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Some Thoughts on Liberty, Equality, and Tocqueville's Democracy in America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Werner J. Dannhauser
Government, Cornell University


1. In praise of Tocqueville. The young United States was lucky – and deserving of its luck – to find as profound an interpreter of its principles as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). So deeply, so philosophically, did he comprehend this country in Democracy in America1 that today's reflections on liberty and equality in America either copy Tocqueville or fall short of understanding. The following reflections will be guilty of both plagiarism and superficiality but they do intend to capture something of Tocqueville's spirit. He gave this nation its due. He brought to his endeavors some advantages we no longer enjoy. For example, he had first-hand experience of democracy's great alternative and predecessor, aristocracy; he knew both sides because he was both sides.

Of course, some advantages accrue to those of us who have come after him, even apart from having Democracy in America to study. The United States may not be old but it is older now; we can take later developments into account. Thus, we no longer lack poets or poetry; we probably suffer as much from crime as from vice; and juries do not function all that well. But no dwarfish ability to climb the shoulders of a giant nor special dispensation from history can compensate us for the lack of Tocqueville's genius: the breadth of vision that recalls Montesquieu and even Aristotle, an intimacy, reminiscent of Rousseau, with modernity's demons, a sad coming to terms with human contingency that puts one in mind of Thucydides. All honor to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1984

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1 De Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, trans, by Lawrence, George (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1969).Google Scholar Quotations from Tocqueville are all from this edition. Page references are given in the text.

2 A good introduction to these problems can be found in Zetterbaum, Marvin, Tocqueville and The Problem of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967).Google Scholar The book and its author have taught me more about Tocqueville than I can readily acknowledge by specific citations.

3 Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty (London: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 59.Google Scholar

4 This formulation, as do others in this essay, comes from my teacher, Leo Strauss.

5 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Marx and Engek: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Feuer, Lewis (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1959). p. 29.Google Scholar

6 Nietzsche, Friedrich “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans, by Kaufmann, Walter (New York: Viking Press, 1956), pp. 174176.Google Scholar I am also indebted to Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays in Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969) pp. 118172.Google Scholar

7 Plato, , The Republic, 443a–444e.Google Scholar

8 Nietzsche, , op. cit., p. 124.Google Scholar

9 In this context, one can still learn a good deal from Friedrich Hayek, A., The Road To Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944).Google Scholar

10 See for example, Laski, Harold J., “Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy,” in The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age, ed. by Hearnshaw, F. J. (London: Harrap, 1935), pp. 164186.Google Scholar

11 See Zetterbaum, Marvin, “Alexis de Tocqueville,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Strauss, and Cropsey, (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972), pp. 715718.Google Scholar

12 Lincoln, Abraham, Selected Speeches, Messages, and Letters, ed. Williams, T. Harry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), pp. 271272.Google Scholar

13 I owe this example to a conversation with the late Herbert J. Storing.

14 Nietzsche, , op. cit., pp. 211214.Google Scholar

15 In this connection see Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1955).Google Scholar

16 The most seminal thinker on the “conquest of nature” remains Francis Bacon.

17 Locke, John, The Second Treatise of Government (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977), pp. 45.Google Scholar

18 The authors of The Federalist Papers (New York: Anchor Books, 1961) still felt compelled to argue the case for large republics. See, for example, pp. 73–74, 100–101.