A Tocquevillian Anniversary
Jon Kyl, October 2, 2006
One of the great observers of the American scene was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). He is most famous for Democracy in America, which he wrote based on his extended visit to the United States in 1835.
This year, however, marks the 150th anniversary of a lesser known work by this author, philosopher, and statesman: The Old Regime and the Revolution. It was Tocqueville’s last book, published in 1856. In it he continued to mull over the profound changes of his era, as nations of the New World and the Old turned away from the rule of “divinely chosen” kings toward rule by the people.
He was a critic of democracy in America, but a friendly critic, with a nuanced appreciation of the American character, its good qualities and its foibles. He was also one of the most astute thinkers on the spread and perfection of democracy.
He had qualms about the popular governments of the early 19th century, living as he did in the aftermath of the cruel bloodletting of the French Revolution. The movement toward equality was so strong in his time, and affected so many parts of a society like the United States or post-revolutionary France, that he compared it to a wild stallion.
The problem of how to moderate democratic passions was uppermost in Tocqueville’s mind in The Old Regime and the Revolution. He was called by some a “conservative liberal.” This may sound odd to American ears, but it means that he had a balanced view: It was good to have gotten rid of hereditary monarchy and class privilege, but on the other hand, “people power” must have its limits, or else it will run roughshod over the individual.
The kings of the nations of Europe, in uniting both church and state in their royal persons, tended to be tyrants. At the other extreme, however, those European thinkers who promoted Enlightenment ideas as the antidote to the tyranny of kings sometimes argued that religion and political freedom were mutually exclusive. Voltaire and others believed that the Church ought to be laid low, in France and everywhere else. Tocqueville saw the lopsidedness of such a view. He was able to detect, in his months spent in a young country carved out of the wilderness, “the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom.” In the fashion of George Washington and other American founders, Tocqueville perceived that free human beings needed the moral framework of a transcendent faith in order to govern themselves. By proclaiming the equality of human beings before God, and by promoting brotherly love toward others, religious belief could -- if combined with liberty -- be a tempering and correcting force.
Tocqueville was struck by the fact that American civilization is “the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.”
It was this innovative combination that gave religion its softening affect, its ability to help tame the wild stallion of majority rule.
The great French thinker and prognosticator was not always right in predicting how the United States might develop in the future. (He was a mere mortal, after all.) He speculated that the distinctive spirit of innovation that he found here might not last. Not so. Then, too, his conclusion that Americans were so practical that they would be unlikely to excel at theoretical pursuits turned out to be wide of the mark: We have produced at least our share of physicists and philosophers.
But the major lines of his thought hold true. They are a correction of those philosophers who made religion and freedom out to be enemies of one another. Tocqueville knew that it is truer to human nature to link them together.
Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
TruthNews. All Rights Reserved.