What We Can Learn from Tocqueville & Lincoln

The following is a modified & abridged version of a paper I recently wrote after a week-long seminar here at Hillsdale College, regarding the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville & Abraham Lincoln.  Both men though deeply about human equality, individual liberty, and what it took to maintain a democratic society.  I think both are essential to a substantive, fully-formed political philosophy, especially today.

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Having lost his grandparents to the bloody French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville knew all too well how volatile the passions of a people intoxicated by newfound equality could be, and as a student of human nature, he knew that belief in freedom, the essence of which is independence from control, and passion for equality, which can manifest as a desire to level the conditions of all, could easily come into conflict.  In the United States, equality of conditions reigned, but curiously, America seemed largely unscathed by democracy’s dark side.

In America, Tocqueville found several political and cultural influences that kept Americans agreeable to one another and obedient to their government.  The French thinker noted that the United States government had strong governmental centralization (the necessary authority of the national government to decide national affairs), but almost no administrative centralization (federal influence over the affairs of states or individuals), yielding an effective government whose proper prerogatives were respected because it generally did not give the people cause for concern about their personal freedom.  Tocqueville thought increased administrative centralization would be the biggest threat to liberty in democratic societies, leading to a “soft despotism” under which the federal government assumed ever-increasing control over the people’s lives in the name of providing for them.

On the cultural side, Tocqueville hailed several “habits of liberty”—Christianity, which turns man’s attention to his responsibilities towards others; civic associations, which teach men to know one another and to better govern; marriage, which calms man and counters excessive individualism; newspapers, which also promote social cooperation; and the doctrine of “self-interest well-understood,” or the understanding that it is in the best interest of every man to respect the rights of his neighbors, that his own rights will be respected.

Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence as tension over slavery reached its breaking point, with numerous southern states threatening to secede from the union to preserve the “peculiar institution,” and secessionists such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens dismissing “the assumption of the equality of races,” on which the American Founders based government, as “fundamentally wrong.”  In contrast, Lincoln hailed the Declaration’s principles as “the definitions and axioms of liberty,” which inspired all of his political thoughts.  For Lincoln, liberty and equality were simple: liberty was the right to govern one’s self, and equality meant that all have an equal claim to the Declaration’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” regardless of race.  Lincoln believed that the Declaration established timeless, unchanging moral principles, as evidenced by his observation that declaring human equality had no practical use in the revolutionaries’ struggle against Great Britain, but could eventually be used to free slaves, as it would remain true in the future.  To Lincoln, slavery was an obscenity; he noted wryly that nobody who called it a good would think it good enough for themselves, and confessed that “whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Despite this impulse, however, Lincoln refused to support or enact any emancipation efforts that failed to pass constitutional scrutiny.  Though he loved liberty, he also loved “reverence for the laws,” which he saw as the nation’s “political religion.”  Slavery was unjust, but ignoring the Constitution whenever it suited one’s political desires, however noble, would be dangerous, for it would undermine the legitimacy of constitutional government and endanger everyone’s liberty.  It was this belief in the rule of law that led Lincoln to wage the Civil War to preserve the Union.  Lincoln understood that America’s peaceful democratic system had established ballots as “the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets” in the transfer of political power, and secession—the idea that any state dissatisfied with democracy’s results could simply ignore them and forcibly resist their enforcement—threatened to undo that great advance, and, if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to anarchy.

Today, America is governed by an ever-expanding federal government, proactive in every level of society; and progressive ideology, which views the Declaration of Independence as outdated and the Constitution as a “living” document to be reinterpreted by each generation, is very much in vogue.  Tocqueville’s fears about soft despotism and Lincoln’s fears that Americans could forget her founding creed have both come true.  But we need not lose hope: Americans longing to learn the principles liberty needs, and how to restore them, have all the tools they need in the wisdom of our forefathers; we just need a renewed focus on educating our countrymen in their timelessness.

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Further resources on Lincoln & Tocqueville:

Abraham Lincoln Online—has many of Lincoln’s writings & speeches

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of America’s Greatest President by Thomas Krannawitter (review here)

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (full text available online here)

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