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Tocqueville, Burke, and the Origins of Liberal Conservatism

  • Sanford Lakoff

Alexis de Tocqueville is not easily characterized as either a liberal or a conservative. In this respect he resembles Edmund Burke. Both may be best understood as “liberal conservatives”—figures who straddled both camps. On a number of specific dimensions, including their attitudes toward aristocracy, colonialism, property, rationalism, the tyranny of the majority, pluralism, and the meaning of history, they are remarkably similar. Their thinking foreshadows the rapprochement between liberals and conservatives in the latter half of the twentieth century reflected in the prominence of right-of-center parties and leaders and in the work of such political thinkers as Raymond Aron and Michael Oakeshott.

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1 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Mayer, J. P. (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), vol. 6, Correspondance anglaise, p. 328.

2 de Tocqueville, M. on Democracy in America,” in The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, ed. Goldman, M. (New York: The Modern Library, 1961), p. 123.

3 See Frohnen, Bruce, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), p. 9.

4 See Shklar, Judith N., After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 226.

5 Boesche, Roger, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).

6 “No idea,” Tocqueville told Beaumont, “should be shown in undress (en déshabillé). To be received, it must be presented in as few words as is compatible with a perfect clarity.” Conversation recorded 26 August 1860 by William, Nassau Senior, Oeuvres Complètes, ed., D. W, . and Kerr, H. P. (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), p. 503. Out of respect for Tocqueville's fastidious work habits, his friend Beaumont thought that manuscripts Tocqueville left in draft form should not be published. de Beaumont, Gustave, “Memoir,” Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville translated (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862, reprinted University Microfilms International, 1983), I: 8182.

7 de Tocqueville, Alexis, “The European Revolution” and Correspondence with Gobineau, ed. and trans. Lukacs, John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), introduction, p. 6.

8 Tocqueville, , Democracy in America, trans. Lawrence, G. (Garden City:, NY: Doubleday Books, 1969) vol. II, part 2, chapter 20, p. 557.

9 Tocqueville, , The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. de Mattos, A., ed. Mayer, J. -P., (London: The Harvill Press, 1948), p. 85.

10 See ibid., pp. 76–85. For Tocqueville's warnings about socialism, see especially Mahoney, Daniel J., “Tocqueville and Socialism,” in Tocqueville's Defense of Human Liberty: Current Essays, ed. Lawler, Peter Augustine and Alulis, Josephs (New York: Garland, 1993).

11 Drescher, Seymour, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968), p. 92.

12 Hadari, Saguiv A., Theory in Practice: Tocqueville's New Science of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), p. 119.

13 Letter to Reeve, Henry (22 03 1837), in Memoir, II: 39.

14 See the various references to Tocqueville as a political sociologist in the writings of Aran, Raymond and also Elster, Jon, Political Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Hadari, Theory in Practice.

15 Democracy in America, vol. I, author's introduction, p. 18.

16 Memoir, II: 3940. Tocqueville's close collaborator, Gustave de Beaumont, faithfully endorsed Tocqueville's own view of himself. See Memoir, I: 42.

17 See Vierhaus, Rudolf, “Conservatism,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Scribner's, 1974), ed. Wiener, Philip P., I: 477–85.

18 Mannheim, Karl, Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Kettler, David, Meja, Volker, and Stehr, Nico (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 114.

19 ibid., p. 112.

20 F. J. C. Hearnshaw suggests that conservatism embodies twelve “principles,” none of which specifies or implies popular sovereignty: reverence for the past; the organic conception of society; communal unity; constitutional continuity; opposition to revolution; cautious or evolutionary reform; the religious basis of the state; the divine source of legitimate authority; the priority of duties to rights; the prime importance of character; loyalty; and common sense, realism, and practicality. Hearnshaw, F. J. C., Conservatism in England (New York: Howard Fertig, 1967), pp. 2233.

21 Quoted in Fraser, Antonia, Cromwell: The Lord Protector (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), p. 291.

22 Le Conservateur, I (1818): xx.

23 Interestingly, the term moral majority first appeared in the pages of Le Conservateur, in an article denouncing merely “quantitative” voting and praising the Athenian class system and Roman group voting as a means of assuring the predominance of “moral majorities”—majorities that give “the enlightened and the propertied the predominance they deserve” (5 [1819]: 6). This usage resembles the Benedictine rule that the sanior pars (better part) should predominate. See Lakoff, Sanford, Democracy: History, Theory, Practice (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), p. 92, and, for a more extensive treatment, Monahan, Arthur P., Consent, Coercion, and Limit: The Medieval Origins of Parliamentary Democracy (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987), pp. 137143.

24 André Jardin suggests that his view of freedom was “Pauline” but that his religious creed was closer to Unitarianism than to Catholicism. See Jardin, , Tocqueville: A Biography, trans. Davis, L. with Hemenway, R. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), p. 385.

25 Quoted from “The Social and Political State of France Before and After 1789,” London and Westminster Review (1836), by Manent, Pierre, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John, Waggoner (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), p. 19.

26 Quoted in The European Revolution, ed. Lukacs, , p. 20.

27 Conversation recorded by Nassau, Senior, Memoir, pp. 114170.

28 As Stephen Holmes points out, Constant thought that the real danger was posed by minorities who claimed to rule in the name of the majority. “The majority never oppresses,” he asserted. “One confiscates its name, using against it the weapons it has furnished” (Holmes, , Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 25).

29 Democracy in America, vol. I, part 1, chapter 1, p. 30.

30 Le Conservateur, (4 [1819]: 3234).

31 Conversation with Senior (25 10 1849 ) Oeuvres Complètes, 6: 257.

32 Burke, , Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Mitchell, L. G. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 75.

33 While praising Burke's Reflections as “the work of a powerful mind” and describing his “insights into new institutions and their effects” as “masterful,” Tocqueville faults him for failing to appreciate the novelty and universal significance of the Revolution and that its “habits and ideas” were evident before in the weakness of the nobility, the vanities of the middle class, and the miseries of the lower class. The European Revolution,” ed. Lukacs, , pp. 163–64.

34 “The dependence of Tocquevillian analysis—in the measured language of scholarly objectivity and with no overriding suggestion of hostility—upon Burkean polemic has not been sufficiently appreciated.” Nisbet, Robert, “Sources of Conservatism,” in Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications, ed. Ritchie, Daniel E. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 279.

35 In a manuscript in the Tocqueville archive cited by Drescher, , Dilemmas of Democracy, p. 103n.

36 Reflections, p. 21.

37 “We must all obey the great law of change,” Burke wrote in 1792, in support of the enfranchisement of Irish Roman Catholics. “All we can do… is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. … This gradual course … will prevent men, long under depression, from being intoxicated with a large draught of new power, which they always abuse with a licentious insolence. But wishing, as I do, the change to be gradual and cautious, I would, in my first steps, lean rather to the side of enlargement than restriction.” From a letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, quoted by Chapman, Gerald, Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 168. And: “I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles. There may situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary. There may be some (very few, and very particularly circumstanced) where it would be clearly desirable.” (Reflections, p. 125).

38 Magnus, Philip, Edmund Burke (London: John Murray, 1939), p. xi.

39 Conor Cruise O'Brien agrees with Philippe Raynaud that Burke can be said to be “at once liberal and counter-revolutionary” (O'Brien, , The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke [London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992], p. 596), quoting Raynaud's preface to a French translation of the Reflections on the French Revolution. Isaac Kramnick remarks: “Burke's conservatism … belongs to the liberal tradition, properly understood and translated to our time” (Kramnick, Isaac, ed., Edmund Burke [Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974], p. 176). Chapman observes: “Burke means many things to many men. His prelacy in conservatism is commonly recognized; yet, as Harold Laski says, Burke also gives ‘deep comfort to men of liberal temper.’” Chapman, , Burke: Practical Imagination, p. 1.

40 ibid., p. 194.

41 Quoted from Thoughts on the Present Discontents in Kirk, Russell, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1967), p. 87. Kirk also cites Burke's similar comments, eleven years later, in his speech on the bill for the repeal of the marriage act: “I am accused, I am told abroad, of being a man of aristocratic principles. If by aristocracy they mean the Peers, I have no vulgar admiration, nor any vulgar antipathy, towards them; I hold their order in cold and decent respect. I hold them to be of an absolute necessity in the constitution; but I think they are only good when kept within their proper bounds. … When, indeed, the smallest rights of the poorest people in the kingdom are in question, I would set my face against any act of pride and power countenanced by the highest that are in it; and if it should come to the last extremity, and to a contest of blood—God forbid! God forbid!—my part is taken; I would take my fate with the poor, and low, and feeble. But if these people came to turn their liberty into a cloak for maliciousness, and to seek a privilege of exemption, not from power, but from the rules of morality and virtuous discipline, then I would join my hand to make them feel the force which a few, united in a good cause, have over a multitude of the profligate and ferocious” (pp. 87–88).

42 As Marvin Zetterbaum rightly observes, one of Tocqueville's most prominent themes is that the former place of aristocracy “may be filled in democratic times by voluntary associations, both social and political. These protect individuals against encroachment by the state (the modern analogue to the monarch), and provide that continuity in space and time thought to be an exclusive attribute of an aristocracy. It is essential to any society that these functions be served, but they need not be served by an aristocracy” (Zetterbaum, , Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967”, pp. 2930).

43 See Mansfield, Harvey C. Jr., Statesmanship and Party Govuernment: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

44 Quoted from Burke's, Third Letter on a Regicide Peace in Macpherson, C. B., Burke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 54.

45 Quoted from Burke's Third Letter on a Regicide Peace, ibid.

46 Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 315.

47 Tocqueville, , The Old Régime and the French Revolution, trans. Gilbert, S. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955), pp. 158–62.

48 ibid., p. 164.

49 Compare Drescher's discussion of Tocqueville's attitudes toward penal reform and the poor laws (Dilemmas of Democracy), with Macpherson's of Burke's similar views on the “relief of the able-bodied poor” (Third Letter on a Regicide Peace, p. 55).

50 Burke objected that to grant the poor a right to obtain society's help would only create an idle and lazy class and reduce the incentive to work. See Macpherson, , Third Letter on a Regicide Peace, pp. 5455. Similarly, in a memoir on pauperism, translated in Drescher, Seymour, ed., Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 127, Tocqueville contended that in England public charity had only increased pauperism and that to grant a right to welfare would be to destroy initiative and perpetuate idleness.

51 Reflections, p. 111.

52 The Old Régime, p. 147.

53 Reflections, p. 90.

54 ibid., pp. 122–23, 152–53.

55 Democracy in America, vol. II, part 1, chapter 5, pp. 444–48. Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, examines Tocqueville's view of the importance of religion to democracy with exceptional sensitivity. “Religion,” he points out, “occupies the strategic plane par excellence in the Tocquevillian doctrine. In it, he sees the practical possibility of securing access, in the framework of a democratic society, to an outside, to a thing other than democracy, to pure nature, but by naturally religious man, free from all convention, even the convention of equality” (p. 106).

56 Jardin, , Tocqueville, pp. 528–29.

57 Joshua Mitchell contends that Tocqueville's understanding of the “democratic soul” is informed by an “Augustinian conception of the self” oscillating between high and low, exalted and depraved. Mitchell, , The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). Peter Augustine Lawler sees the clue to Tocqueville's political views in his “Pascalian” understanding of the human condition. See Lawler, , The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993). This too is an intriguing suggestion, especially inasmuch as Tocqueville admired Pascal's struggle to attain purity of belief: “When I see him, if one may put it so, tearing his soul free from the cares of this life, so as to stake the whole of it on this quest, and prematurely breaking the ties which bound him to the flesh, so that he died of old age before he was forty, I stand amazed, and understand that no ordinary cause was at work in such an extraordinary effort” (Democracy in America, vol. II, part I, chapter 7, p. 461).

58 Reflections, p. 87.

59 Democracy in America, vol. II, part 1, chapter 2, p. 434.

60 ibid., p. 442.

61 ibid., p. 435.

62 Oeuvres Complètes, V: 425; quoted by Mayer, J. -P., Alexis de Tocqueville: A Biographical Essay (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 30.

63 Democracy in America, vol. II, part 1, chapter 10, pp. 460–61.

64 Reflections

65 “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly 1791,” appendix to Reflections, pp. 258–59.

66 ibid., pp. 273–74.

67 Reflections, p. 221.

68 Democracy in America, Vol. I, part 2, chapter 7, pp.250252.

69 Reflections, p. 93.

70 ibid., p. 94.

71 Strauss, , Natural Right and History, p. 316.

72 Strauss' argument resembles Eric Voegelin's critique of modern political theorizing as a variation on the Gnostic heresy. See Voegelin’s, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

73 Strauss, , Natural Right and History, p. 319.

74 Magnus, Edmund Burke, p. 79.

75 Hearnshaw, , Conservatism in England, pp. 67, explains this reluctance to spell out principles as owing to the inherently defensive character of conservatism.

76 Beer, Samuel “The Roots of New Labour: Liberalism Rediscovered,” The Economist, pp. 2325 (7–13 02 1998), pp. 23–25.

77 Kristol, Irving, On the Democratic Idea in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 105.

78 “Aron saw in Tocqueville a truthful and forthright exemplar of thinking within and about and acting within modernity.… Aron's Tocquevillian voice stressed that what lay before today's citizen is neither a radiant future nor catastrophic doom, but an ever imperfect present characterized by antinomies and contradictions” (Mahoney, Daniel J., The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992], p. 41).

79 See Frohnen, , Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism, pp. 153–54. Paul Franco objects to this conventional characterization on the ground that Oakeshott's notion of tradition arises out of a philosophical analysis and does not presuppose a belief in the “wisdom or rationality of history.” Franco, , The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 7 and chapter four. But while Franco is right about Oakeshott's resistance to historicism, his own analysis shows that Oakeshott resembles Burke and Tocqueville on other counts. Like Burke, Oakeshott strongly criticized reliance on any abstract doctrine of natural rights. Like Tocqueville, he condemned central planning as a threat to freedom and considered pluralism— “the absence of overwhelming concentrations of power”—to be “the most general condition of our freedom” (Oakeshott, Michael, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays [London: Methuen and Co., 1962], p. 147).

80 Aron, Raymond, An Essay on Freedom, trans., Weaver, Helen (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1970), p. 147

81 Oakeshott, , Rationalism in Politics, p. 51.

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