is the bicentennial of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the
most famous political commentators about America. Although not always a
consistent thinker, he stands squarely in the classical
liberal tradition of understanding the capacity of society to self
organize in the absence of a controlling central
state. Charles Eliot Norton described his two-volume Democracy
in America (1835; 1840)
as "constructive and non-partisan," whose focus on principles made him
"objectively pro-American." The Edinburgh Review in
1865 called it "one of the wisest works of modern thought."
It has been
said that more people have interpreted America through the lens
in America than through the work of any other writer.
because of its title, most readers have focused on its analysis of
democracy. However, in many ways, its central focus was
liberty. One early American reviewer stated that "the
intelligent American reader can find no better guide" for understanding
and preserving liberty. As de Tocqueville wrote to Henry Reeve, his
English translator, his reviewers "insist on making me a party man, and
I am not . . . the only passions I have are love of liberty and human
dignity." That passion shaped his analysis. As Henry Steele
Commager said, "Liberty must be worked at, must be achieved, and it has
rarely been achieved anywhere in the whole of history. It requires a
most extraordinary self-control, self-denial, wisdom, sagacity, vision
to protect liberty in the face of all the forces that mitigate and
militate against it. And Tocqueville regarded centralization as the
most dangerous of all the threats to liberty."
bicentennial of Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel, the Comte de
Tocqueville, is an apt time to revisit the insights on liberty in
Democracy in America. That is especially
true today, since he recognized that liberty and democracy are not the
same thing, despite the common modern confusion between them. Even more
crucial, he recognized that democracy can be the enemy of liberty, and
that of the two, liberty is far more important.
. . .
everyone is the best and sole judge of his own private interest . . .
society has no right to control a man's actions unless they are
prejudicial to the common weal or unless the common weal demands his
help. This doctrine is universally admitted in the United States.
Revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and
reflecting preference for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined
craving for independence.
It profits me
but little, after all, that a vigilant authority always protects the
tranquility of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my
path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the
absolute master of my liberty and my life . . .
How can a
populace unaccustomed to freedom in small concerns learn to use it
temperately in great affairs? What resistance can be offered
to tyranny where each individual is weak . . . ?
. . .
popularity may be united with hostility to the rights of the people,
and the secret slave of tyranny may be the professed lover of freedom.
. . . the
Federal Constitution...disavowed beforehand the habitual use of
compulsion in enforcing the decisions of the majority.
The great end
of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence
and to place a legal barrier between the government and the use of
. . . the
liberty of association has become a necessary guarantee
against the tyranny of the majority. . . . The omnipotence of the
majority appears to me to be so full of peril to the American republics
that the dangerous means used to bridle it seem to be more advantageous
natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself, is
that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow creatures and
of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore
appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of
personal liberty. No legislator can attack it without impairing the
foundations of society.
. . . there
is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty . . .
generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms...
liberty is far from accomplishing all its projects with the skill of an
. . . the
main evil of the present democratic institutions of the Unites States
does not arise, as is often asserted . . . from their weakness, but
from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the
excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate
securities which one finds there against tyranny.
means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one
with that unlimited authority which is the sure method of debasing them.
. . . if,
after having established the general principles of government,
[centralized administration] . . . could descend to the circle of
individual interests, freedom would soon be banished from the New World.
Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and
gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the
people. . . . The principle instrument . . . is freedom . . .
absolute power of a majority were to be substituted by democratic
nations . . .[men] would simply have discovered a new physiognomy of
servitude . . . when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I
care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more
disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the
arms of a million men.
which men have for liberty and that which they feel for equality are,
in fact, two different things . . . among democratic nations they are
two unequal things.
. . .
democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to
themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it
with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable,
incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they
cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.
. . . in
order to combat the evils which equality may produce, there is only one
effectual remedy: namely, political freedom.
does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere . . . than
it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny . . .
. . . men who
are possessed by the passion for physical gratification generally find
out that the turmoil of freedom disturbs their welfare before they
discover how freedom itself serves to promote it. If the slightest
rumor of public commotion intrudes into the petty pleasures of private
life, they are aroused and alarmed by it. The fear of anarchy
perpetually haunts them, and they are always ready to fling away their
freedom at the first disturbance.
. . . public
tranquility is a great good, but . . . all nations have been enslaved
by being kept in good order.
. . . the
despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an
. . .
Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest
safeguard of their welfare . . . that their chief business is to secure
for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things
they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of
those possessions which they have already acquired.
Any law that
. . . should tend to diminish the spirit of freedom in the nation and
to overshadow the notion of law and right would defeat its object . . .
. . . nothing
but the love and the habit of freedom can maintain an advantageous
contest with the love and the habit of physical well-being.
. . . the
species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike
anything that ever before existed in the world. . . . Above this race
of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself
alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That
power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be
like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was
to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them
in perpetual childhood. . . . For their happiness such a government
willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only
arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and
supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their
principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of
poverty and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare
them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful
grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm
over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a
network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which
the most original minds and the most energic characters cannot
penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered,
but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but
they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not
destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it
compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each
nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and
industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
. . . the
people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select
their master and then relapse into it again . . . they think they have
done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have
surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not
satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to
me than the fact of extorted obedience.
therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times.
I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time
in which we live I am ready to worship it . . . the question is . . .
how to make liberty proceed out of that democratic state of society in
which God has placed us.
. . .
defending [citizens'] rights against the encroachments of the
government saves the common liberties of the country.
tendency which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely
dangerous is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights
of private persons . . . they are often sacrificed without regret and
almost always violated without remorse . . . among the same nations in
which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private
persons, the rights of society at large are naturally extended and
consolidated; in other words, men become less and less attached to
private rights just when it is most necessary to retain and defend what
little remains of them. It is therefore most especially in the present
democratic times, that the true friends of liberty and the greatness of
man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of
government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals
to the general execution of its designs. At such times no citizen is so
obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed; no
private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with
impunity to the caprices of a government. The reason is plain: if the
private right of an individual is violated at a time when the human
mind is fully impressed with the importance and the sanctity of such
rights, the injury done is confined to the individual whose right is
infringed; but to violate such a right at the present day is deeply to
corrupt the manners of the nation and to put the whole community in
jeopardy, because the very notion of this kind of right constantly
tends among us to be impaired and lost . . . the principle of public
utility is called in, the doctrine of political necessity is conjured
up, and men accustom themselves to sacrifice private interest without
scruple and to trample on the rights of individuals in order more
speedily to accomplish any public purpose.
. . . we are
naturally prone . . . to exaggerate the idea that the interest of a
private individual ought always to bend to the interest of the many.
To lay down
extensive but distinct and settled limits to the action of the
government; to confer certain rights on private persons, and to secure
to them the undisputed enjoyment of those rights; to enable individual
man to maintain whatever independence, strength, and original power he
still possesses; to raise him by the side of society at large, and
uphold him in that position; these appear to me the main objects . . .
Let us, then,
look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep
watch and ward for freedom . . .
It has been
said of Alexis de Tocqueville that "[n]o authority on America has
equaled him in prophetic vision." When we view the accuracy
of his insights into the many clashes between democracy and liberty
that have occurred since he wrote, resolved in favor of political
determination because of the misplaced imagery of democracy as the
central, most essential issue, it is hard to argue with that
willingness to sacrifice liberty to democracy is perhaps the most
important reason it is worth commemorating de Tocqueville's
bicentennial with more than a cursory consideration of his insights.
Recognizing the threat that democracy can be to liberty is never more
important than when citizens are willing to routinely let democracy run
roughshod over our individual, inalienable rights against such
centrality of liberty to de Tocqueville's thought, as expressed in
America, can be encapsulated by two statements
he makes about our "public interest" in liberty: "their chief
business . . . is to remain their own masters," but "to neglect to hold
[liberty] fast is to allow it to escape." It can also be
recognized in his other writing. In Journey
to America, he said,
"Another principle of American society, which one must always keep in
mind is this: since every individual is the best judge of his
own interest, society must not protect him too carefully, lest he
should come to rely on it and so saddle society with a task it cannot
perform." Even more directly to the point, in Correspondence with Gobineau, he
wrote that "To me, human societies, like persons, become something
worthwhile only though their use of liberty." That is a
message that may be "out of the mainstream" today, but it is one
Americans desperately need to hear.
M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send
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