Was Alexis de Tocqueville the First Social Scientist?

Alexis de Tocqueville published what he hoped would be the first of two volumes studying the Ancien Regime and the Revolution in 1856. An untimely death meant that the second volume (dealing more explicitly with the events and the outcome of the Revolution of 1789) was not to be completed.

The context in which Tocqueville published what was an immediate best-seller was another failed revolution in 1848 and a France that now languished under the authoritarian rule of Emperor Napoleon III. Why France had again been unable to establish a constitutional regime based firmly upon the principles of political liberty was the question that Tocqueville wanted to answer.

To that end Tocqueville, now retired from public life, immersed himself in the study of feudal rights, administrative law and the machinery of the pre-revolutionary French absolutist state. He also sought to assess pre-revolutionary opinion, and especially the role played by men of letters in purveying abstract theories of reform and fostering anti-religious sentiment.

In doing so Tocqueville provided a portrait of the dynamics of eighteenth-century French society and governance that was at once both original and compelling. France, Tocqueville told his readers, was the country in which men had become most like each other but where they were also split into isolated and self-regarding groups.

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