TOCQUEVILLE AND THE AMERICAN AMALGAM
Any serious attempt to understand the original meaning of the Constitution requires an inquiry into what was, if any, the dominant political theory that guided the founding of the American regime. Recent decades have witnessed a lively scholarly debate between the partisans of the liberal interpretation of the Founding, which posits that liberal political theory is the intellectual foundation of our regime, and those of classical republicanism. The classical republicans argue that the influence of liberal theory on the Founding has been exaggerated, and that the Founders cared more about securing the authority to govern their communities in the name of the common good.
In response to this challenge, and the appearance of other intellectual schools with a plausible claim to influence on the Founding, leaders of the liberal school have argued that the best way to understand American political thought is the idea of the “amalgam.” The amalgam approach argues that while sources of thought such as English common law or Protestant theology undoubtedly influenced the Founding, these ideas were assimilated into, and in some cases transformed by, the liberal intellectual framework that truly guided the Founding generation.
In this article, I ask whether Alexis de Tocqueville, in his study of America, revealed whether he shares the liberalism he attributes to the Americans. If Tocqueville is a liberal, it must be of the amalgam variety, because his work articulates a radical and often devastating critique of liberalism. If not moderated, liberalism leads to the disease of “individualism,” which manifests itself in excessive concern for one’s material well-being and neglect of one’s duties as a citizen. Unchecked individualism will most probably lead to a soft, but real, despotism.
Tocqueville, I conclude, is a genuine liberal, but of a new kind. While he attributes the liberalism of the Americans more to their social circumstances than to any deliberate political choice, his account of the origins of the American belief in equality is not, at bottom, inconsistent with the American understanding of these principles. Furthermore, I show that a close reading of his work demonstrates that Tocqueville and the Americans agree on the foundation of a principled and just order. In fact, Tocqueville demonstrates that the dangers to a good society posed by liberalism are best averted by both expanding the scope of popular sovereignty and by relying on institutions, such as religion, that moderate liberalism, but have also been transformed by it.
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