Democracy in America at 150: Liberal & Catholic

Now that we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume I of Democracy in America we are no longer so startled at the genius and incisive observation of American democracy which characterizes Alexis de Tocqueville’s work. We have grown accustomed to the admiration and the commonplaces of critical approval and disagreement which authenticate the claims of any work to the title of “masterpiece.” What startles us now and arouses our interest anew in Tocqueville’s life’s work is the clarity of an authentic Catholic voice struggling for the acceptance of a synthesis of Catholic faith and 19th-century Liberalism. Today Tocqueville the Catholic and Liberal, the lineal intellectual ancestor of John Courtney Murray, emerges as the authentic and commanding voice of Catholic political theory in the 19th century. After 1870 it seemed to many that the anti-democrats and anti-Liberals in the church had carried the day. Ultramontanism as it was advocated and advanced by Josef de Maistre, Donoso Cortes and Louis Venillot, provided the theory for Catholic reactionary politics, and Pope Pius IX gave the Catholic attack on Liberalism virtual dogmatic status.

That a century later Liberalism would emerge in the great struggle for human rights, the struggle for the integrity of the conscience and human dignity, as distinctively and almost uniquely Catholic, is something few observers living in Tocqueville’s day would have thought possible. Catholicism then was identified with despotism and employed the legal means for the suppression of religious and political dissent afforded to an established religion. There was “no salvation outside the Church” just as there were no permissible politics aside from the political categories of Catholic medieval social theory. The long Pontificate of Pius IX and the political tendency of the “Pius Popes” in general underline this continuing alliance with reaction and political authoritarianism.

We now recognize that it was the great genius of Tocqueville which enabled him to see the danger of this accommodation with despotism and tyranny to the Catholic Church. We shall someday recognize that the theological problem without equal in the 19th century was not ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or the problem of justification. The theological problem for the 19th and 20th centuries was the problem of history; the role of Providence in history and the meaning of historical experience in the life of the individual, the society and the Church. In both its secular and its religious dimensions the theology of history is the paramount problem. Marxism is, after all, an “historical” heresy and not a mistaken socio-economic theory. God is the “Lord of history” whether that history is sacred or secular. It is in this realm that Tocqueville emerges as one of the great 19th-century lay theologians. Catholics read him today with renewed interest not because of what he has to say to them as democrats but because of what he has to say to them as Catholics.

Christopher Dawson, the most luminous Catholic historical mind of the early 20th century, in The Dynamics of World History, called Tocqueville a “meta-historian.” Dawson writes:

… Even more complex and more remarkable is the case of Tocqueville who is generally admitted by academic historians to be one of the great historians of the nineteenth century. Yet Tocqueville is not only an historian and a sociologist; he is also a metahistorian, and his metahistory is religious as well as philosophical. He opens his greatest work [Democracy in America] by a bold profession of faith in the religious meaning of history and the religious vocation of the historian. “The whole book,” he writes, “which is here offered to the public has been written under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mind by the contemplation of the irresistable revolution that has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary that God Himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature and in the invariable tendency of events.” The modern reader may dismiss such utterances as mere conventional rhetoric. But if he does so he will be profoundly mistaken, for Tocqueville was expressing his deepest convictions. As he wrote to a friend, he regarded his work as “a holy task and one in which one must spare neither one’s money nor one’s time, nor one’s life.”

This is all the more remarkable when one takes into account the fact that from early adulthood until his last years Tocqueville was not a practicing Catholic. Although he was at last reconciled to the Church, the assertion by Joachim Wach, the great historian of religion of the last generation, “that there is every indication that he never did lose faith, that he could not conceive of a life worth the name or of a society that could function well without it,” is only partially true.

Like his contemporaries and near contemporaries, de Maistre, Chateaubriand and a host of others, Tocqueville believed religion to be indispensable to the preservation and security of civil society. From Rousseau to Durkheim Western social thinkers have tended to see religion almost exclusively in terms of social utility. For many it was a “noble lie” which made the social order possible. Few indeed thought of religion in transcendent rather than secular terms. For them its functions were those of a Rousseauistic “civil religion.”

Up to a point Tocqueville shares this view of religion as an indispensable cement for the social order — but only to a point — for Tocqueville insisted on the validity and primacy of religion in its own right. Nor were all religions equally useful when viewed in their social dimension. Tocqueville believed Hinduism worse than unbelief, and Islam to be decadent and destructive of the modern state. Only Christianity served adequately, and of the Christian churches and sects, Catholicism was, by all odds, the most useful.

Far from equating religion with “superstition,” “priestcraft,” “fanaticism” and “invention,” Tocqueville believed that man was by “nature” religious. A major source of his passionate differences with de Gobineau was Gobineau’s skepticism and hostility to Christianity. Far from seeing religion in exclusively social utilitarian terms, Tocqueville believed religion was socially useful because it was true, because it was an essential part of man’s humanity. Unbelief was man’s great misfortune.

Nor would Christian supernaturalism, in the course of revolution, simply be replaced by a new and finer this-worldly “religion of humanity.” Perhaps the most brilliant and prophetic section of The Old Regime and the French Revolution is Part Three, Chapter Two, in which Tocqueville describes the impact of widespread anti-religious feeling on the nature of the revolution and the consequences of the new “religion of humanity.” Here he wrote [Stuart Gilbert translation]:

The anti-religious spirit of the age had very various consequences, but it seems to me that what led the French to commit such singular excesses was not so much that it made them callous or debased their moral standards as that it tended to upset their moral equilibrium. When religion was expelled from their sails, the effect was not to create a vacuum or a state of apathy; it was promptly, if but momentarily, replaced by a host of new loyalties and secular ideals that not only filled the void, but (to begin with) fired the popular imagination.

The French revolution as a consequence anticipates in its moral anarchy and anomic rootlessness the “new Soviet man” and the National-Socialist Arian ubermensch.

In the French Revolution,… both religious institutions and the whole system of government were thrown into the melting pot with the result that men’s minds were in a state of utter confusion, they knew neither what to hold on to, nor where to stop. Revolutionaries of a hitherto unknown breed came on the scene: men who carried audacity to the point of sheer insanity; who balked at no innovation and unchecked by any scruples, acted with an unprecedented ruthlessness. Nor were these strange beings mere ephemera, born of a brief crisis and destined to pass away when it ended. They were, rather, the first of a new race of men who subsequently made good and proliferated in all parts of the civilized world, everywhere retaining the same characteristics. They were already here when we were born, and they are still with us.

Joseph Ward Swain, the first translator of Durkheim into English, once observed, “Tell me how you feel about the French Revolution and I will tell you how you feel about everything else.” For two centuries the French revolution has been a touchstone of political identity. Liberals have been sympathetic and enthusiastic; Conservatives from Burke to the present have been horrified. What sets Tocqueville apart from both camps is the fact that while the French Revolution frightened him, he saw it in the context of a great Providential political movement by which democracy was everywhere replacing the institutions of traditional society. Tocqueville’s goal was to defang the revolution and to soften those tendencies in democratic polities which would lead to the loss of freedom and the corruption of the individual.

A Norman French aristocrat and a Conservative both by temperament and reason, Tocqueville was nonetheless a liberal because he saw both the justice and the inevitability of the democratic revolution. In this inevitability of the democratic revolution he perceived the hand of Providence. Democracy was irresistible because God willed it and resistance to this Providential movement was both vain and unintelligent.

It is evident, he wrote, [Reeve translation] to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going on among us, but all do not look at it in the same light. To some it appears to be novel but accidental, and, as such they hope it may still be checked; to others it seems irresistable, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient and the most permanent tendency that is to be found in history.

Tocqueville belonged to this latter group of students. At a time when the great bulk of scholars still saw history in terms of fixed and unchanging categories and conceived of human institutions as permanent and unalterable, Tocqueville, a Christian historicist, understood history in terms of development and institutional transformation. Moreover, he did not believe that there was any point at which the permanent would reappear. In 1848 Tocqueville, puzzled at the possible triumph of Socialism, considered the flexibility and instability of political and social institutions. Writing in the Recollections he observed, “I am tempted to the belief that what are called necessary institutions are only institutions to which one is accustomed, and that in matters of social constitution the field of possibilities is much wider than people living within each society imagine.”

These changes, however, take place in only one direction; that of increasing equality and greater democratic participation. Though the social and constitutional forms may be diverse the direction of historical development is clear and unmistakable.

“The whole book that is here offered to the public,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “has been written under the influence of a kind of religious awe produced in the author’s mind by the view of that irresistible revolution which has advanced for centuries in spite of every obstacle and which is still advancing in the midst of the ruins it has caused.”

Nowhere in Tocqueville’s work is a clear relationship established between Providential imperative and individual freedom. That Providence does not completely overrule human choice is clear, else there would have been no point to the life of Tocqueville as scholar and activist politician. Tocqueville seems to say that while Providence determines the general developmental direction of human society, human choice determines whether or not and how adequately and appropriately particular polities fit the Providential plan. Thus “democracy and equality,” which are the will of Providence, may promote either freedom or tyranny depending upon the character of the culture, the economics, the religion and the society which instantiates democracy.

Warning, in his introduction to Democracy in America, that “the Christian nations” must guide the development of democracy or “soon they may lose control” he went on to argue:

The first of the duties that are at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs is to educate democracy, to reawaken, if possible its religious beliefs; to purify its morals; to mold its actions; to substitute a knowledge of statecraft for its inexperience, and an awareness of its true interest for its blind instincts, to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it according to men and conditions. A new science of politics is needed for a new world.

But ultimately the fate of democracy rests upon the vitality of religion. No society, and least of all a democratic society, can survive skepticism and the abandonment of morality. The sins of democratic polities; materialism and the quest for sensual gratification; individualism and its accompanying alienation; the collapse of community and the increasing isolation of the individual; envy, greed and petty squabbles for place and the thoroughgoing immorality of a society which does not believe in the immortality of the soul, can be remedied only by pervasive religious belief and commitment. Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:

…There is no religion that does not place the object of man’s desires above and beyond the treasures of earth and that does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some duties towards his kind and thus draw him at times from the contemplation of himself. This is found in the most false and dangerous religions.

Religious nations are therefore naturally strong in the very point on which democratic nations are weak; this shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal.

Tocqueville would have found the demand of our contemporary secular liberals for a state devoid of religion not only not understandable but totally destructive of the political order as well. He asserted repeatedly that the way to prepare the political order for the destruction of freedom and the institution of tyranny was through the advance of religious skepticism. If we do not trust in God we shall not be able to trust in anything else. Freedom in politics is possible only if there is authority in religion.

Yes, the word is “authority” in religion: a power higher and more compelling than individual reason. It is true that Tocqueville thought almost any religion would do. It is also true that for Tocqueville there was a hierarchy of truth and human utility in religion and at the top of this hierarchy stood Catholicism. Moreover the quality and doctrinal content of religious belief was not a matter of indifference. Tocqueville had nothing but contempt for those “progressive” Catholics who after the Hegelian and evolutionary fashion of his day believed that the truth of religion would accommodate itself to the advanced thinking and the cultural confusion of modernity. In a letter to M. de Corcelle of Dec. 31, 1853 he wrote:

I am quite of your opinion as to the impertinence of the “Progressive Catholicism.” It is detestable, let alone its doctrines. A religion must be absolutely true or false. How can it make progress? As you truly say, there may be progress in the application, not in the dogma. Besides, the word “progressif” must have been suggested to a French writer by the Devil himself, it is such bad French. What a face the illustrious dead, in whose society I live, would have made of it!

One can only imagine the contempt in which Tocqueville would hold theologians, priests and bishops of our own time whose only desire seems to be to establish a reputation for being au courant.

Tocqueville believed that the advent of Christianity was a politically revolutionary event. It alone made a new morality possible and it alone provided a basis for social equality. In spite of the fact that the Church was hierarchical and had so long been associated with a medieval political structure based on exaggerated inequality and the exclusion of ordinary men from political participation, in its inmost essence the Church called for equality and was only accidentally rather than necessarily associated with the politics of traditional status society. The role of the Catholic Church in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Belgium demonstrated this clearly enough. It was not only possible for the church to be “democratic” but, more surprisingly, to be liberal in its politics. Thus Tocqueville’s vision is that of a Church which was conservative in its theology and liberal in its politics. It is important to Catholics in our day to realize that liberalism does not mean the same thing in theology as it does in politics.

As with Lord Acton, the other great liberal- conservative Catholic of the 19th century, for Tocqueville freedom was the highest earthly human good. Freedom and participation in the political process was indissolubly connected and it was in these two that human dignity manifested itself. Thus what we call “human rights” are for Tocqueville possible only in a particular religious-political configuration. Man cannot live in dignity in either an authoritarian or modern-tyrannical system such as that of Napoleon III.

Democracy and political participation were not historical accidents but had their developmental locus in particular religious, economic and social configurations. Tocqueville was very much aware of the differing religious, social and economic roots of American, English and French democracy. He saw clearly that the American and English model based upon religious diversity, decentralization and federalism and the privitization of economic and social interest was far superior to the French model which carried over into democracy the vices of the Old Regime without preserving its virtues. For the anti-liberal alliance of the Ultramontane church with the forces of authoritarianism and reaction in the 19th century Tocqueville had nothing but contempt.

It is often argued that the great Catholic political theorists of the 19th century placed politics rather than religion in the place of primacy. It is said that their concerns were essentially secular. This may indeed have been the case with de Maistre and Donoso Cortes. It certainly was not true of Tocqueville and Acton. Tocqueville believed disestablishment was desirable not because of its secular benefits but because disestablishment would free the Church from secular domination. The most forceful arguments for disestablishment were religious rather than secular.

As the democratic revolution developed the omnicompetent State increasingly exerted its control over religion. In the medieval and early-modern periods the church had been more independent than it was in the 19th century. The great danger of the 19th century in France, Germany, England and Italy was that the established Church would become the compliant tool of the State. When Church endowments had been confiscated by the State and the clergy were paid out of the public treasury it was apparent to Tocqueville that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” He warned in Book II of Democracy in America:

Nor do I hesitate to affirm that among almost all the Christian nations of our days, Catholic as well as Protestant, religion is in danger of falling into the hands of the government. Not that rulers are overjealous of the right of settling points of doctrine, but they get more and more hold upon the will of those by whom doctrines are expounded; they deprive the clergy of their property and pay them salaries; they divert to their own use the influence of the priesthood, they make them their own ministers, often their own servants, and by this alliance with religion they reach the inner depths of the soul of man.

Only in America where Church and State were constitutionally separated were such dangers wholly avoided. In certain respects the Kulturkampf was the most typical political manifestation of the 19th century. In its many European variants and manifestations these conflicts could have been avoided had the Church and society been guided by the vision of Tocqueville rather than that of Pius IX and secular leaders such as Otto von Bismarck.

Tocqueville’s cooperation in French intervention in Italy in 1849 to suppress the Roman revolution and to guarantee the survival of the temporal power of the Papacy provides the most conclusive evidence possible of the lengths to which Tocqueville was willing to go in order to insure the independence of the Papacy from Austrian or Roman revolutionary domination. Tocqueville believed that the Church must be wholly independent of the power of the omnicompetent State.

Because Tocqueville so often insisted on the importance of the moral and transcendent role of religion for the preservation of secular society, it has sometimes been argued that Tocqueville encouraged “political involvement” on the part of the clergy. Doris S. Goldstein in her splendid book, Trial of Faith: Religion and Politics in Tocqueville’s Thought, writes:

…Nevertheless, he did set forth a view of the public responsibilities of the Church which was to take on reality much later. The twentieth century has provided dramatic evidence of the willingness of French priests to involve themselves in social reform movements, in the Resistance, in opposition to the conduct of the Algerian War…. This is precisely what Tocqueville would have approved: the willingness of Catholics, clergy and laity alike, to acknowledge that Christian public morality required more than the obedience to the existing secular power.

It is clear that Tocqueville was convinced that there was an important moral and religious dimension to all public policy. It is not so clear that he would have approved of the support of particular social reform movements, the Resistance or opposition to the Algerian war.

We are reminded that in Democracy in America, Volume II, Tocqueville wrote:

As long as a religion rests only upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affections of all mankind. But if it is mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it; or to repel as antagonists men who are still attached to it, however opposed they may be to the powers with which it is allied. The Church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites.

Support for the particularities of pragmatic political action may hold as much danger for the Church as neglect by the Church of a concern for the moral dimension of mankind’s common political life.

For American Catholics in the late 20th century the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville is a special and unique heritage. No one understood America quite so well as Tocqueville nor approved quite so enthusiastically the line of development American democracy was taking. That understanding and approval had its roots in Tocqueville’s Catholicism and his conviction of God’s overriding providence. The aim of Providence is the establishment of freedom in order that human dignity may be confirmed. Tocqueville observed in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, that

…Other nations, once they have grown prosperous, lose interest in freedom and let it be snatched from them without lifting a hand to defend it, lest they should endanger thus the com-forts that, in fact, they owe to it alone. It is easy to see that what is lacking in such nations is a genuine love of freedom, that lofty aspiration which (I confess) defies analysis. For it is something one must feel and logic has no part in it. It is a privilege of noble minds which God has fitted to receive it, and it inspires them with a generous fervor. But to meaner souls untouched by the sacred flame, it may seem incomprehensible.

  • Stephen J. Tonsor

    Stephen J. Tonsor was a Professor History at Univeristy of Michigan from 1954-1994. His articles have appeared in publications such as First Principles. He has written many essays which are compiled in the book Equality, Decadence, and Modernity. He has also written the book Tradition and Reform in Education

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