Tocqueville and Liberty

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Editorial on Alexis de Tocqueville

I have remained an old and outmoded lover of liberty in a time when everyone desires a master.

(Alexis de Tocqueville, 1856)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) burst upon the Atlantic intellectual scene in 1835 with the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America (the second volume followed in 1840). His comparative approach to the historical sciences has earned him the title of “the Montesquieu of the United States.” Tocqueville has been ranked with Jacob Burckhardt and Lord Acton among the historians who contributed to a broader understanding of historical processes. Wilhelm Dilthey, the great student of the historical-cultural sciences, considered Tocqueville an “original historical thinker” who was “undoubtedly the most illustrious of all political analysts since Aristotle and Machiavelli.” Dilthey concluded: “another important example of the application of his analysis in the practical field lies in his recognition of the dangers of an exaggerated centralization, and in his insights into the blessings of self-help and self-government.”

Self-government is the central theme of Tocqueville's thought. In the first letter he wrote on arriving for his visit to America with Gustave de Beaumont (May 11, 1831–February 20, 1832), he underlined this theme:

Picture yourself, my dear friend, if you can, a society which comprises all the nations of the world—English, French, German... Here there is no public authority, and to tell the truth there is no need for one. The States have few soldiers, because they have no enemies, and consequently no armies; there is neither taxation nor central government. Executive power, being non-existent, is a source neither of money nor of power.

Alongside the absence of governmental careers, he noted that there were numerous other opportunities, and these opportunities contributed to the changeable character of all Americans. They take up and leave ten different occupations; they do not fear change as they can enter another activity if the current one does not succeed.

Tocqueville's attention, preceding his visit to America, had been focused on the two countries influenced by his native Normandy: Sicily and England. In his Voyage en Sicile (1827), he noted the moral and material prosperity of the small peasant-owned farms in eastern Sicily (unlike the feudal estates of western Sicily). On his return from Sicily, Tocqueville attended Francois Guizot's pathbreaking lectures on the History of Civilization in France and he read Guizot's work on European history.

Applying Guizot's concepts of centralization vs. decentralization and the progress of societies compared to the progress of individuals Tocqueville composed an essay on English history from the Normans to the Stuarts. He concluded that in England each parish was a free republic since there was an absence of centralized government. However, when he visited England in the 1830s he discovered that the utilitarian philosophical radicals were creating the very conditions for a central administration. Tocqueville awakened John Stuart Mill to the danger of the Utilitarians' preference for centralized government over liberty and the market.

Tocqueville's historical mentor, Guizot, had delineated the conflict between the ancien regime, the old society, and the New France, the new society: a theme which had been developed by F.D. Montlosier in De la monarchie francaise (1814) and expanded by Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, Arnold Scheffer, and Augustin Thierry in the Censeur Européen (Thierry's essays were republished in his Letters on the History of France). Jacques Barzun has noted: “The historiography of the Romantic period in France, whether conservative with Chateaubriand and Guizot, or liberal with Thierry and Carrell, tried to disentangle the issues created by the French Revolution in the light of race and class history.” [Jacques Barzun, “Romantic Historiography as a Political Force in France,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941): 328. Cf. Stanley Mellon, The Political Uses of History (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958), pp. 5–100; Elie Halévy, The Era of Tyrannies (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1965), pp. 21–60; Melvin Richter, “Tocqueville's Contributions to the Theory of Revolution,” in Revolution, Nomos 8, Carl J. Friedrich, ed., (New York: Atherton, 1966) pp. 75–121.]

Like Comte, Dunoyer, Scheffer and Thierry, Tocqueville drew his economic analysis from the works of Jean Baptiste Say. Tocqueville had studied Say's Cours complet d'économie politique practique (Paris, 1828) when it was published. Since Say's Treatise (1803, 1814) had been published in the United States (1817) through Jefferson's influence and had become the leading economics textbook in American academia, Tocqueville was well prepared to consider American economic analysis in a common framework. Similarly, his preparatory reading had been Arnold Scheffer's Histoire des États-Unis de l'Amérique seprentrionale (1825).

Montesquieu had noted that the commercial spirit naturally endowed men with the spirit of liberty; Tocqueville considered the spirit of commerce to be caused by liberty and the moral and intellectual qualities on which liberty was based. This echoed the debate in the 1820s between Benjamin Constant and Charles Dunoyer on whether civilization which was the fruit of commerce engendered or undercut the spirit of liberty. Tocqueville's analysis of American civilization provided an answer to that debate. Perhaps Tocqueville's special contribution was to emphasize the fundamental role of the spirit of religion for the success of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of commerce.

Religion, liberty, and commerce are the central themes in Tocqueville's approach to the “great democratic revolution” which he presents in his “Introduction” to Democracy in America. He noted that the democratic process began in the eleventh century when the privileges of the feudal landholders, the old society, were first challenged by the rise of the clergy, which was open to all classes. Commercial relations (which found safe havens in the fairs and markets protected by monasteries and bishops) made society more varied, complicated, stable, and civilized. “While the kings were ruining themselves by their great enterprises, and the nobles exhausting their resources by private wars, the lower orders were enriching themselves by commerce.” Once private property in land arose alongside feudal holdings, “every discovery in the arts, every improvement in commerce or manufactures, created so many new elements of equality among men. Henceforth, every new invention, every new want which it occasioned, and every new desire which craved satisfaction were steps towards a general leveling...From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people.”

From the Renaissance/Commercial Revolution through the Enlightenment/Industrial Revolution “the democratic revolution has taken place in the body of society without that concomitant change in the laws, ideas, customs and morals which was necessary to render such a revolution beneficial.” As a result particular privileges were transferred to the government rather than abolished. Families and voluntary associations have not been able to develop bulwarks against government interference.

Also in his “Introduction,” Tocqueville recognized religion as the crucial factor in the democratic revolution. By rights, it should be the major foundation for liberty but was treated as its enemy by friends and opponents of freedom. Christians should “readily espouse the cause of human liberty as the source of all moral greatness”; likewise advocates of liberty “must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” When Tocqueville undertook the writing of the second volume of Democracy in America, his first chapter concerned “Philosophical Method of the Americans.” He observed that “in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” He discovered that “in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” However, Americans were not the extravagant generalizers that the French were, of whom Tocqueville said “I am informed every morning when I wake that some general and eternal law has just been discovered which I never heard mentioned before.” Emphasizing the incomplete and inaccurate nature of generalizations, he noted that Americans were not as cautious in the use of generalization as the English. In the next chapter, “How Religion in the United States Avails Itself of Democratic Tendencies,” Tocqueville found one of his most important topics. Religion not only flourished in America, but also formed the basis of its system of liberty.

The impact of American liberty on the rest of the world has not measured up to Tocqueville's hopes for it. Instead, an opposing concept, socialism, has taken the lead. Ironically, Marx and Engels drew the inspiration for the practice of socialism from America. Marx saw America as the center of the commercial and religious spirits: “North America is pre-eminently the country of religiosity, as Beaumont, Tocqueville and the Englishman Hamilton assure us with one voice,” Marx wrote in 1844. Marx believed that in opposition to the spirit of commerce, religion, and liberty—because they were so highly developed in America—a reaction, socialism, had first emerged there. What he did not find in Tocqueville, Marx had at hand in a popular book, Men and Manners in America (published in London in 1833, as well as in Boston, France, and Germany) by Colonel Thomas Hamilton. Hamilton, a Tory army officer, arrived in New York in October 1830, was astounded to find a workingmen's movement in America. He wrote at length about it, not as the movement of businessmen seeking freedom from government regulations as typified by the great laissez-faire journalist, William Leggett, but as a colorful and dangerous revolutionary force which would shock conservative English readers. Marx believed that although unreported by Tocqueville, a first socialist political force had emerged in America, for which he would provide the theoretical writings. This is discussed by Lewis S. Feuer, in “The Alienated Americans and their Influence on Marx and Engels,” Marx and the Intellectuals, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1969), pp. 164–215.

After religion, the great issues which concerned Tocqueville were individualism and association, actually two sides of the same coin. Tocqueville saw in America that the “science of association is the mother of science,” that progress and civilization were dependent on it. He was amused that Americans associated to swear to abstain from liquor where Frenchmen would singly petition the government to deal with the issue. “Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind.”

In America, where liberty had nearly reached its natural limits, Tocqueville found:

The emigrants who colonized the shores of America in the beginning of the seventeenth century somehow separated the democratic principle from all the principles that it had to contend with in the old communities of Europe, and transplanted it alone in the New World. It has there been able to spread in perfect freedom and peaceably to determine the character of the laws by influencing the manners of the country.