Authored by Paul Krause at VoegelinView
Alexis De Tocqueville was not an American. But as a political observer and theorist, he is more American than any American; he is also the quintessential writer of the conservative disposition in the United States. Originally sent to study the American prison system, which he did, he also had a private desire to experience the democratic experiment in the newly independent republic. Upon returning to France and publishing his report on the American prison system, he also wrote and subsequently published his enduring work assessing American uniqueness: Democracy in America.
Nineteenth century language held democracy and republicanism as equivalent. Republicanism was the overarching system of laws and institutions that governed a society, and democracy, existing within republican order, entailed the self-governing and free associations of the people. In America, Tocqueville marveled, no society achieved a greater and more stable blending of democratic republicanism. Given the tragedy and failure of the French republic, this was a particular source of Tocqueville’s interest. Why did democracy succeed in America while it had failed in France? Moreover, was America also in danger of sliding into despotism as France had?
One of the misnomers of the so-called Enlightenment was that Enlightened political theory produced minimalist conceptions of the state. Anyone who studies political philosophy and theory knows this story is grossly inaccurate and downright false, peddled by propagandists who often have a grudge against the far freer and weaker political societies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (the divine-right monarchs would blush at the centralized power of modern liberal states). Even the beloved John Locke offered an argument of the legitimate exercise of state power in his Two Treatises. The thrust of Enlightened political theory was the “legitimate” exercise of existing state power and authority which ironically often led to greater centralization of state power.
While it is true that some Enlightenment political theorists saw legitimacy of exercised power in more limited manners compared to their companions, all accepted the authority of the state and its ability to wield power. The Enlightenment political project, then, was really about the centralization of state power so that it could wield its power under the legitimacy envisioned by a myriad of thinkers—from the despotism of Hobbes to the democratic tyranny of Rousseau to the propertarian and rights-creating legislature of Locke. In contrast to these realities in Europe, what Tocqueville saw in America was exceptional—it was the exception to the norm.
What marked the American political project as unique from Tocqueville’s eye wasn’t that it differed in constitutional debates over the legitimate use of federal power but the fact that federal government institutions seemed nonexistent altogether. This permitted the true manifestation of a free people forming local laws and government to enhance their lives relevant to them in the particular circumstances they found themselves in. Civil society, the freedom therein, flourished in the absence of a federal administration. As Tocqueville wrote:
Nothing is more striking to an European traveler in the United States than the absence of what we term the Government, or Administration. Written laws exist in America and one sees that they are daily executed; but although everything is in motion, the hand which gives the impulse to the social machine can nowhere be discovered.
For Tocqueville, the absence of central bureaucratic administrations across the breadth of the United States meant that local communities and the people were responsible for their rights and liberty. This demanded a democratic ethos of civic participation and political virtue without the necessity of centralized government dictating rights and laws to the people. It wasn’t the Constitution, per se, that allowed the flourishing of liberty. It was the absence of a central government which allowed the flourishing of liberty. In the 1830s, the federal government had a very limited reach outside Washington and a few major cities with its attendant administrative attaches. Further, in his discussions with Americans about the nature of democracy and its infant origins he was informed that individuals, families, and local communities contributed to the birth of democratic self-governance. Democracy grew from the bottom up, not the top down; from the people themselves, not imposed federal mandates. (This remains a key distinction between the American democracy and European democratic federalism.)
Not only was the absence of a central authority remarkable to Tocqueville, the American belief in free will and personal responsibility was inspiring to see. Instead of resigning themselves to a sort of pious fatalism as many Europeans (even Tocqueville harbored stoic fatalist sympathies), Tocqueville noted the American belief in free agency and role of individual decisions in shaping the future of the community, and the country, as giving greater cause for civic and civil participation. Americans believed it was their duty to be engaged in society and the world precisely because the course of history was open to them. Moral, spiritual, and material self-improvement was the mentality of Americans which contributed to democratic dynamism—it was theirs for the taking and shaping.
Unlike Europe, which had fallen victim to the oppressive “systematic” philosophies of the philosophes, America was untainted by the historical determinism that had enslaved the European intelligentsia. The lack of a deterministic outlook to history may be a catalyst for chaos. But it also means the future is open to those who create a better future. We don’t know where history is going. That’s what makes it exciting and exhilarating and our lives all the more urgent to be engaged rather than passively sidelined. Rather than resign themselves to a fatalism of apathy or the despotism of determinism of offered by Hegel, Comte, and later Marx, Americans embraced the open future with vigor and passion. This also characterized American intellectuals from their European counterparts—American intellectuals offered a defense of the populist spirit without the rigid despotism of European philosophers. Why defend democracy? Because democracy is not guaranteed to triumph. There is no “right side of history.”
Since the future of history is not yet written, Americans were more willing to become civically engaged precisely because they knew there was no assurance that their experiment in self-government would succeed. The great flourishing of civil associations marked not only the belief that Americans needed to band together to ensure the survival of their freedom, but it was also marked by the belief that their engagement in civil associations would enhance their freedoms as well. This freedom of association for political empowerment and betterment instilled a grander and truer patriotism than anything in the Old World, “Thus political life makes the love and practice of association more general; it imparts a desire of union, and teaches the means of combination to numbers of men who would have always lived apart.”
Against the revival of “blood and soil” nationalism, Tocqueville observed it was love of political rights and the prospect of improving political freedom, not to mention moral and spiritual self-improvement, through civil associations that drew Americans from disparate backgrounds together in a broad civic patriotism. All were united in the quest for the defense of established liberty, recognition of the liberty afforded to them by law, and the possibility for the enhancement of liberty because history is not written in stone. This patriotism of association became the “mother of action” according to Tocqueville.
Tocqueville equally noted that societies that which are deeply religious have the most optimism regarding the future (naturally so, as religion is teleologically oriented). The religious vigor of Americans naturally predisposed them to looking to the future with hope rather than despair (unlike the irreligious fatalism of Europeans who in their drift replaced religious hope with the deterministic pseudo-religions of Marx and his heirs), and therefore led to their passionate engagement in society. That religious sentiment also carried over into political association. “There is only one country on the face of the earth where the citizens enjoy unlimited freedom of association for political purposes.” That country is the United States. Tocqueville marveled at how it was the religious who were the most politically engaged and civically patriotic.
Thus Tocqueville elaborated how the “spirit of religion” and “spirit of liberty” fused together so powerfully in America. Even Catholics in America, Tocqueville noted, defied some of the prejudicial biases of their Protestant neighbors (this is not to say there wasn’t anti-Catholic prejudice but that the prejudiced levied against them by their Protestant neighbors was often incorrect). When meeting a Catholic priest one night, the priest offered a prayer that would have been considered the domain of the Protestant and reflected the real spirit of American internationalism: the desire for freedom of others. The priest prayed against tyranny and inequality: “Turn, O Lord, a favorable eye upon the other hemisphere…Thou, who didst create Man…let not tyranny mar Thy work, and establish inequality upon the earth.” The spirit of religion and liberty in America was uniquely interconnected.
The religious, Tocqueville continued to explain, were the most ardently democratic everywhere he went. The irreligious tended toward apathy and want for bureaucratic despotism akin to Europe. The religiously devout, be they Protestant or Catholic, moved with hearts aflame for liberty. Of course, this is why Tocqueville praised religious freedom in the United States. Because churches were not bound to princely or monarchic orders, this allowed the clergy, and their congregants or parishioners, to be more freely engaged in civil and political association and participation and have positive roles in their communities which conferred democratic prestige instead of established resentment. This isn’t to say there wasn’t religious prejudice, but it is to say the freedom religious Americans enjoyed led them to have a greater love for the country which permitted their free exercise of conscience in religious matters without fear of being spied upon or threatened by state authorities.
The spirit of democracy in America that enamored Tocqueville, then, was how the absence of federal authority and its apparatuses spurred democratic development. Tocqueville also associated the American passion for civic and political engagement on the fact that they hadn’t succumb to slavish servitude to grand historical theories and narratives. To reiterate, the openness of history is what exhilarated Americans to build a better future. Additionally, the religious passions of Americans moved them toward a theology of freedom. All Christian sects embraced a spirit of liberty because of the religious freedom afforded to them.
Though we like the rosy side of Tocqueville’s picture, he was also prescient toward the dangers of democracy: how it could devolve into despotism and warned of the moral decadence that slavery wrought to the land and people. In no simple terms, Tocqueville denounced slavery and the stain it had on American ideals. He also warned that the democratic spirit, admirable as it was, could easily be warped by demagogues especially if moral virtue laxed and the vigor of American civil society participation waned. Then a centralizing authority, already implicitly granted in the vagueness of the Constitution as Tocqueville saw, could expand its poisonous reach into the free communities of the United States if Americans fell victim to a uniformity of thought, opinion, and democratic despotism in unicameral or uniform political governance.
When we look at the crisis of America today, we see the exceptionalism (because they were exceptions to the world) that enamored Tocqueville vanishing before us and his prescience on the dangers he warned almost 200 years ago still bubbling forth or manifesting themselves at an alarming speed. Centralized bureaucracy extends everywhere and drives away those independent civil and political associations that were the true heart of American self-governing democratization. Americans have now become apathetic to the future or fallen victim to the propaganda of grand historical theories and their systems. The decline of religious practice has severed the united spirit of liberty and religion; the irreligious are more susceptible to both civic apathy and substituting the religious outlook to the future with those despotic systems of historical determinism and their false religious aspirations and eschatological imaginations. The stain of slavery still haunts American memory and its understanding of itself even though slavery has long since been abolished.
Any American who loves the uniqueness of the United States and its spirit of liberty needs to read Tocqueville. More than any other man who tread the earth, this Paris-born Frenchman noted what makes America great. He also, therefore, leaves us considerations on how we can lose what our forefathers knew to be precious—which is why they were passionately engaged in the American experiment. Not just for themselves, but for their posterity and the rest of mankind whose desire for liberty always looks to the United States for its first cues as to the future of freedom despite what critics of the great and noble republic say.
Tocqueville saw the good and the bad in America. He was enamored with the good and warned against the bad. We who love the republic and the life it has afforded to us can share Tocqueville’s positive, though nuanced, view. We should also take to heart his warnings of what we still may lose but also look to what remains and help rebuild what inspired Tocqueville and many generations of Americans. Reconnecting with Tocqueville allows us to revive the seeds of exceptionalism that inspired him and many generations the world over. As we celebrate our independence, one should do so with Tocqueville by the grill or in their lap watching the fireworks.