Tocqueville on the true love of liberty (1856)

Alexis de Tocqueville

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.

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.”