Tocqueville was impressed by much of what he saw in American life, admiring the stability of its economy and wondering at the popularity of its churches. He blamed the French Revolution on corruption among the nobility and on the political disillusionment of the French population. We strive for accuracy and fairness.
Alexis de Tocqueville
But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us! Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present. The French Revolution was a watershed event in modern European history that began in and ended in the late s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte.
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Before the war, he worked to strengthen ties with Great Britain and Russia against the growing threat of In that time, he transformed the monarchy, ushered in a golden age of art and literature, presided over a dazzling royal court at It is now clear that, so long as the Court remains dedicated to this understanding, it will eventually overturn laws that prohibit same-sex marriage. It has also become clear that many Americans now regard this individual-autonomy notion of liberty as the central feature of our democratic heritage. This fifth conception of liberty is clearly ascendant in our time.
On the right, this has meant the rise of a libertarian social ethic rather than a communitarian conservatism.
And on the left, it has meant a de-emphasis of the progressive ideal of liberty even as progressivism has appeared resurgent in the Obama years. As recently as the s, there were large numbers of pro-life Democrats who, like the social-gospel Progressives or New Deal Catholics of old, mainly cleaved to the progressive notion of liberty and certainly did not accept the overall personal-autonomy conception.
The Five Conceptions of American Liberty | National Affairs
But they are a dying breed now, and typically in those instances when the progressive ideal of liberty comes into conflict with personal autonomy on the left, it is the progressive ideal that must make way. The classical-communitarian conception of liberty, meanwhile, is the least championed one today in American politics.
It tends to oppose itself to both the Democratic and Republican coalitions, and thus far its political impact has been negligible. While each of these five conceptions of liberty has had its specific historical origin and heyday, all of them are alive in our time. Liberals today emphasize and to some degree combine conceptions four and five, conservatives one and three, and libertarians three and five, although all tend to assume they hold only a single and straightforward conception of liberty. In fact, one benefit of the five-fold framework offered here is that it leads us away from the dichotomous frameworks typically used to analyze liberty, and it allows us to see not only that liberty means different things to different people, but that it can mean multiple things to each of us.
The same people similarly make no distinction between the progressive and personal-autonomy conceptions of liberty. Everything is reduced to two opposing sides. All of these dichotomies are too simplistic for making fair judgments or adequate accounts of history. The five-fold framework offered here avoids such reduction. It thus allows the examination of liberty to become dialogic and dynamic, shedding light on American history and on our misunderstandings or misrepresentations of it.
Why did our conceptions of liberty develop as they did? By this account, our journey from the founding to the present has involved two key corrective steps. First, the progressive conception was formulated in response to the way the natural-rights conception developed over time into an economic-autonomy ideal of liberty. This response involved something of an overreaction, however, for the progressive conception was too negligent of civil liberties, as these were associated with the natural-rights tradition, and too complacent about the potential for government expansion into all areas of life.
So a second corrective step was taken, involving both a re-appreciation of inviolable individual liberties tied to the Bill of Rights and a further carving out, particularly through the right-to-privacy cases, of a much larger sphere of personal autonomy in non-economic matters. And regarding the trend illustrated by the right-to-privacy cases, the following from Justice Brennan is similarly revealing:. Until the end of the nineteenth century, freedom and dignity in our country found meaningful protection in the institution of real property To a growing extent economic existence now depends on less certain relationships with government In the old days, the dignified sphere of individual liberty was economic, but now, given the growing power that progressives had given and think they ought to continue to give to government, a new approach was needed.
Originalist constitutional scholars harp on the inconsistency of a liberal court that, after emphatically rejecting economic substantive due process in the late s, turned to what was essentially non-economic substantive due process from the s forward. But if it was not a move that made perfect sense as an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, it is easily understood as being motivated by a need to guarantee the individual some arena for autonomous action.
And it also helps explain the mix of progressive liberty and autonomous-individual liberty that now defines the left. This development of American progressivism and liberalism is certainly an important part of the story of our conceptions of liberty. But two alternative conservative explanations give us reason to think it is not the whole story. The Progressives rejected these elements and began to shape the government in a manner, later taken much further by New Deal and Great Society liberals, which undermined each of them.
It is crucial to understand how novel this interpretation of Progressivism has been. Prior to the work of these scholars, the dominant academic understanding was that Progressivism had been an obviously necessary response to growing corporate power in America, and that, in comparison with more fundamental critiques of capitalism, it was in many ways quite tepid. But the newer scholarship has called that account into question and most importantly has shown that the Progressive departure really was a radical one. It was deeply influenced by historicist ideas propounded by German philosophers like Hegel, and these ideas prove to be incompatible with natural rights.
Key Progressive thinkers openly declared that there was no fundamental truth to those rights, and mocked the supposed wisdom of key features of American constitutionalism. Woodrow Wilson, for example, advised Americans not to study the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. Americans of all ideological stripes can benefit from this advancement in our understanding of the original Progressives, and it is appropriate to demand of contemporary liberals a candid discussion of whether that sort of philosophical rejection of natural rights and that kind of hostility toward reverence for the Constitution are parts of their heritage they still endorse.
The problem is that the framing of these newer findings, especially by conservative pundits as opposed to scholars has over-emphasized the idea of betrayal. This makes the case for American liberty, as it is generally understood on the right, as one of staying true to the natural-rights scriptures: Southern leaders directed an abandonment of our original principles that had to be rebuked and repented of, and Progressives, over a longer period of time and in a less overt way, have also fallen away from the founding ideals, and it remains to be seen if conservatism can bring the nation to repent.
By such an account, natural-rights philosophy and its understanding of liberty are regarded as fully adequate, and the Progressive reaction against them has nothing to teach us about their limitations. Additionally, as Americans found the local community and its exercise of liberty less meaningful and relevant, they were prepared to embrace a progressive vision of collective liberty practiced mainly at the national level. Progressivism became attractive because it seemed as if it might fill the gap left by an ebbing tradition of classical-communitarian liberty, a gap more felt than understood.
The second sort of conservative explanation of the story of American liberty takes these deficiencies seriously.
It is, compared to the first, strikingly critical of natural-rights thinking. This view is more common among some conservative-leaning political theorists than among activists or the rank and file. It suggests that the main path of American development has been toward greater and greater liberation of the individual, that this is not a good thing, and that it all goes back to natural-rights thinking itself. The real goal of Locke and the other old liberals was aggressive and comprehensively transformational, to change all of human life with the abstract or autonomous individual in mind The contemporary Supreme Court interprets the Constitution as progressively and thoroughly Lockean.
These scholars want the Court to be consistent by endorsing both kinds of autonomy-securing substantive due-process interpretations. By this account, the respective developments of the economic-autonomy and personal-autonomy conceptions of liberty out of the natural-rights doctrine make perfect sense. Tocqueville described this revolution as a "providential fact"  of an "irresistible revolution," leading some to criticize the determinism found in the book.
However, based on Tocqueville's correspondences with friends and colleagues, Marvin Zetterbaum, Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis , concludes that the Frenchman never accepted democracy as determined or inevitable. He did, however, consider equality more just and therefore found himself among its partisans.
Given the social state that was emerging, Tocqueville believed that a "new political science" would be needed, in order to:. The remainder of the book can be interpreted as an attempt to accomplish this goal, thereby giving advice to those people who would experience this change in social states.
Tocqueville begins his study of the U. According to him, the Puritans established the U. They arrived equals in education and were all middle class. In addition, Tocqueville observes that they contributed a synthesis of religion and political liberty in America that was uncommon in Europe, particularly in France. He calls the Puritan Founding the "seed" of his entire work. Tocqueville believed that the Puritans established the principle of sovereignty of the people in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The American Revolution then popularized this principle, followed by the Constitutional Convention of , which developed institutions to manage popular will.
While Tocqueville speaks highly of the U.
The Five Conceptions of American Liberty
Constitution, he believes that the mores, or "habits of mind" of the U. Tocqueville was one of the first social critics to examine the situation of U.
He argues that the collapse of aristocracy lessened the patriarchal rule in the family where fathers would control daughters' marriages, meaning that women had the option of remaining unmarried and retaining a higher degree of independence. Married women, by contrast, lost all independence "in the bonds of matrimony" as "in America paternal discipline [by the woman's father] is very relaxed and the conjugal tie very strict". Because of his own view that a woman could not act on a level equal to a man, he saw a woman as needing her father's support to retain independence in marriage.
Consistent with this limited view of the potential of women to act as equals to men, as well as his apparently missing on his travels seeing the nurturing roles that many men in the United States played, particularly in the Delaware Valley region of cultures where there was a lot of influence by Society of Friends as well as a tradition of male and female equality, Tocqueville considered the separate spheres of women and men a positive development, stating: As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places.
Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in the United States to what he sees as the failings of democracy in his native France. Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy. These include his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into " soft despotism " as well as the risk of developing a tyranny of the majority.
He observes that the strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government, a separation all parties found agreeable. He contrasts this to France where there was what he perceived to be an unhealthy antagonism between democrats and the religious, which he relates to the connection between church and state. Tocqueville also outlines the possible excesses of passion for equality among men, foreshadowing the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.
Insightful analysis of political society was supplemented in the second volume by description of civil society as a sphere of private and civilian affairs mirroring Hegel.