Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Democracy According to Human Purpose,” By David Corbin

The essays collected in Tocqueville’s Voyages trace the political thought of the author of Democracy in America and probe whether Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideas have meaning to societies beyond the United States of the mid-nineteenth century. Drawing heavily on the impressive two-volume, bilingual Liberty Fund edition of this seminal work (which includes Tocqueville’s notes and earlier manuscripts), these essays are not only a valuable addition to Tocqueville scholarship but help to explain the trajectory of politics in our democratic age.

Tocqueville meant for his work to be a possession for all time. Contributors to this volume treat his project with corresponding care, perhaps out of a similar sense of urgency that democratic peoples have before them the contending prospects of soft despotism or the preservation of human liberty.

Modern democracies are said to suffer from an inequality problem—we hear this from commentators like Thomas Piketty, from street protesters, and even from the Oval Office in Washington. The passionate questioning of whether the promise of democracy has been fulfilled is reminiscent of a revolutionary sentiment that spread through the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century. Tocqueville, an aristocrat elected to the French Constituent Assembly in 1848, knew this revolutionary sentiment well. Nearly a decade after visiting the United States and writing his famous study, he offered a critique of socialism in a speech to his fellow deputies.

He argued forcefully that the rise of socialism in France amounted to a return to the predemocratic politics of monarchical government before 1789. Socialism’s three main traits, he said, were: an “extreme appeal to the material passions of man,” an “attack on the principle of private property,” and “profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason.”

Then he crystalized the similarities:

The Old Regime, in fact, held that wisdom lay only in the State and that the citizens were weak and feeble beings who must forever be guided by the hand, for fear they harm themselves. It held that it was necessary to obstruct, thwart, restrain individual freedom, that to secure an abundance of material goods it was imperative to regiment industry and impede free competition.

Editor Christine Dunn Henderson explains the title of the book as an attempt to encapsulate the change that takes place within men as they travel, explore, and attempt to understand the world around them. The suggestion is that men are shaped in part by what they see, and what they are and see likewise go a long way to instructing them on how they should live. Who Tocqueville was and what he saw while here in the 1830s help explain what he hoped to accomplish in writing Democracy in America. His observation of the Americans had shown him that democratic peoples sorely needed instruction in what democracy is, so that they might appreciate what could be done to better its course with the introduction of a new political science.

The opening essays are an excellent introduction to the subject. Eduardo Nolla describes Tocqueville as a kind of mystery novelist who purposely draws his reader into the mysteries of American democracy. Noting Tocqueville’s great care in preserving the drafts, notes, and earlier manuscripts of Democracy in America, Nolla presents the Frenchman as intentionally enabling a full study of the physical configuration of his masterpiece. Comparing the various drafts of Democracy in America with its published version, Nolla sees a work “much more vivid and raw in the manuscript than in the final painting,” as Tocqueville strove to make his writing as appealing as he could to his modern democratic audience. Most extraordinarily on this front, Tocqueville removes references to the purpose of his work: namely, “Far from wanting to stop the development of the new society, I am trying to produce it.”

S. J. D. Green notes Russell Baker’s remark that Tocqueville is “the most widely quoted . . . of all the great unread writers.” In other words, despite his popularity among democratic politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the Tocquevillian attempt “to produce” the development of a new society has indeed passed under the radar. Nor have today’s scholars really had a feel for him, as Jeremy Jennings notes. The chilly reception given to Tocqueville in academe, due to his methodological shortcomings and half-embrace of democracy, has led the professoriate to accept Garry Wills’s charge that Tocqueville did not “get” America.

Not so, writes Green, pointing out that Tocqueville had all of the advantages of an aristocratic, liberal political education but was not bound by the prevailing conservative political opinions of his day. Whereas many of his associates would accept the thesis of Francois Guizot, his influential contemporary, that the United States represented the perfected model of ordered liberty, Tocqueville came to believe that a “new political science” was necessary to prevent the equality of conditions in the United States from taking the Americans, over time, toward soft despotism. Green contends that for Tocqueville, the new political science of the American Founders would not do because they failed to see that the maxim of the sovereignty of the people “defined the whole social state over which they were attempting to preside,” writes Green. “They had not realized just how radical a rupture was entailed in the events of 1776 and their aftermath.”

Green’s Tocqueville may, however, be overstating the matter. Consider that Publius, in Federalist 1, strikes notes of caution: “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide.” “Happy will it be if our choice.” “Things more ardently to be wished for, than seriously to be expected.” There is throughout the Federalist Papers a steady use of the conjunction “if” tied to the hope that the people might employ their moral agency well. Then again, Tocqueville too was compelled by the indefinite nature of the future to paint a portrait of America that left some room for optimism.

James T. Schleifer asserts that Tocqueville, cognizant of the dangers that abounded in democratic times, sought to provide a democratic remedy that took into account the character of democratic peoples. The greatest danger was that “materialism and individualism encouraged people to allow the state or the presumed representatives of the people to gather power and take control of the society,” writes Schleifer, and this opened the door to a “great danger: power consolidated in the hands of some despot or despotic force.” The only way to check materialism, individualism, and consolidated power was by encouraging the habits of liberty. For Tocqueville, writes Schleifer, only “particular liberties made liberty real.” In other words, only by practicing the democratic art through the exercise of one’s political rights would democratic peoples be able to secure themselves against despotism.

Americans’ religiosity, industry, public-spiritedness, and practice of the doctrine of self-interest well-understood all encouraged them to exercise their political liberty, according to Tocqueville. But there remained in America the ever-dangerous inclination to materialism that might dispose them to become mere consumers of political goods rather than moral agents of their own political destiny.

As for Tocqueville’s new science of politics, it is taken up by James W. Ceaser, Catherine H. Zuckert, Alan S. Kahan, and Harvey C. Mansfield in the book’s second section. This attempt at his own form of inquiry flows from the honest self-portrait of his project that Tocqueville provides in his notes to his introduction:

It isn’t that I don’t have set ideas, but they are general (for there is absolute truth only in general ideas). I believe that tyranny is the greatest evil, liberty the first good. But as for knowing what is most appropriate for preventing the one and creating the other among peoples and knowing if all peoples are made to escape tyranny, that is where doubt begins.

Ceaser describes Tocqueville as an artful political scientist who draws our attention, in the spirit of Montesquieu, to “customary history” as a counter to modern philosophy as the foundation for the American regime. This choice, suggests Ceaser, made Tocqueville’s political science at once more realistic and moderate than that of the philosophers of liberal modernity and less likely to succumb “to unforeseen consequences.”

Noting that Montesquieu had identified the Goths as the forerunners of English political liberty, Ceaser says that Tocqueville gains a more “attractive” point of departure in the American Puritans, who embodied both “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” He concludes that whether or not Tocqueville’s shifting emphasis on the Puritans problematically “veils” the natural rights doctrine of the American Founding is less important than the rightful allowance given to those who lead society to account for “different circumstances.” This is an allowance that ought to be granted to Tocqueville, argues Ceaser, just as natural rights proponents have been willing to credit Abraham Lincoln’s efforts while encouraging a new birth of American liberty.

Zuckert explores Tocqueville’s new political science in light of the renderings of political history produced by other modern political philosophers, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zuckert tells us that while Tocqueville was interested in charting the course of history, he neither took its movement to be “the product of any single factor or cause” nor thought it had “an entirely determined end or result.” Rather, Zuckert writes, “Whether the people of any particular nation will be equally free or equally subject depends upon what laws, institutions, beliefs, habits, and mores they adopt.” By emphasizing, in the case of the United States, preferences for reasonable religion, decentralized administration, and popular sovereignty, Americans developed a set of mores that, in addition to their laws or physical configuration, might enable them to remain somewhat free. For Zuckert, Tocqueville’s new political science was a powerful statement as to what is still possible given the powerful influence of particular mores no matter how powerful the universal forces of the democratic revolution.

Kahan understands Tocqueville’s new political science in terms of its moralism. Democratic peoples suffer from a virtue deficit—not so much because they have less virtue than the aristocracy, but because they reduce virtue to enlightened self-interest, rightly understood as merely material. Kahan maintains that Tocqueville employed Pascal’s dichotomy of the angel and the beast (borrowed from Augustine), yet redefined the angelic as the nonmaterial and the beast as the material aspect of human desire. Kahan’s Tocqueville is a friend of human perfectibility and sees the prospect of attaining that perfectibility in religion’s ability to moderate the tension between the material and nonmaterial aspects of our desires. Nothing in religion accomplishes this task more effectively than its teaching of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. That religion had achieved this goal in the United States was clear. That it might perform the same function in other democracies was possible.

Mansfield provides the book’s most ambitious accounting of Tocqueville’s new political science. Tocqueville aimed to be not merely “a new kind of liberal,” argues Mansfield, but the greatest friend of human freedom and human greatness. Mansfield’s Tocqueville is a critic of philosophy, particularly of philosophers of the modern, liberal, and ambitious variety, whose immodesty has made self-government, political liberty, and greatness less possible.

Tocqueville’s new political science, on display as the generative thought that links all parts of Democracy in America, begins with a new metaphysics that “allows and requires democracy to be fashioned according to human purpose and understanding,” as Mansfield puts it. He suggests that Tocqueville’s “metaphysical intent was wrapped in political fact, for the legitimacy of democracy in the order of nature is a demand of the soul and not a material satisfaction of the self.” Thus politics, which had been banished from the ideational to the material world after the decline of classical political rationalism, would be reinstated as the rightful queen of the human sciences.

Mansfield’s Tocqueville, unable to trust his project with any of the partisans of his day—zealous Christians or militant secularists, overly modest nobles or overly entitled commoners, reactionaries or progressives—founds a seventh party of his own. Its followers are given, in the structure of Democracy in America, a set of general principles to guide it. From his introduction, to his discussion of the physical configuration of North America, to his Puritan point of departure and beyond, Mansfield’s Tocqueville offers a new political science meant to teach future “princes” and improve upon the instruction of Machiavelli, the great modern teacher of princes, by suggesting that freedom and human greatness belong together.

The book’s third section charts Tocqueville’s consideration of the appalling realities of American slavery and French imperialism, both of which emerge out of democratic societies that were ostensibly being shaped by the generative fact of the equality of conditions. Barbara Allen notes that, for Tocqueville, “The democratic social condition never provided perfect equality—equality of opportunity or results. If there were not always materially ‘better’ states, there were surely different states of being—and difference alone could motivate the next great effort.” This left open the prospect that the actualization of egalitarian norms would take place over time.

Yet Jean-Louis Benoit’s Tocqueville realized that every political development might not be shaped by this general progression. Benoit writes:

From his American experience, Tocqueville put forward a law of the development and cohabitation of societies that places a less advanced one in jeopardy when confronted with a more modern one. The meeting between two very unequally developed civilizations is fundamentally different according to whether the one victorious by force is more or less advanced.

Tocqueville envisions a world in which the democratic revolution toward the equality of conditions need not hinder the operation of civilizational norms, and perhaps might even explain the development of democratic hegemony itself.

The Allen and Benoit essays help to make sense of Cheryl B. Welch’s coverage of Tocqueville’s acceptance of the heavy-handed, imperial means used by the French to achieve their political goals in North Africa. Tocqueville thought these actions might not only project French “grandeur” but bring national unity—and, to a lesser degree, a civilizing of the uncivilized. Allen, Benoit, and Welch leave us with a Tocqueville who is doubtful, and perhaps more diffident, as to what he thought democratic statesmen might accomplish in promoting human equality. Mansfield’s observation that for Tocqueville, “we humans have to be capable of systematic error, even fated to that, if we are to live in accordance with nature’s unspoken promises,” helps to explain the Frenchman’s unwillingness to destroy liberty to combat inequalities of outcome.

The book finishes with contributions addressing the influence of Democracy in America and exploring the reception of Tocqueville’s work in Sicily, Argentina, Eastern Europe, and Japan.

The understanding of and employment of Tocqueville have been a mixed affair. Fillippo Sabetti highlights Tocqueville’s influence on the Italian political scholar Carlo Cattaneo (1801–69) and suggests that Cattaneo shared with Tocqueville a great care for the study of a “public science of citizenship” that, if still yet to be realized, promises to improve human affairs in the future. Enrique Aguilar describes an Argentinian nation that, in Tocquevillian terms, had a promising point of departure, yet has suffered from a corrupt political system that debased its citizenry and made political reform impossible.

Aurelian Craiutu suggests that Tocqueville’s later work, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, building upon Democracy in America, sheds light on why it is that authoritarianism has persisted in Russia and the former Soviet bloc nations, no matter the dissolution of Soviet communism. The lesson: the habits of old regimes and the mores they produce die hard, and political liberty only has a future in post-Soviet societies if a greater political revolution takes place in those societies.

Renji Matsumoto relates a fascinating story of Japanese intellectual Fukazawa Yukichi’s (1835–1901) efforts during Japan’s Meiji era to ennoble Japanese politics by promoting administrative decentralization and the spirit of citizenship in the face of rising nationalist, statist, and peoples’ rights movements.

Those last essays prompt us to wonder about the practice of contemporary American politics. Whither the democratic revolution that Tocqueville argued had been transforming Western politics for seven centuries? How far removed are twenty-first century Americans from the Puritan point of departure in terms of “blending” and “combining” the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty? How has the movement toward administrative centralization changed American life? Has Tocqueville’s idea of the democratic despotism we ought to fear—the “tutelary power” of which he warned—arrived? Are we willing, in Tocquevillian fashion, to consider human beings more than materially needy creatures?

By making clear the possibility of this voyage, Alexis de Tocqueville and the authors of this volume perform a great service. We are given a way to begin to understand how equality might still lead, as Tocqueville wrote, “to servitude or liberty, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”

That today’s Progressives are unwilling to tolerate such an open-ended equality reminds us of their connection to the revolutionaries of the nineteenth century and, before them, to the beneficiaries of the hidebound system the revolutionaries thought they were correcting. We are warned to be ever on guard, as Tocqueville was, to protect our own equality and liberty.

 

David Corbin is professor of politics at The King’s College in New York, New York. This essay was originally published in September 2015 at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty, and it is republished here with gracious permission from that web-magazine.

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