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IV. Alexis de Tocqueville and the Liberal Moment

  • Hugh Brogan (a1)


Liberalism is characterized by paradox. It is a creed with sacred books, sacred names and a sacred history, but without a universally acceptable definition. It emerged slowly, first in England, then in France, spread with difficulty, yet is fading even more slowly—if it is indeed fading at all. From time to time its tenets have seemed to attain final expression, whether in the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, or in John Stuart Mill's Liberty. Invariably these formulations have come at last to seem inadequate, and to need re-interpretation if they are to retain their reputation. Such re-interpretation has usually been forthcoming. Liberalism, to the vexation of conservatives and socialists, like a goat with exceptionally powerful digestion, finds it possible to absorb almost anything into itself, even the most trenchant criticism. Only the advocates of force for the sake of force, or of the suppression, on principle, of free thought, have been invariably rejected by the liberal consensus. Liberalism has therefore remained the creed, not of governments, but of oppositions, happiest in a critical, rather than a constructive role.



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1 One of his actions was to draft, with Mignet, and publish, an anonymous proclamation which began: ‘Charles X ne peut plus rentrer à Paris: il a fait couler le sang du peuple …”

2 See Tocqueville's letter to Mrs Grote, 4 Feb. 1855, in the Oeuvres et Correspondance inédites (Paris, 1861), II, 282–5.

3 For the historical significance, such as it was, of Hervé de Tocqueville's career, see Richardson, Nicholas, The French Prefectoral Corps, 1814–1830 (Cambridge, 1966), pp. 187, 192.

4 Pierson, G. W., Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938), pp. 17–18.

5 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Souvenirs, ed. by Monnier, Luc; Oeuvres Complètes (new ed., Paris, 1964), XII, 86.

6 The material in this paragraph is drawn almost entirely from Pierson, op. cit. pp. 17–21, still the only adequate account of Tocqueville's early development.

7 Pierson, pp. 29–32.

8 de Tocqueville, Alexis, De la Démocratie en Amérique, ed. by Mayer, J.-P.; Oeuvres Completes (new ed., Paris, 1961), I, 12.

9 Ibid. p. 4.

10 Ibid. p. 14.

11 See Pierson, , op. cit. pp. 782–6, for a list.

12 Both their names appeared on the title page, but in fact Beaumont did most of the work and all of the writing.

13 Tocqueville to Henry Reeve, 15 Nov. 1839. Oeuvres Complètes (new ed.), VI, i, 48.

15 Oeuvres Complètes (old ed.), IX, 517.

16 Oeuvres Complètes (new ed.), I, ii, 372.

17 Terminology presents some difficulties. Tocqueville frequently uses the terms démocratie, égalité and égalité des conditions as if they were synonymous; as if, that is to say, he were only concerned with the politico-ethical principle of equality in its fullest sense: a sense comprising politics, social and economic status, intellectual and popular culture, etc. But he also frequently employs démocratic (especially in the first part of his book) in the traditional sense, to mean government of the people, by the people. Egalité is also often used in the sense of equality in political rights only. A somewhat similar confusion hangs about Tocqueville's use of the word république and its derivatives. Part of the time he uses it as synonymous with democratie government, part of the time as we mostly use it today, in opposition to the concept of monarchy.

18 Démocratie, O.C. (new ed.), I, i, 266.

19 It is equally true that they were in each case to have the ultimate victory. As A. J. P. Taylor has pointed out (Europe: Grandeur and Decline, p. 112), the heirs of Gladstone prevail over those of Bismarck every time.

20 Correspondance Anglaise, O.C. (new ed.), VI, i, 47.

21 He wrote to J. S. Mill accounting for the somewhat cool reception of his second volume as follows: ‘… en parlant des notions que me fournissait la Société américaine et française, j'ai voulu peindre les traits généraux des Sociétés Démocratiques dont aucun complet modéle n'existc encore. C'est ici que 1'esprit du lecteur ordinaire m'échappe.’ O.C. (new ed.), VI, i, 330.

22 It used to be a commonplace that Tocqueville was simply mistaken about the importance of the Presidency in his time, and the wonder was that he could undervalue the office when it was occupied by so conspicuously strong a man as Andrew Jackson. Recent research, however, has established that, in the first place, Tocqueville's view of the Presidency was pretty much that of the American Whigs who instructed him—in other words, that of half political America; and in the second place, that it was largely correct. Jackson and his party weakened the Federal Government in national affairs; the rise of the second party system greatly diminished the independence of the Presidents—so much so that, between Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, only two Presidents, Polk and Lincoln, deserve to be called strong or powerful. In short, Tocqueville's analysis provides an excellent background to Bryce's sagacious explanation of ‘Why Great Men are not Chosen Presidents’ (The American Commonwealth, pt. 1, ch. 3). All that can be definitely said is that Tocqueville and Bryce underrated the office's potential.

23 Démocratie, O.C. (new ed.), I, i, 116, fn. 8.

24 This, of course, describes the American Constitution, not as it is today, but as it largely was in Tocqueville's time, and still more as it was proposed in 1787.

25 Hofstadter, Richard, The American Political Tradition (Vintage ed., New York, 1948), pp. 89.

26 Démocratie, O.C. (new ed.), I, i, 261–2.

27 Démocratie, O.C. (new ed.), I, i, 7.

28 Démocratie, O.C. (new ed.), I, i, 5.

IV. Alexis de Tocqueville and the Liberal Moment

  • Hugh Brogan (a1)


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