Over a nine-month period beginning in 1831, a 26-year-old Frenchman visited nearly every corner of what were then the 24 states of the American Republic. He traveled from New England to the upper Midwest to the Gulf Coast in the Deep South to the mid-Atlantic. Then he wrote a great book full of amazing insights. It made its appearance 180 years ago, in 1835. Perhaps nobody before or since has defined the essence of America better than he did; but then, no other nation in history offered an essence so profoundly exceptional.
Less than half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, America was still an infant nation, but Alexis de Tocqueville sensed the stirrings of greatness. He praised our entrepreneurial drive and initiative, our self-reliance and personal independence, and our vibrant civil society institutions and voluntary associations. He felt that our ideals would eventually lead us to lead the world. He believed that America had placed two sacred principles — freedom and equality — on a higher pedestal than any previous civilization had. They were, he said, our most defining characteristics, the sources of our strength. But he also feared that we would carry one to an extreme that would undermine the other. Milton Friedman was echoing Tocqueville when he said in the 20th century, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”
Tocqueville’s appreciation of freedom knew few bounds. Here is perhaps his most eloquent endorsement of it:
Even despots accept the excellence of liberty. The simple truth is that they wish to keep it for themselves and promote the idea that no one else is at all worthy of it. Thus, our opinion of liberty does not reveal our differences but the relative value which we place on our fellow man. We can state with conviction, therefore, that a man’s support for absolute government is in direct proportion to the contempt he feels for his country.
He masterfully described how the growth of government could smother our freedoms:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the government then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence: it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Tocqueville’s view of equality is more nuanced. He had no issue with the ideal of equality before the law or even equality of opportunity. He hated slavery and any unwarranted discrimination. He agreed with the words of our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But he had no illusions that individuals were thereafter equal in their energies, their talents, their ambitions, their intellect or their character. He was afraid that our egalitarian impulses might someday get the better of us.