Who is Alexis de Tocqueville ?

Before he died in 2016, the historian Ralph Raico—an expert on the history of classical liberalism—donated his personal notes and library to the Mises Institute. Archivists later found among his notes a lengthy essay (or monograph) on the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. It is unclear exactly what purpose this monograph was originally intended …

Before he died in 2016, the historian Ralph Raico—an expert on the history of classical liberalism—donated his personal notes and library to the Mises Institute. Archivists later found among his notes a lengthy essay (or monograph) on the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville.

It is unclear exactly what purpose this monograph was originally intended to serve, but the Mises Institute published the essay as Alexis de Tocqueville in 2017. This short and easy-to-read book has yet to receive the attention it deserves, but in our age of moral panics over both race and disease, Twitter “cancel culture,” and bureaucrats ruling by decree, we can still learn a lot from Tocqueville’s work. Specifically, Tocqueville’s warnings about the dangers posed by the American tendency toward the “tyranny of the majority” are still relevant.

Tocqueville, of course, is remembered today in part because of his book Democracy in America, in which he sought to describe the American “national character”—to the extent it exists. But Tocqueville also remains important because he was a leading figure in French classical liberalism (more accurately called simply “liberalism”), thus placing him in the company of liberal giants like Frederic Bastiat, Jean-Baptiste Say, and Benajmin Constant. Tocqueville’s application of European liberal ideals to the United States makes him difficult to ignore for anyone seeking to understand how liberalism ought to be understood in the American context today. 

Tocqueville’s works weren’t just a neutral assessment of American (and French) society. They were designed to investigate how political liberty could be understood and preserved.

Tocqueville the Liberal

Understanding some basics of Tocqueville’s background is helpful, and Raico begins this book by reminding us that Tocqueville was an aristocrat who embraced liberalism in the wake of the revolution. He was born into an old Norman aristocratic family. Due to the family’s connection with the regime of Louis XVI, they were persecuted during the Terror. Tocqueville’s parents were nearly executed, and were saved only by the sudden fall of Robespierre from power. Not surprisingly, then, Tocqueville was no French radical, but sided with the more middle-class, moderate, bourgeois elements who rejected the throne-and-altar schemes of conservatives who wished to return to monarchical absolutism. On the other hand, Raico is careful to point out that Tocqueville also rejected the antireligious fervor of many French liberals. In his famous Democraracy in America and in “his other works as well,” Raico writes, “Tocqueville accentuates the value of religion.” 

Like all liberals, Tocqueville’s main concern was in the limitation of state power, and this is clearly a focus of Tocqueville’s writings. Tocqueville’s liberalism came through in his opposition to slavery (both in the US and in the French colonies) and in his later political work as a member of the French legislature. His writings, he later explained to a friend, were “to show men…how to escape tyranny.” He applauded decentralization, despaired over the growth of the French state bureaucracy, and in his later work on the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution, noted that the revolutionaries only extended the tyrannies begun under the earlier monarchical absolutists. 

Raico examines Tocqueville’s liberal views through his extensive correspondence with other liberals as well, especially the British liberals Nassau Senior and John Stuart Mill. He also notes Tocqueville’s many deviations, and it is through this correspondence that some of Tocqueville’s most illiberal views become most obvious. Tocqueville embraced French colonialism, for example, and “urged massive French settlement, entailing widespread expropriation of the native inhabitants.” Tocqueville also possessed an odd thirst for war in many cases, as in one case where he urged France to go to war with England over Egypt. Raico notes that this “annoyed” his liberal friends, who “could not comprehend how Tocqueville could suggest war—with all its attendant horrors—for such a trivial reason.”

Many of these deviations may be attributable to Tocqueville aristocratic origins. The lure of great deeds and “high enterprises” (according to the aristocratic mind) in war thus seemed delightful to him, and we see similar prejudices in Tocqueville’s condemnation of bourgeois preoccupations with material accumulation. Perhaps because he was born into wealth, Tocqueville viewed with contempt the ease with which the American middle class freely expressed its desire to obtain basic comforts and to “avoid…misery.”

Tocqueville on America

Without a doubt, however, Tocqueville’s most famous work is his lengthy and detailed Democracy in America, which, as Raico describes it, is “at once a masterpiece of political philosophy and the best character analysis of the American people ever written.” And this is where Raico’s analysis is most useful. How is one to approach the many hundreds of pages that compose Tocqueville’s work. What are the main themes? What does Tocqueville conclude? 

Raico suggests that the key to understanding Democracy in America is seeing it as Tocqueville’s examination of his concerns over the effects of equality and democracy on American political liberty.

By equality, Tocqueville does not mean anything mandated by the state. Rather, he notes that both equality and democracy were a natural result of the state of affairs in the United States. In the US, because of the abundance of land and resources, and because of the lack of a legally privileged aristocracy, the majority of residents had attained some degree of de facto equality in economic status. This leads to demands for political equality as well in terms of voting rights and status within the political community.

Raico explores Tocqueville’s conclusion that the drive for democracy and equality becomes more or less inevitable because of the realities of Americans’ material situation. He shows that Tocqueville’s central concern throughout much of the work thus becomes whether or not political liberty can survive these trends. 

Raico notes several factors in favor of continued freedom from an abusive state. These include religious faith, which Tocqueville concludes is a key factor in regulating and limiting the excesses of democratic power. He insists that religion is not in conflict with liberalism and that “there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.” 

Other examples in favor of continued opposition to tyranny that Tocqueville points out include widespread opposition to conscription and the habit of deferring to decentralized administration of state power.1

Moreover, the United States, Tocqueville notes, begins from a position in which political action overall is viewed with suspicion. Politics, he observes, does not attract the most able men of the republic, who would rather spend their time in the “pursuit of wealth.” Consequently, “a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.”

On the other hand, decentralization, religion, and general skepticism of state power were not, in Tocqueville’s mind, likely to be sufficient to overcome the sheer force of majority rule in a nation like the United States. It is this mode of thinking which creates in Tocqueville, as a liberal, the greatest concern. Raico quotes perhaps Tocqueville’s most striking passage in this regard: 

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. If America has not yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts: there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them.

Raico goes on to note some of Tocqueville’s experiences which might have led him to this conclusion, including interviews with Americans who noted a lack of freedom in expressing opinions in favor of legal equality for the races, including in the North, or doubting the veracity of Christianity. In an environment where all members of the community are considered to be equals and equally beholden to the community, Tocqueville fears, the centralization of social power—separate from the explicit power of the state—means that the majority can exercise considerable control over all members, without recourse to legal sanction.

In many ways, this passage sums up Tocqueville’s overall concern with democracy and practical equality. Raico writes:

Tocqueville pondered this dark side of democracy [as a social force]. Since “the very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority,” all legal and political institutions will tend to fall under the majority’s sway. The legislature, local law-enforcement officials, the jury-system itself, and, increasingly, many judges — all were organs of the popular will. Moreover, in a democracy the will of the people exerted a potent, if often subtle, control over the would-be dissident, even in the deepest recesses of his mind. Such a situation filled Tocqueville with anxiety, since it presaged the end of intellectual freedom, of cultural progress, and even of any individual independence. 

Equality vs. Liberalism

It doesn’t take an immense amount of insight to see the relevance of Tocqueville’s central concern to our situation today. What are the so-called Twitter mobs if not the “will of the majority” at work? How to explain public shaming of people who don’t “#stayhome” or don’t agree that “we’re all in this together” except as a manifestation of Tocqueville’s “democracy”? When the “consensus” of the majority is that we must all submit to a governor’s rule by decree when it comes to COVID-19 lockdowns, we are experiencing exactly what Tocqueville feared. In cases like these, “constitutional rights” and protections for the minority become meaningless, and there is no escape for dissenters.

As Tocqueville noted, this sort of thing could be minimized by restraining factors such as religion, decentralization down to the local level, and ideological adherence to an ideal of political liberty. These restraining factors are what preserved liberalism as a functioning ideology in America. After all, providing a haven for dissenters and the minority is a key component of liberalism, which requires tolerance of those who have lifestyles and opinions we dislike. 

In our current milieu, however, most of these restraining factors are all but dead, and we are left instead with only the majority rule and the impotent words of liberal constitutions and bills of rights.

Can this trend be reversed or mitigated? It’s possible, but it’s not easy. A good starting point would be to garner a greater understanding of the American polity as observed by one of its most trenchant and insightful observers. Ralph Raico has provided us with the key introductory text.

  • 1. As with much of Democracy in America, this aspect of the US appears to apply only to the Northern states. By the time of Tocqueville’s visit to the US, as Hummel has shown, conscription was becoming increasingly widespread in the slave states for purposes of staffing slave patrols.

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