Mises Daily

Tocqueville on Liberty in America

This year 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 of Democracy in America than through the work of any other writer.

In part 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.”

The 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.
  • The 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 physical force.
  • . . . 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 than prejudicial.
  • The most 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...
  • Democratic liberty is far from accomplishing all its projects with the skill of an adroit despotism.
  • . . . 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.
  • The only 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.       
  • The 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 . . .
  • If the 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.
  • The taste 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.
  • No sooner 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 individual.
  • . . . 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?
  • After having 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.
  • Despotism, 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.
  • Another 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 assessment. 

The modern 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 abuse. 

The centrality of liberty to de Tocqueville’s thought, as expressed in Democracy 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.

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