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Tocqueville on the true love of liberty (1856)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) in his unfinished history of the Revolution of 1789 asks where the love of liberty comes from:

I have often asked myself what was the source of that passion for political liberty which has inspired the greatest deeds of which mankind can boast. In what feelings does it take root? From whence does it derive nourishment? …

It is the intrinsic attractions of freedom, its own peculiar charm—quite independently of its incidental benefits—which have seized so strong a hold on the great champions of liberty throughout history; they loved it because they loved the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe unrestrained, under the sole government of God and the laws. He who seeks freedom for any thing but freedom’s self is made to be a slave.

At the time the French conceived a desire for political liberty, they were imbued with a number of notions on the subject of government which were not only difficult to reconcile with liberty, but were almost hostile to it.

In their ideal society there was no aristocracy but that of public functionaries, no authority but the government, sole and all-powerful, director of the state, tutor of individuals. They did not wish to depart from this system in the search for liberty; they tried to conciliate the two.

They attempted to combine an unlimited executive with a preponderating legislative body—a bureaucracy to administer, a democracy to govern. Collectively, the nation was sovereign—individually, citizens were confined in the closest dependence; yet from the former were expected the virtues and the experience of a free people, from the latter the qualities of a submissive servant.

It is to this desire of adjusting political liberty to institutions or ideas which are either foreign or hostile to it, but to which we were wedded by habit or attracted by taste, that we owe the many vain experiments of government that have been made during the last sixty years. Hence the fatal revolutions we have undergone. Hence it is that so many Frenchmen, worn out by fruitless efforts and sterile toil, have abandoned their second object and fallen back on their first, declaring that there is, after all, a certain pleasure in enjoying equality under a master. Hence we resemble the economists of 1750 more closely than our fathers of 1789.

I have often asked myself what was the source of that passion for political liberty which has inspired the greatest deeds of which mankind can boast. In what feelings does it take root? From whence does it derive nourishment?

I see clearly enough that when a people is badly governed it desires self-government; but this kind of love for independence grows out of certain particular temporary mischiefs wrought by despotism, and is never durable; it passes away with the accident which gave it birth. What seemed to be love for liberty turns out to be mere hatred of a despot. Nations born to freedom hate the intrinsic evil of dependence.

Nor do I believe that a true love for liberty can ever be inspired by the sight of the material advantages it procures, for they are not always clearly visible. It is very true that, in the long run, liberty always yields to those who know how to preserve it comfort, independence, and often wealth; but there are times when it disturbs these blessings for a while, and there are times when their immediate enjoyment can only be secured by a despotism. Those who only value liberty for their sake have never preserved it long.

It is the intrinsic attractions of freedom, its own peculiar charm—quite independently of its incidental benefits—which have seized so strong a hold on the great champions of liberty throughout history; they loved it because they loved the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe unrestrained, under the sole government of God and the laws. He who seeks freedom for any thing but freedom’s self is made to be a slave.

Some nations pursue liberty obstinately through all kinds of dangers and sufferings, not for its material benefits; they deem it so precious and essential a boon that nothing could console them for its loss, while its enjoyment would compensate them for all possible afflictions. Others, on the contrary, grow tired of it in the midst of prosperity; they allow it to be torn from them without resistance rather than compromise the comfort it has bestowed on them by making an effort. What do they need in order to remain free? A taste for freedom. Do not ask me to analyze that sublime taste; it can only be felt. It has a place in every great heart which God has prepared to receive it: it fills and inflames it. To try to explain it to those inferior minds who have never felt it is to waste time.

About this Quotation:

In these passages on “the true love of liberty” Tocqueville asks two very profound questions. The first has to do with the conflicting desires of the French people before, during, and after the Revolution of 1789. On the one hand there was the desire for political liberty which was in conflict with another equally strong desire to have a powerful state which would act as the “tutor of individuals.” These conflicting ideals could have no resolution, which Tocqueville believed explained the cycles of revolution, liberty, and despotism in France over the previous 60 years (this book was published in 1856). The second question he poses is more general in nature and has to do with why individuals are attracted to liberty in the first place. He begins by discussing two common justifications people give for wanting to be free: “love for independence” from tyrants and a desire for “the material advantages it procures” but dismisses them as merely the “incidental benefits” of liberty. He believes the “the true love of liberty” comes from a much deeper source, namely the realization by the individual that there are “intrinsic attractions of freedom” which have their “own peculiar charm.” The true lover of liberty, Tocqueville concludes, loves “the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe unrestrained, under the sole government of God and the laws.”

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