Alexis de Tocqueville: Life and Quotes
Dinner Topics for Thursday
One reason Tocqueville, as a Frenchman, took such interest in America is the comparison between the American and French revolutions. The Founding Fathers loved the God of the Bible, and respected the Judeo-Christian moral values. The French were just the opposite. They totally rejected God and all His attendant values, resulting in murder, immorality, and anarchy. Note that Tocqueville understands the difference. This is why it is so important to know and understand history—to learn from the choices, good and bad, made by people in the past and then apply those lessons today. ~CD
Alexis de Tocqueville
America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
- This has often been attributed to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but erroneously … There’s an earlier variant, without the memorable ending, that dates back to at least 1886:
I went at your bidding, and passed along their thoroughfares of trade. I ascended their mountains and went down their valleys. I visited their manufactories, their commercial markets, and emporiums of trade. I entered their judicial courts and legislative halls. But I sought everywhere in vain for the secret of their success, until I entered the church. It was there, as I listened to the soul-equalizing and soul-elevating principles of the Gospel of Christ, as they fell from Sabbath to Sabbath upon the masses of the people, that I learned why America was great and free, and why France was a slave. (Empty Pews & Selections from Other Sermons on Timely Topics, Madison Clinton Peters; Zeising, 1886, p. 35)
Read on for more thoughtful statements from de Tocqueville. CD
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville 29 July 1805, Paris – 16 April 1859, Cannes) was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies. Democracy in America (1835), his major work, published after his travels in the United States, is today considered an early work of sociology and political science.
Alexis de Tocqueville came from an old Norman aristocratic family with ancestors who participated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His parents, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard of King Louis XVI, and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, narrowly avoided the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre in 1794. After an exile in England, they returned to France during the reign of Napoleon. Under the Bourbon Restoration, his father became a noble peer and prefect. Tocqueville attended the Lycée Fabert in Metz.
Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830-1848), began his political career at the start of the same period, 1830. Thus, he became deputy of the Manche department (Valognes), a position which he maintained until 1851. In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonisation of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe‘s regime. Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department’s conseil général between 1849 and 1851. According to one account, Tocqueville’s political position became untenable during this time in the sense that he was mistrusted by both the left and right, and was looking for an excuse to leave France. In 1831, he obtained from the July Monarchy a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in America, and proceeded there with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont. While Tocqueville did visit some prisons, he traveled widely in America and took extensive notes about his observations and reflections. He returned in less than two years, and published a report, but the real result of his tour was De la démocratie en Amerique, which appeared in 1835.
Apart from America, Tocqueville also made an observational tour of England, producing Memoir on Pauperism. In 1841 and 1846, he traveled to Algeria. His first travel inspired his Travail sur l’Algérie, in which he criticized the French model of colonisation, which was based on an assimilationist view, preferring instead the British model of indirect rule, which avoided mixing different populations together. He went as far as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists and the “Arabs” through the implementation of two different legislative systems (a half century before implementation of the 1881 Indigenous code based on religion). In 1835 de Tocqueville made a journey through Ireland. His observations provide one of the best pictures of how Ireland stood before the Great Famine 1845-1849. The observations chronicle the growing Catholic middle-class and the appalling conditions in which most Catholic tenant farmers lived. De Tocqueville’s libertarian sympathies and his affinity for his Irish co-religionists are made clear.
After the fall of the July Monarchy during the February 1848 Revolution, Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly of 1848, where he became a member of the Commission charged with the drafting of the new Constitution of the Second Republic (1848-1851). He defended bicameralism (the existence of two parliamentary chambers) and the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. As the countryside was thought to be more conservative than the labouring population of Paris, universal suffrage was conceived as a means to counteract the revolutionary spirit of Paris.
During the Second Republic, Tocqueville sided with the parti de l’Ordre against the socialists. A few days after the February insurrection, he believed that a violent clash between the Parisian workers’ population led by socialists agitating in favor of a “Democratic and Social Republic” and the conservatives, which included the aristocracy and the rural population, was inescapable. As Tocqueville had foreseen, these social tensions eventually exploded during the June Days Uprising of 1848. Led by General Cavaignac, the repression was supported by Tocqueville, who advocated the “regularization” of the state of siege declared by Cavaignac, and other measures promoting suspension of the constitutional order. Between May and September, Tocqueville participated in the Constitutional Commission which wrote the new Constitution. His proposals underlined the importance of his American experience, as his amendment about the President and his reelection.
A supporter of Cavaignac and of the parti de l’Ordre, Tocqueville, however, accepted an invitation to enter Odilon Barrot‘s government as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 3 June to 31 October 1849. There, during the troubled days of June 1849, he pleaded with Jules Dufaure, Interior Minister, for the reestablishment of the state of siege in the capital and approved the arrest of demonstrators. Tocqueville, who since February 1848 had supported laws restricting political freedoms, approved the two laws voted immediately after the June 1849 days, which restricted the liberty of clubs and freedom of the press. This active support in favor of laws restricting political freedoms stands in contrast of his defense of freedoms in Democracy in America. A closer analysis reveals, however, that Tocqueville favored order as “the sine qua non for the conduct of serious politics. He [hoped] to bring the kind of stability to French political life that would permit the steady growth of liberty unimpeded by the regular rumblings of the earthquakes of revolutionary change.″
Tocqueville had supported Cavaignac against Louis Napoléon Bonaparte for the presidential election of 1848. Opposed to Louis Napoléon’s 2 December 1851 coup which followed his election, Tocqueville was among the deputies who gathered at the 10th arrondissement of Paris in an attempt to resist the coup and have Napoleon III judged for “high treason,” as he had violated the constitutional limit on terms of office. Detained at Vincennes and then released, Tocqueville, who supported the Restoration of the Bourbons against Bonaparte’s Second Empire (1851-1871), quit political life and retreated to his castle (Château de Tocqueville). Against this image of Tocqueville, biographer Joseph Epstein has concluded: “Tocqueville could never bring himself to serve a man he considered a usurper and despot. He fought as best he could for the political liberty in which he so ardently believed-had given it, in all, thirteen years of his life [….] He would spend the days remaining to him fighting the same fight, but conducting it now from libraries, archives, and his own desk.” There, he began the draft of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, publishing the first tome in 1856, but leaving the second one unfinished.
Tocqueville’s professed religion was Roman Catholicism. He saw religion as being compatible with both equality and individualism, and felt that religion would be strongest when separated from politics.
Quotes by Alexis de Tocqueville
Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
Alexis de Tocqueville
The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.
Alexis de Tocqueville
The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.
Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?
Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.
The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man.
The principle of equality does not destroy the imagination, but lowers its flight to the level of the earth.
I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it.
As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.