the 'German Association', founded by Jahn, the father of gymnastics.

After studying law Tocqueville became a magistrate at Versailles in 1827. He did not feel fulfilled with his work and decided to additionaly study history. His interest was directed to finding a key to understand the human being through history.


Lieber joined this organization when he attended high-school after returning from battles against Napoleon, which had he had joined enthusiasticly in 1815. In the organization he was actively involved in the struggle for a freely governed nation. He experienced consistent repressions by the Prussian government, such as arrest and rejections from universities.

The overthrow of the Bourbon king in 1830 had impeded de Tocqueville's career perspectives. His father had held high positions during the period of restauration, which now became a handicap for the young magistrate. He contemplated quitting his job when the respect for his profession declined as the principle of unrestricted indepence of judges was questioned. Furthermore, when he started working for king Louis-Philippe - the "People's King" - tensions with his family arose. These factors contributed to Tocqueville's wish to leave the country for a long journey abroad which would give him the chance to wait and see how the unstable political conditions in his home country would develop. The opportunity to conduct a study of the American prison system for the French parliament was a welcomed reason to legitimate his journey.

There might have been a number of further reasons for his travel in 1831, which can be found when looking at the general perception of the United States in France at the time. The relation between the two countries had been close since the revolution in France, when many persecuted French found asylum in the States. Men, such as Talleyrand and Lafayette and also king Louis-Philippe were received in an open manner when they were not safe in their home country.

Some of Tocqueville's relatives had previously travelled abroad and told Tocqueville of the remote country. Also, Tocqueville had listend interestedly to the narrations of James F. Cooper who spent time in France between 1826 and 1833 and who frequented many salons.

Generally, the American political system was observed closely in France at the time. As the experiment with democracy was still young in both countries, it seemed interesting to evaluate whether political institutions were suitable only for a specific country or whether they could possibly be transferred under different political conditions.

Reasons for Travel
to the United States
Lieber joined the Greek liberation war against Turkish occupation because of his passion for the idea of liberty. An ensueing odyssy continued in the subsequent years over Italy back to Germany. After being persecuted by the police again he travelled to England, finally arriving at the United States in 1827. Although he did not feel that this country was the destination of his dreams, he settled in South Carolina. In the United States, he founded the academic discipline of political science later on, inspired partially by the dissatisfying conditions he found in especially in Southern society, which was far from the liberal concepts of democracy that he was fond of.
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After both having made their way to the United States, de Tocqueville and Lieber met twice: the first time, Lieber was introduced to Tocqueville in 1831 in Boston. On May 19, 1844 they met again, this time in Paris. During the years in between, they kept up occasional correspondence.

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This document was last updated on 12/31/97.