But for equality they [Americans] have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery.
– Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59)
Continuing our article series on Benjamin Wiker’s “10 books every conservative must read,” we come to Chapter 6, “Democracy in America” (2 vols., 1835, 1840) by Alexis de Tocqueville, a book that so ably describes the strengths and weaknesses of the American character and democracy that Harvard conservative professor Harvey Mansfield called this work “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.”
Prologue to a tyranny and monarchy
Tocqueville, born in 1805, came from an ancient Norman family whose descendants fought in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and took their name from the village of Tocqueville, which it owned as a fiefdom. Like most French families, Tocqueville’s family was severely affected by the bloodlust of the French Revolution (1789-99) where his grandfather and many other relatives met a tragic end at the blade of the guillotine. Even Tocqueville’s mother and father were swept up in the Reign of Terror in December 1793 to face the guillotine but were later freed.
Tocqueville witnessed many of the most crucial events of Enlightenment Age Europe: As a boy of 10 years he saw the fall of the great French dictator Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Tocqueville saw the political instability, totalitarian regimes and monarchial tyrannies of Louis XVIII (1815-24) and Charles X (1824-30) just before the latter was deposed by King Louis-Philippe, a supporter of the original French Revolution. Weary of the tyranny-monarchy power struggles in France and throughout Europe, in 1831 young Alexis sailed to America with his friend Gustave de Beaumont in search a true representative democracy where the rule of the people held check against the tyranny of monarchy and oligarchy rule.
Search for the American character and Constitution
Tocqueville sets out in his treatise on America with the premise if you want to seriously understand a nation, you must first understand the “prejudices, habits, dominant passions, of all that finally composes what is called national character,” every one which are found in a people’s original experiences. Following Aristotle’s doctrine of first principles outlined in “Metaphysics,” Tocqueville systematically sought to understand out of what material the nation was constituted before he endeavored to understand its written Constitution.
From his initial suppositions Tocqueville concurrently discovered America’s strong religious foundations, which were principally self-evident in the strong Puritan influence in New England. Contrasting this discovery with the bloodletting, fanaticism and excesses of the French Revolution and Enlightenment skepticism under which his family suffered tremendously, Tocqueville had an even greater appreciation of the American Revolution and connected its successes to the American colonist’s adherence to fundamental Christian principles. Tocqueville wrote:
The emigrants, or, as they so well called themselves, the pilgrims, belonged to that sect in England whose austere principles had brought the name Puritan to be given to it. Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine; it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.
Tocqueville eloquently narrated America’s “generative principles,” which he defined as: “intervention of the people in public affairs, free voting of taxes, responsibility of the agents of power, individual freedom and judgment by jury were all established there without discussion and in fact. These generative principles were applied and developed as no nation in Europe has yet dared to do.”
Tocqueville noted that these generative principles were “applied and developed” in America because of her unique history, a history that was forged by her unique political character we refer to today as American exceptionalism. Echoing Aristotle’s treatise, “Politics,” since America had no established national government, then by necessity Americans had to become political animals, developing and perfecting her political nature as individuals through self-government.
Tocqueville understood that contrary to the artificial top down autocracies of Enlightenment Age Europe, Americans built their social institutions organically from the ground up; that Americans understanding of liberty is quite the opposite of French Revolution’s extreme democracy view of liberty as freedom from God, objective truth and moral restraints. For Americans, liberty is the triumph the transcendent human spirit over evil manifest destiny of the flesh, therefore, contrary to modern progressivism and liberalism, liberty is not license, anarchy nor licentiousness. On this point Tocqueville quotes a speech by John Winthrop:
[N]or would I have you to mistake in the point of your own liberty. There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected both by men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty, Sumus Omnes Deteriores [we are all inferior]…
That’s why Tocqueville believes that for Americans “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom” are synonymous. Self-government starts with the moral government of the self. Absent this systhesis of legality and morality which is Natural Law, ordered liberty devolves into chaotic survival of the fittest, and the republicanism devolves into what Aristotle called “extreme democracy.”
Conserving the American Constitution
Tocqueville understood that the Constitution was more than “a mere parchment with a set of assertions.” The true genius of the constitutional framers as understood by Tocqueville was that the Constitution presupposed and protected the original traits and institutions that preceded it (God, Natural Law, truth, liberty).
Unfortunately in the Age of Obama, a new tyranny of utopian socialism has reared its ugly head to proclaim in these words of President Obama: “America is no longer a Christian nation,” “I don’t want to punish you for your success, but we need to spread the wealth so those below you can have your same success” and “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Therefore the prophetic words of Tocqueville reaches across the ages to judge this generation that Americans want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want equality in slavery.