Skip to main content

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville

Date & Time

May. 9, 2022
4:00pm – 5:30pm ET


Zoom Webinar


In 1831, at the age of twenty-five, Alexis de Tocqueville made his fateful journey to America, where he observed the thrilling reality of a functioning democracy. From that moment onward, the French aristocrat would dedicate his life as a writer and politician to ending despotism in his country and bringing it into a new age. In this authoritative and groundbreaking biography, leading Tocqueville expert Olivier Zunz tells the story of a radical thinker who, uniquely charged by the events of his time, both in America and France, used the world as a laboratory for his political ideas. Placing Tocqueville’s dedication to achieving a new kind of democracy at the center of his life and work, Zunz traces Tocqueville’s evolution into a passionate student and practitioner of liberal politics across a trove of correspondence with intellectuals, politicians, constituents, family members, and friends. While taking seriously Tocqueville’s attempts to apply the lessons of Democracy in America to French politics, Zunz shows that the United States, and not only France, remained central to Tocqueville’s thought and actions throughout his life. In his final years, with France gripped by an authoritarian regime and America divided by slavery, Tocqueville feared that the democratic experiment might be failing. Yet his passion for democracy never weakened. Giving equal attention to the French and American sources of Tocqueville’s unique blend of political philosophy and political action, The Man Who Understood Democracy offers the richest, most nuanced portrait yet of a man who, born between the worlds of aristocracy and democracy, fought tirelessly for the only system that he believed could provide both liberty and equality.

Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia.  He has held visiting appointments at the Collège de France and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, among others.  He has been the recipient of fellowships and research grants from the Ford Foundation, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation, among others. He is the author of The Changing Face of Inequality (University of Chicago Press, 1982); Making America Corporate (University of Chicago Press, 1990); Why the American Century? (University of Chicago Press, 1998), Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton University Press, 2012), and The Man who Understood Democracy:  The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton University Press, May 2022). 

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University and the National History Center) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is organized jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Woodrow Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks its anonymous individual donors and institutional partners (the George Washington University History Department and the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest) for their continued support.


Olivier Zunz

Olivier Zunz

James Madison Professor Emeritus of History, University of Virginia


Christy Pichichero

Christy Pichichero

Associate Professor of French and History and an affiliate of African and African-American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and the War and the Military and Society programs, George Mason University
​​Cheryl B. Welch

​​Cheryl B. Welch

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government, Harvard University

Hosted By

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.