The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton

Ralph Raico

Forty years ago, historian Ralph Raico completed his dissertation under the direction of F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Its title masks its power and importance: The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. It has been published for the first time by the Mises Institute, and this is not merely to honor a great historian and thinker.

The research contained within it amounts to a major contribution to public intellectual life of the United States at the time. The issue he addresses—the revelation of a different form of early liberalism, one heavily influenced by moral concerns and steeped in an older religious ethos—has major implications in our own time as well.

Despite the high tone of this work, it directly address controversies that were boiling over in the 1960s. The Cold War was raging. Conservatism, to whom the defense of free enterprise had fallen after the Second World War, had already been redefined (or even defined) by the work of National Review to mean the backing of the U.S. military state in its life-or-death struggle with communism abroad.

As Murray Rothbard explained in Betrayal of the American Right, the conservatives claimed to favor freedom but what really rallied the troops was the issue of war against Russia and its satellite states. This was the battleground that Raico faced in the late 1960s.

The argument between conservatives and libertarians was fundamentally about the Cold War, but that was not the only subject discussed. Instead, the conservatives came to characterize the libertarians as not only strategically flawed but philosophically corrupt. And why? Because they had inherited the secularism, the anti-clericism, the essential immoralism and anti-nomianism, of the old liberal school of the Enlightenment (a word to be spoken with sneerful disdain). Conservatives attempted to paint the libertarians with the brush of the hippy, dropout generation—a sector of the new left that spoke vaguely of freedom while rejecting all manner of social authority.

Did the critique apply? Were the liberals of the 18th and 19th century truly foreshadowing the hippies of the 1960s, and thereby in need of the correcting force of conservatism to add piety and an appreciation of tradition to their love of freedom?

The grain of truth here is that the liberal party of old had risen up in the age of enlightenment when freedom was not only something that existed in absence of the overweening state; it was also something that required throwing off the shackles of tradition, of Church control, of the moral limits imposed by superstitions of the past.

To some extent, this tendency in old liberalism found its justification in the too-close relationship between Church and State in Europe’s old regimes; the liberals believed that both had to be battled in the name of the rights of individuals. But in other cases, there were genuine mistakes, as with John Stuart Mill, who variously imagined social authority to be as much a threat to freedom as the state itself.

But this attitude in no way characterized the whole of the old liberal tradition. There was another tradition of liberalism that was not necessarily anti-religion and anti-tradition but rather focused its critique of coercion against the state alone. After all, it is only the state, not religious institutions, that possess that critical power to aggress against the life and liberty of the individual.

To the extent the Church can tax, it is only through the power and authority of the law over which the state possesses the monopoly. What’s more, this other sector of liberalism did not see freedom alone as the sole point of existence, but rather saw freedom as a means to an end of achieving higher moral purpose.

What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period when Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).

All three were distinguished for: (1) consistent anti-statism, (2) appreciation for modernity and commerce, (3) love of liberty and its identification with human rights, (4) an conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and (5) a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end. What’s more, these thinkers are people whom conservatives have tended to revere if only in passing, but have they really studied their thought to see their radicalism, their deep love of freedom, and their true attachment to the old liberal cause?

Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition, and not come anywhere near fulfilling the stereotype that conservatives were then creating of libertarians. Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers, too. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.

Forty years later, it is striking how poignant Raico’s treatise remains. And it is fact: conservatives who were blasting away at libertarians at the time never saw this book. It is just now published. It’s this way with great books, classic studies of this depth: it remains as powerful and relevant now as ever.

The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton by Ralph Raico
Meet the Author
Ralph Raico 2005
Ralph Raico

Ralph Raico (1936–2016) was professor emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He was a specialist on the history of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.

A bibliography of Ralph Raico’s work, compiled by Tyler Kubik, is found here.

View Ralph Raico bio and works

Unpublished doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of F.A. Hayek, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, September 1970.