Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Liberty, Self-restraint, and the Democratic Ethos

by Jeffery Tyler Syck, University of Pikeville

Perhaps no other thinker is so ardently claimed by both conservatives and liberals as Alexis De Tocqueville.  Right leaning intellectuals argue that Tocqueville served as one of democracy’s chief critics, while liberals claim Tocqueville as one of modernity’s great defenders. Such confusion often plagued the French aristocrat in his own life. Conservative British papers saw in his writings on democracy validation for their worst political fears, while French socialists believed that he offered a vision of a political system that could salvage their country from monarchy. Tocqueville himself often fanned the flames of this ambiguity, befriending and engaging with figures from nearly every political faction. Despite this tangled web of complexity, a full examination of the life and works of Alexis De Tocqueville makes his beliefs clear. He was a liberal, but one who took quite seriously the conservative critiques of liberalism [Ed. note: we are using “liberalism” here to identify a mode of political thinking that emerged in the 17th century, and not contemporary progressive ideas] and worked to overcome them. Because of this, far from being an opponent of liberal democracy, Tocqueville is its greatest champion.

A New Kind of Liberal

Though some have claimed otherwise, Tocqueville’s liberalism is undeniable. As a politician he openly affiliated with the French left and as a scholar supported the early days of the French Revolution. He even reluctantly supported the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy and served briefly as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Second French Republic whose constitution he helped draft. If Tocqueville’s actions are not enough to prove his liberalism, the sheer frequency with which he uses the term liberal to refer to himself in letters and notes should be proof enough. Nor was Tocqueville the closet supporter of aristocracy that many see him as. He made this abundantly evident in a memo he wrote declaring “I am an aristocrat by instinct, I have an intellectual preference for democratic institutions.” Tocqueville chose to follow this intellectual preference over his natural inclinations throughout his life, even going so far as to reprimand those who referred to him by his noble title, Comte De Tocqueville, rather than merely by his surname.

Despite his clear liberalism Tocqueville always made sure to highlight that he was a “new kind” of liberal. This clear attempt to distinguish himself from earlier forms of liberalism emerged from how seriously Tocqueville took the reactionary critiques of liberal democracy. Most of Tocqueville’s close friends and family relations were in favor of rolling back all aspects of the French Revolution and restoring absolute monarchy. Though most on the French left dismissed the concerns of such figures, Tocqueville appreciated that in some instances they had a point. In the end, he spurned the most revolutionary and rationalist elements of liberalism while chartering a vision of liberalism that compensated for these weaknesses. The result is one of the most thought-provoking and brilliant defenses of liberal democracy ever offered by a single individual.

Liberty and Virtue

Critiques of liberalism are nothing new. Since the ideology came into being, reactionaries have feared it would lead to the collapse of civil society and continuous political instability. As the historian Helena Rosenblatt has shown, far right critiques in the nineteenth century frequently accused liberalism of cultivating “atheism, violence, and anarchy.” In this regard, very little has changed. More recent “post-liberal” commentators such as Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari have argued that liberalism emphasizes freedom at the expense of higher goods. In their eyes, liberals praise freedom while forgetting the vital importance of virtue and religion.

Tocqueville understood these critiques, but they did not diminish the emphasis he placed upon freedom. Instead, they forced him to merely revise the liberal understanding of the word. Tocqueville argued that freedom could not merely mean license. Freedom had to be a substantial concept. To help explain the term Tocqueville borrowed a quote from the Puritan leader John Winthrop: “Liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it; and it is liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest.” In short, freedom required not just the ability to do as we wish but more importantly the ability to do what is right. A human society cannot flourish without such freedom, a sentiment that led Tocqueville to declare that “nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free.” Though it is worth noting that, even here, freedom is an art. Liberty is not something innate, it is something to cultivate. In his masterful new biography, Oliver Zunz summarizes Tocqueville’s views of liberty better than anyone: “The liberty Tocqueville loved was neither the aristocratic liberty of privilege nor the negative liberty of rights but a demanding personal exertion to achieve great things – the positive liberty of efforts from which everything else flows.”

This view led Tocqueville to support institutions he believed could nurture the self-restraint necessary for freedom. This is most noticeable in his thinking on religion. Though many French liberals thought Catholicism a threat to liberty, Tocqueville argued that religion could play a vital role in the survival of liberalism. In Democracy in America, he contended that secularism cannot fail to create a servile and isolated population incapable of exercising their own free will. This is a particular issue in a democratic society where individuals are given freedom whether they are yet capable of exercising it or not. Tocqueville proposed religion as an antidote, for “religious people are naturally strong in precisely the spot democratic people are weak.” In short, religion provides a communal influence that naturally inculcates self-restraint.

In Tocqueville’s eyes, it was not just liberalism that needed religion, but also religion that required the acceptance of liberal principles. Tocqueville argued that the work of the Catholic Church to oppose the French Revolution and support the tyrannical old regime was a serious failure. The Church’s position was a political catastrophe because it failed to comprehend the inexorable nature of liberal democracy. Tocqueville also thought religious opposition to liberalism was a theological misstep. He sympathized with the liberal theologians who thought that democracy naturally flowed from Christian principles. He himself declared in the Chamber of Deputies that “What is democracy, good democracy, if it is not society’s constant and powerful effort to ameliorate, elevate, and raise to a higher moral standard the lot of each of its members … What is that, if not Christianity translated into politics?”

One instance in Tocqueville’s political career demonstrates his commitment to reconciling religion with liberalism as a way of cultivating freedom. When Tocqueville was first elected to the National Assembly, the French education system was a mixture of secular government-run schools and religious Catholic schools. This uneasy settlement between the cultural factions that dominated post-revolution France finally exploded during Tocqueville’s second term as a Deputy (a representative in the French assembly). Liberal politicians, led by Education Minister Villemain, attempted to exert full state control over the religious schools. In response, a number of Catholic educators attacked liberalism and the semi-republican regime of the July Revolution. A distressed Tocqueville attempted to chart a middle ground. He argued that the Catholic schools should work harder to teach liberal principles – which after all he thought to be essentially Christian– while the state should continue to give those schools autonomy. While his efforts to reconcile Catholicism with French liberalism proved largely unsuccessfully in his lifetime, they reveal his commitment to making virtue and religion a part of liberal freedom. They show that whatever its opponents may say otherwise, liberalism is not inherently irreconcilable with religion or with a virtuous society. 

Equality and Fraternity

Reactionary post-liberals typically reserve their harshest critiques of liberalism for its commitment to equality. In their view, democratic attachment to equality inevitably leads to the destruction of the social fabric by eroding any traditional mores that whiff of hierarchy — which, after all, are most organically developed institutions. Roger Scruton eloquently made this point in his analysis of Rousseau, arguing that for liberalism all inherited customs must be destroyed since they represent an attack upon our ability to control our own destinies. Scruton argued that in such a situation religion, family, and other social institutions stand no chance of survival.

Tocqueville shared the reactionary concern for equality more than most liberals. He did not deny that the democratic passion for equality could lead to dangerous levels of social isolation. In fact, he confirmed this theory, stating that in the American west equality could be seen in its most extreme form, for the inhabitants of the West “hardly know one another … there are inhabitants already in the new states of the west, but not yet a society.” What is more, Tocqueville feared that in places where civil society already flourished it would gradually be eroded by the democratic passion for equality. He argued each of us possesses a dreadfully strong desire never to be unequal to others. In this quest for equality, man is willing to sacrifice his freedom to a powerful centralized state willing to foist an egalitarian existence upon the nation. Such a powerful central authority could not help but destroy society and its many natural inequities. Tocqueville pointed to the later years of the French Revolution as an example of what such a political tragedy may look like.

Unlike reactionary critics of liberalism, Tocqueville never allowed these concerns to shake his faith in the liberal democratic project. If anything, he argued that since the core of liberalism is freedom, it must be bolstered to counteract its more democratic progeny. The contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manet summarized Tocqueville’s attempt to quash egalitarian tyranny: “The reactionaries saw that the new equality broke up social links, and they rose against liberty. But only liberty would make it possible to reconstitute these links through a new basis.” This is because liberty in all of its forms allows humans to engage with one another in an unfiltered lens. This in turn makes possible a strengthened sense of pity and compassion between men that is the best possible foundation of civil society.         

Nothing captures Tocqueville’s meaning quite like his moving description of the modern egalitarian family. He first describes the aristocratic family. In such families, the father exercises near total control over the children, both imparting his wisdom and arranging the future direction of their lives. The result is that when the children do begin to shape their own lives, it tends to be an act of rebellion that separates the children from their parents. In a democratic society, Tocqueville observes the father only possesses significant control over the children when they are too young to do much for themselves. However, as soon as children reach the age of reason, they are free to live their life as they wish. Tocqueville frankly admits that this loosely structured arrangement bears very little resemblance to the family as it has been understood in previous centuries. Though he makes equally clear that the freedom innate in the democratic family makes possible a more intimate and loving relationship between parents and children. The sweetness of this close and egalitarian family “is so great that even partisans of aristocracy allow themselves to be taken by it, and after tasting it for some time, they are not tempted to return to the respectful and cold forms of the aristocratic family.” 

Tocqueville declares that this is the nature of liberal equality. It often destroys or obscures old social conventions but those which survive are based far more fully upon compassion and genuine affection between individuals. Because if the formality of the old customs are stripped away then humans are left to be truly themselves and we allow the possibility of a society that is built upon affection for humans as they are. Rather than a society structured by hierarchy. In the final analysis, Tocqueville did not see how any man could deny the tender wholesomeness of this much more virtuous foundation for civilization.

Liberalism on the Rocks

Liberalism is now more embattled than ever. Theorists on the far left and right continuously critique the effects of the modern age’s dominant ideology. These critiques have given rise to populist political movements that openly seek to overturn the liberal order and plunge the world into chaos. Many liberals dismiss these post-liberal critiques as simply outdated ideas of no serious concern, while many more seemingly fail to notice such criticisms at all. This is why studying Tocqueville’s defense of liberalism is so vital today. The reactionary critiques of liberalism are not new and not altogether unfounded. They must be taken seriously. Liberalism has made possible more sustained human flourishing than any other political tradition in history. Society cannot afford to allow its collapse. We must rise to liberalism’s defense, and this means taking its weaknesses seriously and striving to overcome them.  

Jeffery Tyler Syck is Assistant Professor of Politics and Social Science at the University of Pikeville. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did liberalism’s emphasis on equality and rights upset traditional social orders? Why would Tocqueville have been concerned about that?
  2. Is America purely a liberal regime, or were there other factors and forces at work?
  3. What can Tocqueville’s thoughts on freedom and self-restraint teach us today?

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